Each day when I have come into awareness of myself and the path I desire to walk in following the principles set forth by the Buddha and reinforced many-fold by those who follow his teachings, I set the intention for that day. This is rarely as formal as it sounds, and that dawning into awareness for me may not arise until that first or second session of sitting in meditation, if at all.
Today I direct my energy toward Right Speech. Why this when there are seven other aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path? For me, today, as I aspire to be free from anger, afflictions, fear and anxiety, I recognize that my speech can spark anger in others. Then the passing back and forth of increasingly charged words can bring the anger into me.
I read today Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom from his book Anger, excerpted in a 2001 issue of Shambhala Sun:
When someone insults us or does something unkind to us, an internal formation is created in our consciousness. If you don’t know how to undo the internal knot and transform it, the knot will stay there for a long time. And the next time someone says something or does something to you of the same nature, that internal formation will grow stronger. As knots or blocks of pain in us, our internal formations have the power to push us, to dictate our behavior. (Loosening the Knots of Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shambhala Sun, November 2001.)
As I read this passage, I thought of how others sometimes respond to my speech with anger. I can then surmise that these words, meant benignly, or so I like to believe when I utter them, are perceived as unkind or insulting. I am not responsible for issues on another person’s side of the equation that may color the tone of my speech to their ears. But when the response indicates a knot of anger has been formed, I must consider my role in forming it.
When we cast words about freely, much as a gardener broadcasts grass seeds across the ground, some neutral or benign words will fail to root in the other and others will root easily. Some of those that root will fall on the soil of assuming positive intent, and some will fall on the soil of painful expectations. When my neutral or benign words land on the soil of painful expectations, they are then, to that person, painful and knots form. The words spoken in harshness, be they retort, ridicule, blame, critical judgment or rage, are quite likely to form knots of anger in even those who usually assume positive intent, because the words do not resemble positive intent in any way.
While I cannot control how another receives my words, I have a responsibility, in aspiring to Right Speech, to choose them very carefully. Casting words about freely is rather careless. Hence, one of the directives of Right Speech is not speaking empty or useless words. For depth in this important matter, I refer the reader to the words of the Buddha as cited in Access to Insight:
Speak only the speech that neither torments self nor does harm to others. That speech is truly well spoken. Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech when it brings no evil to others is pleasant.
— Sn 3.3
(“Right Speech: samma vaca“, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html .)
So after reading through this comprehensive essay on samma vaca I see that I best avoid raising inflammatory topics, pointing out another’s flaws, speaking of “lowly subjects” such as the evil human beings do, and attempt to stay on the “ten topics of proper conversation,” listed in the same Access to Insight treatise:
“There are these ten topics of [proper] conversation. Which ten? Talk on modesty, on contentment, on seclusion, on non-entanglement, on arousing persistence, on virtue, on concentration, on discernment, on release, and on the knowledge & vision of release. These are the ten topics of conversation. If you were to engage repeatedly in these ten topics of conversation, you would outshine even the sun & moon, so mighty, so powerful — to say nothing of the wanderers of other sects.”
— AN 10.69
So today, aspiring to Right Speech, I, who talk constantly and have since a very tender age, as my parents always said, must exercise awareness as I open my mouth to speak, to ask myself if these words need to be spoken, if they are kind, if they will do no harm. If I ask myself if the words I intend to speak may cause me to afflict myself or afflict another, and the answer is in the affirmative, I ought not utter them. If as I am speaking I ask myself these things, and the answer is in the affirmative, I ought to stop speaking them. And if I ask myself, after having spoken, whether these words bring affliction on myself or another, I must admit to it and determine to do better going forward.
This is a huge challenge! Avoiding frivolous and potentially harmful speech means somehow intercepting my thoughts, that are usually so easily verbalized before they are spoken, to examine them with care.
And today this is my practice.