Years ago, when I began traveling the Buddha’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 energy 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 letter writing now equipped with the technological capability to churn out one quick email after another. Writer 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.
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