By John M. de Castro, Ph.D/
“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?” – Buddha
Communications is the key to the dominance of the human race. Because we developed language and speech we’ve been able to share knowledge and build upon prior knowledge. Speech and language are so important that a substantial amount of the human cortex is devoted to it. As important as language is we still have not mastered communications. We are often misunderstood, use language inappropriately, use it to bully, or lash out in anger. We harm and hurt others by our speech both intentionally and also innocently. Communications between humans is so powerful and important that the Buddha made it a component of his eightfold path to enlightenment.
The Noble Eightfold Path consists of “Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” – Buddha. In previous posts “Right View” and “Right Intention” were discussed. Now we will discuss the third component “Right Speech” which is also known as “Wise Speech” or “Virtuous Speech.” Since, the word “Speech” here is used very broadly it would probably be better interpreted as “Communications.” So, for the purpose of this discussion we’ll use “Right Communications.” These include not only speech, but writing, signs and signals, emails, texts, tweets, social media posts, and even non-verbal communications provided by posture and facial expressions. To simplify the discussion, we will focus only on speech.
“Right Communications” urges us to communicate in ways that promote harmony among people, to only communicate what we know to be true, to use a tone that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to communicate mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful. It asks us to refrain from false, malicious, harsh, or cynical communications and from idle chatter or gossip. All of this sounds straightforward, but can be devilishly difficult to implement. We’ve been trained from a very early age to be critical, skeptical, cynical, and to talk about one another incessantly. To practice “Right Communications” we must work to overcome all of this conditioning.
An essential component of “Right Communications” is deep listening. It is nearly impossible to communicate “Rightly” with another without a clear understanding of the other person. It is easy to hurt or harm someone unknowingly when we lack knowledge of the other person’s history, aspirations, sensitivities, fears, etc. In order to understand them we need to be able to listen carefully, attentively, and deeply to what the other communicates to us. Most of the time most people are not carefully listening to another when they’re communicating, instead waiting their turn and mentally composing their response. Practicing “Right Communications” requires that we not do this, but instead focus on the other’s communication and process its meaning completely and to ask for clarification when it is not clear. The intent of listening should be to provide the deep understanding of another to allow for mindful, kind interactions.
“Right Communications” is truthful. Obviously this means no lying. But this can be subtler, as it demands that we really know something to be true before stating it. How much of what we say are we really 100% sure of its truth? Probably very little as much of our speech includes speculation, guesswork, reports of what we’ve heard or inferred, and idle talk. “Right Communications” demands that we be very careful and verify the truth of what we communicate. If we’re unsure of the truth of what we’re saying we should make it clear that we are unsure, that makes it truthful. That the communication is truthful does not mean, however, that it should be said. The old expression “the truth can hurt” is an important reminder. Sometimes it is better to not speak at all rather than hurt or harm another with a truth that they are not ready to hear. “Right Communications” requires discernment and deep listening to the other person to be sure when to speak the truth or remain silent.
“Right Communications” promotes friendship and harmony among people. This means refraining from slanderous speech that is aimed at producing division and dissention and instead communicate in way that unites people and creates mutual understanding. This form of communications emanates from loving kindness and compassion for others. When we communicate we do so to benefit everyone involved. This does not mean that there should be no differences in ideas or opinions between people. Differences, in fact, can be a source of creativity and learning. It means, though, that communications celebrate, accept, and value the differences allowing their expression to produce greater understanding. So, a healthy political debate can promote understanding and harmony as long as it’s engaged in with loving kindness, tolerance, and friendliness, where the debate is not competitive or designed to belittle another or heighten one’s self-esteem, but to learn from an exchange of views. Once again, this requires discernment and deep listening to know what words will heal and promote goodwill and which will divide or harm.
“Right Communications” is pleasing, kind, and gentle. It is designed to set a tone which can make the communication enjoyable and produce wholesome results. This, includes non-verbal components. A smile while communicating produces positive feelings that a frown does not. This means refraining from harsh speech, including swearing and angry speech. We must be vigilant to prevent communications when anger arises. I find this particularly difficult, as expletives explode forth when my anger is tripped. “Right Communications” is positive and encouraging and not critical or discouraging. So, it emphasizes the positive and primarily passes over the negative. “Right Communications” involves meeting angry, hostile, critical, or sarcastic communications from others with loving kindness and understanding. It means that we don’t retaliate, instead we meet it with kindness. This requires practice as it is difficult to control our emotions and deep conditioning to respond to threats with anger and aggression. But, if we are successful in “Right Communications” we will generally find that the results are far more pleasing, other people like us and like to be around us more, and we and everyone around us are happier.
“Right Communications” also involves purposive communications. This is where “Right Intentions” come to bare setting the directions for the communications. “Right Communications”
Involves a judicious use of language only when it will promote good. It “is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense” (Bhikkhu Bodhi). This means that we should inhibit idle chatter and especially gossip. Idle chatter communicates nothing of value and uselessly occupies the mind interfering with mindfulness making it more likely that we’ll communicate something harmful. Gossip is of its nature critical of others and shallow. It demeans others and causes harm. It lacks loving kindness and compassion. Hence, practicing “Right Communications” means not gossiping and not responding to gossip communicated by others. Words are precious and powerful. We need to use them pointedly to create happiness and harmony both in ourselves and others.
“Right Communications” requires mindfulness. It requires us to review our words before we actually speak them, so that we can apply discernment and insure that they promote harmony and understanding. “Right Communications” is thoughtful communications that we’ve determined ahead of time is likely to produce good. This requires considerable practice. It is not easy. But life provides numerous occasions every day to practice “Right Communications.” Rest assured that the effort is well worth it. You and everyone around you will discover its benefits promoting happiness and harmony and development along the eightfold path toward enlightenment.
“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech ( and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. . . . I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies