Oh boy. Here comes the really tricky one. Today I am looking at the Forth Precept, which deals with the topic of speech.
From what I understand (I am not a Pali scholar), a faithful translation of the word used in this precept, musāvāda, is “false speech,” but you will often see this expanded to include all forms of false and harmful speech. If there is a single part of our outward-facing daily life that is most difficult to remain mindful in, it might be speech. When I was a young person growing up in the church, I would read the Bible, and I can remember coming across numerous verses about the power of the tongue for both good and evil. The apostle James probably had more to say on the topic than anyone, including this one –
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.The Bible – James 3:7-9
When I first heard my teacher, JoAnna Hardy, talk about this Precept, she used the guidelines, “Is it true? Is it usefull? Is it timely? Is it kind? Is it gossip or slander?” These guidelines seem like a good starting point for examining my speech.
Is it True?
There are numerous ways that our speech can not be true. Of course, some speech is just an outright lie. I’m resisting the urge to make a political comment here. Okay, so even that last sentence is not entirely true, as my words about resisting the urge were clearly made to imply a specific political statement. See how easy it is to be false in our speech?
In addition to lies, there are various other ways to be deceptive in our speech. Sometimes we can only tell part of the story to mislead someone to believe something that is false. We can also knowingly allow someone to continue to think something false because the misunderstanding benefits us in some way. I have worked in the wine industry for several years now, and I can remember being introduced as a sommelier on several locations, and never bothered to correct anyone because I knew people have certain status assumptions about somms. I also have had a tendency at times to add little embellishments to stories to make them more interesting, which is another way of speaking falsely.
Is it Useful?
I don’t remember the specifics of what I said, but I have a memory of a time when I was a child when I spouted off something in a family gathering, and my grandfather looked at me and said, “You don’t have to say everything you know.” I know I was embarrassed at the time, but this phrase has stuck with me, and seems to apply here. There are some times when you can say something that is true, but might not be helpful for some reason. Maybe it’s not an appropriate situation. Maybe it’s self-serving. The most common expression of this for me is when I have just grown uncomfortable with silence and I say something just to fill the void in a conversation. Another one that I have noticed in my own speech is a tendency to be in a conversation and feel the need to tell a “one-up” story. If we ask ourselves if what we are about to say is useful, we will doubtless find ourselves saying less, and perhaps listening more.
Is it Timely?
Sometimes what we are saying just isn’t being said in the right time. As I have begun to practice with this precept, I have found myself in conversations with people who are hurting to one reason or another. I find thoughts popping up in my mind about some piece of advice or statement of fact about their situation. When I ask myself the question about whether this is a timely moment to say this, I often realize that what I was about to say won’t really do the person I am talking to any good in that moment. It’s not that what I think about saying is false, it’s just that it isn’t the right moment to say it. I’ve found that taking the time to ask this question has generally lead me to a more compassionate response that lets the person know that I hear them, and that I care, which is often of far more use than whatever I was going to say originally.
Is it Kind?
I recently had an interesting experience with this question. There is a local figure running for office in my home of Spokane. I had made the horrible mistake of reading through a Facebook comment thread about the candidates, and one commenter was brutal in their words, calling the candidate a “fucking nutjob,” and another stated that “the blood of innocent people was on his hands” for his service in the military in Iraq. Although I don’t support this candidate based on his policy positions, I actually started to feel a really heavy heart for the candidate, as I’m sure he either saw these posts, or others like them. I thought about the fact that this person is a human being, regardless of what I think of his policies. A few weeks later, I was in a public place and overheard a conversation between two men, one of whom was tearfully apologizing for past wrongs that he had done to the other. I was moved by the man’s vulnerability and sincerity. Eventually the apology portion of the interaction had concluded and I overheard the same voice that had been crying expressing that he was having a hard time dealing with the comments that people had been making about him in his candidacy, and I came to realize that this was the very candidate that I had seen excoriated online.
In the example above, I wouldn’t say that the comments were really true either, but there are cases where we can speak the truth, but in a way that is intended to hurt someone else. To view this another way, however, sometimes not speaking can be unkind. A clear example of this that everyone will recognize is the Catholic church’s scandal involving child molestation. In addition to the harm caused by the actual abusers, there were countless others who are complicit in the suffering of the abused, due to knowing what was happening, and not saying anything. To ask whether our speech kind or not, we sometimes have to examine multiple perspectives.
Is it Gossip or Slander?
This is an aspect of this Precept that is tricky for many of us. I don’t think of myself as being an especially gossipy person, but when I make the effort to really examine my daily speech, I do catch myself talking about other people. Often we can even convince ourselves that we are showing how much we care about the person we are gossiping about. This kind of talk is typified in my original home state of Texas by the bless her/his heart story. We mask our wrong speech with a cloak of false-compassion.
In the same category of speech, we can find slanderous speech. Do we spread rumors designed to impugn or damage other people? Do we knowing share articles or memes on Twitter or Facebook that are so one-sided as to make a character of people who we dislike? Slander cannot really be true, as the best case is that the speech is only partially true.
So, What Does This Mean to Me?
This Precept is probably the most difficult one to work with. In the end, I have decided that the way I will work with it is to try to breathe more and talk less. I heard this phrase on an audience comment in the previously mentioned JoAnna Hardy talk on this precept. This practice is a mindfulness practice. I see it as being more present in my conversations; making sure I am listening mindfully when I’m engaged in speech with other people. I will try to take a breath and consider my words before I speak. If I’m doing this right, it will probably mean that I will talk a lot less, and hopefully will listen more.
In the modern world, this practice also includes an awareness of our online speech as being a part of right speech. Although it can feel anonymous, we are speaking with real people online, and should treat each other with kindness in digital spaces, as much as we would in person.