When I was a kid I have a clear memory of an Army recruiter coming to our door.
My mom answered, which was unfortunate for the recruiter. Vietnam had recently ended and we lived on a liberal University campus and, well, you can connect the dots.
That was the first time I remember noticing the power of words.
I stood near the door watching the exchange and observing how two people with dramatically different points of view could communicate effectively, with kindness and respect and yet neither surrendering their position in any way.
I was very familiar with bombastic exchanges and rhetoric and with people attacking each other… so this noble and kind exchange deeply affected me.
I saw the power of right speech first hand and although countless times the skill has eluded me, the awareness of its power has never left me.
Right Speech is the 4th of the The Eightfold Path, which is made up of Right View, Right Intention, Right action, Right speech, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness and Right concentration.
Posts on the first three as well as an overview of the Noble Eightfold Path are below:
- The Eightfold Path: Following the ancient road to liberation and awakening
- Right View: Step 1 on the Eightfold Path to Happiness
- Right Intention: Step 2 of the Noble Eightfold Path to happiness
- Right Action: Step 3 of the Noble Eightfold Path to happiness
Early into my spiritual journey I found so many rules and instructions and suggested practices. I didn’t understand it all and certainly didn’t believe it all. The way it was said, the context and delivery mattered to me almost as much as the actual content. I find this to be a near universal truth in any setting– delivery, timing and right speech are at the foundation of nearly everything productive and useful.
Buddhist’s try to follow a set of guidelines for cultivating and maintaining spiritual health, called the Precepts. The most basic set of precepts found in the Buddha’s teaching is the pañcasila, the five precepts, consisting of the following five practices (something we never fully master but always strive for) :
(1) abstaining from taking life;
(2) abstaining from taking what is not given;
(3) abstaining from sexual misconduct;
(4) abstaining from false speech; and
(5) abstaining from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.
These five precepts are the basic ethical code Buddhists try to live by.
I knew these precepts well—but I spent years mulling over the fourth one, abstaining from false speech.
I took forever to be willing to commit to them because when I did, I wanted to be authentic. It’s not that I didn’t think I could be honest—false speech is far bigger than speaking the truth.
When taking a vow to practice the precepts and earnestly attempt to live by this standard, it’s a commitment that’s customarily made to a monastic and to your spiritual community. I had no interest in doing it half-assed or as part of some peer pressure thing.. and honestly I believed deep down that I could never master the right speech training so rather than fake it and bullshit my way thru, I withdrew over and over again.
The others feel like no big deal to me, I see them as basic human principles that span all faiths. But right speech is very different. The idea of being so deliberate and conscious with my words, practicing mindfulness about who and what and how I speak—recognizing the intense power words can have and remaining deeply vigilant that I use that power for good… as much as I wanted this, I didn’t honestly think I could do it.
I decided to start with an hour a day. It was almost impossible. I found that unless I was literally silent, I blew it. My speech was so unconscious.. I had no idea how to integrate this into a spiritual practice and I honestly didn’t know how to get better.
The Buddha advised his disciples about right speech, saying, “Behold monks, right speech always consists of 5 characteristics as follows;
- Speech is spoken at the right time
- Speech is true
- Speech is sweet
- Speech is useful and helpful
- Speech is kind and compassionate.
“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five? It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” from the Vaca Sutta:
This all sounds awesome, but in my world, I say so many words a day, I communicate for a living… we all use words to navigate and relate and connect.. to measure everything I say against these 5 principles felt like I might as well not bother.
But then I remembered a friend once told me, every word is a step.
I committed to not being perfect but to increasing my mindfulness daily, to practice pausing a little more and being just slightly more conscious. I focused on one word at a time.
I quickly realized, Mindfulness was the key. When I was centered, authentic, rested, steady… when I was practicing meditation and practicing loving-kindness rigorously, right speech became the result. It was as if by practicing mindfulness my speech naturally improved, my words had more nobility to them.
“Right Speech is a mindfulness practice. By undertaking this practice, we commit to greater awareness of our body, mind, and emotions. Mindfulness makes it possible to recognize what we are about to say before we say it, and thus offers us the freedom to choose when to speak, what to say, and how to say it. With mindfulness, we see that the heart is the ground from which our speech grows. We learn to restrain our speech in moments of anger, hostility, or confusion, and over time, to train the heart to more frequently incline towards wholesome states such as love, kindness and empathy. From these heart states Right Speech naturally arises.”
I had originally heard that “If you can’t control your mouth, there’s no way you can hope to control your mind.” And I really believed it…however I learned over time that for me, it’s in reverse. I had to learn to control my mind, to observe it and forgive it and allow it freedom to find a center point and when I did, my mouth was controlled in a way I never dreamed possible.
Before I really understood what right speech was, I learned what it wasn’t:
“Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).”
It helped me to start at the negative and then work up from there. I often find, it’s easier for me to eliminate things rather than add and often it’s far more effective. I began mindfully removing myself from situations where I could relapse on my right speech practice and when I remained, I was vigilant not to use right speech in a positive way, but rather I just eliminated the negative… I chose often to be silent, or I changed the subject or I steered conversations back to something nobler.
What helped the most was speaking with intention. I always found that when I blew it, I was speaking with a laziness and lack of any purpose.
I learned to pay close attention to what I say — and to why I say it. When I do, I discovered that I could not only take on the commitment to right speech, I could actually benefit from significantly richer interactions with people and I began to show up as a more thoughtful, kind and noble person. As a result, my self-esteem was altered in a profound way… it feels better to be a source of good.
As an added bonus, I quickly observed that when I practiced right speech, others around me naturally did as well.
I’ve been at it a while now. I’ve taken the precepts with a confidence and commitment because I finally understood what practicing right speech would take and I tried in small doses to see if I could do it. When I did, I saw my life dramatically improve— speaking with intention, recognizing how powerful right speech can be, realizing that thru words we can literally change the whole world… I’ve been profoundly changed… once again realizing, it works when we work it.
“The value of our life depends on the quality of our thinking, our speech, and our actions…. We only need to choose our words carefully, and we can make other people happy. To use words mindfully, with loving kindness, is to practice generosity.”
~ from The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanh