“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”—Rumi
Right Speech is the third step on the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path toward liberation from suffering. It represents a fundamental component of a conscious and mindful life. The word “Right” is not meant to imply a moral judgement of good or bad, rather it refers to the spontaneous and evolutionary behavior of a spiritually evolved being. Right speech can be defined as:
- Speaking truthfully.
- Avoiding slanderous or malicious speech.
- Refraining from harsh or abusive words.
- Abstaining from gossip or mindless, idle chatter.
This teaching is rooted in the understanding that words have power. What you say, how you say it, and the intention behind your speech matters. Your words are the manifestation of your thoughts and they have an energy that affects you, the listener, and your karma. As Don Miguel Ruiz explains in The Four Agreements:
“The word is not just a sound or a written symbol. The word is a force; it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think, and thereby to create the events in your life. You can speak. What other animal on the planet can speak? The word is the most powerful tool you have as a human; it is the tool of magic.”
Your words can bring healing or suffering. Which of these you create depends on the skillful use of your speech. This skillful speech is what Ruiz refers to as Impeccability of the Word. Impeccability means without sin, or avoiding anything that goes against oneself.
To avoid the use of unskillful speech and therefore hurting yourself or others requires mindfulness. Skillful speech therefore is mindful speech. When your words and speech are infused with awareness, your spoken words, written correspondence, emails, and posts on social media all become vehicles for spontaneous and evolutionary communication.
How then do you cultivate right or skillful speech? One of the most simple and succinct roadmaps for right speech comes in the form of a quote by Sai Baba, “Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?”
These four questions are often referred to as the Four Gateways of Right Speech. Let examine each one in detail.
Is It Kind?
Kind speech is infused with compassion, understanding, and warmth for the listener. When you speak with kindness, your words invoke the first Yama or rules of social behavior of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras–Ahimsa, or non-violence. Speaking kindly means that:
- Your words do no harm.
- Your words are not hurtful, malicious, cynical, or sarcastic.
- You refrain from making fun of or hurting the feelings of others.
- You avoid harsh, abusive or hateful words.
- You abstain from passing judgment of one another.
- You refrain from engaging in gossip.
Without kindness, your speech will likely do more harm than good. If your choice of words can’t pass through this gate, what you have to say will best left unsaid.
Is It Necessary?
Necessary speech implies speaking with a specific intention.
- What is the intention behind the words you are using, and what message are you trying to convey to the listener?
- Is the intention to bring healing, peace, and increased understanding?
- If not, does what you wish to say really need to be said?
- Will what you’re saying improve upon the situation, help someone learn, or convey vitally important information?
Such questions are important filters to determine the necessity of what you are about to say. It also behooves you to note that just because something can be said, doesn’t mean it should be said. Discernment is a valuable skill as you seek to determine if your words need to be spoken aloud.
It’s valuable to remember that the ego loves to hear itself talk. It always has a point to make, a need to stand out, and to act or sound important. Knowing this, you must be vigilant in catching your ego when it tries to be the smartest or loudest person in the room. Often speaking only to draw attention to itself and feel validated, the ego can easily fool you into speaking unnecessarily. Asking yourself how you can serve during your conversations can go a long way to taming the ego’s need to perpetually defend its point of view.
Is It True?
Speaking truthfully is a key component to skillful speech. Spreading falsehoods, either intentionally or unintentionally, sows the seeds of mistrust, miscommunication, confusion, and disorder. As a practitioner of right speech, the responsibility of validating the accuracy of your words rests with you. You are obligated to tell the truth, even when it may illuminate your own failings. Equally important is to resist the urge to remain silent in the face of injustice or wrongdoing. You must not muzzle the truth when its absence will lead to another’s pain and suffering.
However, you also need to realize that just because something is true doesn’t mean it needs to be spoken. Strive to speak the ‘sweet’ truth or truths that are equally necessary and kind, knowing that they provide life-affirming understanding to both speaker and listener. Speaking the ‘sour’ (or hurtful) truth only serves to lower the consciousness of the discourse, even if it is accurate.
Does It Improve Upon the Silence?
In the highly opinionated, object-referral world we live in, the value of silence is often undervalued. When practicing right speech, look to use your words only if they provide more value than the stillness and silence of pure consciousness itself. The true nature of your mind is that field of pure silence–it’s just buried under tens of thousands of thoughts each day. And as powerful as your words can be, they will always fall short when compared to infinite possibilities of pure spirit.
The Taoists remind us, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” As this relates to right speech, you can recognize that words aren’t always the most evolutionary choice. Sometimes the best course is to remain established in a field of silent power from where you can influence the situation or discussion from your state of consciousness rather than from the words you speak. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it, “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”
In the choice to remain silent, you also have an opportunity to practice mindful listening. When you are fully present as another speaks, you can truly hear what they have to say and hold space for the free flow of ideas, feelings, and expanded understanding. Many times you listen only with the intention to reply rather than to deeply absorb what is being said. When this happens, conversations or meetings become a form of verbal combat in which you interrupt and talk over one another to make your point. If instead you remain silent and listen with your full attention and entire being, others feel heard, supported, and appreciated–the ultimate goal of right speech.
As you practice skillful speech in your life, utilize these four gateways to elevate the consciousness level your conversations take. In this way, your words will be a force for healing, growth, understanding, and peace.
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