Years ago, when I first began studying Buddhism and practicing meditation, I took particular notice of the aspect of “right speech” in the Noble Eightfold Path. I have felt great freedom and affirmation, as well as pain and suffering in the words uttered by others – and sometimes in the words I utter. I like this summary and assessment of right speech:
The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary. (http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/eightfoldpath.html)
I’ve made significant effort over the years to be more mindful of what I say and how I say it. Occasionally I slip up out of anger or carelessness, but the practice of right speech has become a very important part of my interactions with others. Right speech is more than not lying or gossiping. We should develop mindfulness about how our words can potentially do harm to others. In a twist on the Golden Rule, I recommend speaking to others as you would like to be spoken to. We can still be authentic and truthful without being harmful.
As I’ve paid closer attention to my own words, I’ve noticed that the rest of the world is becoming increasingly careless. The sense of distance and relative anonymity of the digital/social media sphere seems to encourage more people to let their inner snark out. We are seeing fewer thoughtful responses to hot button topics, as people are more inclined to hit send before their internal editor gives them pause. People dash off nastygrams on email or text without thinking twice. Or conversely, they may construct devastating critiques via electronic communication because they don’t have to actually face the recipient and absorb their reaction.
Words can destroy people. Think of how many people are in therapy because of some verbal rockets launched at them by their own parents, telling them they were not good enough in one way or another. Our emotional mind, which is highly influenced by suggestion, operates at the level of a 3 or 4 year old. Tell a small child that they are bad, they will quickly believe and trust your words. Even as people age and their rational mind develops, the emotional part of the mind will still hold onto those early beliefs.
I’ve started making it a policy that if I receive an email or text directed at me in any kind of hostile way, I respond on the phone or in person. My tendency in the past was to just fire back a response, since I can construct a pretty good rebuttal. However, it usually just leads to more of the same. I received an email the other night that angered me because the sender made the assumption/accusation that I did something I in fact did not do. I decided to sleep on it and the next day, dealt with it non-confrontationally over the phone. Not responding in kind allowed me to see that this person is either unaware or doesn’t care how he comes across to others. Responding similarly would just give that person what he subconsciously wants, which is to feed off the energy associated with an emotional response. I can’t change the way this person behaves, but I can change how I choose to respond.
I saw a recent editorial (can’t remember where, so if anyone has the link, please post it here!) on the prevalence of the phrase “just sayin'” and how it allows people to deliver criticism and judgment without actually acknowledging any responsibility for their words. Now we can use language to let ourselves off the hook, but the barb still remains embedded in the other.
(Photo credit: TarahDawdy on Flickr)