Right Speech, also called Wise Speech or Virtuous Speech, is speech that gives rise to peace and happiness in oneself and others…the word “Right” is not a moral judgment to be contrasted with bad or wrong, but means “leading to happiness for oneself and others.” ~Beth Roth, Family Dharma: Right Speech Reconsidered
Right Speech is something I think about a lot, something I try to practice in my personal life and in my writing. For example, on this blog I make choices about what to write about, what to share based on the principles of right speech–which means there are some things that are happening in my life that I don’t talk about here. It can be strange for the people in my life who know what’s going on. Just this weekend, my mom asked me if there was something she didn’t know about, something that was worrying me, bothering me, that I’d said something on the blog that made her think there was–and there is, but she already knows about it, it’s nothing new, I simply chose to not share the specific details here in my posts. It’s not because I am trying to be dishonest or less than wholehearted and authentic, but that I am considering the three truths of Right Speech.
1. Truth: Right Speech is true. Sometimes we say something before we know if it’s really true or not, or when there’s no way for us to know if it’s true. Maybe we even preface it with, “well I heard,” thinking that gets us off the hook, but still we are essentially telling a lie, a non-truth. Sometimes we exaggerate or over generalize, saying something about everyone who belongs to a different political party or religion or culture, not really knowing if that’s true and certainly knowing it can’t be true of “all of them.”
Sometimes what we say is a belief formed in a state of confusion (or passion, or anger), and even if we aren’t entirely sure if our perception is accurate, we pass it along as fact. I do this to my husband when I’m upset or irritated and I start a phrase with “you always…” or I try to tell him what he thinks or really meant to say, simply because in my confused, upset condition it’s how I’m choosing to see things, to be hurt or to pick a fight, either way casting him as the one at fault, as the enemy. Practicing Right Speech would mean that I instead took a breath, explained that I was upset and not seeing things clearly.
2. Truth: Right Speech is compassionate. It is kind, peaceful, promotes harmony and good will, comforts, encourages, inspires, is gentle. It’s kind of like what your mom always told you: “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That can sound hokey, childish even, but think about it–what is your response when someone speaks harshly or aggressively to you? Does that kind of talk, that tone make you feel peaceful or happy, loving towards the one speaking? Or does it make you want to smack someone in the mouth?
It’s also a common parenting tip: if your child is having a meltdown, ignore them, or if they are yelling, rather than yelling back and escalating the situation, you should try whispering. I see this even with my dogs. If they are barking at something, me yelling at them to “be quiet!” is essentially me barking too and doesn’t really stop them, but if I walk up close to them and quietly say “shhhh,” they usually can be interrupted, calmed down. Compassionate Right Speech means don’t instigate a fight, and don’t get hooked by someone else trying to start one with you. Make an attempt to avoid speech that would hurt or harm.
3. Truth: Right Speech is helpful. Say what is useful, purposeful, necessary, wise. Words can nourish or poison, harm or help, and it’s clear which is preferable. There are situations where I see people I love making the same dumb mistakes, over and over, and I get to the point where I am so frustrated, I want to tell them how dumb they are being, and how irritating it is, to judge and criticize them, but I stop myself, because it wouldn’t be helpful.
And when we offer advice, we have to carefully consider who we are talking to, what their circumstance are, what they are ready to hear and to do. Sometimes, even if we can see clearly what they should do, what would make them happy, they might be too deep in their confusion about their situation, their resistance to reality too strong, and they might not be ready for advice, for a challenge to their current perspective or position. A simpler example of this might be yelling at a homeless person to “get a job!,” (actually, that statement in that situation might fail all three principles of Right Speech).
One wish: That we all commit wholeheartedly to speech that gives rise to peace and happiness in ourselves and others. That we chose our words carefully, making sure that they are true, compassionate, and helpful. And in the moments we can’t seem to do so, we are able to remain silent, quiet with our struggle rather than actively generating suffering or mindlessly chattering. And that we understand the principles of Right Speech should also be applied to our internal dialogues, those secret conversations we have with ourselves, and that we practice truth, kindness, and wisdom there as well.