So for a little while now I’ve wanted to go over the “spokes” in the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path — more for my own benefit than any pretense of instruction. One of the things that I’d like to get more serious about is my understanding of Buddhist ideas and how they relate to mindset, action and life. Going back to the basics is a great way to do this; making sure your foundation is sound helps you to be sure as you can that your belief structure is well-constructed.
Last week, I talked about the two spokes in the Wisdom or Prajna group: Right View and Right Intention. Right View is an accurate understanding of reality and how it works, though there’s also the understanding that this will need to be adjusted as we gain knowledge and experience. Right Intention is the decision to act upon that view to be harmless at worst, and harmonious and helpful at best. It is making the commitment to be the best person we can be, and to pursue improvement not only for ourselves but for everyone we come into contact with.
Now that we have our best understanding of the universe and our best intentions towards goodness, we move to the next group of the path: the Sila group, or the “moral virtues”. These are how we manifest our understanding and sharpen our focus towards being as helpful and compassionate as possible. These three virtues are Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.
Right Speech is a very important one for me. The idea is to refrain from four kinds of speech that are damaging and uncompassionate: we are meant to abstain from lying; from divisive speech; from abusive speech; and from idle chatter. At least for the layperson, telling the truth while doing our best to connect and uplift people is the best thing we can do. Idle chatter can be…just talking for the sake of talking, speech that offers no benefit or takes attention without giving anything in return. It can also be gossip that bonds us to one person by distancing another — especially when they’re not there.
I’ll be honest right now: I’m terrible with right speech very often. I have a hard time being honest with people — mostly because I learned how to be secretive at a very early age and being open and vulnerable is very scary to me. I can be gossipy and uncharitable towards folks who have habits or attitudes I find annoying and harmful. When I’m stressed, I am often impatient and snappy towards people who turn to me for help. And as much as it pains me to say it, I am not nearly as good as I’d like to be with comforting people who turn to me with their problems.
I don’t like these things about myself, of course. Focusing on Right Speech is a great way to unlearn these bad habits and inclinations, then replace them with alternatives that foster a sense of compassion and connection. I believe that ultimately, what we say has a powerful effect on the people around us; it fosters a sense of emotion that tends to develop unattended because we’re not talking about it directly. If we look for and speak negatively, we begin to think along the same track and encourage others to do the same in order to communicate with us. Others might think that in order to connect with us, it would be easier to complain or share outrage. We might only look for the things that upset us, because those are the things we speak most about.
On the other hand, speaking up more about the things we love and make us excited can generate a sense of openness, contentment and positivity. If we focus on the things that make us happy and share them with others, it invites them to do the same. If we look for the best in people and compliment them when we find it, it lifts them up and encourages them to do the same. Speech is a powerful thing, and being aware of how we use it can enable us to use its power towards our best aims.
It can be difficult to remember this in the immediacy of conversation, especially at first. If we’re among friends who tend towards being divisive or abusive, then it’s really difficult to turn that around or find ways to abstain from that and still be a part of the conversation. But I think the difficulty of it is precisely the reason it’s worth doing; it’s far too easy to let ourselves be negative and distancing, especially online and in this political climate. It’s hard to change a thing for the better, but it must always start with ourselves first. We must make the commitment to strive for compassion and connection any way we can, and how we communicate with each other is one of the most fundamental ways we can do that.
Online, almost all we have is our speech. Armed with our understanding of the situation and our intention to improve it, speech is a very powerful tool that we can use to achieve that. When we speak up to each other in person and online, we can ask ourselves whether what we’re saying is truthful, helpful and worthwhile. At the very least, we can resolve to remain quiet if we catch ourselves lying, tearing someone down, or talking just for the sake of it. By choosing not to take action, we learn how to pay more attention to our impulses, and we also learn that we don’t have to act on the first impulse that arises; it will subside, and often a better one will take its place.
These changes won’t happen all at once. But the more we pay attention to our choices when we speak, the more we’ll be able to make better choices more quickly. Personally, I’ll be doing my best to be more honest and open to others, and to connect with someone where they are to the best of my ability. Where helpful, I will discourage abusive, divisive and dishonest speech and attempt to redirect the conversation towards something more positive. And perhaps most importantly, I’ll try not to be an annoying and sanctimonious asshole about it when I do.
Now, my friends, what are the particular challenges you face with your speech? What has worked for you in trying to be better with it? Or do you have a different view about speech entirely?