When we want our kids to express themselves in ways other than tantrumming or throwing peas at the dog, we say “Use your words.” But I often wonder, do adults really know how to use our words skillfully, in ways that help and don’t harm?
This morning I was on a train listening to a mother talking to her young son. The mother’s words were unkind and deliberately hurtful, in a way that demonstrated their damage instantaneously. Yesterday I worked with a couple who came to see me to learn how to communicate better. For an hour, I listened to both of them using their words to criticize and humiliate each other. Last week I said something to a friend that was not helpful for our relationship and not skillful in terms of expressing myself in a way that she could hear. Add to all that, I just received an unsupportive email from a family member telling me all the reasons why I was wrong (and he was right) about something we had discussed.
It’s been a week of thinking about words, those spoken as well as those left unspoken. We’ve all had the experience of saying something and wishing we hadn’t. And, we all know that once we do say something out loud to someone, we can never really take it back. In Buddhism, there’s an important practice called “Right Speech.” Right speech is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, the fundamental, eight-part instruction manual for ending our suffering. According to the Buddha, our own wellbeing is built upon the practice of not lying, not slandering, not using unkind or abusive language, and not gossiping. In order to end our own suffering, we’re taught to speak truthfully and use words to promote harmony and understanding, reduce anger, and most of all, be helpful.
Sometimes I read the Buddha’s words on words and think about how radically different our world would be if more people practiced his version of right speech, as a path to happiness. We’re living in a time when communication is constant and words are cheap; we throw our words around on social media and the like as if they hold no consequences and are without any real or lasting impact on those who receive them, and our world. Because we don’t have to witness or hear the impact of our words online or via text, we’ve forgotten (or are purposing ignoring) the effects of the words we choose to put into our world.
As we age, our relationship with words and speech changes. When we’re young we tend to believe that what we have to say is extraordinary, original, and right in some overarching, universal way. We have a strong need to be known and recognized, to establish who we are. It feels important thus to have our words heard and to use our words to correct any wrongs we encounter. Our words are representations of our self; without them, we don’t feel we exist.
But as we evolve and hopefully a bit of humility sets in, we often realize how little we actually know, how much less we have to say than we thought. And, how much has already been said by those before us. So too, we recognize how many versions of “right” actually exist—in addition to our own. If we’re lucky, we start to lose the sense of awe we have for our own words. Furthermore, we come to understand how powerful our words actually are, how deeply the words we choose impact our relationships and our own wellbeing. If we’re paying attention, we assume a greater sense of responsibility for the words we put into the world.
In my own life, I’ve been actively paying attention to and practicing (or doing my best to practice) right speech for some time now. I do this in many ways but three in particular stand out.
First, I consciously try to use my words to provide support and encouragement. Before speaking, I think about how my words can point the other person towards something positive in themselves, something they do well or that might feel helpful. I see my words as having the potential and purpose to remind another person of their own goodness and possibility.
Second, I choose to relieve my words of the burden of having to perfectly and completely capture my actual experience. Words are powerful and at the same time layers of experience exist that are not conveyable or formulate-able with words. And so, rather than demanding that my words be absolute representations of my experience, and furthermore that I be understood by others, completely, through my words, I now accept that some of what we live internally is simply is not language-able…and that’s okay. It has to be okay because it is.
Finally, I used to believe that when my partner said something I disagreed with, it was my responsibility to explain why he was wrong. I felt I had to engage with and correct the wrongs I perceived.
Right or mindful speech, blessedly, has taught me how to say less not more. I now practice restraint of pen, tongue and thumb. Not speaking, writing or texting when I feel bothered or perceive a wrong, has in fact been most significant in my practice because of how directly and deeply I feel its results, both in myself and in my relationships. It turns out that silence, particularly at the times when I most want to use a lot of words, is in fact more powerful than anything I could say. Saying nothing says a lot.
Practicing right speech, I see that when my partner says something I don’t agree with, remarkably, I don’t have to say anything at all. I can leave anything and everything just as it is. I don’t need to change anyone else’s ideas to own my own ideas; my truth does not depend on adjusting anyone else’s truth. My partner and everyone else can have their experience and I can have my own, simultaneously. If it’s something that we need to find consensus on, perhaps something about the kids, I can also choose to press the pause button when I hear something that feels very wrong. I can say nothing in the moment and take time to think about what I want to say, if anything, and how to say it in a way that can be helpful to the situation and that the other person can hear. I have learned, in fact, that I have all sorts of choices in how to employ the power of speech.
I have discovered that relationships run far more smoothly when I take the path of saying less not more, and even nothing at all sometimes. And, that the peace I’m trying to create through words, the peace that is always my end goal, is paradoxically maintained through the absence of words. It feels miraculous every time I say nothing and simply let go without a response or reaction, other than silence. This, for me, is emotional freedom. Many moons ago, Mahatma Ghandi beautifully used his words to say this: “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” And I would add, before using our words, we can ask, will these words help or harm?