Speaking Harmony Into Life

– The Noble Eightfold Path | Right Speech –

The Four Noble Truths

IN THE LAST EPISODE, we began our training in virtue — the second of three training arenas along the Noble Eightfold Path. First, I noted that in this arena of training we will work on choreographing our thoughts and understanding onto the world stage, using the only mediums we have, our words and our bodies. Our exercises, then, will consist of exercises in speech, action, and livelihood.

Next, I hopefully alleviated any concern that our training is dogmatic by demonstrating that its ostensible moral ‘code’ or ‘law’ is grounded in harmony, rather than the ‘Word of God’ or some other authority, and that its aim is to alleviate suffering.

Finally, we began our first set of exercises, exercises in speech, though we were only able to explore in depth one dimension of this set of exercises — the honesty and truthfulness of our speech. Today, then, we will continue our exercises in speech, exploring in depth the other three dimensions the Buddha invited us to examine in our lives:

  1. whether our speech is aimed at bringing life and nature into harmony,
  2. whether our speech is accomplished with tenderness and affection, and
  3. whether our speech is guided by wisdom and utility.

Harmonious Speech | Abstain from Slander, Gossip, & Backbiting

“Avoid slanderous speech and abstain from it. What is heard here, do not repeat over there; and what is heard there, do not repeat here, so as to cause dissension. Unite those that are divided; and encourage those who are united. Delight and rejoice in concord. Let your words sprout and spread concord.” — The Buddha

You know as well as I that we humans are wired to gossip. And no doubt, there’s some evolutionary and social utility in it, right? It’s useful to know who is up to this, that, or the other thing. We need to keep an eye on the trouble-makers, and know who the liars, cheaters, and deceivers are in our circles, so we can make wise decisions in our personal, social, and work lives. There is an element of safety couched in gossip.

But when we take a look at the gossip in our lives, how much of it is really done with pure motivations? I’ll bet you very little. Often, what I find is that gossip is a low hanging fruit. It’s easy to turn to gossip when we don’t have anything of value or substance to bring to the table.

Another reason I find for turning to gossip is that it provides a sense of ego gratification, especially when our ego is feeling vulnerable. So, rather than turn inward and deal honestly and humbly with our own problems, we take the easy way out and highlight what’s wrong with everyone else. And for a brief moment, we might actually feel better. We might feel powerful or self-righteous or whatever. But in the end, this just adds to the disharmony and agitation in our lives.

Next time you find yourself gossiping, try to take it as feedback. Are you gossiping because you have nothing better to contribute to the conversation? Are you doing it because you are hiding from your own faults, and it’s easier to cast shade on others than to confront your own issues? What are your motivations? Are you trying to bring people together or tear people apart? Is there any value at all to this gossip? If so, does it outweigh the potential harm?

Another skillful thing to do is to investigate what the mind feels like the next time you are mindful enough to refrain from the impulse to gossip. Is there a sense of peacefulness or relief? Is there more space in the mind? Is there more clarity?

Gossip, slander, and backbiting are usually meant to create opposition, hostility, and division, to alienate people, to make them feel isolated and alone. And they often stem from unwholesome mind-states like self-doubt, fear, jealousy, resentment, hatred, and aversion. But they may even be motivated by cruelty. You might wish harm on another or you might even find delight in seeing people divided. Really pay attention to this. Or maybe the motivation isn’t some form of aversion or cruelty but greed. Are you trying to gain affection, status, position, or wealth, at the cost of another’s reputation, or to get that promotion you’ve always wanted?

It’s important to open to our shadow side but, remember, we also need to be holistic and consider the light too. So, on the other side of this, I also invite you to explore whether your speech is motivated by love and harmony, whether you seek to promote unity, connection, and friendship. Does your speech come from the heart, does it come from an understanding of the interconnected nature of all things, from a mind of loving-kindness and compassion?

If so, see whether this kind of speech leads to deeper and more meaningful relationships in your life. Do people give you their trust and affection? Do they feel they can confide in you without fear, fear that their vulnerabilities or secrets will be used against them? Allow your relationships to act as a mirror in which you can see your own reflection. Really explore what your speech can teach you about yourself.

Okay, before we move onto the next dimension of speech, I have one more challenge for you if you’re feeling particularly ambitious. See if you can go a week or a month without speaking about someone to someone else. See if you can carry a conversation with nothing but your own substance and interest in the person across from you. I’ll bet you you’ll find that your mind will become much less judgmental, not only about others but also about yourself.

Okay, let’s explore the next dimension of speech the Buddha invited us to investigate in our lives — the tone, care, and thoughtfulness of our speech.

Affectionate Speech | Abstain From Harsh Speech

“Avoid harsh language and abstain from it. Speak words that are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving; words that go to the heart, that are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many.” — The Buddha

We all know how unpleasant harsh speech feels, both when we give it and receive it. Yet for some reason, we still do it. Why? Well, usually because we’re angry or frustrated. Truth is, we say a lot of dumb shit when we’re angry — shit we don’t really mean and shit we quickly regret.

It’s just that anger is too appealing. It has such a sweetness to it, a sense of justice or self-righteousness that is backed by a strong and empowering energy. The Buddha described it as having a ‘honeyed tip and poisoned root.’

With its seductive appeal, then, it can be very difficult to work skillfully with anger, especially for those of us with abusive traumas or generational anger moving through us. But it is very important that we do our best to stay mindful of it and compassionate toward it. Because, when we speak with anger, our words tend to be harsh and motivated by cruelty.

Harsh speech is almost always intended to hurt someone. We can intend to hurt them by scolding, criticizing, or blaming them with the energy of anger, using loud, sharp, aggressive, or bitter words. Or, we can intend to hurt them with an insult, by mocking, ridiculing, or scorning them, by assigning them some terrible, offensive, or unattractive quality. Or, we can intend to hurt someone with sarcasm, by seemingly praising them, though with a tone and an irony that makes it clear we intend to cause pain.

Anger, plain and simple, is not the best mind state for open and productive communication, which really is what our speech is about. When we speak from anger, it cuts away at the peace and harmony in our hearts and in the world around us. Now of course, we don’t want to supress whatever we’re feeling. We may need to have a hard conversation. We may need to draw boundaries or say something to prevent future harm.

To do this out of anger, though, isn’t going to help anyone. We need to be mindful of the anger and the underlying message contained in it, but wait until the anger has moved through us to communicate this message. The goal is to communicate in a way that fosters harmony, connection, and resolve rather than discord, division, and more problems.

The antidote, then, is generally patience. We need to learn to be with our anger, to love and care for it while it is with us. We need to stay mindful of it, hold it with a great deal of equanimity and composure, so that we can listen to it without reacting to it. Thich Nhat Hanh put it this way:

“The Buddhist attitude is to take care of anger. We don’t suppress it. We don’t run away from it. We just breathe and hold our anger in our arms with utmost tenderness. Becoming angry at your anger only doubles it and makes you suffer more.

The important thing is to bring out the awareness of your anger to protect and sponsor it. Then the anger is no longer alone, it is with your mindfulness. Anger is like a closed flower in the morning. As the bright sun shines on the flower, the flower will bloom because the sunlight penetrates deep into the flower.

Mindfulness is like that. If you keep breathing and sponsoring your anger, mindfulness particles will infiltrate the anger. When sunshine penetrates a flower, the flower cannot resist. It is bound to open itself and reveal its heart to the sun. If you keep breathing on your anger, shining your compassion and understanding on it, your anger will soon crack and you will be able to look into its depths and see its roots.”

Patience is a virtue not to be overlooked. It’s a foundational virtue required at every step along the path to Freedom. And to work skillfully with anger, patience is essential. To stay composed, balanced, calm, and responsive, we need to learn to tolerate blame and criticism from others. We need to learn to sympathize not only with other people’s shortcomings but also our own. We need to learn to respect different viewpoints and opinions, and to take punches without the need to retaliate. We need to be able to remain open to and interested in life, in all its forms.

The Buddha sets a pretty high standard when he says, “Even if robbers and murderers saw through our limbs and joints, let us not give away to anger. Undisturbed shall our minds remain, with hearts full of love, free from any hidden malice, penetrating that person with loving thoughts; wide, deep, and boundless, freed from anger and hatred.”

Another antidote to anger and harsh speech is forgiveness. Forgiveness can clear away negative energy and open up space in our hearts. It allows us to transform our pain and anger into love. So, try to check in when you’re holding onto some anger. See if your heart is willing to forgive anyone, including yourself. And if it’s not, let your heart know that’s okay. Allow it to forgive whatever it’s willing to forgive, and then extend patience for what it is still working through.

Okay, one more thing I want to mention before we explore the final dimension of speech is that harsh speech encompasses not only what we say but also what we don’t say. Is there someone in your life or a group of people in your community getting bullied or being discriminated against who you could stand up for? Is there something you can say to someone that could potentially save them or another from harm? What aren’t you saying, and why? Remember, our silence can be just as harsh as our words.

And this is also true for parts of ourselves. Are there parts of you that you aren’t speaking up for? Are there parts of you that feel hurt, scared, and alone, parts of you that need to be voiced? Is there something you value or care about that you’re not speaking up for?

Okay, let’s move onto our final dimension of speech the Buddha asked us to investigate — wise & beneficial speech.

Beneficial Speech | Abstain From Idle & Frivolous Speech

“Avoid idle chatter and abstain from it. Speak at the right time, in accordance with facts, and only what is useful. Speak of the Dhamma and the discipline. Allow your speech to be like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense.” — The Buddha

When you consider the wisest people in your life, what distinguishes their speech from others’? I’ll bet you they don’t speak too often. But when they do, people listen. Why? Because people know that what they are about to say will carry depth, meaning, and purpose. Their words will be full of treasure.

On the other end of wise speech is what in Pali is called samphappalāpa, which means idle chatter and frivolous chit-chat. I love this word because it’s a great example of onomatopoeia — that is, it means what it sounds like. Here, our speech becomes pointless. It lacks purpose, meaning, and depth. And not only that, but it stirs up restlessness in the mind and distracts us from our most profound aims and intentions.

We see it very often in social situations. But it also makes an astonishing presence in our digital worlds, in our social media channels, news sources, and entertainment. If we’re not careful, samphappalāpa can flood our entire lives, washing them clean of purpose and meaning.

“I don’t know what your generation’s fascination is with documenting your every thought… but I can assure you, they’re not all diamonds. ‘Roman is having an OK day, and bought a Coke Zero at the gas station. Raise the roof.’ Who gives a rat’s ass?” — Easy A, the movie, Griffith

Do your best to avoid the incessant stream of needless information online. Limit your exposure to distracting entertainment, which leaves your mind passive, barren, and dull. Be sagacious about the social media and digital content you engage in and expose yourself to. And watch the company you keep.

Now, of course, our lives call for affectionate small talk with friends and family, and for polite conversations with acquaintances. But don’t let these conversations stray too far, where the restless mind grows hungry and desperate for something to feed on.

And again, don’t do all this because the Buddha said to, but do it to see for yourself whether it leads to more peace and satisfaction in your life. Do it to see if it keeps you on the path of freedom. Do it to see for yourself how idle and frivolous talk drain you of energy, how they bring nothing of value to your life, how they condition people to lose respect for and interest in your words.

Don’t you yourself hold in high regard those people whose speech is deep and full of meaning and utility? Be one of those people. How? With mindfulness. First, you have to be aware of the impulse to engage in samphappalāpa before you can refrain from it. So, start to open to this tendency within yourself. And make the commitment to refrain from it.

Practice putting it down when you see the impulse to say something completely useless. And see if this feels like a little victory. See if it provides more space and peace in the mind. See if people become more interested in what you have to say.

And if you are ever uncertain about whether to say something, just ask:

Are my words honest?
Are they from a place of goodwill?
Are they useful or beneficial?
Are they thoughtful and affectionate?
Is this the right time to say them?


Alright, well, though I could go on for some time about speech, I think this is a good place to wrap things up. So, in closing, let me just once again highlight that our aim here, with training in speech, is to find freedom from suffering. We want to live in harmony with the true nature of things, to be at peace with reality. We want to know our wholeness, to live from the completeness of our mind, body, and heart. We want to give expression to truth, beauty, and goodness, to live with loving-kindness, compassion, and joy. We want to align ourselves with the Dharma.

This requires us to become mindful of our speech. It requires an awareness of the impulse to speak, the motivation behind it, and an awareness of its delivery. It requires honesty, courtesy, care, and wisdom — an incredibly challenging task but one that is immensely rewarding.

When we are able to tune in to our speech, we begin to see the tremendous influence it has over our lives and sense of well-being, the influence it has over our bodies, over our emotional lives, over our beliefs, understanding, ideas, preferences and biases. When we tune into our speech, we begin to see more clearly our shackles and how to free ourselves from them.

May you embody lasting love and harmony. May you truly be at peace,

John Driggs | Meditation Teacher & Founder of The Space of Possibility Podcast, Blog, & Retreat Center | Explore & Expand the Space of Possibility that You are!

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