Speech is not something to take lightly. We humans are social creatures who have developed a complex form of verbal communication, our language and the use of it is very important. Wrong speech can create great harm for ourselves and others. It creates social divisions, leads to violence, and can start wars.
However, right speech can heal, encourage, bring liberating knowledge, wisdom, comfort and peace.
Speech happens fast. Too fast for one to be able to plan their speech ahead. One must also be aware of timing and whether something is appropriate to say. As a general guide, is what one is about to say true, beneficial, and kind?
The four right speeches:
‘I will refrain from false speech,
I will refrain from malicious and divisive speech,
I will refrain from harsh unkind speech,
I will refrain from idle pointless chatter.’
‘I will refrain from false speech...’
It is very important to be truthful. Telling lies, even white ones, are bad for one’s psyche. If you tell a lie for long enough you start to believe it, and this leads to dangerous delusions about reality and creates an awful split in the mind. If one wants to progress on the spiritual path, one needs to be able to see reality for what it is, and if one is telling lies one is not getting an accurate account of reality. The spiritual path is all about seeking the truth, and to do that one has to be honest with oneself, about one’s experience and what is really happening. To become lucid requires complete truthfulness. When one thinks it is okay to lie, one’s spiritual achievement is meaningless.
‘I will refrain from malicious and divisive speech…’
Malicious and divisive speech causes harm, splits communities and creates disharmony. Even what might be considered harmless gossip is not conducive to beneficial outcomes. Everything we intend, say and do leads to consequences, both for ourselves and others. Gossip divides communities, friends and families.
Why do we become so quick to judge others? To virtue signal, to want to criticise, to shame, to blame. What is that all about? Does that lead to peace of mind? To meaningful social connections? To harmony?
‘I will refrain from harsh unkind speech…’
Harsh words even if they are true can harm the one they are directed at. Sometimes it is better to remain silent than speak the truth. One does not have to answer a question if speaking the truth may cause harm to oneself or another. Harsh unkind words never really help, especially if they are not beneficial for the person hearing them.
We should also try to remember not to be so quick to judge others. No-one has ever got where they are without making mistakes. There’s a saying that I like which goes:
‘A thorn of experience, is worth more than a wilderness of warnings.’
We have all had our less-than-graceful moments. There’s another saying I like which goes: ‘One should not judge another until they have walked the trail of life in their shoes.’
It is true that sometimes people need to hear things they may not want to hear. These difficult conversations happen better when coming from the heart and done with loving-friendliness, from a heart that genuinely wants the best for that person. If one comes from the heart one’s speech will be gentle, peaceful and not cause harm.
‘I will refrain from idle pointless chatter.’
Idle pointless speech is tiring to listen to. It can drain one’s energy, and put one in a dull fatigued state of mind. Time is precious. So don’t waste it with frivolous speech.
Sometimes there’s the urge to fill the air with words because one feels uncomfortable with silence. But instead one should learn to appreciate the silence, there is something deeper and more subtle in the silence. If one wants to get into deep states of meditation, one needs to learn to appreciate silence. There’s a place one’s consciousness can go to that is much deeper and more profound than words can convey.
Everything on the eightfold path is informed by right view
If one notices their speech is unskilful, then one should check their intentions. And if one’s intentions are wrong, then that means one is holding to a wrong view. So always check if speech is coming from greed, hatred, or delusion. If so, try to come from a place of generosity, kindness, and clarity instead, and remember the four noble truths.
As a rule of thumb. If one is coming from the heart, from a place of loving-kindness. Then one’s speech will be right. As it will not cause harm and will want only the best for the other person.
Right speech also applies to the way we talk to ourselves.