people-series-1038128-mOthers may use these five modes of speech when speaking to you — speech that is timely or untimely, true or false, gentle or harsh, with a good or a harmful motive, and with a loving heart or hostility. In this way, monks, you should train yourselves: ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to that very person, making him as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.’ It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves.” MN 21

There they are, nestled up together on the Eightfold Path: intention and speech. One of Gotama’s great contributions to Indian thought was the idea that karma was not simply the repercussion of actions good or bad. Prior to action is intention. We can’t control the outcome of our actions; sometimes we can’t even control our actions. But we can shape our intentions, and by learning to recognize how action arises from intention, we can set ourselves free.

The first two elements of the path, view and intention, are internal phenomena. So what does it mean that the first external path factor is speech? This most intrinsically social of behaviors, the one that depends on shared symbolic systems to co-create the world we can know? I think it indicates Gotama’s recognition that karma, the ethical cause and effect that promotes either suffering or liberation, is first and foremost a social phenomenon.

How much of our suffering is relational? The thwarted desire to be seen and understood; the inability to comprehend and accommodate the desires of others; the anxiety of both the coercer and the coerced; the unrecoverable loss of those we love. It is in the social space that the ego is inscribed, the theatre of its grasping, fear and delusion. The medium of that social space is speech.

The implication of all of this is that our liberation depends, in large part, on our ability to recognize how speech arises from intention, and to identify and shape the intentions behind our own speech.  This is no mean feat. Our conversation seems often to flow so swiftly and effortlessly that we scarcely know what we are saying until we hear it coming out of our mouths. As the person across from me is talking, I am so intent on guessing and judging what they will say and rehearsing my own response that often I am barely listening.

It may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. After all, we experience a very similar process on the cushion as we meditate. Thoughts, plans, fantasies and daydreams come and hustle the awareness away, maybe for long minutes at a time. And yet at some point we can say, “Oh, yeah. I’m supposed to be paying attention.” In that instant, the rush of compulsive mental proliferation is halted, and for at least a moment, we are here, aware at last of what’s happening.

Is it possible to do the same thing with speech — to be aware of our intention before we speak, the intention from which our speech is arising? Just as a strong physical sensation or emotion can be our signal to tune into our experience with mindfulness, perhaps the urge to speak, especially if what we want to say seems particularly charged in some way, can be our mindfulness bell, the signal to stop for a moment and ask ourselves, “Why do I want to say this?”

The first time I experienced this was blogging – arguing with people on line, especially arguing about Buddhism, which always seemed the most vexatious. I noticed that such conversations caused me a lot of very nagging anxiety, especially if I felt that my opponent was being disrespectful in some way. The anxiety wasn’t confined to my time at the keyboard, but would go on for hours afterward, the residual desire to win and fear of being bested rehearsing itself over and over in my head, the cloud of stressful neurochemistry messing up my whole bodymind.

After a lot of suffering, one day when I had cooked up an extra snarky riposte to some forum post, before I hit the little button I asked myself, “What am I doing here? I know this is causing me lots of emotional turbulence – why am I doing it?” I recognized that it didn’t have much to do with searching for the light of the dharma. It was just about showing how well I could wield language as a weapon. And in the end, who the hell cared? This drama, and all of the heartburn ensuing from it, was something I was generating for myself.

Gradually, and I do mean gradually, I began to ask that question more often before posting on line. I began to see how little of what I was posting was really about being kind or even truthful, and how words intended to goad others inevitably haunted me and disturbed my peace of mind. And more and more often, instead of posting, I hit delete instead.

Soon the practice spread out from my online speech and started infecting my face to face conversations as well. It’s not much of a pause – just long enough for a quick mental “Wha?” – but it’s often enough to see that my intention is not one of kindness, helpfulness, or even righteousness, but instead of conflict, control, or self justification. And that not only does unskillful speech injure others, it injures me.

The reverse is also true, of course. If I notice that my intention to speak really is one of kindness, playfulness, connectedness, compassion, etc, then speaking becomes a way to fulfill that intention. Giving someone directions on the street , cheering up a coworker or thanking my son for doing his chores becomes a kind of metta practice, opening the heart and stimulating and reinforcing that wholesome mind state.

So at Practice Circle on 6/22/2014, we’ll work on that one little skill: stopping and checking in with our intention before we speak. I hope you’ll join us! Go here to find out how.

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  1. Jennifer Hawkins on June 19, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    I don’t talk to many people outside of family and in online spaces like this, so I struggle less with Right Speech than I suspect many other people do. An exception is when I”m playing League of Legends (an online game). People can say some horrible things and just not be good team players and so the urge to be negative with them grows. Sometimes I think “It doesn’t matter much” if I’m a little neg in those spaces, but it snaps me out of a “Right” frame of mind in general, so I know I have to work on it.

    Anyways, when I have to talk to someone (in a letter or on a forum) and there’s a risk that I might react negatively or unintentional harm someone with words, I use the Principles of Nonviolence as a guide:

    1. Am I respecting them as a fellow human being who has a past that I don’t know about that could be affecting their current emotions, thoughts, and actions?
    2. Am I being constructive?
    3. Is what I’m saying establishing a clear, constructive, long-term, win-win goal?
    4. Am I “gloating” over a victory?

    A bit of an addendum would be: Can what I say cause them any emotional harm? Am I phrasing it in a way that “blames” them instead of recognizing that they too might be suffering?

    An extension of this is the Sufi “Three Gates”:
    1. Is it true?
    2. Is it necessary?
    3. Is it kind?

    And then here are some things I borrowed from A. E. Desmond Tutu’s Forgiveness Challenge:

    “How often do we react to a statement of another by being offended rather than seeing that the other might actually be hurting? In fact, every time we get offended, it is actually an opportunity to extend kindness to one who may be suffering—even if they themselves do not appear that way on the surface. All anger, all acting out, all harshness, all criticism, is in truth a form of suffering.”

    How to Listen:
    1. Do not question the facts
    2. Do not cross examine
    3. Create a safe space
    4. Acknowledge what happened
    5. Empathize with their pain

    I know, I’m babbling, but I just had someone thank me for my forgiveness today. (I sent them a Forgiveness Challenge letter.) I didn’t expect it, but I’m relieved to hear that they are going to change their ways. I believe that they really mean it. So, in honor of that, I feel to compelled to share how I avoid being “verbally violent” towards someone – even if they are trying to “troll” me or if I am offended or if I deeply disagree. There’s a way to handle these moments (with nonviolence) that cools the attacker and garners support for you. Discovering it has changed my life and I hope it can help others.

  2. Mark Knickelbine on June 20, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Dear Jen —

    We could all use more of such babbling! These are all very skillful ways to be mindful of our intention for speaking, and for listening mindfully. It sounds like you have contemplated this topic deeply.

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