Words weave us together or tear us apart

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Sheltering in place can be like a refuge, or it can be like a pressure cooker. And one thing that turns the steam up to dangerous levels is being unskillful in how we speak to each other. When we are in enforced confinement is a good time to dial back any need to win an argument.

As we continue our exploration of the Noble Eightfold Path, we look at Wise Speech.

Words matter. Even the casual ones we use every day. How we greet each other. The words themselves and the tone we use to say them. We are weaving relationships in every sentence we speak. Or shredding them apart.

In Buddhist teachings, speech is considered wise if our words are true, kind and timely. So let’s look at those three.

Is what I am saying true? Or does it just sound true to me at this moment because it suits me? Is it based on facts not in evidence, from questionable sources, or just my opinion? What if our truth is rooted in a skewed view of reality through the lens of fear? Many news sources use that lens to build their audience. These are all things to consider when seeing what’s true.

Is what I am saying kind? Even if it’s true, is it kind to say it? Sometimes people feel truth is enough, and it really truly isn’t. If our words are unkind, then we are being reckless.

Is this the right time to say it? Even if what I am about to say is true and kind, is this the moment for such a conversation? Timing is everything. Can we sense when the time is right?

Beyond these three questions, which I go into in more depth in past dharma posts, let’s also look to the other aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. For example:

What is my intention here? Sometimes our intention is not wise at all, and speaking will get us into a painful situation.

Am I using Wise Effort? Sometimes we are just lazy in our conversation, saying whatever comes to mind, even when it’s inappropriate or unhelpful. Or sometimes we try too hard to say the right thing, to be liked, to be seen in a certain way.

Are my words coming from Wise View? Do they come from a deep sense of our inherent interconnection and the fleeting nature of life?

Are my words Mindful? When we aren’t fully present to listen to another person as they talk, our words are bound to be less than skillful. Really being present to listen, rather than caught up in our own thoughts makes all the difference in assuring that our words are true, kind and timely.

We had a rich sharing in our Zoom class and several aha moments. One question that came up was how to talk with someone who holds virulent opinions. The answer is to listen. To really allow them the chance to talk through what they believe. Held in a compassionate space, given time to think it through, people often sort out previously unexamined patterns of thought. Do this only when everyone is fresh and sober, and check in with your own motivations.

Most people don’t really listen to themselves. They spout what they hear and what is activated by fear, they scapegoat because it is too scary to look inward, and they are ready to defend their beliefs because they believe they are an important part of who they are. They may feel it’s rare that anyone just listens to them without trying to convince them of something. Use your skills in metta practice to sit with someone as they express themselves. If this appeals to you as a practice and a way to contribute in the world, check out the Compassionate Listening Project.

As we shelter in place, our words can heal wounds or become weapons. We have that choice, now and always.

Let me know how your words are working for you!
Be well. – Stephanie


Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

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