I’m a very literal person. Sometimes I see words as I speak, and I see words as I hear them. So you can imagine as a child when my mother would admonish me to “Watch your mouth!” after I’d said something unkind or sarcastic, I would try scrunching and twisting up my face trying to literally watch my mouth as I said “You mean like this?” I think it must have infuriated her.
As a kid, I was never part of the “in” crowd. From about third grade through fifth grade, I was the butt of many jokes. My hair was long, dark, extremely thick and frizzy, my body was chunky, I had buck teeth, and I loved musicals. During lunch or recess my friend, Cindy, and I would stand under a enormous oak tree at the edge of the playground and take turns singing songs from Oliver!, The Sound of Music, or Hair auditioning for each other and then grading the other’s performance. I was a nerd.
PE was a dreaded time of day, as I suffered the regular humiliation of being picked last for every team, not able to do a single push-up or pull-up, climb a rope or run with any speed. I frequently feigned sick so I could go to the Principal’s office to avoid that 45 minutes of torture. The playground was an even more dangerous and scary place. Without much supervision, I was an easy target for kids whose entertainment was bullying other kids. For me, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” was completely untrue. The names and the words were just as painful as the imagined sticks and stones.
Preceded by Wise Thought and Intention, Wise Speech is the next and third step of practice of the Eightfold Path. The Buddha defined Wise Speech as speech that is truthful, useful, kind, gentle and appropriate. By using language that meets these requirements, we cannot help but access our innate goodwill. By watching our thoughts and intentions, we will be more likely to catch ourselves before saying something we’ll later regret. It’s hard to overstate the importance of how we use language, either written or spoken. What we say matters and how we express ourselves profoundly influences the effectiveness of our message. And, it is a lifelong practice.
“Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored with scent,
So are well-spoken words,
Fruitful when carried out.”
The Buddha, the Dhammapada
Try dedicating a week, a day, or even an hour to speech practice in any of the following ways. This is a challenging practice that requires steady patient mindfulness, so pick just one. Once you begin, if you forget about the practice, just note that you’ve forgotten and begin again.
· Say only what is precisely true; no distortions either by omission, embellishments, or exaggerations, just the facts.
· Only speak if what you have to say is helpful, not just because it feels good to say it.
· Deliberately avoid gossip by resisting speaking about anyone not present.
· Use kind words motivated by kind thoughts and intentions. Restrain yourself if this isn’t possible.
· Speak gently, not harshly. Notice the quality of the thoughts before speaking.
· Use good timing by making sure that what you’d like to say is appropriate to the situation.
· Notice if you’re planning your response while the other person is speaking. When this occurs, you’ve probably stopped listening.
· Pause before responding. This gives you time to gather your thoughts, check in with your intentions and choose your words well.
The benefits of these practices are good for everyone. When I think about experiences that have given me the most joy, the most love, and the secure feeling of being valued, it’s undoubtedly kind words that have had the greatest impact. Likewise, some of my most painful experiences, whether I was the giver or the receiver, have been caused by unkind, mean-spirited words, either written or spoken.
I know that when my intentions are clear and motivated by goodwill, and when I am really paying attention to my language and the tone of my voice, the quality of my interactions is kinder, more genuine, and more respectful, even and especially with difficult conversations.
I should speak from my heart on what is relevant,
Making the meaning clear and the speech pleasing.
I should not speak out of desire or hatred,
But in gentle tones and in moderation.”
Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life