I find speech to be a very rich area of practice. Observing the ways in which we speak can be a guide to observing what is going on in our minds. What comes out of our mouths may be quite different from what we want to come out, or may be very different from what we think is coming out. We can use awareness of speech as a guide to the inner life, as a vehicle leading to self-understanding. It is also an essential area in which to express harmlessness. In the Buddha’s discourses there are four guidelines that relate to the awareness of wise speech. These are: speech that is truthful, unifying, kind and useful.
The first guideline is speaking truthfully; saying that which is true, accurate and direct. With the commitment to try to speak truthfully, the mind is quieter, softer, more open and at ease, and naturally more harmonious. Remorse, confusion and complications are often the results when we don’t tell the truth. We may lie because of fear, anger, self-protection or desire, and because of insecurity and wanting to be seen in a certain way. We may notice that we often exaggerate or understate. We can look directly at the lack of confidence and the desire to feel full, and attend to the insecurity itself. In dharma practice we make a commitment to seeing the truth in all ways, and truthfulness of speech is a way of expressing that commitment. In dharma practice we make a commitment to non-harmful action; speaking truthfully allows for trust.
The second guideline is speaking in a way that unifies and brings people together. This expresses itself by trying to refrain from divisive speech—undermining, fault finding, and malicious gossip. When we speak in an unkind way we may notice the judgmental mind. We may become aware of how contracted the mind is through resentment and self-righteousness. We may find that we speak in divisive ways because of a yearning for intimacy and alignment with others, and find that the consequence is further alienation. When we speak in a divisive way we lose ourselves, because we are out of harmony with our true nature. In refraining from divisive speech we may be giving others the space and acceptance that we want for ourselves. In this way our speech becomes a vehicle for discovering more compassionate connection to ourselves and others.
Refraining from divisive speech does not mean compliance with that which is inappropriate or unskillful. It does not mean suspending discernment. Sometimes in spiritual communities this particular aspect of wise speech is misunderstood and used in a conspiracy of silence. An important aspect of this guideline is to speak when something needs to be said, and to challenge what needs to be challenged. But checking our intention is helpful: ”Do l just want to vent, or do I want to learn?”
The third guideline is kind or gentle speech versus harsh, arrogant, or cruel speech. A way of observing harsh speech is to notice the tone of what is said rather than the content. Many times we can see that the source of harsh speech has to do with impatience, this feeling of “I want something different to be happening than the way it is” or, “I want you to be different than the way you are.” Noticing the edge in the voice is useful. Perhaps there is aversion or annoyance, maybe some self-righteousness mixed up in it too, and it rubs up against this “I wantness” that we have. We may notice that the impact of sarcastic, abusive or scolding speech is that it pushes people away. Aldous Huxley came to a realization before he died that all of spiritual practice is learning to be kind to one another. And, of course, learning to be kind to ourselves as well. It is all linked. One can’t be kind to another without being kind to oneself, and one can’t really be kind to oneself without being kind to others. There is a unity here, and paying attention to speech is honoring that unity.
The fourth guideline has to do with speech that is useful rather than speech that is really just a waste of energy. This aspect has very much to do with intention rather than content. One discovery that one makes on retreat is how much energy is used in speaking. Speaking hides boredom, loneliness, restlessness and fear. Can we notice when we are chattering on and on: Why are we chattering? What’s going on inside? What is the reason for it? Perhaps we can attend directly to the loneliness, restlessness or boredom. Much of speech in our culture today is not so useful and deflects from real communication. When we attend to this area we may see how habitual our speaking often is.
At times something comes out of our mouths; we don’t know how, we wish it hadn’t come out, and yet there it is and it has an impact and causes a great deal of suffering. To bring compassion and gentleness into this whole area is essential if we are going to learn from it. The practice of wise speech has nothing to do with repression. It does have much to do with exercising restraint from speaking out of habit and in a harmful way. This kind of practice leads to a deeper level of inner freedom.