This article appeared in Lion's Roar magazine on March 30, 2023 (link).
Do you have something you want to say? Nikki Mirghafori on the questions to ask yourself.
Speech is powerful. Our words shape our minds, paving the path toward freedom or cementing habitual patterns of suffering.
A crucial part of our practice, speech is something we can engage with even on days when we cannot sit in formal meditation. Our practice with speech includes the words that we direct to ourselves (perhaps with an unkindness we’d never use with others) and the words that we write in texts and emails and on social media—words that fashion our karma and our world with such tremendous speed.
The Buddha taught both what to avoid and to cultivate. Right speech is abstaining from lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter. The five guidelines for well-spoken speech are: Is it timely, true, gentle, beneficial, and spoken with a mind of good-will? He gave additional consideration for speaking what is disagreeable. Beyond making sure that what we say is true and beneficial, we still must wait—out of compassion—for the appropriate time to say it.
To practice right speech, we first make an intentional commitment to the Buddha’s guidelines, both because following them has a beneficial impact on others and because they provide us with an ethical scaffold to purify our minds and actions. Then we take a breath, rest in the body, and become aware of our intentions, state of mind, and body.
If we’re moved to lie, gossip, or speak harshly, we inquire: Am I stressed? Am I motivated by greed, ill-will, desire for recognition, or fear of rejection? We reestablish our grounding through pausing and contemplating the detriments of wrong speech, then we actively reengage with wise intention and benevolence.
Let us consider each guideline:
IS IT TRUE AND FACTUAL?
The commitment to truthfulness for the purification of one’s heart-mind is so paramount that a bodhisattva’s vow to speak the truth is the sole unbreakable moral precept. Falsehoods erode trust, which is a pillar of any relationship.
The Buddha warns that one danger in telling a deliberate lie is that it’s a slippery slope to further unethical behavior. Research confirms this. In a 2016 study published in Nature Neuroscience, Tali Sharot and colleagues observed that when participants started to tell small lies, their amygdala became activated, prompting discomfort with their indiscretion. As the dishonesty snowballed, the amygdala reduced its activity, deadening the participants’ sensitivity to ethical breaches. The stunning and, perhaps, unsurprising conclusion is that our everyday actions change our physiology to be a more or less trustworthy compass.
The consideration of what is factual is an important nuance. The truth isn’t “personal,” true only because of our feelings and perceptions. It must be objectively supported.
DOES IT CREATE HARMONY?
The Buddha guides us “not to tell there what we one has heard here,” and “not to break people apart.” Slanderous and divisive speech is based on hatred and ill-will, enmeshed with resentment, envy, and the intention to hurt another and win respect and support for ourselves. Involving forethought, it carries a doubly heavy karma.
Beyond avoiding divisive speech, the Buddha recommends speech that actually creates social harmony. Our speech should reconcile those who have broken apart and cement those who are united. We should delight in concord.
IS IT GENTLE?
Speech spoken in anger, with mean sarcasm, or with the intention to rebuke, demean, insult, or cause pain has aversion as its root. It’s often impulsive and therefore bears a lighter karmic weight than slander, but the Buddha still instructs us to abandon it. The antidote for this kind of speech is patience.
Where speaking wisely is impossible, our secondary goal becomes to cause the least harm. Cultivating the wholesome, the Buddha directs us to “speak words that are soothing to the ear, affectionate, go to the heart, polite, likable, and agreeable to the people.”
IS IT BENEFICIAL?
For monastics, any talk not associated with the dharma and the goal of the liberation is considered samphappalapa, a Pali onomatopoeia meaning idle chatter. As lay practitioners, we abide by a different standard as we engage in social conversations to build relationships. Still, it behooves us to be mindful of how we feed our mind: what we say and our media contribution and consumption habits. Are we rushing to fill an uncomfortable silence? Are we indulging in drama, getting riled up with our self-sense? Such engagements threaten to dull our spiritual sensitivities. A great acronym, from Jonathan Foust, is WAIT: “Why Am I Talking?” The Buddha instructs us to speak “words worth treasuring” that are of benefit and in service of goodness.
AM I SPEAKING WITH A MIND OF GOODWILL?
This guideline is often expressed in shorthand as “is it kind?” While uttering kind words is a great start, a more holistic training is to imbue our mind-heart with metta, loving-kindness. Summoning our goodwill before we speak can minimize the agitation of remorse and regret later.
IS THIS THE RIGHT TIME?
Even after meeting all the other guidelines, we still must wait for the right time to speak, especially if our words are difficult for the hearer. For example, we may need to have a serious conversation with a friend about our relationship. What we intend to say is factual, likely to increase harmony, gentle, and beneficial, and it will be spoken with a mind of goodwill. But if our friend is sick, it’s not the right time to burden them, regardless of our desire to get the matter off our chest.
Sometimes it’s wisest to stay silent, especially in lieu of idle chatter. But lies of omission can also be committed by failing to speak. Silence isn’t always wise speech, especially in the face of injustice. Speech is a profound mirror to hold up. Let us ask ourselves: Does my speech reflect the person I think I am, or aspire to be, for the sake of myself, others, and the world?