Right Speech in This Digital Age

| February 6, 2013 | 15 Comments

“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.” — SN 45.8

“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.” — AN 5.198

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image26456735In the day that the above statements were first expressed, communication was almost entirely face to face. When we talk to others in person, we have the advantage of seeing facial and body expressions, asking for clarity instantly, and we have a feel for how well the conversation is moving. Communication has changed in ways that bring new complications. We live in a digital world now, where communication is being passed via the written word through many mediums: email, texting, discussion forums, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Because of this, Right Speech is not less important, it’s more important.

Digital communication comes with it’s own set of problems that can make communication even more challenging than talking face to face. Meaning and intent can be lost or misunderstood with a few unskillfully typed words. Often there is not enough context to glean the intent. User names remove accountability, allowing people to say things online that they’d never say to someone in person. Typing out words quickly and hitting enter is all too easy, and encourages us to be impulsive. And with our words competing against the vast amount of other information out there, it could look like a whole lot of blah, blah, blah!

When I first investigated Right Speech in my practice years ago, I focused on the being careful not to lie or be divisive, and I struggled a bit with the idle chatter. Over the years, as my communications spread in digital media, I found my practice deepening as I investigated Right Speech in new ways.

As I’ve worked in various online communities over the years, I’ve become more mindful to how my thinking processes work when I have a keyboard at my fingertips versus when I’m face to face with someone. In spite of the fact that when I type my thoughts into a forum,  and I know I am communicating with others, I notice how the self arises. The focus of self wraps itself up tightly in my opinions, my thoughts, what I want to express, and the desire to be heard. If I’m not mindful, I can easily find myself typing out my opinion for the sake of merely expressing my opinion, almost forgetting that I’m communicating with others. This is a subtle and sneaky way self arises.

I find it helpful to revisit Right Speech often, to remind myself the reasons for communication in the first place. Do we need to share our opinions to help others, or are we asserting our sense of self? When we are annoyed by the beliefs or opinions of others is it because the self is asserting itself? Are we honestly dealing with our intent in engaging in online conversations? What are those intents?

When I look at my intent for getting involved with any online conversation, I learn a lot about myself, my need for approval concerning my ideas or beliefs, my need to align myself with others who think in a similar way, my need to assert my opinion when I think others are wrong. I find in investigating Right Speech, I discover new ways the self arises, responds, etc. It’s interesting to take the investigation further and resist responding when I feel the self wanting to assert itself, or when I feel the need to correct someone who I feel is wrong. How much of my communication is because I want to be helpful, how much is idle chatter, and how much is friendship building?

Investigating Right Speech can give us special insight into our daily motivations, into our intentions, and into the assertion of self, or ego if you prefer that word. I find in exploring Right Speech I also have to call on my mindfulness skills, Right Intention, and Right Effort.

I’d like to invite you to take pause the next time you go to type an entry in an online discussion, or on Facebook, and ask yourself, Does what I’m going to type fall into Right Speech? What is my motivation here?

And of course, we all still have Right Speech to investigate when talking to others in person. A while back, I had noticed that when I met in person with friends, or via video, which is similar, I’d often find my self chattering about my own life and interests. I promised myself that whenever I engaged in conversation with a friend that I would make sure that not far into the conversation I’d make a point to ask about them, their interests, their lives, and to always make sure I am giving back to the friendship through Right Speech. I do very much appreciate the people I’ve chosen to have in my life as friends, and I want to make sure they know I am genuinely interested in them and how they’re doing.

The more I investigate Right Speech, the more useful I find it to be. Right Speech is a wonderful tool if you are willing to investigate it, and I think you’ll find doing so will enrich your practice.

 

Category: Articles

Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (15)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Dana, welcome back to the blog! We missed you.

    Wanted to chime in about the importance of this topic. For a long while I thought I was being very righteous when I was correcting other people on line. I started to notice that when I would come into conflict with others it led to terrible bouts of mental proliferation that was very hard to shake, and I began to see how engaging in conflict cultivated more contentious and hostile mind states. I’m trying to remember that even if I have something I think is valuable to say, if I’m saying it for the wrong reason (i.e. to prove I’m right) I’m just causing myself more suffering. Right Speech on line is a big part of my practice and one I continue to struggle with.

  2. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Because of my shoulder condition, I’ve not interacted online in my usual manner, and it’s been fascinating and liberating to feel the self who wants attention arise, the self that wants to throw an opinion out there just because. Like you, Mark, I’m realizing that my contributions may have been adding to hostilities rather than cooling things down. I’m also finding that silence is often the best course of action to take, even when I feel others would benefit by my wisdom. It’s interesting to watch my inner turmoil when I hold back and just observe.

  3. Candol says:

    Good post. Everything else i’m trying to say is coming out fairly garbled.

  4. Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

    Dana, thank you for the post.

    Remembering past dharma talks on this subject, I’m reminded that for speech to be Right Speech, it should be true, useful, and timely. Keeping this in mind, I would like to suggest a slight edit to your subject line for the word Digial. 🙂

  5. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Dana. For me, online right speech has been an ongoing struggle, but something I’ve been actively aware of dealing with. I think it’s actually one of the Buddha’s most original insights into ethical behavior: right speech is not just about lying, but about behaving in ways that are kind and not nasty.

    Of course, even the Buddha was willing to say unpleasant things. He wasn’t above castigating bhikkhus for ‘wrong views’! So it’s not all about making nicey-nice. But it is about trying one’s best to communicate with empathy.

  6. Right speech and mindful listening go hand in hand. One thing we notice as out practice deepens is we can hear what people are saying clearer but also develop a sensitivity to affect–that is HOW they are saying what they are saying. When engage in right speech-listening we notice familiar sensations in our bodies that allow us to have more space not to react with hot emotions. On the other hand, some situations call for very direct firm speech. Either way it’s an awesome dimension of practice that is often quite humbling. My teacher Zen Master Seung Sahn use to say “Open Mouth Already a Mistake.” Now I understand that he was talking about muzzling oneself but to listen mindfully before speaking.

  7. typos from mindless (rushed) writing!!

    When WE engage in right speech-listening we notice familiar sensations in our bodies that allow us to have more space not to react TO hot emotions. On the other hand, some situations call for very direct firm speech. Either way, it’s an awesome dimension of practice that is often quite humbling as we engage in wrong speech all the time.

    My teacher Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say “Open Mouth Already a Mistake.” Now I understand that he was NOT talking about muzzling oneself, but to listen mindfully before speaking.

  8. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    We do need to be aware that, as humans, our best communication depends very much on visual cues that we get in person. Digitally, we don’t get those cues, we’re essentially not talking with a person but with a machine. And our impersonal response to the impersonal machine tends to appear in how we craft our messages.

  9. Candol says:

    Well for the most part, this means not responding to posts. I don’t know how many posts i’ve written only to feel i should delete them. I just written three in the last 10 minutes and then thought, ugh why bother. I am sure everyone here has done this often. It will end up with a dead forum of course because few of us here have really mastered niceness – compassion and loving friendliness, let alone on a digital medium.

    • Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

      “It will end up with a dead forum of course because few of us here have really mastered niceness – compassion and loving friendliness, let alone on a digital medium.”

      Candol, who or what has suggested you need to have “mastered” the qualities you’ve mentioned before you participate in a discussion?

  10. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Candol, I disagree that means the forums would die. Not saying people have to be excellent writers to communicate. It’s the intention behind what we are writing that is worth noting. Often our intent in forums is to provide information. There is nothing wrong with that. What we want to watch for are those times we are responding simply because the self wants attention, wants to assert itself, because we have to have the last word, because we are bothered when people disagree, etc. These are all areas that are good to dig into and explore.

    And as Ron nicely points out, we are all in different places in our practice. In these forums much of what said is said with good intentions, some of what said is not, and it’s up to each of us as individuals to decide where we want to explore in our own practice.

    Skillful speech is not about being nice or pleasant. As someone pointed out earlier, the Buddha didn’t always speak with friendliness, but his intention was likely to inform.

  11. Candol says:

    hm well if the buddha said some of the things he said on a forum, it would still come across as rude and hurtful, wouldn’t it. I don’t think the buddha’s example is always good.

  12. David Chou David Chou says:

    I’m really friggin’ tired of having to cater to people’s egos just so that they’re not hurt by something. It’s amazing this insistence people have on their sense of themselves being recognized, which is extremely ironic in an online context!

    What’s it Lenny Bruce liked to say? “If they don’t get it, [expletive] ’em.”

    Seriously, this Buddhist insistence on Right Speech can be very easily misapplied, kinda like the conservative whine about Hyphenated-Americans being symptomatic of the Apocalypse. As if hiding our differences magically means we’re all really united! No, it’s a misunderstanding of what makes for true unity. I was hoping Secular Buddhism would be rather more modern in its outlook on this score.

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