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How to Make the Buddhist 'Right Speech' a Daily Focus
"You can go first if you like."
Noble Eight-fold Path (Plus One)
When I was a therapist, I used to have a copy of the Eight-Fold Path on my desk to remind me of my positive focus for the day. The Eight-Fold Path is a principal teaching of the Buddha and helps in reducing suffering as well as creating goodwill.
As a psychotherapist, the Eight-Fold Path was very relevant to my work since I dealt with people and their suffering. When dealing with clients or staff, I found that 'Right Speech' was my biggest challenge. However, it was the one aspect of the Eight-Fold Path that reaped the most rewards for me. The Buddha referred to using Right Speech as walking in the noble spiritual path of truth and virtue. This noble path helps to create a healing and healthy environment.
After I retired as a therapist, and became a regular pedestrian, I continued to use the Eight-Fold Path in my everyday life and and daily interactions with people, especially being mindful of my words.
Right Speech Defined
Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter or gossip: This is called right speech. Source Samaññaphala Sutta.
"Hmm, I better not say that."
Being Mindful of All Communications
I recommend doing a little experiment to become more mindful of our daily verbal communications with people. Simply jot down all of your verbal interactions with others for one day or even just a half-day. This includes big interactions like speeches or leading a group discussion with co-workers right down to the little interactions with the cashier at the grocery or the neighbor who greets you. They will be numerous. I tried this experiment on a typical Monday. Here's a brief sample of my interactions:
- Talked to my girlfriend in the morning about a movie we had watched yesterday.
- Spoke to a doctor's assistant over the phone who reminded me of an appointment.
- Friendly acknowledgement of a neighbor as I was walking to my car.
- Small talk with the cashier at the gas station.
- Responded to a phone call from my daughter about recent events in her life and texted her back a few times that day.
- Friendly interactions with several yogis before and after a yoga session about a new yoga instructor.
- Interaction with a Trader Joe employee about a new gluten-free product.
- Annoying phone conversation with my mother about moving back to Philly.
All in all, I stopped counting at 75 interactions that day. I could have gone on further but I got the point. Most of my interactions were positive, but there were some that I could improve on. I was not only surprised with how many communications I had that day, but how my mood affected the quality of each one. I learned that if I was impatient or annoyed, it showed in my communication--but if I were relaxed and mindful, my interactions were more pleasant.
"Jeff can be funny first, then me."
Could I improve my interactions?
Could I have said something in a different way that might have been more effective and positive and made the person feel better?
Could I have told that person something true that would have put a smile on her face?
Could I have listened more, made better eye contact while the person was talking instead of being distracted?
Could I have thanked that person for helping me, even though I know it was her job?
Could I have said something nice to my girlfriend in the morning before she left for work to give her a positive start to the day?
Could I have been more skillful and less aggressive when I questioned the amount of my telephone bill with a customer service person?
Could I have used more endearing words when I talked to my daughter over the phone?
Could I have refrained from using profanity in describing a politician that I didn't care for?
"You didn't have to embarrass me."
Words Can Hurt
Sometimes our egos get in the way of Right Speech. When our ego is activated or when we feel insecure, we might act superior, so we put the other person down. We get angry or fearful so we make the other person feel bad or humiliated. We misinterpret a comment or an interaction so we gossip about the person as a type of revenge. We focus on a person's negative behavior so much that we become verbally abusive. We make up a story about what we did over the weekend to make us look good. We say something sexist or racist to a friend in private because we feel it's okay. We tell a joke that demeans a class of people because we think it's funny and so others will laugh.
Some of the time we don't think before we speak. We reason that we are just telling it like it is--we are just being honest. In fact, we are not being honest, we are being brutal. We say something in reaction to a difficult feeling or a grudge. Responding to others from a place of pain always has negative effects both on us and on others.
"Wouldn't it be better if the baby where in here instead of me?"
Buddha said there were four characteristics to Right Speech:
"Your words are always well spoken."
"Your words are always just and fair."
"Your words are always endearing."
"Your words always embody truth and wisdom."
(See the video below, The Power of Your Words)
Words Can Help
Instead of being deceitful, we can be more truthful and honest. Instead of grinding an ax with our brutal honesty, we can say what is true in a constructive way.
We can give complements and genuine words of encouragement and we can point out what the person is doing well.
Instead of using divisive language, we can use words that heal and bring people together.
Instead of using abusive speech, we can use calming or soothing language, polite, affectionate language. We can use speech that makes a person feel respected and appreciated.
Instead of spreading rumors and falsehoods, we can squash them and spread positive things about others.
Sometimes we don't realize that if we choose to, we can use our words to help rather than hurt. Somewhere inside ourselves, we know that our words have power to heal and to help others. If we just become more mindful with our words, and more skillful in the way we use them, we can bring about a positive change in our lives.
Make a Right Speech Intention
Those who do yoga or meditate or those who pray regularly, often create positive intentions for themselves. Intentions are plans. They believe if they have a positive thought or intention for that day, they will have a successful day and create goodwill. These intentions are typically narrowly defined goals, usually ongoing and to be implemented on a daily bases.
Have this intention for today: I will have Right Speech. I will remind myself throughout the day with a message to myself or with a 3x5 card in my pocket that I will look at periodically. I will try to maintain my good speech throughout the day--endearing, just and fair, well-spoken, and truthful. I will use Right Speech no matter what the situation is or who I am interacting with. I will maintain my Right Speech with those who I like and those who annoy, irritate and who I can barely tolerate. I will maintain my Right Speech with people who love me so not to take them for granted.
Sometimes it's Better Not to Say Anything
Right Speech Benefits Everyone
As you maintain your Right Speech during the course of the day, the week, your life--you will notice that your interactions go more smoothly, there is less drama, there is less things to worry about, and, perhaps, less headaches. There is more positive interactions with people, perhaps with people that once were your adversaries. People will want to talk to you; they might even seek you out. You will contribute to a healthier and more positive environment. In fact, your endearing, truthful, and well-spoken words will make life a better place for you and others.
Your well-spoken and skillful comments are welcome.