Of all of my spiritual practices, consistently engaging in skillful speech has possibly been my greatest challenge. Sometimes, it seems as though it takes constant effort, awareness, intention and a compassionate mind/heart (citta) to be skillful with my speech with myself and others.
Oftentimes, meditators delude themselves into thinking that their practice occurs only when they are sitting meditating on their cushions or chairs. Wrong! Our meditation practice supports us in in being more aware and present during our wakeful life practice, but our moment-to-moment life practice is where the juice is at!
As you commit to living a conscious life, and begin being fully present more often, you will begin to see that your speech can either: help, heal and create happiness, or it can divide, hurt and lead to more anger and dismay. In fact, the importance and power regarding speech has been communicated in many religious traditions. You’ve probably heard of the Christian writing of the Gospel of St. John opening with, “In the beginning was the word.” It is also common knowledge that Jesus was also known to have said: “The truth will set you free”. In the Hindu Vedas, sacred speech is regarded as an all-important primal creative force. In Buddhism, the Buddha taught that skillful speech was an ethical practice that was so crucial to one’s spiritual growth, that he included Right Speech as one of the Noble Eightfold Path – the path he laid out to assist one in reaching Nirvana or Awakening.
In concept, you might think that your words are easy to control and change. In practice though, you will discover that practicing skillful speech can be quite challenging, even exasperating, at times! Why? Because, somehow along the way, one forms negative, unconscious speech habit patterns, like: saying what people want to hear rather than what is true for you, spouting little white lies to protect one’s ego, inserting big lies to protect one’s little lies, speaking one’s mind with little to no regard for how it affects one’s listeners, and inserting sarcastic, quippy come-backs, just to name a few. All too quickly these patterns develop into vicious speech habits that harm us in ways we don’t even fully recognize.
Although I’ve caught myself engaging in each one of these unconscious, unskillful speech patterns before, my biggest challenge has been in breaking the unconscious habit of speaking my mind, no matter how it affects my listeners. For most of my younger adult life, I spent an amazing amount of time and energy trying to clean up all of the dead bodies of hurt feelings littered around me – the direct result of my unconscious need to control the situation by letting everyone know what I thought they needed to hear. With my skillful speech practice, I’ve become much more adept at knowing when and how to speak my mind, such that I do not harm anyone, or at least harm the least number of people, possible. Since it is a practice, I am getting more and more skillful, with more room to improve.
Once you bring mindfulness to your speech and start to truly see the toxic effects your unskillful speech has on you and others, life is never quite the same. After all, who wants to continue hurting oneself or others once one sees the damage one is causing? Modern science is showing us that the costs of unskillful speech are not only spiritual, but also psychological and physical. Lie detector tests are based on the typical physical reactive response to lying – our heart rates, sweating responses and internal stress factors increase when we tell a lie. Many people also report physical illnesses, headaches and difficulties sleeping after engaging in angry, dishonest or malicious speech. In light of this, it is no wonder that the Buddha urged us to choose our words with care and compassion, and to say only what is true and helpful.
So how does one go about engaging in Right speech? It is a skill, which improves with practice. It requires a lot of effort and mindfulness. Right speech also requires awareness of one’s motives, emotions, and sensitivities – both to other people and to oneself. If you were able to tape record your own internal dialogue to yourself, you may NOT be speaking skillfully to yourself, either.
According to the Buddha, those people who master right speech:
Offend no one,
Yet they speak the truth.
Their words are clear,
But never harsh.
They do not take offense,
And they do not give it.
Here are examples of unskillful speech that you want to avoid engaging in:
- Lying, malicious words, harsh language, and useless talk or gossip. Malicious talk destroys other people’s friendships or damages their reputations. Lying can range from a simple omission, to little white lies, to full-out big lies.
- Verbal abuse, sarcasm, excessive profanity, hypocrisy, and overly blunt or belittling criticism are all examples of harsh language. Remember that harsh language hurts others and debases you.
- Gossip and idle talk lead to quarrels and misunderstandings, wastes your time, and creates an angry, confused state of mind.
- All unnecessary speech not motivated by generosity, loving-friendliness, and compassion is considered harmful.
I was once very close to a man – Adam. He lived a tortured life and broke down in a pool of tears, hurt, guilt and sorrow as he told me his story:
Adam was raised with his older brother, who was two years older. Adam’s older brother was his savior and idle, as they both struggled to endure a life of extreme physical, sexual and emotional abuse from their mother and step-fathers during childhood. They were burned, locked up and tortured with punishments no human beings should have to endure. As a result, they were tossed around in foster care situations, but insisted on always staying together.
When Adam was around 12, he was sent to a nice family on a farm in the Midwest. Although he was distraught because he was separated from his older brother, the family’s steadfast caring, loving and consistency helped him develop into a conscientious, hard-working young man.
When Adam turned 18, he raced to find his brother. He found that his brother was not so lucky. He discovered that during their painful separation, his brother continued to be tossed from one bad situation to the next. As a result, Adam found that his brother had grown into an unhappy, dishonest criminal. Adam tried really hard to motivate his brother to become an honest, caring lawful man, without much luck. But, he still loved him with all his heart.
One night shortly after their reunion, Adam’s brother tried to convince Adam to join him in stealing a Christmas tree for their alcoholic mother. A fight ensued and Adam told his brother: “You’re nothing but a loser and a thief! Get the F___ away from me!” Those were the last words he ever got to speak to his brother, as his brother was tragically killed in a car accident within minutes after their argument.
Adam had to live with extreme guilt and sadness that the last words he uttered to his brother were critical and mean. He struggled with the guilty possibility that if his brother hadn’t been so upset, maybe he wouldn’t have been driving as recklessly, and wouldn’t have gotten killed. Adam spent most of his adult years torturing himself, wishing again and again that he could re-write the script of that fateful night – Wishing he had said something kinder and more skillful to his brother right before his death. This is a tragic example of how unskillful speech can hurt oneself and others for a very long time.
EXERCISES IN SKILLFUL SPEECH
Let’s get to the heart of the matter. That is, how to develop and practice speaking skillfully. Here are some helpful pointers:
- Strengthen your concentration and mindfulness practices. Then use your mindfulness to monitor your speech to ensure that you say nothing harmful.
- Before you speak, check-in and inquire as to your intention. Are you passively aggressively attempting to: be right, control a situation your way, avoid taking action or responsibility, seeking to look good to others, or gain attention or approval from others? If so, your intention is muddy and skillful speech is unlikely to emerge. Reset your intention to bring understanding and harmony to the situation before you speak. Then, use well-chosen words that bring harmony to the situation.
- The Buddha recommended, “say only what is true and helpful.” So, the test of Skillful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it helpful? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to speak about this?”
- Choose not to speak while you are still in the throes of a negative emotional reaction, and speak only after you feel more emotionally centered.
- Realize that oftentimes, skillful speech is saying “NOTHING”.
- Do your best to fully understand the other person’s perspective first, before you speak.
- Spend a full day practicing compassionate listening, without needing to speak your viewpoint.
- Spend a full day abstaining from gossip.
Curb your tongue and your senses, and you are beyond trouble.
Let them loose and you are beyond help.
- Spend a full day practicing not judging others, including you…..
- Spend a full day practicing saying only kind words to yourself and others.
- Spend a full day speaking only the truth.
“Better than a thousand hollow words,” said the Buddha, “is one word that brings peace.”
Adopting a positive or right attitude is a necessary precursor to becoming a skillful communicator. For instance, if you have the attitude of a deeply engrained victim, in that you are always ready to defend yourself against all of those who are out there to screw you over, your speech will indicate this negative attitude and will most likely NOT be too skillful. But, this doesn’t mean we become doormats and allow abuse, either. It is still important to set healthy boundaries, but in a compassionate and caring way. Not in a “Look here! You’d better respect my boundaries!” way.
THE REWARDS OF SKILLFUL SPEECH
As you keep practicing skillful speech, you will notice that it will gradually become easier and easier, until one day skillful speech is a natural, effortless, and enjoyable expression of your true nature. Your relationship with yourself and others will also become more wholesome, enjoyable and meaningful.
Jack Kornfield summarized the growth of ethical practice as follows:
At first, [ethics] are a practice. Then they become a necessity, and finally they become a joy. When our heart is awakened they spontaneously illuminate our way in the world. This is called Shining Virtue. The light around someone who speaks truth, who consistently acts with compassion for all, even in great difficulty, is visible to all around them.