Right Speech

I’ve been keeping these short and that’s my intention, but I was re-reading an old piece I wrote for my right speech classes and decided to post even though it’s very long:

We live in a world, I think, in which we have yet to learn to communicate with each other in ways that create harmony and understanding. Instead, with words we build hostility, barricades and wars. Words can also build bridges leading from one heart to another to another. By practicing right speech each of us can build bridges that connect our hearts with all those with whom we speak.

Right speech is one of the steps on the Eight Fold Path of Buddhism, but the concept of communicating with truth and compassion can be found in most religious traditions. Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully described the basics of right speech in his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax Press, 1998, p. 77):

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

In perfect practice, this means speaking only the truth — not the opinion you would like to shove down someone else’s throat or a convenient excuse that covers the real story, but the truth that is from your heart. It means never being sarcastic or criticizing others or making another person the butt of a joke. It means avoiding words that are abusive, insulting or angry. Gossip is also outside the bounds of right speech and some teachers advocate a periodic practice of refraining from saying anything about anyone who is not present, thus curtailing all conversations devoted to analyzing someone else’s life or behavior. It means truly listening to another — not to check whether they hold the opinions you think they should or so that you can tell them what they should be doing, but listening to understand what is in the other person’s heart.

According to the Taoist Book of Changes, or I Ching, life is always changing. You can flow with the cycles of life or try to fight against it, but change is always present. You can experience this in speech. When right speech is truly practiced, you are present in the moment and open to the possibility of change in the next. In other words, you enter conversation not from a fixed and immutable viewpoint but with openness to really hear another’s view and be changed by it.

Right speech can also be discussed in the context of the energy of the throat, which, in yoga and other systems, is one of the major chakras. At this level you encounter the blocks you have created with your unexpressed feelings and your fears about expressing your authentic self and your deepest truths. It is not possible to express your truth if you are numb to your feelings or repressing them. The ongoing practice of right speech can help you move down through the layers of repressed thoughts and feelings to discover what is true for you.

One of my teachers, Gay Luce (founder of the Nine Gates Mystery School), developed a methodology for formally practicing right speech and right listening. There are five questions to consider when you are about to speak and while you are speaking:

1. What am I talking about?

Sometimes we start talking just to fill a silence and without any particular point. Try defining for yourself what the topic or subject is that you wish to talk about. You may begin to realize that sometimes there is more connection to another in harmonious silence than in speaking.

2. What am I thinking as I talk about this topic or what do I believe about it?

This invites you to examine what you really think about a given subject — to express not just what someone else has said or the point of view you think you should hold but what you believe to be true.

3. What am I feeling as I talk about this?

In our society we are often out of touch with our own feelings and we talk without being at all aware of what our feelings are about the subject. Frequently even when we do identify a feeling it is one that has been triggered by some deeper, unidentified emotion. The more you attune to what you are feeling about the things you discuss, the deeper you can go into your true feelings.

4. Why am I saying this to you? Why do I want you to know this?

Sometimes we have something we want to say so badly that we’d tell it to anyone who happened to be there. But most of the time there is some unacknowledged and unexpressed reason why we have chosen to raise a particular topic with a particular person. Perhaps you trust this person more than others. Or you have some reason to believe this person will know or understand more than others about your subject. Maybe you want to show off for this individual or manipulate him into doing something for you.

5. What do I want for myself from this?

We have all kinds of motives for talking and many of them involve something we want to get or accomplish. Sometimes we talk just to pass time or fill the air with sound. Sometimes we want to persuade or show superiority or deflate someone or reveal our great knowledge. Knowing your motives for speaking (and for speaking to a specific person) helps you to choose your words more carefully.

As cumbersome as it may seem, if you engage in the practice of consciously answering those questions in your own mind before you speak and also out loud to your listener, you will find that you rarely stray from right speech. If you stop to think about what you want to talk about and why, you will rarely indulge in idle chatter. In reflecting upon what you want to say you will find that it is easier to curtail hurtful or divisive words. When you examine your motives for speaking, you begin to realize how often you use words to create distance or say things to show off or make yourself look good or to control or manipulate another. “Think before you speak,” becomes a spiritual practice.

Right listening is talked about less than right speech, but for me the listening side of the practice has been more compelling and has taught me many lessons. Right listening means being totally present for the other person, hearing all of what the speaker is saying instead of letting your mind wander or busy itself with deciding how it wants to respond based on the first words it heard. It is trying to help the speaker to arrive at a deeper self-understanding. That is accomplished by listening and responding without judgment about what has been said. It is rarely an act of right speech or listening to tell someone else what you think they should do

Our usual habits of responding with commands, admonishing, moralizing, suggesting solutions, criticizing, blaming, disagreeing — and also praising, agreeing and approving — are ways in which we create walls instead of understanding because we cut the speaker off from expressing her own feelings. Even “That is great” can express judgment if the speaker is aware that only certain acts or behaviors that you approve of get a “That is great” while other endeavors of which they might be equally proud draw indifference or silence.

In essence, right listening involves taking an unconditional, unbiased stance, reflecting back to the speaker what s/he has said to be sure you are understanding and developing a skillful ability to ask nonjudgmental questions that help her/him to move more deeply into the subject. When you succeed the other person will feel fully understood and that helps her/his heart to be more open to you. At its best right listening helps the other person to know her/his own heart and brings greater intimacy and understanding between the two of you.

To hold a complete conversation you must offer your full attention. It is thus like an open-eyed speaking meditation. For some people, who find mindfulness meditations difficult, right speech practice can be a pathway into the practice of mindfulness. You must be present in the moment, allowing your heart to be as open as possible, fully conscious of what you are feeling and saying. When two people (or groups) engage in a genuine practice of right speech and right listening their hearts become more open and they can express themselves more deeply.

When I reflect on my own habits of speech, as well as those of this culture, I am humbled by how far short I fall from that ideal. We are a culture of people who judge, condemn, ridicule, criticize and gossip and I am immersed in my culture. We use sarcasm and bitter irony to the detriment of others. Even our most revered comedians usually base their humor on cutting other people down with words and most of the popular sit coms involve people using biting sarcasm on one another.

The closer people are to us, the more likely it is that we will speak to them harshly and critically, because much of our speech is born of unexamined habits and repressed anger or suffering. Those closest to us are the people whose very presence triggers our deepest emotional and reactive responses. Over the 17 years since I was introduced to right speech, I have become aware that the greatest percentage of what I say — and what others say — is not right speech and that I have often been so unconscious of underlying emotions or motivations that even what I have presented as my truth did not reflect what was really true. I still find impatient or sarcastic tones erupting without even realizing what I am doing until it is too late.

These habits of communication are nearly as deeply ingrained and as unconsciously conducted as breathing. It takes an intense commitment to practice the tenets of right speech if you are to make any inroads on changing those speech patterns in all situations. It requires that you set up a sort of guardian or monitor — a Jiminy Cricket if you will — to pay attention to what you are saying and make you aware when you have strayed from right speech. You also have to stay present so that you are aware of the motive, intention and feelings of all you say and of how you are affecting whomever you are talking to. Be kind to yourself by acknowledging that the deeply embedded habits of a lifetime do not change over night. Like any new skill, the key is to practice and if you can find one or more people willing to sit down for formal practice sessions once a week or, if you lack partners, if you can commit to yourself that for one hour each day you will practice right speech with anyone you encounter, you will find that the new habits begin to expand into other times and places.

How does all this relate to peace in the next century? At the core, much of the violence and discord in the world today are caused by the inability to communicate in ways that foster harmony and knowledge of the heart. In this century we have come to live in isolation, barely knowing our neighbors, riding busses and planes with strangers. We often speak harshly to our families and judge one another. The world is full of discord and misunderstandings that erupt into wars. A difference in religious beliefs is more likely to lead to bloodshed than to a dialogue that leads to greater respect and understanding of different viewpoints. In a true dialogue between groups or nations or individuals, each side must believe that it is possible that the exchange with the other side can enrich and even change their own side. Each must offer both right speech and right listening to the other.

But we cannot force world leaders or religious groups to learn to communicate. The process of peace begins first inside an individual and then moves outward to establish peace in the family, peace with friends and neighbors, peace among religions and nations. When each of us pays attention to what we say, when we talk to others in the spirit of deepening understanding and connection, we are each contributing to peace for the world. My hope for the next millennium is that we all learn to hold our conversations heart to heart.

6 thoughts on “Right Speech

  1. I confess I never liked the Buddhist term “right speech” (and other expressions using “right” “noble” and “defilements” because they seemed too moralistic), but this text really resonated with me and I especially liked the 5 questions. Perhaps a better term would be conscious honesty…?

  2. Pingback: Spiritual Tips for the Holidays: Communication | Not Just Sassy on the Inside

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