Words, words, words!

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Have you ever had your feelings hurt or felt misunderstood? Have you ever noticed how a grudge you’re holding sours a conversation or how insecurities strangle your speech and filter out positive words you might otherwise hear from others? Of course. We all have these kinds of experiences at times.

We tell children to use their words instead of fists to convey their message. Major props for that! But words can be weapons that leave a lifetime of scars. The childhood chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is clueless. Bones mend more easily than minds, where painful words cause wounds that fester and contaminate every thread of thought and, in turn, every word we speak, no matter how well intended.

If we often feel misunderstood, if our words are taken the wrong way, then it’s worth exploring what’s going on in the way those words are strung together and woven into thoughts before they become speech.

As we develop a regular meditation practice, the veils of thought become less knotted, allowing us to see more clearly and be more present with all that is arising in this moment, just as it is. The fresh air of compassionate awareness helps heal old wounds. And our words become more skillful. 

But old habits die hard, and it’s well worth checking in with the Buddha’s Eightfold Path for guidance, with particular attention to Wise Speech. The Buddha did an in-depth analysis and came up with a checklist for speaking. This list may seem cumbersome, but if it slows us down before saying the first thing that comes to mind, isn’t that of value, too?

To be Wise Speech, our words must be:

  • Timely
  • True
  • Kind
  • Beneficial
  • Rooted in Wise Intention

All of these conditions must be met for our words to be Wise Speech. Whoa, right?

But before you think it’s too much trouble, think of all the trouble we get into when our speech doesn’t meet all these conditions. It’s why a silent retreat is such a relief and a blessing! You can’t put your foot in your mouth if you don’t open it!

While there are benefits to talking less, storytelling is in our DNA. Sharing words is key to our survival as a species. But if our speech is causing hard feelings, distrust, and discord, how will we survive and thrive? So, in considering this checklist of conditions that must all be true for our speech to be wise, we are healing ourselves, each other, and the world with our words.

Okay, looking at the list, you can see how:

  • Something we say could be true but unkind.
    What is true? Often it’s just opinion, isn’t it? We are entitled to our opinions, but speaking them isn’t always wise speech.
  • Something could be kind and true but poorly timed when the person isn’t able to listen.
    A few of my students had ‘aha’ moments, remembering how they interrupted a mate’s train of thought to talk about some seemingly urgent matter that really could have waited.
  • Something could seem kind but be untrue.
    For example, sometimes we give false compliments as a way of currying favor.
  • Something could be true and appreciated but not beneficial.
    Classic historical examples: not reporting hiding people escaping from slavery or death camps. If you value truth alone, you would feel required to admit their presence, and the people knocking at the door would certainly appreciate the information. But the Buddha saw this wasn’t wise.

There’s so much to consider that it’s amazing we ever open our mouths! No wonder silent retreats can feel like such a relief. All the stumbling into and worrying over our words falls away. Except, of course, for the words we tell ourselves. And these guidelines apply there as well. We may speak nicely to others yet be cruel to ourselves. But how we talk to ourselves affects how we speak to others. It’s a package deal.

I’ve always been fascinated by the power of words and the habituated patterns we use that often don’t serve us. For example, labeling ourselves and others creates division and discomfort. Labels seem like a convenient shorthand but they limit the breadth and depth of who we are and what we do. We give up the freedom to allow for a more attuned natural response. Labels act as filters that alter perception and communication.

The words “I,” “me,” and “mine” activate a sense of contraction and isolation. A withdrawal from all that is, and from the awareness of our intrinsic interconnection, how richly this experience of aliveness can be when we allow it.

Labels we use to define our roles in the world tend to have the same effect. Our speech becomes richer and more authentic when we experiment with using verbs instead of nouns to describe our experience.

Consider typical statements like I am a writer, an engineer, a daughter, or a mother. Each statement proclaims who we are. This habit of claiming and naming fortifies our sense of self but denies our true nature. Our idea of ‘self’ is plastered with a set of labels and limiting beliefs circumscribed by societal ideas of what those roles entail. As we accept the labels, we file them away and stop paying attention to what is happening. Stop seeing. Stop noticing. Stop living in this moment, just as it is.

We can, instead, focus on the verbs of life. They allow our thoughts to be more open, natural, authentic, and fluid. We notice how it feels to do whatever we are doing. 

Relationships, too, are enriched when we choose to use verbs instead of nouns in our thoughts. This person is more than a husband, wife, child, friend, coworker, etc. And not just because they have other labels! They are living, growing, ever-changing expressions of life loving itself into being. As are we!

With all the emotions that arise in our experience, we may fall into the habit of naming and claiming them. For example, “I am angry” tends to lead to “I am an angry person”. But how different it is to allow the senses to shift us into more expansive awareness: “This is how anger feels” “Anger feels like this.” Anger is an emotion that arises and falls away. It isn’t unique to us. It arises out of causes and conditions, and then it falls away.

Now we notice another emotion arising. Our awareness can be as vast and unchanging as the clear blue sky that holds all kinds of weather, able to hold all that arises and falls away without grasping, clinging, or laying claim to them.

As we grow in awareness, habitual words may begin to feel confining and even cruel, thickening the tangle in our veils and blinding us.

So although it may seem like a hassle to apply the Buddha’s guidelines to our speech, making us self-conscious and taking the fun out of talking, it’s an incredible gift. 

Like any new skill, it takes practice, and we will fail more often than not. But at least we can see why suddenly we’re feeling hurt or guilty. We can trace it back to something we said or someone said to us. We can acknowledge it was unskillful and mindless. In some cases, we might decide it calls for an apology. In all cases, we remind ourselves of how joyful it is to say only words that are true, kind, timely, beneficial, and spoken with affection. 

And, more often than not, when we do so, others respond in kind because they feel safe to speak without armor when they are with us. In this way, relationships become safer and more loving, and we have less reason to weaponize our words. And they will naturally become more true, kind, timely, beneficial, and rooted in Wise Intention.

As a special treat, here’s a poem from the New Yorker that I read to the class. It offers 15 reasons to remain silent and 15 reasons to yell. Enjoy!

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