“I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve them of their suffering.”
This beautiful intention is one of the Buddhist Mindfulness Trainings and refers to something the Buddha called “Right Speech” – communicating in an honest, kind and calm way. It is a sentiment echoed in all the spiritual texts, and for good reason – it feels good for everyone.
But in an age where we now have multiple means through which to communicate with others, how often can we say that every word that we write, text or speak is grounded in the intention of bringing joy to the one on the receiving end? Answering for myself, I would say, not often. The busyness of life means that emails tend to be barked out rather than calmly curated, texts are chiefly emoticons, and daily tasks such as ordering a coffee have been distilled to “hi” swiftly followed by “Americano, no milk” to simply avoid holding up the line (and my day) by sharing pleasantries.
As for listening…I must confess I regularly skim-read emails, and can spend a significant amount of time thinking about my day, rather than listening to my partner as he tells me about his day. The practice of Right Speech, however, reminds us that our ability to communicate with others is a gift, and one with great power — we have a choice every time we communicate to bring happiness by deeply listening and by using our words with care.
Initially, this may sound simple — we’ll just go around complimenting others and asking strangers how they are, and telling our friends we love them, right? But once we start to place awareness on how we connect, deeper questions start to arise. We become more discerning. Is what we are saying true? Are we exaggerating? Are we seeking approval? Do our words come from a place of judgment? Why aren’t we able to listen? Through practicing Right Speech we naturally end up contemplating our underlying thoughts, and that leads to the practice of Right Thinking – another of Buddha’s teachings on the eightfold path. Here are three useful approaches for embracing Right Speech.
1. “Think” before speaking
Before speaking, it can be useful to remember to think: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests taping an inspiring note to our phone to remind us to speak kindly and peacefully before we pick up or make a call, such as the beautiful gatha: “Words can travel thousands of miles. May my words create mutual understanding and love, may they be as beautiful as gems, as lovely as flowers.” We could treat emails and texts the same way.
The easiest way to know what to say is to listen to what the person we are communicating with is telling us. It can be helpful to ask ourselves in every conversation, “what would this person have me hear?” And, if we’re really committed, in those excruciating moments when we may be hearing things we don’t like, we can practice taking a deep breath, leaning in and bravely requesting: “Tell me more….”
3. Spend time in silence
Spending time in silence is a beautiful way to undo the habits of mindless talking, and it can be surprising to discover how much more relaxing the world is when we don’t feel obligated to comment on it.
A practice of regular periods of silence, even just 15 minutes a day with no distractions, helps the mind be still. That leaves us more room to be able to hear our inner guidance. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If we listen out of the silence of our mind, every bird’s song and every whistling of the pine trees in the wind will speak to us. In the Sukhavati Sutra, [for example], it is said that every time the wind blows through the jeweled trees, a miracle is produced, [and] if we listen carefully to that sound, we will hear the Buddha teaching…”
Illustration: Marie Guillard