“Think you’re getting closer to enlightenment? Try spending a week with your parents,” writes Zen monk Shozan Jack Haubner in the September 2011 issue of The Sun Magazine. The practice of Right Speech is to speak in a way that is kind, true, and necessary, internally inquiring about the presence of each of the three aspects before we say anything. It is recommended, that if what we are about to say is true and is necessary, but certainly is not kind, that we do not speak at that moment, but wait until we could phrase and tone our words in a kind manner.
My teacher Jaya Devi often spoke about the “breath of hesitation,” that before we speak, before we react, to take a breath. I sometimes think of this as a one-breath meditation, that brings me back to myself, to my highest intentions of reducing harm and creating harmony in the world, and reminds me of my connection to others. This can be especially helpful if tensions run high over the holidays, to engage a stealth one-breath meditation, to create spaciousness within that can then be conveyed to the auntie or young cousin that we are engaging with. As I wrote about in the first article in this series on Right View, much can be triggered when we go home for the holidays, or when we are invited into the familial home of a new partner, old friend, or more distant relative. The familiar smells, the furniture arrangement, the dishware, the traditional foods, the sensory input can transport us back decades, with all of the feelings, emotions, judgments, and fears of that time in our lives. Haubner’s 104-year-old Japanese Zen master explains practice thus: “Being Buddhist monk means you look at others, you see yourself.” Or as Julia Butterfly Hill said, whenever you point a finger, you have three fingers pointed back at you. This hesitation allows time for you to observe what is coming up within you, elicited from the behavior or words of another, and using a single breath as an opportunity to practice.
The Buddha recommended to abstain from speech that is false, slanderous, harsh, or “idle chatter.” There is a commitment to only speak that which we know is true for a fact, not a speculation we’ve heard on the radio, not a rumor that Uncle Rich told Grandma Rosa about Cousin Sonny that Grandma now is reporting to be true about Sonny. The understanding here is that false speech inevitably creates harm, and under our practice of Right View and Right Intention, we commit to cause the least harm possible.
The practice to abstain from slander-to not speak in a way that could bring about disunity or disharmony, or create distrust or hatred. This can be important when there are political differences within a family, judgment based on one’s livelihood, or when there has been a divorce or harm caused in the family where people have chosen sides. To not gossip allows for authentic connection, rather than making up one’s mind about something before a given encounter.
To abstain from harsh speech is a commitment to not speak out of anger, to not let yourself get caught in a potential yelling match, to only speak when one is calm and collected. This is not to vilify the emotion of anger, for it is quite important as it tells us that something is wrong, and that something must change. However, if we speak with that enflamed energy of anger, the wisdom of our words will not be heard. It has been studied that we pick up on body language and tone long before the content of one’s words, so this commitment is not only kind to our loved ones, but ensures that our own wisdom, sometimes gathered through the rapture of anger, will be heard and be able to be absorbed once the flame has dissipated.
The Buddha labeled idle chatter as anything that lacks substance, that is speech to just fill space, or out of boredom. He recommended, rather than filling that space when no one speaks for minutes upon minutes at the breakfast table, to use those moments to practice mindfulness, to know the moment, the temperature of the room, the contours on your sister’s face, the emotions in your own heart. Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein uses the acronym WAIT—”Why am I Talking?” to inquire for herself if her words are idle chatter. The Quakers recommended to ask yourself, “Is what I am about to say an improvement on silence?”
The practice of Right Speech is not only about talking, but about listening as well, an essential component of effective and compassionate communication. This means being present to what a loved one is saying, to allow their feelings and perspectives into your awareness before preparing your own retort or remarks. There probably something about their experience or history that leads them to act and speak the way they do, and listening is an opportunity to build understanding. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Engaged listening involves delving deeper into understanding the speaker, asking questions for clarification or intimacy, before presenting your own feelings or connecting their words to your own experience. When we become good listeners, we are understood to be trustworthy, compassionate, and wise, without saying a thing.
If we take the time to practice Right Speech over the holidays, we can prevent unnecessary conflicts, create more connection and intimacy, and be understood and understanding. May we live into the advice of the Buddha, creating harmony and connection in our homes, neighborhoods, and beyond, a courageous and important act during this fractured time.