August 12, 2010

Skillful Speech

By working with the lay precept on speech, we can learn to say the right thing at the right time.

Years
ago, when I began traveling the &;s path, I was surprised by the
emphasis placed on the practice of skillful speech. The Buddha
considered the way we communicate with each other to be so important
that he taught the practice of skillful speech alongside such lofty
teachings as skillful view, thinking, action, and mindfulness as a
pillar of the Ennobling Eightfold Way.

The
Buddha saw that we are always engaged in relationships, starting with
that most significant relationship: the one with ourselves. On the
cushion we notice how we speak to ourselves&;sometimes with compassion,
sometimes with judgment or impatience. Our words are a powerful medium
with which we can bring happiness or cause suffering.

Skillful
speech begins by refraining from lying, slander, profanity, and harsh
language. We should avoid language that is rude, abusive, disagreeable,
or malicious, and we should abstain from talk that is foolish, idle,
babble, or gossip. What remains are words that are truthful, kind,
gentle, useful, and meaningful. Our speech will comfort, uplift, and
inspire, and we will be a joy to those around us.


The
pillar of skillful speech is to speak honestly, which means that we
should even avoid telling little white lies. We need to be aware of
dishonesty in the forms of exaggerating, minimizing, and
self-aggrandizing. These forms of unskillful speech often arise from a
fear that what we are is not good enough––and that is never true.
Honesty begins at home, so the practice of skillful speech begins with
being honest with ourselves.
The
Buddha cautioned against gossip because he saw the suffering that this
kind of unskillful speech causes. There is an old Hasidic tale of a
villager who was feeling remorse for the harm his gossip had caused his
neighbor. He went to his rabbi to seek advice. The rabbi suggested that
he go to town and buy a chicken and bring it back to him, and that on
the way back he pluck it completely. When the man returned with the
featherless chicken, the rabbi told him to retrace his steps and gather
every one of the scattered feathers. The man replied that it would be
impossible; by now the feathers were probably blown throughout the
neighboring villages. The rabbi nodded in agreement, and the man
understood: we can never really take back our words. As the Zen poet
Basho wrote:

The temple bell stops but the sound keeps coming out of the flowers.

Gossip
is defined as speaking about someone who is not physically present. It
doesn’t matter whether what is said is positive or negative. If the
person is not there, it is gossip. If we have to speak about someone who
is not present, we should speak of them as if they were there. An
exercise that I do once or twice a year is to designate a specific
period of time—a week or a month—when I do not speak about anyone who is
not present. I find that my voice gets quite a rest, and the part of my
ego that believes I do not gossip gets quite a jolt. Every time I do
the exercise I find that the effects of this awareness practice are with
me for weeks, and even months, afterward. When I start to speak about
someone, a little reminder beeps in my mind: “Don’t gossip.&;

A
word about teasing—don’t! Teasing is always at someone’s expense and
often hurts more than the person being teased lets on. Simply stated,
teasing causes suffering. The same used to create a tease can be
used to create an honest compliment.

Skillful
speech has a communicative partner called deep listening. No matter how
unskillful their speech, people are often trying to communicate
something hidden beneath their words. What does “Daddy, I hate you!”
really mean from a child in the midst of a temper tantrum? What does
“Now that you’re dating Robert, you have no time for me” mean from an
old friend? These angry comments express a desire for more attention.
When we listen deeply, taking time to breathe, we can avoid a
conditioned reaction that could cause suffering and instead respond
compassionately to what is beneath the harsh words. We can comfort our
child with our love or assure our friend that she is important to us and
that we will try to spend more time with her.

At
times noble silence is the most skillful speech. For several years I
facilitated a weekly sangha. The sangha rules were that no one commented
on anything that was said by another member during the discussion
period. We didn’t even say, “I agree with Bob,” or “My sister went
through the same thing.” All we did was listen. Over time, we realized
how often our minds were busy preparing a response when we thought we
were actually listening. Knowing that we would not respond dramatically
changed the way we listened.

One
evening a young woman joined us, and during the discussion period she
shared with the group that she had just lost her 37-year-old husband to
cancer. Over the ensuing weeks, when she spoke we often could not
understand her words through her heavy sobbing. Sometimes our eyes also
filled with tears as we listened but did not comment. To witness a
person pouring her heart out and going through such suffering while
feeling as if we were offering her nothing felt strange.

Then
one day she told us that she had left her various support groups
because she was receiving exactly what she needed from our sangha. We
were allowing her to experience and express her pain without judging or
offering quick fixes. We were present for her, bearing witness to her
sorrow, holding her in silent compassion. Being truly present for
another is the greatest gift we can offer. Sometimes people need to be
sad, and noble silence can be truly ennobling.

When
we consider skillful speech today, we must also consider a phenomenon
that did not exist in the time of the Buddha: email. With the popularity
of the telephone, we became a people that, for the most part, abandoned
the practice of letter writing. What a perfect recipe for unskillful
speech: a people long unpracticed at thoughtful letterwriting now
equipped with the technological capability to churn out one quick email
after another. beware!

The
most important step in developing skillful speech is to think before
speaking (or writing). This is called mindfulness of speech. Few things
can improve the nature of our relationships as much as the development
of skillful speech. Silence offers us, and those around us, the
spaciousness we need to speak more skillfully. When we speak with
greater skill, our true self––our compassionate, loving self––emerges
with gentle ease. So before you speak, stop, breathe, and consider if
what you are about to say will improve upon the silence. â–¼


Allan Lokos
is an Interfaith minister, meditation teacher, and
author. He is the co-founder and director of the Community of Peace and
Spirituality and the founder and guiding teacher of the Community
Meditation Center in .