Right Speech is the first practice in Ethical Conduct on the Eightfold Path and is about communicating with compassion and in a straightforward way. It follows from Right Thinking and Right Understanding, so you see reality as it is and then express that truth directly. It includes communication through speech and all forms of writing: letters and emails, books and articles, blog posts, tweets, texts, and status updates.
The world appears more interconnected now than ever before. You can chat with anyone anywhere and follow world events as easily as what’s happening in your backyard. You’re exposed to opinions and cultures and worldviews that in the past you would never have known existed. All of this makes the need for clear communication even more important because it’s so much easier to misunderstand what someone is saying.
How you speak or write is an extension of how you think. You might believe you think a lot – your mind never shuts up, after all! – but much of your communication is automatic and done without thought. And this is what causes problems. If your thinking is muddled or confused, your communication will be too.
Difficulties with communication usually come from bad mental habits and negative emotional complexes, like fear or self-doubt. When you’re suffering you tend to offload it onto somebody else in an attempt to make yourself feel better. You get angry and shout at your partner or friend, or kick the cat, but you still feel bad and now two people are suffering (and the poor cat).
Or you want to share your opinions, in the name of self-expression and to get a bit of attention because you feel lonely, so you shoot your gob off to anyone who will listen. This rarely leads to a genuine connection. Everybody knows what you think but nobody cares and you’re still lonely.
Even though a lot of your communication is unconscious, your true intentions are often quite clear to others. Most of what you say is non-verbal, so even when you consciously believe you’re telling the truth, for example, your body can reveal your deception and provoke unwanted conflict with others. And you can’t avoid this problem by only ever communicating in writing. Words are notoriously slippery and intent is even harder to discern on the page or screen. Ten minutes on Twitter makes that crystal clear.
You can’t communicate well with others unless you understand your own mind and thoughts. So Right Speech builds on the practice of Right Thought, but it also helps if you practice Right Mindfulness too. By practising mindfulness you can watch your thoughts and feelings and so develop an understanding of what’s going on inside you. Then you’ll be less likely to accidentally (or on purpose) say or write something you don’t really mean.
Even so, it’s hard to practice clear communication. With the best will in the world, you can be as mindful and careful as you like and others can still misinterpret what you say or write because they’re projecting their own issues onto your words and making assumptions.
So to practice Right Speech you have to listen deeply – to yourself as well as to others. In counselling this technique has a horrible name: Unconditional Positive Regard, but Deep Listening can have a profound healing effect on you and those you listen to. Many years ago I trained in counselling and was often surprised that simply listening to somebody talk for an hour could have such a powerful impact. The right kind of silence can be just as healing as the right words.
Right Speech is about communicating with compassion in order to minimise suffering and encourage understanding. It’s traditionally understood to include the following:
- Speaking truthfully – communicating in a way that’s aligned with reality, calling a spade a spade. No lies.
- Not speaking with a forked tongue – don’t say one thing but mean something else. No manipulation or doublespeak. So I guess sarcasm is out.
- Not speaking cruelly – no abuse, shouting, swearing, trolling, or hate speech. So avoid Twitter and maybe social media, in general.
- Not exaggerating or embellishing – don’t dramatise unnecessarily or make things sound better than they are. No gossiping.
If your speech and communications cause unnecessary suffering then it’s not Right Speech. You should strive to be truthful and harmonious, but this doesn’t mean you should withhold your opinion or look the other way if someone else is behaving badly. This is a tricky line to walk, but it should be possible to tell the truth in a way that isn’t harmful. There’s no need to be unkind just to make a point. And if what you want to say will do more harm than good, it may be better not to speak at all. Sometimes silence is the best response.
“There are times when silence is truth, and that is called ‘thundering silence.’ … If we listen out of the silence of our mind, every bird’s song and every whistling of the pine trees in the wind will speak to us. In the Sukhavati Sutra, it is said that every time the wind blows through the jewelled trees, a miracle is produced. If we listen carefully to that sound, we will hear the Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
It Does Not Further
When the Buddha was asked questions about subjects that were not immediately beneficial to people, such as questions about the nature of reality or whether reincarnation was true, he would refuse to answer. Anything purely metaphysical was dismissed with this response:
“It does not further.”
In other words, it does you no good to think about this stuff since it’s not possible to know for sure and you’ll never understand it anyway. There are certain things we can’t see or understand because of the nature of reality and the way our consciousness works, so in terms of spiritual practice, to chase after answers to these questions is a waste of time and energy. You don’t need to know the answer to the ultimate questions (if they even have answers) in order to be happy, so just let it go.
Next time: Right Action
Image: Speak no evil