I’m going to begin with a story about a young man who invited his mother over to his house for supper, his name was John. Now his mother had long been suspicious of the relationship that her son had with his roommate, and she was also curious. The fact that they were roommates boosted her suspicions. During the evening she couldn’t help but notice how they interacted with each other, and wondered if maybe they weren’t being honest with her. John seemed to read his mother’s body language, and told her: “I know what you might be thinking, but I assure you, Karen and I are just roommates.”
About a week later, Karen came to John and said: “You know, ever since your mother came here for dinner I’ve been unable to find the beautiful silver soup ladle. You don’t think she did something with it, do you?” John said: “I doubt it, but I’ll e-mail her.”
So he sent her an e-mail: “Dear mother, I’m not saying that you did or did not do anything with the soup ladle, but it’s odd that it disappeared after the dinner, do you know anything about this?”
Later he received an e-mail from his mother, and it read: “Dear son, I’m not saying that you do sleep with Karen and I’m not saying you don’t. But the fact remains that if she was sleeping in her own bed she would have found the soup ladle by now. Love from your mother.”
This humorous story demonstrates the complexity of being honest. It’s just a story, but I’m going to apply a little reflection. Maybe the son felt he had good reasons for trying to keep boundaries with his mother, and may have felt honesty would unnecessarily complicate things. Maybe the mother was trying to let her son know it was OK to be honest and speak like adults. Whatever the reasons, when we’re not able to support the conditions of open communication, relationships can suffer.
We spend a lot of our time talking. If we could bring a measure of mindfulness into that aspect of our lives, learning to pay more attention to the heart’s will as we converse, it could be liberating.
Buddhists have a practice known as mindful speech. I’m going to start with the simplified version, then break it down a bit. In the simplified version, Mindful speech can be practiced by asking yourself two questions: is what I say true, and is what I say helpful? So, if something could be said to be true, but not helpful, it would not qualify as mindful speech. That might be the circumstance where you have insight into a person’s behavior and decide to tell them in a way that is not helpful – you know, a good dose of reality. The other side would be to say something you feel is helpful but not true. Here are three of the top-rated helpful lies, according to the Internet: It wasn’t me; Your table will be ready in 5 minutes (when it will really be 15); Gee, you haven’t changed a bit – and it’s been 20 years. Often a helpful lie is intended to smooth over a situation.
But at the end of the day, how we relate to each other has a great deal to do with the quality of our relationships or our life generally. Mindful speech comes out of a deep love and respect for life. The idea is to express presence – to respond rather than to react. As I stated earlier, and this would be the take home, mindful speech can be practiced by saying what is true, and saying what is helpful.
The Buddhists break that down a little more, labeling categories of mindful speech – which are abstinence from false speech; from malicious speech, or idle chatter; and from harsh speech. I’ll talk about these one at a time.
The first category of mindful speech is to abstain from false speech, which obviously includes lying, but also includes being deceptive.
I think we’ve all heard the maxim: Honesty is the best policy. But let’s be honest. If that were the end of it, this could be a short talk. As children we learn that honesty is not always the best policy, that honesty can get us in a heap of trouble. Deception can be used to display false innocence and avoid negative consequences, or unjust consequences. Sometimes deception can aid in our survival.
The animal kingdom is filled with examples of deception. Capuchin monkeys can tell a lie to get a meal. They have a language that includes sounds for danger and even specific dangers. They have a word for eagle, or danger from the air, and a word for leopard – or danger from the ground. The deceptive monkey sees a single ripe piece of fruit on the ground, and gives out the call for leopard. All the monkeys run to the tops of the trees and the deceptive monkey sneaks down and grabs the fruit without being noticed. Or a low ranking member may call out danger from the air, and then get a chance to feed when the troop has run off.
Humans are probably the gold medallists of the animal kingdom when it comes to deception. Sometimes people act out of selfish interest. But sometimes we’re kind of complicated. Sometimes we deceive in order to protect ourselves from hard truths.
And sometimes we ignore the truth for the sake of connection, pretending to agree or misrepresent beliefs to get along and have good communal feelings. In the give and take of life there can be some benefit to social lubrication. There may be times when social lubrication is seen as more important than the truth – you know, someone may decide to say: “I love your new haircut,” even if they really don’t.
Maybe it is true that the human condition is complex, and also true that we sometimes make it more complex than necessary. If honesty isn’t always and absolutely the best policy, it’s at least a darn good guideline. That’s because we may pay a price for learning to skirt the truth. The habit of misrepresentation affects the clarity of our being, can muddle our truths or even weaken our spirit.
And losing our ability to speak truth can have real consequences. Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran minister in Nazi Germany, and has some notoriety for the following quote: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
The second category of mindful speech is to abstain from malicious speech, or idle chatter. Malicious speech includes slander, abusive speech, bullying, and mean-spirited gossip. Maliciousness is generally not subtle, and requires no further explanation.
Idle chatter is a little more complicated, and for our purposes may be best described as mindless or potentially harmful gossip. Of course, gossip can be intentionally malicious. But as we slide down the scale to mindless distraction, gossip can become less conscious. Gossip can be used as a distraction, or in order to feel like we are part of a group that is perceived as high status.
Sometimes people trade information for status. I recall a time in my work life when I felt a bit vulnerable, and was meeting with the owner. The topic of a particular individual came up, and I became aware that I was privy to information about that person that would grab the owner’s interest. Revealing what I knew would clearly improve my status. I was about to speak, when I stopped to consider – I realized the owner would likely store this information as potential weaponry. I paused, pulled myself together, and chose to stay on topic with the meeting’s agenda. But the situation gave me insight into why people sometimes gossip – the equalizing power that it can appear to give. It’s a false refuge.
Perhaps a test for whether a conversation is harmful gossip goes back to our take home message: is what we say true, and is what we say helpful.
The third category of mindful speech is to abstain from harsh speech, which can include angry speech, mean-spirited sarcasm, and harsh tone of voice. Harsh speech refers to what we say and how we say it. So even if we’re communicating a just cause, but with anger or harsh speech, we’re adding harsh energy. Tone is important. For example, if we tell a dog we love them, but the tone of our voice says that we’re angry with them – guess what they’ll hear.
In my work life, I was fortunate enough to work in a culture where harsh speech was rare. I gained some insight during a workshop. We had a lot of training with our favorite psychologist. I’ll call her Sandy. Sandy told us that whenever she went to family gatherings her sister was always zinging her. Now, in our human services culture, we supported each other. We didn’t hurl put-downs or negativity. Sandy said that her sister’s behavior was foreign and baffling. She would confront her, but her sister would either deny that she hurled a zinger, or accuse Sandy of being thin-skinned. Sandy said she couldn’t confront her every time. That just seemed to make it worse. But finally she got an answer. Sandy’s sister had a moment of insight. She told Sandy that she worked in a very masculine and competitive environment, and the zingers were part of the competition. She told Sandy that she needed that edge to survive the corporate culture. Sandy reported that from that day forward, she had compassion for her sister, and for the most part, she ceased being a target.
Now of course, no one is perfect. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying: “I myself still occasionally become irritated and angry and use harsh words toward others. Then, a few moments later when the anger has subsided, I feel embarrassed; the negative words are already spoken, and there is no way to take them back. Hence, the only thing I can do is to go to the person and apologize, isn’t that right?” I think apology is nice, but a process of review, insight, and applied skillful means may also be appropriate – discrimination without recrimination. In other words, reviewing the situation of our harsh speech without being harsh with ourselves.
The point of the Buddhist precepts is to guide a mindful practice, not to lecture or shame. In positive terms, mindful speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. We shape our world of experience with our words: we create harmony or discord, meaning or nonsense, trust or distrust. The practice is ongoing, on some days we speak better than others.
A few suggestions can be made. The first is to contribute to making environments safe for honesty. Here’s an example of a standard question in job interviews: What are you weaknesses? Is this really a safe environment to answer that question? People will often give an answer that they think might get them the job.
We want, as much as possible, to live in safe environments where truth is at least respected. Therefore, the mindful practice is to contribute toward creating and maintaining safe environments for sharing honest communication – encouraging speech that is both true and useful.
Another suggestion: try to occasionally listen while you are speaking, and notice the effects of your speech.
There’s a good Nasrudin story about this. Nasrudin was a satirical Sufi, but the tradition of telling whimsical teaching stories using his name took on a life of its own. In this story a friend asked: “Nasrudin, how does one become wise?”
Nasrudin answered: “Listen attentively to wise people when they speak. And when someone is listening to you, listen attentively to what you are saying!“ So, try to listen to yourself speak, when people are listening and maybe when they aren’t.
The third suggestion is to listen to silence and learn to pause. Pausing before you initiate conversation, or pausing before you respond can give you a chance to process a situation and become aware of your speech. Pausing can give the better angels of our nature a chance to contribute to the conversation. Carlos Castaneda may have gotten this one right. I’m going to paraphrase. Note that where Castaneda used the capitalized word Power I have substituted the heart’s will. He states: “When we live in connection with the heart’s will, we are given the power to pause. When we are given a moment’s pause we can better perceive what is happening. Then, the heart’s will can educate our response.” I’ll add that the heart’s will is in contrast to the ego centered and controlling will. The heart’s will can help us remember what really matters to us.
Mindful speech comes out of presence and a desire to be aware of our interactions. Maybe it comes down to mixing a little reflection into the stream of our words, and listening to the better angels of our nature.
(Moment of reflection)
And now I’d like to offer a minute meditation or contemplative moment. I’m going to suggest two choices: the first is to set an intention to honor pausing in your everyday life – giving yourself the space to respond mindfully rather than to react impulsively. You may or may not have a specific situation in mind. The second choice is to meditate on being guided by the heart’s will – what really matters to us. And, of course, a third choice is to just enjoy the contemplative moment any way you want.
So, if you’d like, choose your intention – honoring pause, listening to the heart’s will, or enjoying a contemplative moment as you choose. Begin at the sound of the bell.
BELL: You can reflect on an intention to honor your ability to pause, to respond rather than react. Or, meditate on listening with the heart’s will – what really matters to us.
I’d like to end with an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver, which speaks to the heart’s will:
What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
Thank you for this sharing opportunity.