At first when I set out to write about Right Speech, I thought it was a little strange since we are all social distancing and isolating at the moment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But really, this may be one of the most important times to think about our speech, for several reasons.
For one, we should remember that hard times are a call to action. There are so many tragedies happening during this crisis – the loss of life foremost among them, of course. But also those around them, the permanent health issues of the survivors, the crushing medical bills, the plight of the poor whose livelihoods have been affected, and the sheer anxieties arising from the stress, worry, and isolation. Human instinct is to huddle together in times of trouble but this is the one thing we cannot do in this case. So, particularly now, we are all in need of great compassion – receiving, but also the great gift that comes with its giving.
Secondly, since we are all interacting in person less, those fewer interactions have increased in their importance and impact to ourselves and those around us. One bad interaction is now a greater percentage of all interactions we experience.
Masks are important but they hide one of the most important signs we give others of loving-kindness; the smile. So, we should be more expressive in our body language and words to convey empathy, and that takes mindful intention and presence. Oddly, I have noticed when everyone is wearing masks and social distancing, it almost creates a kind of impetus to look down and avoid – as if my subconscious thinks the virus could be transmitted from across the street by communication alone. If we must distance, let us be with friendly nods and waves. These are safe.
And the third reason this is a particularly important time to think about Right Speech is because so much of our communication is virtual and online now. Of course, the principles of Right Speech apply to our digital speech and writing as well. But the internet has a number of effects on our communication. Emails and texts strip away body language and tone, and can be misinterpreted easily. This requires mindful effort to compensate to add extra language that conveys the same feeling we would have communicated nonverbally.
Also, the distance and anonymity (or the sensation of anonymity) dampense our natural concerns and filters. People say things to one another they never would in person – or say them in ways they never would. This also requires mindfulness and intentional awareness to maintain the kind of person we want to be online as well. These have been concerns for a long time, but now they are magnified by the increase of volume of these kinds of interactions.
What is Right Speech?
What do I mean by Right Speech? I am capitalizing it and using this specific phrase because I am a Buddhist, but the principles behind it are universal and applicable to anyone of any belief or practice.
In Buddhism, Right Speech is the third of eight practices called the Noble Eight-Fold Path. It comes from the Pali Canon, Majjhima Nikaya 44, but its contents are found in many places other throughout too. The practices are an early outline of the path to addressing human ‘wandering’ and its resulting suffering.
The eight points are: Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Each of these have deeper meaning than their name suggests, but are out of my scope here.
“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”
(trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
By this principle, speech should be: true, affectionate, polite, non-divisive, beneficial, and given in the proper timing, when it will be best received. But as with all simplified lists, we must weigh all of these with wisdom, as any taken alone or to a simplistic extreme can be misguided.
So it is also important to understand what Right Speech is not. When people misunderstand what is meant by Right Speech, it can lead to criticism and rejection of a ‘straw man’.
Right Speech is not avoidance: Sometimes there are issues that need to be discussed for reasonable, fair, or even compassionate reasons. Sometimes they may be uncomfortable, or cause either conversant to feel badly. But when there is virtuous cause and compassionate motivation for discussing something, Right Speech does not imply we avoid the topic simply because it will be unpleasant for someone. But we must be sure the cause really is pure. We often, in our anger, hurt, or indignance, convince ourselves that something needs to be said that really doesn’t. Consider love for everyone involved and you can see if an uncomfortable topic needs to be addressed. If so, you will then have the disposition to address it the most effective ways.
Right Speech is not reluctance to say what should be said: Sometimes virtue, duty, or compassion demand that we act to defend the innocent or stop the acts of others who are causing suffering. These can be moments of high conflict. Often, bold and direct speech is necessary to reveal and correct the issues or people involved. However, even when a wise and loving person must engage in high conflict, they do so without need of anger or hate. They say what needs to be said, even if it needs to be strong – but with a clear intention of compassion for others, instead of reacting to hate against others.
Right Speech is not merely that which is true: In our modern world, truth and “saying it how it is” are often respected and admired. Putting someone down with true statements about them or the situation also indulges in taking pleasure at someone ‘getting what’s coming to them’. None of these motivations are pure, and will not produce real happiness for anyone.
The mere truth of a thing is not sufficient to make it Right Speech. Truth has value only because it is with true understanding that we can be of use and helpful to one another. In other words, there is a compassionate basis for our valuing of truth. This means compassion is the more primal and foundational value. I read once that Truth without Compassion is brutality. Do not use truth as a weapon.
The key thing in evaluating what we communicate to others is mindful awareness of our motivations for what we are saying or writing. This requires self knowledge, humble and unbiased thinking, and powers of attention to our inner machinations.
But if we maintain such, then we can ask ourselves why we are saying this, and why we are saying it in the way we are? We will often find that we were wanting to show off, or we are defending our ego, or we want to inflict some form of suffering on the receiver, indulging in venting at another’s expense, or having an unmindful reaction to something that was said.
If we think in terms of what is beneficial for the recipient (and any bystanders or other readers/viewers), then we can find a loving motivation for the communication if there is one. If there is, this will guide us on how to form the words, what to say, and what not to say. We will have a fulfilling feeling having delivered the words, instead of reverberating and magnifying anguish on both sides.
Right Speech to Ourselves
Remember that, if our hope is to have compassion for all beings, that includes you! The things we say to ourselves can be just as destructive (or more so) than the things others tell us. The stories we tell ourselves about the events in our lives, other people, and our own qualities, has a subjective but remarkable impact on our lives.
Two people in the very same external conditions, can have a vastly different experience of life and happiness or suffering. How you phrase things when you are thinking to yourself determines the way you will intuitively relate to them. It is not enough to ‘know on some level’ that you’re being facetious or making a joke or being ironic. The (inner) words themselves have transformative power on your natural disposition over time.
Changing these requires conscious attention and non-judgmental recognition of what is going on in your mind. Then you can begin to unravel why you phrase, categorize, and compare things the way you do. You can look for the rational errors in that thinking. And you can begin to formulate new ways to describe yourself and your conditions that are productive and focus on what is effective for happiness. This is not about self delusion or ignoring anything. It is about a choice – a choice of what you will consider the important aspects and what you will not worry about.
This kind of Right Speech within is necessary for self compassion, which creates a more robust and stable being capable of greater acts of loving-kindness to others on an ongoing basis. The interconnectedness of all things means there is no “self” so there is no “selfishness” when it is enlightened.
“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”
How To Practice and Improve Right Speech
Simply reading and agreeing with these ideas is a good start, but not sufficient to truly begin to transform as such. That’s because how we talk, write, and think is our karma – that is, the causal-and-effect relationships of actions that pertain to human happiness and suffering. In other words, the ways we act form habits of thought and action that create the kind of person we are, and how we react to the world.
As long as we have these deeply ingrained habits of thought and action, it will be hard to really respond in the ways our intellect knows to be right when the moment arrives. So, we need to engage in regular practices. These practices are condensed packages of actions that shape those inner habits and responses over time, in intentional ways and directions. Slowly but steadily, we become a ‘new kind of being’ – one that naturally and intuitively reacts to events and conditions in ways that align with the Dharma (or wisdom/the truths of reality). And the natural result of that is less suffering and more joy.
So how to begin?
All of the qualities I’ve been describing as essential are: mindfulness, awareness of our inner responses and thoughts, objective and non-judgmental awareness, and compassionate motivation. These are all developed through a regular habit of various meditation practices.
Mindfulness meditation is typically focusing on the breath and reaching a state where we are without thoughts, judgements, etc. We are simply aware of the state of experience. Getting to this requires us to practice holding and directing our attention, like working out muscles in the gym; and the experience of pure being without thought shows us more intuitively how our thoughts are constructions. These qualities we carry into the rest of our lives – not just when sitting in meditation.
Loving-Kindness meditation raises our awareness of the interconnectedness between ourselves and others (something we all need, especially now). But importantly, it raises the awareness in habit-building ways that changes how we think about others and begins to cultivate naturally-occuring loving-kindness as we go about our day. This will help us identify the motivations of our speech and formulate positive alternatives.
If you have a daily meditation practice, you can look to your ‘integrated practice’ – that is, the little practices you do throughout the day that are integrated into your necessary actions and activities. Begin with small steps, like the thing about seeing another masked person at a distance and giving them a kind signal of hello. It is the applied experience of generosity that is formative to our nature.
In all our speech, we can imagine hypotheticals like, how would an admired figure of great wisdom and compassion that I love react to this? Be what you love, and you’ll come to love what you are.
This pandemic has tried our patience and raised the ‘ambient stress level’ for everyone. When I write an article like this, it is because I need a way to dwell on these thoughts too. Ultimately, Right Speech will benefit not only others, but you as well – even if it is not returned.
I hope these thoughts and anything they may inspire you to do will be helpful to you.
With love and thanks,
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.