We know that the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but worlds will never hurt me” is utterly false. There is tremendous power in words, in our speech. Sure, we can use words to express love, praise and wisdom. But we can also use words to hurt, to criticize, to scold, to define-both ourselves and others. Therefore, it is important that we work on the things we say to clean up our speech. And I don’t mean just not using bad language.
Words are how we communicate and it is only through communication that we form relationships- in work, at home, in life. And relationships are the foundation of what brings us connectedness, a sense of belonging and forms the basis of how each day in our lives play out. More true than “happy wife, happy life” is “good relationships, happy life.” Words are also a large part of how we present ourselves to the world.
In Tibetan Buddhism there is something called Right Speech. Right Speech provides powerful lessons we can use to change the way we speak, recognize the power of words and think before speaking. Yes, in this age of the post, the tweet, the text-all quick ways to put words in the world-it is critical to actually think about what we are saying.
There are four aspects of Right Speech. These are not easy, but ways of speaking to strive for.
- Avoid all lying, pretending, and any false speech. Which means to speak the truth and be firm, reliable, and no deceiver of the world. Think about how lies come back to haunt us. How deception usually leads to hurt or anger. And really, is this not part of every movie we see or story we read. Telling the truth is not always easy but it is right. And people can handle it.
- Abstain from any kind of divisive or splitting talk. What this means is that we don’t talk about people to other people behind their backs. And we don’t talk badly about people to others or tell other things like “So and so does not like you” or “so and so and so thinks you are incompetent”. Not only does divisive speech bring negativity into relationships, it also fosters bad feelings. In Buddhist teaching it explains it as breaking people apart. And the purpose of speech is to reconcile those who have parted, cement those who are united, and speak things that create concord.
- Refrain from all aggressive, abusive or irritated scolding. We know we should not use hurtful, damaging words. But all of us have used them. And mostly when we are angry. Those times we did not breathe and clam down and think before we spoke or wrote. Those words that when they leave your mouth you wish you had a Wonder Woman magic lasso to catch them and put them back in. Those posts or tweets or texts you cringe while you reread and know that really there is no such thing as deleting a FB post. According to teachings of the Buddha we should strive to “speak words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large:”
- Still any idle and empty gossiping or idle chatter. My partner’s mom calls this “talking just to hear your brains rattle.” It is the blah, blah, blah or the yada, yada, yada in our speech. I tend to call them throw away’s. This is a hard one because now so much of what we post or tweet or text could be considered idle chatter. And admittedly there is amusement in idle chatter and gossiping. It is distracting in what we think is a good way. Bu ultimately it wastes our rime and other’s time and can be hurtful. So here is what Buddhist teachings say about what is not at all idle chatter. It is “words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, and connected with the goal.”
And we can clean up our words through working on not only what we say, but when and how we say it. Right Speech also involves considering using words that are spoken at the right time, in truth, affectionately, beneficially, and with a mind of good-will. The idea of speaking with good will and only when it is helpful or beneficial is particularly game changing. Think about how that would advance and deepen relationships as well as lead to better results in just about anything.
When I think about Right Speech I think about how wonderful it would be to live in a world where everyone was practicing its four aspects. And while it is challenging to always tell the truth and not use abusive or harsh language and not gossip and talk negatively about others and not just chatter about nothing; the rewards of better relationships, less drama, more productivity and better results compel me, compel us, to work on it.