As we continue to look at the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we come to Wise Speech.
Traditionally wise speech is using words that are true, kind and timely. If any of those conditions are not met, then it’s not wise speech. We can see unwise speech in so much of what is being said and written in social media, especially by one who holds an office where words are usually carefully considered.
We can see untruths. We can see unkindness. Whether it’s timely or not, it’s hard to assess, but in its harshness and scare tactics it seems bent on stirring up volatile emotions and prompting reactions that are equally unskillful.
It may be tempting to turn away, and to some degree this kind of self-protection is useful, but only long enough to anchor ourselves in the present moment, remember and reset our truest intentions, check in with the quality of our effort, cultivate mindfulness and wise view through concentration practice. Then, and only then, we can engage as effective citizens of the world.
It is certainly not a time to be silent. But giving ourselves the gift of silence in daily practice or on a retreat is especially valuable in volatile times. We are not seeking escape. We are not running away. We are not sticking our fingers in our ears, shutting our eyes and saying ‘lalalala’ to shut out what we don’t want to hear. Instead, we are finding our center, anchoring ourselves in the sensations of breathing, hearing, feeling whatever sensations are present in our experience. And in doing that we see how things change from minute to minute. That gives us the gift of understanding the nature of impermanence. No experience, whether difficult or wonderful, goes on forever. And that informs us as to our role in engaging in life. We are not separate beings shoring up our isolated identities in order to feel safe. We are part of an amazing whole, integral to the well being of all life. Our actions matter. Our words matter. No matter whether we are talking to a child or putting words out into the twitter-sphere, we are setting into motion something powerful that cannot be retracted. Our words matter. So let them be true. Let them be kind. Let them be timely. Let them inspire compassion rather than hatred.
As someone who spends a lot of time writing, I find words and language are much more interesting and complex than simply making sure that they are true, kind and timely, although that is an important aspect. So in this post I want to explore the power and beauty of words, in the context of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.
The power of words is undeniable. George Lakoff has long pointed out that in politics the words you use deeply influence the populace in how they think about policies. He uses the example of ‘regulation’ — a word that carries the burden of oppressive government interference. This word can be felt in the body as a tightening in resistance if one feels the government is prone to overreach. But notice how differently the word ‘protection’ is felt in the body. This is a word that accurately can be applied to the laws, such as environmental laws, that were created to protect the health of our streams, ocean, air and ourselves as living beings who are deeply dependent on a healthy environment. Choosing the word that more accurately reflects the nature of what we are discussing makes a huge difference in how it is received, doesn’t it? This is not just word play, but an insight into the nature of our relationship to language.
In class, when I shared this comparison, a discussion arose around the word ‘protection’ and how it can have a negative effect as well. One student pointed out that sometimes it is suggested that women need to be protected, and that patriarchal belief doesn’t sit well with many modern women. Another student said that inciting violence at an international level is often done in the name of ‘protection’. So the investigation continues for each of us as to how we use words that accurately reflect our truest intention.
Word choice is so important because it shapes our understanding and attitudes, and it impacts how what we say is received. In a personal conversation this can be just as true. There are words that may be well-meant but they push buttons in the other person that we never intended. In the language of intimacy in particular, we may feel like we are walking on eggshells. And we may become so fearful that we might say the wrong thing that we say nothing, maybe at a time when the other person very much needs something to be said!
Language shapes and potentially limits understanding. The recent movie Arrival had this idea as one of its theme. Visitors from outer space arrive and the main character, a linguist played by Amy Adams, is asked to communicate with them. Their language is unlike anything on earth but somehow she manages to understand it. Of course her military colleagues wanted to know are these beings friends or foes, in order to know how to treat them. She tried to get them to understand that setting up an ‘us and them’ paradigm by asking questions that assume they are here to attack or take something from us, locks out the possibility of other intentions because it will feel threatening to them. Language shapes and potentially limits understanding and outcomes.
We can see how true that is in our own conversations with each other. When we are in a conversation with someone and suddenly there’s a shift of mood, or an escalation of tension, where did we get off track? What happened? It certainly wasn’t our intention (or was it?) to irritate, aggravate, denigrate or any other kind of -ate. Yet here we are in a very different place than we intended.
Speaking of language and power, here is a very interesting quote from an article on the blog Vox by Emily Crockett where she says, “Women, and women leaders in particular, often get criticized more for how they say something than for what they actually say. They have to walk a difficult line of being assertive but not too aggressive, likable but not too much of a pushover.
“When women speak, people tend to mentally turn up the volume. Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more. People get annoyed by verbal tics like “vocal fry” and “upspeak” when women use them, but often don’t even notice it when men do. The same mental amplification process makes people see an assertive woman as “aggressive.”
What’s a woman to do? In class last week, one student shared that within her she felt an up-welling of powerful feminine energy, a fierce protector power that is inherent in us when what we love is threatened, like a mother bear protecting her young.
Another student was surprised because, as it turns out, she was currently writing about the very same subject. So in our women’s group, we will certainly open to this needed energy, and cultivate it to be skillful, with wise intention, wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise view and wise use of language, assuring that our words are true (as in speak truth to power!), kind (as in compassionately speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves) and timely (as in speaking up when our voices are most needed, like Now! and persisting even when cautioned that it is somehow unladylike to use our power for the benefit of all beings.)
We all have a seat at this table of life. We don’t have to wait to be invited. We were born with our seat already there and the table set for us. Yet many women, and some men, are in a state of waiting for permission, waiting for an invitation. Wait no more! Our voices need to be part of the conversation. And we need to be wise in the words we choose, knowledgeable about how powerful words are, and how easily misunderstood. If we speak from our truest intention, respectfully, compassionately, our words will be powerful.
I have written a number of other talks about Wise Speech. Here are links to past posts if you would like to explore further.