Category Archives: Wise Speech

What insurmountable obstacles are shaping your experience?

wordsNazare, a quiet little fishing village in Portugal, has become a primo world surfing spot because the waves can get up to 80 feet. They reach such heights in part because of the rare undersea geography, where the ocean swells become intensified as the incoming tide passes through a deep canyon pointed at the shore rather than fanning out into the usual topography of gentle shoals.

This undersea geography reminds me how our perception is shaped by forces we might not be aware of, and prime among them is the language we use to describe our inner experience. If you’ve ever felt a huge wave of anger, frustration or anxiety rise up inside you and you wondered where it came from, consider the likelihood that it arose from the words you use to describe your inner landscape.

We often shape our inner landscapes with insurmountable obstacles: high hurdles, mountains, canyons, swamps, pits, minefields, choppy waters, to name but a few. When we try to navigate this inner world, it’s no wonder we get exhausted, give up and go for some mindless and often unhealthy distraction to keep from having to think of the hard work of being alive.

These kinds of descriptions become habituated perceptions that make it difficult to simply experience and process our thoughts and emotions.

Words matter.
Wise Speech, one of the aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path (The Buddha’s prescription for the end of suffering) is speech that it is kind, true and timely. It refers to both the words we express out loud and our inner ‘self-talk’.

In the examples above and many others that are pervasive in the way we describe our inner landscape, our speech fails to be true. There is no barrier within us that needs to be ‘gotten over.’ So how do we ‘get over’ a non-existent barrier? How do we claw our way out of a non-existent ‘pit’ — a pit that can feel very real in our inner world of complex emotion?

Setting ourselves up for tasks that cannot be accomplished is not just untrue but unkind, so again, not Wise Speech. And timely? Many of these metaphors knock us out of the present moment and focus our attention instead on something distant and basically intangible, so I’m guessing they wouldn’t be considered ‘timely’ either.

The other night as I was guest teaching Rick Hanson’s class, a student shared what he was reading in a book about enlightenment, and said that you have to get to the other side of judgment to reach enlightenment.

The other side? What sides? Judgments are not literally sitting in a pile blocking our way to enlightenment, are they? When we notice a judgment, how much more skillful it is to greet it with compassionate curiosity, instead of identifying it as one of the many enemies barricading our way to the hidden ‘destination’ of enlightenment. Simply being present for all that arises in our experience, enlightenment can also arise.

A hole is to fall into
Recently a student told me she eats mindlessly to fill the bottomless hole within her. I am familiar with that sense of there being a hole, but if we are being truthful in our self-talk, it is more skillful to sense into the emotion that is arising in our experience, and then with compassionate clarity, follow the thread back to its origin.

Instead of a hole science tells us there is a complex series of neurons and networks and systems and patterns of thought and emotion, that weave very plausible stories and solid-seeming metaphoric images. But if there is no hole, how can it ever be filled? And if it can never be filled, how does it serve us to perceive a hole? It doesn’t. The image crystallizes one of an infinite fleet of feelings made of unfulfilled cravings and unaddressed fears, and gives it a full-fledged identity. We grab onto it. We own it. It’s our hole and we’re holding onto it. If we simply stay present and explore the emotion itself, we can probably follow the thread back to a parent who was unskillful, unable to love us in the way that we needed, or some kind of early trauma that has heretofore been too difficult to face. Freeing up the inner imagery frees us up to see more clearly the emotions we’re experiencing.

A light at the end of the tunnel?
Another student used the metaphor of finally ‘seeing a light in the darkness’, and while that certainly sounds like a good thing, it implies a long blind wandering in the dark and a reliance on some external source of light to guide us. How much more satisfying to BE the light in the darkness we feel around us, to radiate out lovingkindness. This is what we do in meditation, though we may not label it ‘light’, but we are cultivating the ability to center in with compassion and radiate out that infinite light quality.

Ode to Metaphors
I write poetry, so it may seem odd that I am speaking out against metaphors. I love metaphors! I use them all the time. But because I write, I may be hyper-aware of the power metaphors wield, how they can just as easily obscure understanding as illuminate it.

Metaphor can be a very useful tool, but only if it supports us in being fully present in our experience. When I lead a guided meditation, I share a metaphor of ‘cultivating a compassionate spacious field of awareness’ where sensations, thoughts and emotions arise and fall away. We can use the paired focus of the breath to expand the space as needed to hold all that arises. In this way we’re less likely to get caught up in the tangle of the past and future.

Just plain rude!
In the practice of being mindful of all that arises, we may also notice the rude names we call ourselves, others or inanimate objects in moments of frustration.  These names are creating a very hostile environment that is bound to spill over unskillfully into all aspects of life. Noticing is the first step to gently developing a more skillful relationship with these unsettling inner judgments and opinions.

Should, shouldn’t, must, ought, et al
My interest in how language shapes perception began over forty years ago when I noticed how the word ‘should’ was making me feel a bit beaten down. I wasn’t trying to avoid responsibility for anything, just questioning whether whatever I was doing was enhanced by some inner harpy nagging me to do it. Or, I wondered, was it more fruitful to be in touch with my loving intention for doing the same thing? Whatever the project, it was always more pleasurable and had better results. So words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘must’ stand out to me as suspicious, even when used by traditional Buddhist teachers. They feel injected as dictates from some outside source that is not to be questioned. But the Buddha said to question everything! How strong is our ethical foundation if it is grounded in fearfully pleasing some outside source? How much more powerful it is when it comes from our deepest understanding of our intrinsic interconnection with all life, as we are each unique fleeting expressions of life loving itself.

Even positive-seeming words like ‘goal’ throw us out of balance, because once there’s a goal, all our efforts are dictated by some future-point that we imagine. So we strive toward that goal instead of living fully in this moment, allowing our wise intention and wise effort to fuel us into blooming in a way that is of benefit to ourselves, others and all beings.

I recently read Alice Waters’ book Coming to My Senses, in which she captures the essence of living in the moment, engaged in sensory awareness. I don’t think anyone could think that she — who created an amazing restaurant and changed the thinking of a whole industry and in fact how we as a culture think about food — hasn’t accomplish anything. But she didn’t define some distant goal and doggedly pursue it. The idea of a restaurant arose organically out of her passion for sharing her love of cooking, her moment to moment experience and her collaboration with others. She worked hard, yes, but not in service to some imagined future moment when all her dreams would be realized, but by being fully alive in each moment, doing what she loved wholeheartedly.

In our practice of meditation, we might get attached to the idea of a goal to become a perfect meditator, perhaps ultimately a perfectly enlightened being. Imagining some distant point to ‘get to’ makes this moment here and now kind of a sidelight, a rehearsal, a stepping stone on the way to something much more satisfying and important. That’s interesting when you stop to consider that this moment is the whole of reality. There is no other moment! They are all just thoughts: memory, planning or worry. They don’t exist! Only here and now exists. This is not some way station point on a timeline, but the all and everything of earthly existence! So let’s be alive fully in this moment, just as it is, to do whatever is meaningful for us to do.

Staying fully present to notice the way we shape our experience through the words we use, and to question their veracity in a compassionate way, we can discover a fresher livelier way to be in relationship to it all.

I am interested in your replies (a link at the top of this post) with any inner landscape descriptions you discover, as well as any other comments and questions you may have.

The words you use shape your world

As we continue to look at the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we come to Wise Speech.

a heart of wordsTraditionally 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.

Is your mouth getting you in trouble?

mouth-guardsThis time of year we can get into a lot of trouble with our mouths. What goes into them can so easily be too much, too rich, too sweet or too inebriating. What comes out of them might be thoughtless comments, backhanded compliments or casual remarks that are way off the mark. One way to stay out of trouble is to avoid all social gatherings for the duration. But if we do engage, do we have to stand guard, inspecting all content coming in and going out with a careful eye? Ugh! Where’s the fun in that?

Fortunately there is a way to stay out of trouble with our words and our eating without declaring ‘Bah humbug’. Compassionate noticing is joyous, not a duty call or an inner police state. The Buddha called it Wise Action and Wise Speech.

Wise Action during the holidays means being present in our bodies, finding balance, resting as needed, and gently stepping away from the buffet table when we are not hungry but find we are grazing to pass the time. We can wake up out of autopilot and really enjoy the party!

Wise Speech invites us we use three questions to gauge whether speech is indeed wise.
We ask:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it timely?

All three need a ‘yes’ answer for our speech to be wise.

One of my students said, ‘If I had to ask those every time I wanted to say something, I’d never speak!’
‘Is that true?’ I asked her. ‘Is everything you say a mean lie spoken at the most inopportune moment?’
Of course not. In my own experience her words are truthful, kind and timely, and I would bet that is more often the case than not. But hearing this set of questions can sound daunting, so I’m sympathetic to her concern.

We have all been witness to and perhaps participants in situations where unskillful words or the wrong tone of voice have ruined the mood at a gathering, sometimes creating a hostile atmosphere. Words are powerful! They can even put a relationship in jeopardy. A family dinner can be a minefield of potential emotional explosions. Having a few simple questions we can ask ourselves before venturing forth into conversation is actually a comforting gift. If what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we can feel confident in our participation. We won’t be left with that gnawing feeling of guilt, wondering ‘Was it something I said?’

But why are we ever motivated to say things that are untrue or unkind? We may be under stress, worried about something, in a hurry, reacting to a perceived slight, or blaming a loved one for our own grumpy mood. With family there can be a river of long-held gripes running just under the surface, so these gatherings can get out of hand quite easily. We may balk at the idea that we need to be mindful of our words. ‘I just want to be me,’ we say. But is mindlessness who we are? Is unkindness who we are? Is saying untruths who we are? Really?

Of course not. When we speak mindlessly we are most often not speaking from our true selves but repeating some social patter we’ve heard somewhere just to fill the space and pass the time. The ‘filters’ of truth and kindness are ways of finding our own authentic voice, not quashing it.

The question of whether what we are about to say is timely really has to do with being present with what’s going on. We take a moment to notice that the person we want to speak to has their hands full at this moment and would not be able to pay real attention. Or we may realize these are words for a private conversation and think better of blurting out something in the group. Finding the right moment doesn’t have to be a monumental task, but considering timeliness helps to insure a more productive conversation.

If you can remember those three questions, hooray. If that’s just way too easy, consider a few more questions you could use as well:

‘What is my intention here?’ You might notice any sensations in the body — tension, for example — that indicate you are probably motivated by fear. Not much good comes from fear. We tend to make enemies. We feel we need to defend our isolated sense of self so we use our speech as as a sword to ‘protect’ ourselves. It doesn’t work, of course. It just makes us feel more isolated as people pull away or attack in kind.

Another motivation can be exposed with the question ‘Am I trying to prove something?’ Maybe some sibling seems to have it all together, and it feels important to be heard and seen as the accomplished person you are. (Remember not to compare your insides with their outsides. You present a pretty polished surface too.) That’s also a good question to ask yourself when you find you are doing most of the talking. If people’s eyes are glazing over or their looking away, you may be thrusting information that was not requested and pontificating about something just to show how much you know.

‘Is this my story to tell?’ is a useful question that helps to curb gossip. All information we receive is not fodder for conversation. Sometimes people share personal information with us and we are not meant to pass it on! It is not necessarily a secret, but it is just not our story to tell. Much as we may want to ‘fill the void’ by sharing stories about others to mutual friends or family members, it’s really a destructive pattern. But if not everyone is able to attend a family gathering, then what are we supposed to say when Aunt Sarah asks after her absent great nephew? Maybe it would be skillful to anticipate that there will be such a question and tell the one who plans to be absent that if he doesn’t want you to share his contact information with relatives, please provide some (true, kind) brief answer for the question of how he is doing so that you can feel confident you are not speaking out of turn. If none is forthcoming, fall back on, ‘Oh he’s fine.’ and if the probe continues, smile and ask the inquisitor a question.


When being mindful of your words in general, you can also look more deeply at the first question ‘Is it true?’ Your first response may be, ‘Well of course it’s true!’ but if you look a little more deeply you might see that we don’t know for certain if it is true. Investigating the truth of what we hear and read, seeing things in context, considering the source, and trying to see the bigger picture are all useful activities when we are looking at information. If we are going to repeat it, we don’t want to do so mindlessly, just passing on fabrications, urban myths or unfounded rumors. In an election year, it is especially easy to align ourselves rather mindlessly with the candidates who we assume represent us, without questioning what we really believe.

Sometimes we talk just to avoid ‘awkward silences’. You might ask yourself, ‘Can I be at home in silence?’ It is often our discomfort with silence that prompts us to say just about anything to keep the conversation going. We get so myopic we don’t recognize how much else is going on besides conversation. When silence arises try resting in it, deepening into noticing sensation. What is present in this moment besides words? A relationship that only has words to bind it is waiting for a deepening that resting in silence can bring: a smile, a pat on the back, a hug, a look, a sensing into the emotional state of the other person.

All these questions are not to make us uncomfortable with speaking. They help us develop language that has more meaning, resonance and connection; and less misunderstanding, boredom, hurt feelings and confusion.

When we pause in our obsessive need to fill the supposed void or to prove that we exist, we might find that the best form of speech of all is really listening. Less focus on monitoring the mouth, and more on activating the ears!

May all these suggestions help you further enjoy your holidays.

Wise Speech — Poetry & Meditation

I couldn’t end our exploration of the use of words without visiting poetry, for poetry is the natural outpouring of the meditative mind, a mind that is present, clear, fearless and filled with tenderness for all life.

I am fortunate to be a member of an ongoing class at the College of Marin called ‘The Poetic Pilgrimage.’ Together, under the tutelage of Prartho Sereno and Catlyn Fendler, we read selected poets, both current and ancient, and then are given prompts to inspire and free us to hear the words that rise up within us and to write poems ourselves. We are training our minds to notice.

Likewise, in meditation practice, we are training our minds to notice whatever arises: the physical experience of being, what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste with our senses, our inner commentary, the judging of that inner commentary. And we do metta practice, sending universal loving-kindness to whatever arises — to others and to ourselves. And in that process, over time, we find we soften, mellow, sweeten, deepen, lighten, and are enriched by this ongoing being.

“All I was doing was breathing” is a poem title by Mirabai, a 15th century north Indian poet who considered herself married to the god Krishna.

All we are doing as we meditate is breathing. Or more accurately, noting the breath, because there is no effort in the breathing. As we rest in the simple state of being, we create a space for compassion, gratitude, appreciation, joy and generosity to well up within us.

When we spend time in this kind of loving silence, the words that rise up eventually are words of inquiry, fearless clarity, wonder, gratitude and praise. These by definition are poetry. Let’s look at each of them:

Poetry is often a journey of inquiry, experienced in a state of wonder, the state we are in on a meditation retreat, more and more as each day goes by.

Here is a quote that was recently shared by the poet Sophie Cabot Black in an interview in The New Yorker:For me, the act of writing comes out of query. Each image turns to the next with its question and gets answered. Or with its answer it gets questioned. Poetry is my way to understand what is difficult. How one thing can be explained through another—is to get closer, to unhide what feels hidden..”

Both poetry and meditation deeply notice of what is present in this moment, in the world around us and in the thoughts and emotions that traverse through our consciousness.

Poetry is not afraid to explore in a compassionate way that which is bitter, difficult or ungainly. Poetry unmasks, dissolves obscuring filters, and sees with fresh tender eyes.

As it happened, in meditation class last Thursday, our weekly reading of our Pocket Pema Chodron focused exactly on this. (We read these brief chapters, after meditation and before the dharma talk, in sequential order without regard to the dharma topic. Usually they lend some extra dimension to the discussion, and in some cases, like this, the reading could not be more aligned if I had purposely chosen it.) It was Chapter 44, titled ‘Gloriousness and Wretchedness’. Pema says there is value in both the gloriousness and wretchedness of our life experience. One inspires us and the other softens us.

Just so, poets are fearless in the face of what is. They do no go for the gore but if it is part of the experience of a moment they will not shy away from telling what is true. Those difficult encounters, told with tender perception, awaken the poet and the reader to a deeper, softer understanding of the nature of life. (How different this is from the addictive quality of some writing, where misery and suffering are used for entertainment and confirmation of a limited fear-based world view.)

The more we meditate, the more we let go of the need to know definitive answers because we recognize that to live in the wonder is the gift itself. To incessantly be seeking out answers is just part of that useless activity of shoring up our defenses, wanting control, wanting solid ground to stand on.

One of my favorite retreat experiences was the realization that I don’t know. All these assumptions I make about myself and the world around me are totally for convenience. I remember how I looked at the concrete under my feet during walking meditation, and I realized I knew nothing about most of it — only a small portion of it was exposed, and I didn’t really know all that much about that!

I suppose it could have been scary to discover I don’t know, but in fact it was liberating. It was delightful. Contained within it was the realization that all the struggles we make to know everything are exercises in futility that we can just release. This is not to say that we should give up the pursuit of knowledge, but we can enjoy the process a lot more if we do it with awe and wonder, rather than a driving need to uncover, expose, conquer and claim.

This famous advice from Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to A Young Poet says it all:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

So much of poetry is written at a moment when the poet is simply looking out the window at an ordinary day and seeing the gift of this life.

There is a Buddhist saying that to be born into human life is as rare as a turtle surfacing within a circle the size of a life preserver floating in the vast ocean. Scientifically this is certainly true for us. Think of all the causes and conditions of all our ancestors that had to happen in order for us to have this chance to be here. The mind boggles!

The mind at rest, not striving, not in fear, can recognize the gift. On a silent meditation retreat, by day 4 the faces of retreatants glow with gratitude. Awakening to ‘this, just this…ah, bliss’ is simply a recognition of the gift that is this life, regardless of the causes and conditions. Any human, in any condition, even the most horrendous, can experience this joy. It is not purchased, it does not come with possessions or comfort. It comes from within, from awakening. We wish for all beings to be fed, housed, clothed and cared for. And hopefully we take wise action to help make that so. But even in the midst of great challenges, we can awaken to great joy and sing praises and feel gratitude, not for things but for the gift of being alive in this moment.

Let me share with you these links to some of the poems we have read together.

Pablo Neruda ‘Poetry’

Mary Oliver ‘The Journey’

Paul Hostovsky ‘Be Mine’

Wise Speech – Our Words Matter

You can see from our past two discussions that Wise Speech is not just about talking. It’s also about developing a comfort with a quality of loving silence and developing the skill of really listening to others.

Many Americans among blog followers had the opportunity to test these skills last Thursday on Thanksgiving with family and friends. How did it go? What did you notice? If you found yourself in the hot water of the sea of misunderstanding, don’t despair. Take notes! That was the test run. Chances are you have more social gatherings ahead!

One student reported that her Thanksgiving was so joyful because she spent more time resting in silence and less time thinking she needed to speak.

A friend recently reminded me that I once said that it’s helpful to consider ‘My mouth is an altar.’ The mouth, that place where speech is formed, can be treated as an altar where we lay down words in a thoughtful and sacred way. What words would we put on the altar? What words would be desecration of the honored trusting space between any two people? See if this is a helpful way to think about it for you.

Wise Speech is one of the aspects of the Eightfold Path, and so works with the other aspects. What is the relationship between them?

If we look at our cooking pot analogy, you’ll see I have drawn Wise Speech (and Wise Action and Wise Livelihood) as steam rising up from the pot of Wise View and its contents of Wise Mindfulness stirred by Wise Concentration.

This makes Wise Speech and the others seem rather effortless. If all the others are in place, then these three arise. Is this true? Could be, but how often are all the others in place? When we find that we have spoken unwisely, or have a strong impulse to do so, we can look back to our intentions, our effort, our view, whether we’re being mindful, and these other aspects provide us with insight into how unskillful language came about. This is really practical and useful!

One student noticed a striving quality to her efforts to connect with a friend, and a resulting difficulty with composing an email to her. This is such skillful noticing.

We can apply the same questions we have been working with throughout our investigation: What is my intention here? Do I have an agenda? Or am I truly coming from my intentions to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with myself and others? Then we can look at effort and the rest.

But there are a few more traditional questions we can ask about anything we have said, written or want to say or write:
  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it timely?

Let’s go through these three questions in a little more depth.

Is it true?
This question can create a spaciousness and balance of thinking that feels like fresh air. Even if it gets us to alter our wording from statement of fact to an ‘I think that…’ opinion, it helps to make our speech wiser. But the question opens us to re-examining thoughts and beliefs that may never have been looked at before. If we haven’t really looked at it, how can we speak it as if it is truth? Are we simply parroting what we have heard? Where did we hear it? Is this a source we know to be trustworthy? How do we know that?

‘Is it true?’ is the beginning of our exploration. It behooves us to keep the exploration going, to examine assumptions, to question everything. But for most of us the idea of questioning what we believe to be true is threatening in some way. Why? Because we believe we are what we think, what we believe, what we hold to be true.

This brings us back to Wise View and to the Five Aggregates we explored earlier in the year, that led us to understand that there is no separate self we need to defend or shore up. When we can sense our deep connection with all that is, how this human being life we are experiencing is impermanent, a fleeting conjunction of particles, a perceived segment of a much larger system of processes, and that our consciousness enables us to experience life in this moment as this seemingly-separate being with a skin-encased body, a name and other identifiers, then we can explore a simple question like ‘Is this true?’ with great freedom and curiosity. Because nothing in the answer threatens our being.

Is it kind?
What did the Buddha mean by this question? Is he suggesting that we should always be nice, don’t make a fuss, put up and shut up? Loving-kindness not about making nice in order to maintain some status quo. Instead it is rooted in a deep sense of loving kindness and compassion. So we ask whether we are speaking from Wise Intention or is there some murky motivation here?

Are we saying something nice to appease or are we expressing truth with an understanding of the power of words to wound or heal, to cut down or inspire, to create antagonism or collaboration. We cannot understand the power of our words if we perceive ourselves to be powerless.

The most powerful words in the world come from our parents. As children we craved approval and love, and were tuned into even the slightest hint of a tone of disapproval or dismissal.And we were aware when the words we craved remained unsaid. As adults we would do well to see our parents, whether alive or not, as mere humans prone to error like all others, with no instruction manual and little of what we now call emotional intelligence, and probably more than their share of challenges. We can divest the power we have given them without turning our backs on them. We don’t make ourselves impervious to their barbs by creating armor. Instead we recognize their torment and suffering, and feel compassion. May they be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.

What does this have to do with our own ability to speak wisely. If we are parents, it reminds us that these words we use which we may not even think about — that may be throw-away words as far as we’re concerned, which come from a person who feels rather powerless perhaps, and certainly not capable of any real harm — are in fact received by our children, even adult children, as more powerful and thus more painful than we can imagine. Perhaps we have raised children who are well-balanced and capable, but we cannot assume that even they are not still in need of our approval and attuned to read more into what we say than we may have intended. So be aware!

Whomever we are talking to, loving-kindness is an absence of the need to prove anything, correct or remake anyone. Kindness is not about satisfying our innate curiosity by asking nosy questions, but about taking an interest, and letting the other person take the lead in the conversation. Loving-kindness is universal, so our words are equally kind to everyone we encounter.

Is it timely?
What we have to say might be true, and it might be kind but maybe it’s an awkward moment to say it. For example, it might be true and kind to say “I love you’ to someone, but not in the middle of a business meeting. Or it might be true and kind to have a real heart to heart with someone, but not while they are in the middle of preparing a big dinner. Knowing when is the right moment comes from being attuned to the silence, being fully in the moment, and allowing the words to be a response to a spell of skillful listening. The right time reveals itself.

Since we are in festive season, a time when we often have so many social gatherings and succumb to unskillful speech so easily, let’s explore a few typical pitfalls we might encounter:

Drinking. Some of us rely on drinking to get us through social awkwardness, but that release of inhibitions is really just a release of good judgment. If you can’t drink in moderation, don’t drink. If you drink to calm nerves, then find more skillful ways to address that concern — self-inquiry, looking at the patterns of thought that keep you in fear; and practice, such as joining Toastmasters to get past the nerves.

Wit. Some of us so much want to entertain that we would prefer to be clever even if it cuts. Focusing on listening helps to remind us this is not a stage, we are not doing a routine.

Gossip. Getting together with people who share common bonds with others often ends up by discussing those not present in a familiar but not always loving way. Wise Speech doesn’t talk about people, period. Their stories are not ours to tell. The answer to questions about absent family or friends is, ‘Oh yes, it’s too bad they couldn’t be here. But maybe you can get in touch with them to catch up.’ Of course that family member might not appreciate you referring people to them, so a vague ‘Oh they’re just fine. Thanks for asking.’ might suffice. This is difficult, especially for women who gather together to solve the problems of the world, or at least their immediate family members, and find relief from worry by hearing the stories of other people’s relatives who are even more dysfunctional. There is also a way in which families weave a valued and supportive mythology that has benefits that the Buddha might question, but that the elders of ‘the clan’ seem to have a biological imperative to weave and share. That aside, gossip usually leaves us feeling a sullied. Try a period of not talking in the third person and see if it doesn’t free you! As for supportive sharing of experience, there’s no harm in using stories, just keep the people involved anonymous.

Generalizations, stereotypes. Without giving our words much thought we may find ourselves repeating things we have heard without question, or we might extrapolate a single incident into a judgment about a whole group of people. This is not skillful, since these statements by their nature are neither true nor kind.

Desire to ‘be ourselves’. We have this idea that being free to say whatever comes into our heads is desirable. That anything else is censorship. Why? Do we feel entitled to move our bodies anywhere in space regardless of whether someone is already there? No. When it comes to action and to speech, we are in community.

We may imagine a person — a friend or lover — with whom we can totally ‘be ourselves’, as in we can mindlessly blurt out whatever pops up. This only works if we have a set of disposable friends, whose feelings don’t matter to us. You might be able to think of a friend or two who you can be thoughtless in your speech and they don’t mind, but this only means that this is the kind of abuse they were raised with, and they interpret that as intimacy. We seek intimacy and sometimes rude cutting words make us feel at home. You might recognize that in someone you know, or in yourself. It isn’t wise or loving to continue that abuse.

Secrets as intimacy. Shared knowledge feels like a bond, but building a separate fortress for two or a few is clinging to fortress mentality, just letting the ‘special’ people in. The only people who want in, however, are those who are trapped in believing themselves to be special and separate, in need of constant reassurance and admiration. Healthy relationships are built on a deeply shared sense of connection with all life and respect.

Did you recognize any of these traps in your experience? Or others I haven’t covered here?

You are not alone! These are challenging and it’s good to remember that this is all a practice. We all just do the best we can. All of these skills we develop are in order to reduce suffering for ourselves and others, and create loving-kindness, compassion and joy.

Wise Speech Depends on Engaged Listening

The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.

– Henry David Thoreau
Last week we explored the various qualities of silence and learned how to develop a deep loving connected sense of silence that allows us to hear the patterns of our own thought processes. This gives us two useful skills as we begin to interact with other people: First, we are developing an awareness of the repetitive nature of our thoughts. When we see them for what they are, we also see that we do not need to say them out loud. They are just the flotsam and jetsam of our brain’s synaptic processes. If we’re not aware of the repetitive nature of our thoughts, we are probably not aware of the repetitive nature of the things we say, those comments we make over and over again about things we see and situations about which we have set opinions. It does seem an unfortunate truth that as we age, without developing increased consciousness, we are more likely to repeat ourselves, much to the dismay of those around us. Here’s an example I used with my students. From our living room looking out across the valley, I can see a house that stands out like a sore thumb in my opinion. So my thoughts go something like, ‘Why did they paint that huge house that color? Maybe I should write them a note before their next paint job to remind them that a less garish color might…” You get the picture. It’s skillful for me to notice that I have this repetitive thought, and skillful to let it stay a thought, to leave it unexpressed. So that’s what we bring from silence into Wise Speech. We are not censoring. We are simply being compassionate. If it bores us to think it, it’s going to bore someone else to hear it! Secondly, when we develop a quality of loving silence we can more easily develop the skill of engaged listening. Listening to others without an agenda is the most skillful means of developing connection in any conversation. Notice when you are in conversation where your mind is when you are listening. Are you really listening? Or are you preparing your response?

Engaged listening means letting go of the need to prove we know something or that our position is the more secure one. We might notice a sense of feeling threatened by someone else’s opinions or statements. What is it that is being threatened? Our sense of separate self that we believe we need to shore up and defend? Time to revisit Wise View.

We might notice that sometimes we listen with a hunger to be entertained, to have our curiosity satisfied. Perhaps we are so used to watching television, plays or movies or reading books that we are passively amused or stimulated by what we hear, even when it’s a friend or family member who is talking. Or if we are not passive, our curiosity might demand to be fed, and we might ask questions that are intrusive, unlike ones that make people feel heard and foster understanding.

There’s a quality of mutual respect in the process of listening, a quality of namaste, loosely translated ‘The god in me honors the god in you,’ It acknowledges that we are all the same stuff at the core of being, and all the distinctions and differences are creations of our minds. This does not mean that our experiences are the same, or that we can make any assumptions about the other person, but it does create a more spacious way to be present in the conversation.

Some of us are antagonistic listeners, actively looking for the loophole, the fatal flaw in the other person’s words, as if all conversations are political debates. Notice if in conversation you tend to break into a person’s sentences, use the word ‘But…’ when doing so, as if there will be some tally of points in the end about who is right. If so, take a cue from the tradition in improvisation theater where each actor dives in with, ‘Yes, and…’ so that the result is a wondrous collaboration instead of a trashing of each other’s ideas.

If you find that you are scanning what you hear for errors and faulty reasoning, you are not listening. Give yourself permission to rest that over-active fault-finder. Listen with your whole being. We might feel that we are listening in a loving way when we are actually on a problem-solving mission. This person is not your problem to solve. Fixing them is not your job.

So you can see that Wise Speech is not just about talking. It’s about resting in silence, noticing the nature of our thoughts, and developing the skill of really listening to others when they speak to us.

SPECIAL HOLIDAY TIP: If you have a person with whom you have a particular challenge and somehow the words always feel wrong, tap into metta practice, send loving-kindness to him or her before speaking. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.” Always give yourself some metta first. That will enable you to share it more easily.

Wise Speech arises out of silence

Wise Speech rests in and arises out of a spacious peaceful, deeply connected silence.

So I want to begin our exploration of of this aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path with that silence. In class we rested in the silence of our meditation on a foggy morning that lent a cozy muffled silence to our practice.

What comes up for you when I say ‘silence’?

For many of us silence is not a welcoming, deepening sense of connection at all. Perhaps we are uncomfortable being left alone with our thoughts, so we fill our minds and our environment with noise to mask them.

We may have had to learn to navigate in a dangerous world of potentially violent silences, developing hyperactive skills on reading the body language of parents, boyfriends or spouses, in order to protect ourselves or our children. This is a sad skill that so many women, in particular, have had to develop. The CIA has found that women have the heightened ability to read men’s motivations, to read the silences and see beyond the words. So women make up 50% of the staff at the CIA and the majority of its leadership. Some pretty hard-earned early life training those women had, no doubt.

We may have been silenced, told to know our place, to stuff down our words, to hold our tongue, or to “stifle” ourselves, as TV character Archie Bunker so often said to his wife Edith on the sitcom ‘All in the Family’. More insidiously, we may have been asked to be silent and keep secrets we now know we should have reported to the nearest responsible adult. (If any of this brings up personal memories, please pause and send some metta, loving-kindness to that young person that was you, and to that aspect of self that may feel to blame. Then if you are able to do so, send loving-kindness to the person who put you in that position. May they be well. May they be at ease. May they be at peace. Metta practice is not always easy, but it is always powerful in its healing.)

Here are some traditional sayings from a variety of cultures that remind women to curb any inclination to speak up:

Women’s tongues are like lambs’ tails – they are never still. – English
A dog is wiser than a woman; it does not bark at its master. – Arabic
The tongue is the sword of a woman and she never lets it become rusty. – Chinese
Where there are women and geese, there’s noise. – Japanese
Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man or a quiet woman. –Scottish
When both husband and wife wear pants it is not difficult to tell them apart – he is the one who is listening. – American
The woman with active hands and feet, marry her, but the woman with overactive mouth, leave well alone. – Maori

While a group of women together can certainly carry on a lively conversation, studies show that in social settings with both genders, women talk less. Women often hold back. Women often stifle themselves without men needing to request it. The culture has historically required it, and women, especially women of a certain age, still feel that unspoken demand to stifle ourselves.

Why does this matter? The person who holds the proverbial talking stick is the one who directs or at least influences the action of the group. To be quiet is to go along with the program. To speak up is to take charge, to be a leader. Women of the 21st Century have at last taken the reins of leadership to a much greater degree than women have for many millennia! Hooray! Given that newfound sense of expression, why would we want to be silent?

We can see why our attitude toward silence is plagued with distrust, discomfort and fear: Silence is repression. Silence is a scary emptiness that will let the inner demons out.

I understand this, believe me! And yet I keep championing silence, particularly a long silent retreat! Why? Because a silent retreat is a key part of the insight meditation experience. A daily meditation practice gives us a grounding in the skills to be present and to quiet the mind, but on a silent retreat, even the periods of not meditating are in silence and attentive to the present moment.

In those periods when we are not meditating but are still very much in silence, there is a unique opportunity to see the nature of our thinking mind, to see the thoughts that repeat themselves ad nauseum.

We can rail against the thoughts or we can develop a compassionate, curious but clear relationship. We might address a recurring thought with, ‘Oh you again! Haven’t heard from you in, gosh, twenty-two minutes!’ We can think about Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi Tree greeting Mara again and again, saying, “I know you.” These recurring thoughts are Mara too. We can recognize them without going to battle with them. A simple noting is sufficient, and can short circuit the train of thought. If the thought is a plan, we note ‘planning’. Likewise, ‘memory’ or ‘regret’. We might develop our own little creative ways to cease struggling with thoughts and yet curtail them. For example, I sometimes think of the thought as a ribbon I tie into a bow that turns into a butterfly and flies away. This keeps the process light. We are so prone to being punitive, it helps to have a light-hearted method that keeps us from succumbing to antagonism.

Only when we give ourselves an extended state of silence without much external stimulation do we begin to really see clearly the nature of persistent thoughts. We see their associative connections. We might notice that a sight or smell or texture triggered a particular memory that brought forth an emotion that caused a physical manifestation, such as tension in a certain area of the body. What useful information! We can apply compassionate inquiry and discover we have been operating on a totally erroneous assumption. This can be big life changing news that can liberate us and end suffering.

Silence allows us the spaciousness of mind to see the weave in the fabric of our mental processes. That spaciousness in the environment, in the silence, the stillness of being, the easing of physical tension, the simple structure of the retreat schedule that takes away the constant need to make decisions or to get things done, all helps to settle our minds and open our hearts to the sweet rich quality of being. With that clarity of mind and compassion of heart, we are inclined to have insights that awaken us.

So as scary as silence may seem to us, in fact when we give ourselves to it in this way, it proves to be the greatest gift we have ever received.