~ Sally Kempton
Sticks and stones may not break bones, but they sure can hurt us. Today I want to consider the place of “right speech” for those of us who are estranged from family members.
Right speech is one of the Buddhist 8 pillars of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right speech, in short, acknowledges the power of words and exhorts us to be mindful of the things we say.
We don’t need to be Buddhist to appreciate that words do have power. They have the power to comfort, to inspire, to instruct and to foster relationship and understanding. Words also have the power to hurt, to hinder trust, to demean, diminish, demoralize and to irrevocably damage relationships.
We know this, yet for many of us, words often flow from our mouths without a great deal of consideration; especially when feel vulnerable or under pressure. Despite our best intentions, we often speak unskillfully and as a result create lasting and profound impact on our relationships that even the most heartfelt apology cannot erase. So much of the hurt we cause to ourselves and to others could be circumvented if we learned to be more discriminating in the way that we speak and the things that we say.
So what is right speech? Right speech is about speaking with intention. Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that we are on the right path to right speech when we refrain from: lying (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); engaging in divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); using harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and engaging in idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).
But “not doing” is not all that right speech is about. It’s also about what we do instead of of those things.
Right speech is about compassion and respect for ourselves and for others. After all, not only do we hurt others with unskillful or unkind words, we are also able to hurt ourselves through our self talk; the things we say to ourselves, about ourselves, about our circumstances and about the motivations and intentions of others.
So we begin by raising our awareness. We observe ourselves and our conversations with others. This is not about judging ourselves, but rather is about pausing to notice how we interact. We begin to notice what we say and how we say it. We begin to notice the impact our words have on others (and ourselves) and the environment around us. How do I feel after certain remarks? How do other people react?
We then move to a place of “self-inquiry”, we pay attention to ourselves. Quite simply, we ask ourselves questions; what made me say that? What unexpressed feelings am I holding onto that might leak out as lies or sarcastic remarks? What is happening for me that I chose words meant to demean or diminish another person? How has what I said covered up what I really wanted to say?
We listen, truly listen to ourselves. Are we whining and complaining? Speaking harshly? Engaging in idle gossip or meaningless chatter? Are we lying; to ourselves or someone else? Are we building ourselves up by tearing someone else down? What is the story we are telling ourselves?
We can do more than pay attention to what we have said. We can also take steps to prevent unskillful speech, before it happens!
There are three simple questions that we can ask ourselves before we speak. Using them helps us to create time and space to consider what we truly want to say. These questions are often refered to as the ‘three gates of speech’ and they go like this:
Is what I am about to say true?
Is what I am about to say kind?
Is what I am about to say necessary?
I’ll be exploring each of these “gates of speech” in some detail over the coming posts and discussing their implications on managing the tensions of difficult family relationships and finding peace and healing for yourself. But for today, your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to observe yourself and your words. Notice without criticism, without harshness – simply notice what you say and how you say it.