I recently attended a fabulous day of meditation led by Noah Levine, founder of Dharma Punx www.dharmapunx.com. He came to discuss a subject called Right Speech, one that I, personally find challenging to honor. As what often occurs in a retreat, the teachings come in a timely manner. I have made numerous attempts over the years to commit to Right Speech, and like a game of ping pong, some seemingly harmless conversation about another person rallies me back to paddle the ball. Sitting there in lotus, I was flooded with the many ways in which I participate in what I will call ‘not so right’ speech.
Let me first say that my understanding of Right Speech is as follows:
1. Abstain from false speech; do not tell lies or deceive.
2. Do not speak of others with the intent of causing disharmony.
3. Abstain from rude, impolite or abusive language.
4. Do not indulge in idle talk or gossip.
In positive terms, Right Speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, and comforting. It means to speak from the heart, and avoid gossip both negative and positive. Unless the intention is for healing, this means not talking about people or talking behind their backs, but speaking directly to them. If you are irritated or having a problem with someone or even when you have something positive to express, the practice is to speak directly with the person involved, not to someone else. You might ask, “What for?” or “What might there be left to talk about?” When my husband hears people (mostly me) gossiping, he has been known to recite an Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” That is certainly one way of nipping it in the bud.
I am blessed to be a part of an extraordinary community of people who have committed their lives to working on behalf of healing – both individually and as a planet. This includes all of the beings. Through Council, and other indigenous ways, these gatherings invite and welcome all the members of the community – including the ancestors and the Spirit world, the trees and animals, the stones and elementals. We come together with the soul purpose of healing. Right Speech is at the heart of this sacred family.
In the center of this community is Deena Metzger, a wise elder, and teacher to many. She once said to me when I was leaving our first meeting, “Good, today I have done no harm.” I fell head over heels in love with her right there on the spot. I began to look at every encounter – whether it be sitting with a client, being with a family member, friend, or someone I’ve just met, with that same question. Have I participated in this exchange without doing harm? Recently during Council she mentioned it is not enough to live by the code of doing no harm. That we must live according to what she calls, “The code of Benefits.” With regards to right action, she says, “the way to measure whether it is beneficial: if no clear benefit is visible, don’t do it!” Right Speech is paramount to this practice. I do aspire to live by the code of Benefits.
What codes do you aspire to live by?
Last year I watched the movie Julie and Julia with Meryl Streep. A question posed itself from the film. What would your life look like, if for one year, you committed daily to something meaningful? I was so aroused by this question, wondering who might I become in the face a commitment like that? Like an excited puppy dog, I began talking about this with my people. What could I commit to for one year – wag, wag? First I thought, I’ll commit to not getting angry. Impossible, laughable! Then, I thought, I’ll commit to hiking in the mountains and meditating each day. Weather not permitting, family life, and my inner sloth interfered just seven weeks into it. Then I settled with, if I hike two days a week in the mountains, it would be beneficial. I decided that the emerging question would make itself visible when the time was right. There on the cushion that question paid me a visit.
Could I possibly commit to practicing Right Speech every day for one year? Since then, I have entered into an inner dialogue…
Q. What happens when I participate in wrong speech?
A. Well like the teachings of meditation, I could compassionately bring my attention to the present moment, pay attention, and begin again.
Q. How do I prepare for this commitment to Right Speech with something more than good intentions?
A. Knowing intimately the habitual ways I participate in wrong speech seems to be a beginning. Being tired, under the weather, impatient, ungrounded, disconnected, and mad are a few of the hooks (see my last blog – How do you unhook?) that call me in to wrong speech. For example, disconnection from my own source has a tendency to lend itself to talking about others in order to feel connection. When I do fall off the wagon, see it as an opportunity to bring mindfulness to the moment and see the underlying cause – the need for deeper connection.
Q. How do I practice Right Speech and stay connected to others when gossip or any other ‘not so right speech’ is the common song?
A. Let those around me know of my commitment – say, for example, in a blog??? For those who don’t know of my commitment, mention it at that moment.
I am reminded over and over again that our speech is not just ours alone. Communication is something that happens between people. You might think of speech as something we give to others, like a gift or a dagger of poison, and if we think of it that way, what is the quality of that encounter? Mindfulness includes a moment to moment awareness of what’s going on inside ourselves. If we aren’t paying attention to our own emotions and taking care of ourselves, tension and suffering build up. And like a rebel, wrong speech can override even the best of intentions.
What does this Dharma Punk know about living mindfully? It seems a lot! He posed the question to the group, “What do you know?” What I do know is that the importance of speech in the context of our lives is apparent: words can break your heart or save your life, make an enemy or a friend, start war or create peace. I bare witness to many people who suffer from something unkind a loved one, co –worker, or even a stranger on the street has said to them. But equally important, I can think of many times where someone’s words offered comfort and healing. I know that even if you can’t feel it at the time, engaging in wrong speech creates further suffering. I know that Right Speech includes much more than the words we use – facial expressions, tones, and body posture can make or break a deal. That the animals and the plants speak directly to one another and we could learn a lot by following in their examples. If only we could all be more conscious of our speech what might our world look like? If only…
So how about it? Are you willing to pay close attention to what you say — and to why you say it? Are you willing to join me by committing to one day without talking about another person? To speaking from your heart? If that proves successful, why not try committing to two days, or a week? Who knows, maybe together, we can discover the ripple effect of freedom and fertility that Right Speech brings to our lives.