Eightfold Path: Right Speech

January 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

Soap In Mouth

The practice of Right Speech in the Eightfold Path is a good reminder to all of us of the power of words, spoken or written.

Had to check where I was with this endeavor, and it looks as though I’m only on the third part of the Eightfold Path, which is Right Speech! Bahaha. Too many distractions, ah well.

Here is a tidbit on what Right Speech deals with according to one of my favorite go-tos, The Big View:

“Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct.”

How many times have we opened our mouths one moment too soon, to let escape some words we wished we could snatch back and stuff back into our brains. Possibly beat those words? Then puree them? Then drink them as a smoothie? Yeah, I’ve been there too.

To me, there’s no bigger reminder of the power of words than those moments when one of my students say “Madame (“Mrs.,” in French, which is what I teach), remember that time you said …?” and they’ll rattle off some horrible-sounding thing I said. Then, when I do recall the moment, I’ll remember that I never intended those words to sear themselves into anyone’s mind, nor did I think that the words sounded as horrible as they did when the student repeated them back to me. In fact, I may have assumed that what I was saying would be brushed off … but clearly, it wasn’t. Unintentionally, those words will have settled into the mind of that student, possibly to shape their thinking of themselves, how they do in my class — or worse — how they perceive themselves as students in general. Hopefully, some of what I say moves them in a positive direction — but I suspect there are more of those off-hand comments I make that get taken much more seriously — and negatively — than I expect. Same with my own biological children — it’s those words you don’t think they pay attention to that seem to stick the most. How many of those comments do we all make in a day? Who knows? Who’s paying attention? If I’m not, I’ve got a room full of students who pay more attention than I suspect. That’s the way it is for all of us.

Thinking of this in the context of work, here’s one to chew on: Does your job allow you to practice right speech? Do you have a profession that challenges this part of the path? Specifically, I’m thinking of a profession like, say, journalism, copy writing, advertising, promotion, writing in general. What about a profession like mine, where you have to use words in order to impart knowledge, shape the minds of future and barely-of-age adults? Does what you write or say impact the world positively? Do you perpetuate lies, half-truths, rumors — whether directly or indirectly? Anyone in professions like journalism and advertising have a particular challenge on hand — how to walk that path of practicing right speech, but still do your job. Be able to write copy, but still be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say “I done good today.” How do you correct a student’s misbehavior without making said student feel bad, but still learn how to act appropriately?

I don’t pretend to have the answers here, but I think the fact that one pauses to think about these questions seriously is a step in the right direction. I re-listened to a podcast from The Secular Buddhist, in which the host — Ted Meissner — interviewed journalist Doug McGill on the very issue of Right Speech in the context of his profession and in the context of life in general. Do click on the link below to the episode page, and have a listen. Click on the link called “Listen To This Episode” and come right back 😛 Listen while you read, okay????

It’s a great interview with some really great bits of information and insight:

The Secular Buddhist Podcast :: Episode 34:: Doug McGill :: Right Speech

I really loved that Doug questioned the intent behind the words he used as a journalist. Having worked in a newsroom myself for a few years, I’m familiar with the challenges. It’s not an easy task for someone who makes a living in a cut-throat, deadline-oriented environment like a newsroom to always be mindful of how their story affects all the players — the ones they see, and the ones they don’t see. One of my favorite lines in this interview occurs around 11 minutes into it:

… I started to wonder if wasn’t kind of unconciously serving masters that I didn’t want to be serving.

This was in the context of the part of the interview in which Doug talks about writing for Bloomberg News, the financial news information machine. From here, Doug talks about some of the changes in his approaches and thinking in the context of his writing. Whether you’re talking about journalism, teaching, or otherwise, it’s a good thing to ask yourself: What master am I serving with these words? Greed? Ambition? Anger? Or am I aiming for nurturing? Learning? Growth? Will I be making myself feel (temporarily) better? Will I be injuring someone?

“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.” — SN 45.8

Sounds simple, right? There is so much to it, though, when we start to look at it in the context of our every day lives, and we examine all the LITTLE things we say that we give no thought to — or the messages we send out (think e-mail, text messages etc.) in annoyance. How much of our day would be spent in silence — and perhaps better served for it — if we were to abstain from those?

My particular favorite is the idea of abstaining from “idle chatter.” Just saying something to have something to say. Gossiping about someone. “Going off” on something that you’re not sure is right, yet still triggers an emotional response from us. Think about the “water cooler chats.” How much of that is truly constructive talk? Almost none of it, in my own personal experience.

The challenge with cutting out idle chatter, in my opinion, is the level of discomfort people in North American culture (I can’t speak for other cultures, really) feel when met with silence between people. I happen to come from a ‘quiet family.’ Growing up, we were taught not to just natter on about nothing, just to fill dead air. I’m not sure if that’s a function of the influence of my mother’s Japanese upbringing, but either way, I know my friends sometimes would feel uncomfortable because we didn’t chatter on all the time.

I carried that with me outside, and it always interested me how uncomfortable people would feel around me because I simply wouldn’t have a lot to say. Add to that the fact that I was painfully shy, and well, it didn’t make for a pleasant mix in middle an high school. In our culture, talking to one another is a form of acceptance. We talk to people we like. We show we want them to be around us, and vice versa, by talking to them. So, we fill the air with chatter — gossip, idle talk about the weather, perhaps false compliments, what Mary had for lunch today and why would you eat that when you’re saying you want to lose weight, seriously? Admit it, you’ve talked that way. If we’re not talking to them, it’s a social cue to tell them “I have nothing to say to you. Please go away,” even if that’s not what we really mean at all.

We have a lot of challenges when it comes to this part of the Eightfold Path. We’re met with cultural issues, workplace/professional issues, and issues of human nature (snapping back a remark when someone says something to irritate us, pressing that “send” button after firing off some angry retort to an annoying manager, etc.).

I’ve tried to handle this problem a couple of ways: One is by practicing some mindfulness. Meditation. When I can. I’ll admit that I haven’t gone much beyond observing the breath, and if I catch 15 minutes, 3 days a week, I’m doing awfully well. But I do it. And it has helped a bit, I think. I have less of those mindless retorts I snap back to my children and my students. I stop myself. I don’t know if it’s thanks to the practice of reining in my thoughts while ‘on the cushion’ or not, but I do attribute it to that. If nothing else, being aware of “right speech” as being part of the path has made me think twice about the words I put out there — a lot.

The other is, simply, never sending out a text message, posting a reply on Facebook, or sending out an e-mail, while annoyed or irritated. I also try not to have an immediate verbal response when someone says something that triggers a quick emotional response. I bite my tongue, get my hands away from the keyboard, and walk away. It’s harder than it sounds.

That being said, here’s one last link that I think might be a good tool. It’s from Access to Insight, and it’s their entry on Right Speech. If you read through all of it, you’ll see that the Buddha really very clearly sets out guidelines on WHEN to respond, HOW to respond, and under which circumstances. Much of what he says can easily be applied to our everyday, modern lives.

Access to Insight Entry on Right Speech

Are most of us ever really going to do this perfectly? Of course not. But as my friend Ted likes to say, “It’s practice, not perfect.”

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§ 2 Responses to Eightfold Path: Right Speech

  • Jim Kearse says:

    Right speech is a tough one. I, like you, are a middle school teacher and we know that at this age kids are “experimenting” with themselves – how to interact with friends, different ways to act around people, etc. Many, many times, we as teachers are just as bad as the kids if we inadvertently speech without thought.

    Thanks for the blog! See you ’round the “staffroom”!

    • Totally true! Middle school kids definitely know what ‘buttons’ to push and try to test their limits in the classroom and in their social interactions. It is VERY difficult to always keep your cool when you deal with this for hours on end. Hopefully we manage most of the time, but we’re only human, right???

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