What I have written above should not be read as an infantile message that we are all one and we should get on together in perfect harmony. Rather, what I have outlined in this two-part blog post are progressive levels of understanding speech as an integral part of practice. I have attempted to display verbal images of a richer, deeper and more meaningful way of entering into relationship with the communication process. I have also tried to bridge the gap between a superficial prescriptive approach to Right Speech as a Buddhist practice, and Right Speech as a profound re-visioning of the nature of language as a means for establishing intimacy with the world, and in giving rise to cleaner, simpler and more authentic interaction with others.
How, where and when do I currently lie?
What forms do the habits of falsification take in my external speech?
How and when do I speak badly about others?
How do I needlessly pour out negative speech, especially in key relationships?
How do I unload my negativity onto others and the spaces I inhabit through being unnecessarily harsh and critical?
Do I use sarcasm or cynicism as a form of suspicion to create distance?
How do I waste time, my vitality, and integrity by engaging in nonsense chatter?
Speech is the first of the Eightfold path that deliberately and unavoidably involves us meeting the external world and is where we bridge the gap between our meditational and positional practice (development of view), and our interactions with others.
When we communicate, our energy meets the external world and makes an impact, and it does so, whether we are aware of it or not. Unfortunately, our relationship with speech is often similar to that of a litter-bug who carelessly discards rubbish, wrappings, cigarette butts and other shit into random environments without a care for the result. So, through the development of Mindfulness, we also develop spatial awareness and the ability to connect the dots between our movements throughout the day, in order to drop less linguistic litter.
Right Speech is a calling to be aware and mindful of how our speech IS action, and HOW it affects the world around us. Right Speech implores us to take responsibility for our communication and be aware of the impact it has on the people we meet and its place in the wider context of a more harmonious and transparent society. Unsurprisingly, there is a requirement that we clean up our contribution to the collective confusion that permeates so much communication. And yes, Right Speech should be applied to Facebook and Twitter!
Inner & Outer speech; two into one
We mustn’t lose sight of and ignore the internal dimension of this element of the path. From my own personal readings I have found scant attention paid to the effect our internal dialogue has on our state of being and the movement from our thinking to external action.
We often hide in our thoughts, keeping secrets, keeping cosy aspects of our character, our more and less desirous selves, hidden away inside our heads, confined to the walls of our inner safe house. Speech often acts as a means for maintaining the separation we feel and sustain from the rest of the world. Some thoughts are not to be shared. Whether filled with doubt and insecurity, or arrogance and a sense of privilege, our attitude is expressed through the quality of our distorted speech, which is often false speech. Whether our own brand of self preservation is based on a perception of ourselves as small and unimportant, or as special, better and more worthy, the underlying theme is the same. They are strategies of self-preservation that maintain masks, which we may use consciously, or be totally identified with.
Internal and external speech are not separate, so although distinguishing between the two is helpful at first in order to develop clarity, establishing a more fluid and explicit relationship between inner and outer content will eventually function as a method for increasing open, honest and frank communication. This involves necessary confrontation with our habit of bullshitting ourselves, of kidding ourselves and seducing ourselves with promises and excuses: ‘I couldn’t possibly tell Franco what I think of him.’ ‘If I tell my mum she’s horrible to her sister, it would destroy our relationship,’ ‘Why won’t Sarah shut up, she’s so annoying! It’s not worth it though, she’ll never change.’
Right speech needs to progress from a form of discipline and discovery, into an alignment between the inner and outer. Our speech needs to become not just honest but a reflection of what is really going on inside of us; basically we need to become more transparent. The separation between the illusions and roles we maintain and the internal stories we tell ourselves, at some point must be abandoned. This results in a greater degree of authenticity when maintained with consistency. The simplicity of ‘what you see is what you get’ becomes a means for more conscious engagement. It is a much saner starting place from which to evolve.
I have personally found speaking out fears, insecurities, hidden desires and wishes, to be exceptionally liberating. Such experiences were often lived as reactions, or as blockages- places where we got stuck in the past and where speech/energy was not expressed. Learning to move that energy out through speaking it out, releases us from being bound to historic episodes of our life’s story. This equates to gaining considerable freedom as well as increased emotional and mental vitality. These non-movements often fossilize inside and until they are allowed to move out again, they act as internal structures that divert and subvert energy and self-expression.What I’m discussing here is the possibility of increasing transparency, of opening up our personal Pandora’s box to see what is hidden inside, to open and to share more of our basic humanity and liberate trapped energy. All of this is part of communication; part of the ebb and flow of our moment to moment interaction with consciousness.
Telling the truth can actually become expressing the truth. Our speech, our body, our movement and our subjective experience are not separate; they are intertwined. To express the truth means our body does not hide our feelings, our speech does not hide our thoughts and our action does not hide our true intent.
In a way, this reorganisation of our basic human expression brings us to greater simplicity. When we unravel our games of hide and seek, we become capable of standing more openly with others as we are, without pretence, without an agenda. We are clear. This gives rise to more authentic living and self-expression, and naturally leads to a capacity to engage in the various forms of positive speech. Our authenticity allows us to express more honestly felt kindness, unpolluted by ulterior needs. And when needs arise, we simply express them as they are without obsessing about results.
One of the major blocks to this sane modality is the conditioning we have with regards to exchanges in relationships. Whether it’s emotional, informational, knowledge, skills, support, help, requests, instructions, and so forth, speech often expresses within it, through linguistic forms, intonation and flow, the affirmation of the roles that are often taken on in basic give-and-take dynamics, which are heavily bound up in power play. This can be recognised in how we adopt a specific voice, or intonation with a parent, or with a partner, how we speak more quietly, or loudly with a colleague, or boss. It can be recognised in how we end up having the same types of conversations with the same types of people again and again that so often determine the state we find ourselves in during and after. This is a major facet of living in reaction to life. These false exchanges create co-dependency and rob us of our autonomy.
Gaining authenticity, transparency and simplicity means coming into Right Relationship with the world and is expressed in great part through our speech.
Openness to others and making openings
To create harmony through speech means to have a resource of inner-harmony. The outer and inner come into alignment and therefore we are authentic, that is to say, we are not playing at being good, or modelling our behaviour on an ideal.
Harmonious speech is not just the active attempt to cultivate mutual understanding through more careful choice of our words, but the ability to be harmonious even in less supportive moments. This entails a combination of entering more deeply and willingly into relationship with what is present, whilst letting go of our need to position ourselves in opposition to expected, perceived or felt threats to our well-being. This can occur when discussing heavy topics, it can happen when we are confronted. It can also happen when a discussion starts to edge towards areas that we would prefer to avoid, some of which are really designated as taboo by social norms.
I would argue that Right Speech as an aspect of more awakened living must allow for open discussion of any topic. This means there should be no taboos. We do not need to fall into the extremes of aggressively pushing an agenda, or excessive shying away from tense topics. Being OK with exploring taboo areas of human experience within, enables us to discuss them more harmoniously without, without making a big deal out of it. For many providing a space and an opportunity to speak the unspeakable is itself an act of immense kindness. Limiting the potential areas of debate closes us off from one another and gives rise to the cultivation of unbalanced ideas and repression. Neither is helpful.
Constructive speech is building understanding and awareness that can be shared. It is building bridges to experiencing and sharing the truth of our existence. It means breaking down the defensive barriers that act as self-affirming ballasts to fictional identities. It means us having the courage to discuss the delicate topics of our time with an open imagination and the courage to not shy away from the great mess we are in collectively with regards to the planet, politics, religion, science and relationships.
Simplicity & Presence
Speech is in reality an act of intimacy. The sound of our voice enters another person as another reminder of our interdependence. Their voice enters us too. If this sounds silly, just ask someone to shout as loud as they can at you up close. You will immediately feel the impact in your whole body. Looking deeply into speech can actually act as a means for understanding how interdependent and how interconnected we really are. Because speech is so intimate from this perspective, it is also revealing. When we are quiet inside, open and curious enough about another person to really listen, we can hear their real voice. We can feel the truth of their words as resonance, or the falsity of their words in the form of dissonance. This is enabled by the added positive speech factor of silence.
If we are absorbed in our own thoughts, caught up in busyness and the dynamic of attraction and aversion, we are unable to connect genuinely to anything. Silence is an invitation to receive, to be with, and to be in communication. Silence gives rise to the opportunity to communicate without speaking, to observe and feel our connection to another. We all long for this at some level. We limit ourselves to a great degree by allowing it to occur exclusively through intimate relationship with a single person and to real communication with just a select few. It is possible though, if we are braver, more courageous, and more awake, to share such communication, a depth of meeting, a reminder of our natural, profound and intimate connection to all beings, with anyone really, in any moment.
As a shamanic practitioner, I would add that this applies to the natural world too. The animals, plants, minerals, the elements, are also communicating. Sure, they don’t communicate verbally, but their voices can be heard through symbols, through feelings, through acting upon us, and through an exchange of energy. Their voices are best recognised in moments of silence. Learning to align with the natural world also has a side-effect of shutting our internal-dialogue off. In this way it teaches us how meditative states are not the property of meditators; rather they are a facet of the human condition. Meditation is not creating those meditative states (a common misunderstanding about meditation practice) but discovering them and relating to them more consistently and at will. Meditation is often described as a path, as is Buddhism, but perhaps it is more helpful to think of meditation practice as an intimate relationship in which we are learning to incorporate our whole being.
Silence at times is a statement made in honour of spatial integrity. Shamanically, sound is recognised and utilized as a form of power, a force that should ideally not be wasted. Some know the breath as primordial mantra. The heart is the primordial drum. It acts as the primal messenger that we are alive, beating this tune out and in, day in, day out, until it stops and a new kind of silence is discovered.
Our choice when we come into greater awareness of our speech and our overall communication is whether to use it to separate, or to connect. Separation has its place too, so we need to examine for ourselves when we are in reaction, and when we are making appropriate choices to move away from an uncomfortable experience that is genuinely bad for us, or a disempowering dynamic of a hurtful relationship. It is not always easy to know whether we caught up in resistance and self-preservation, or confronting a genuine need for change. Mindfulness and careful attention can be revealing, as can meaningful exchange with a wiser person.