Right Speech

Our bodies and subconscious minds hold the residue of every kind or cruel word we’ve ever taken in. 

~ 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.

Happy listening!

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4 Responses to Right Speech

  1. Heather Conroy says:

    Love this post and it is timely because I was able to pull out my observing self is several conversations during a stressful family gathering on Saturday night. Powerful stuff. For example my brother berated me (at length) for not calling him on his birthday the day before the party. He also brought up a laundry list of my past errings. I watched myself listen and respond from a distance and was able to be kind to him in the conversation, and not get hooked in to his criticisms. Interestingly I did not take on his negative energy, but instead remained happy and peaceful in my own space/self. That is the self talk that would usually follow such an interaction was really minimised.This is radically different to past interactions. I think it was the preparation and work that I have put into self observation that enabled me to bring it in this situation. The questions you pose here are ones that I will most definitely use.

    • Fiona says:

      Hi Heather,

      I very much like your description of “the observing self” – I think if we can approach interactions from that place, even to a lesser degree, we buy ourselves time to consider what is really happening. We give ourselves room to make choices and step out of reaction. This has to be a “good thing”!

      Take care,

  2. edward says:

    I know personally a considerate, kind, caring, sensitive woman whose life was filled with the destructiveness of fools uttering inapplicable cruel criticisms, from their dysfunctional posturing while simultaneously scratching their pointed heads. Her whole existence was characterized by fools and insensitive modern day inquisitors, who had not the sense God gave a billygoat nor the intelligence of a single lemming in it’s herd inspired stampede over the cliffs into the waters below.

    Your reference to Buddhism is interesting, and I present in the Christian belief system, there are dozens of verses throughout the Holy Bible about your topic herein. I would use but a small reference to James 3:5-8, and present “…the tongue is a fire,a world of iniquity…it defileth the whole body and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell…BUT THE TONGUE CAN NO MAN TAME, IT IS AN UNRULY EVIL FULL OF DEADLY POISON”.

    As is true of the wisdom of the ages, drawn here in part, and put down in words, God Himself, as the epitome of Truth says it like it truly is and none can deny the veracity of these words.

    The tongue destroys many innocent people, their happiness, their very lives as it is used destructively, irresponsibly, and maliciously.

    I do not know where you get your topics Fiona, but they are well inspiired, written and thought out wisely. I thank you for such finesse in a world of stumbling drunken bulls in the china shop of people’s feelings. This imperfect but sincere man seees you as a good woman, easily cherished by those who you interact with.

    Conversation always gives vent to character, and so my feelings of amenability towards you. I encourage you in the service you perform.

    Always Edward

    • Fiona says:

      Hi Edward,

      I find it fascinating that very often the “Great Truths” found one spiritual understanding are often repeated throughout them all.It is undoubtedly true that words have both the power to do incredible harm, but also to create love, connection, understanding and healing. The great thing about all that is, we can become a great deal more skillful in the results we create, simply by increasing our awareness! We don’t have to be a victim of our own wagging tongue. We can do better.

      My topics often come from reader emails or comments – sometimes they just parallel things I am busy thinking, feeling or working on. I am always heartened when I hear that they resonate for others!

      Thank you for your ongoing involvement with this blog and your consistent willingness to share your experience and understandings!

      Take care,

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