Adventures in Cultivating Loving Speech

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Loving speech, or Right Speech in the words of the Buddha, must satisfy five criteria: Right Speech is spoken (1) at the right time, (2) in truth, (3) affectionately, (4) beneficially, and (5) with a mind of good will. What a beautiful high standard this is. In the fourth of The Five Mindfulness Trainings, we commit to cultivating loving speech and the compassionate listening that makes loving speech possible. We commit to nourishing our capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness.

To cultivate and to nourish are not about instant results or dramatic change. The words suggest attention to detail, preparation, patience, and organic growth as opposed to willful construction and artificial timelines. I think we are asked to cultivate loving speech in the sense of creating conditions such that our speech becomes more reliably wholesome over time, and also in the sense that how we show up in speech reflects our way of being in a particular moment. By nature, I am slow to lose my temper, slow even to own and acknowledge feeling irritation. And when I do, it’s almost certainly about what I bring to a moment—frustration, disappointment, some vague sense of ill will that has been tolerated until it flares up.

The moments that really get me are the ones that feel familiar, maddeningly familiar. One part of the challenge is to ignore the “here we go again” effect, as in “How can this be happening yet again? What the heck is wrong with me/us that I/we can’t get past this situation that keeps happening?”

A commitment to preparing the groundwork for loving speech can be especially helpful in trying to transform troublesome conversations. Here’s an example. When I would mention an ache or a pain to my ex, the conversation (it seemed to me) would quickly swing to her bad back, her headache. Not a huge big deal in any one instance, but a recurring irritation. When I raised the subject, I realized that what I wanted (within the bounds of realism) was easily accomplished. I made a request for a specific behavior that got us out of this particular tangle. How about, I suggested, that before you talk about your own pain, you say to me “You look horrible” (as in “I see that you are suffering”)? Somehow this made us both smile and pulled us back into presence with one another. My suggestion worked and because this was our agreed-on practice, I could easily point out times where old habits were back.

I remember being struck by what a huge difference this little bit of problem solving seemed to make. We were back on the same team; we could solve problems together—optimism about our future replaced pessimism. I mention this big effect because it took me by surprise and also because I was struck by how easily I might have continued to nurse my grievance. How much more loving it was that I was able to speak up.

Loving speech is the ultimate continuing education course. Fortunately, we have our own lives as textbooks and we have each other to be inspired by and to learn from. This Thursday evening, after meditation we will recite The Five Mindfulness Trainings. In our dharma sharing on the Fourth Training, we’ll explore the following questions: What lessons are you learning about how to cultivate loving speech? How are you using your own practice, your own cultivation mindset–mindful attention to detail, preparation, patience, recognizing limits—to grow in loving speech?

I hope you can join us.

Bowing your way,

Mary Beth Hatem

Right Speech Reconsidered, Beth Roth
An excerpt from her Dharma Family column, e-Tricycle magazine

Right Speech is a mindfulness practice. By undertaking this practice, we commit to greater awareness of our body, mind, and emotions. Mindfulness makes it possible to recognize what we are about to say before we say it, and thus offers us the freedom to choose when to speak, what to say, and how to say it. With mindfulness, we see that the heart is the ground from which our speech grows. We learn to restrain our speech in moments of anger, hostility, or confusion, and over time, to train the heart to more frequently incline towards wholesome states such as love, kindness and empathy. From these heart states Right Speech naturally arises.

The practice of Right Speech requires that we attend to karma, or the law of cause and effect. We repeatedly observe that different kinds of speech create different kinds of results. Using speech in certain ways assures suffering, while speaking in other ways creates happiness. There is a Tibetan prayer that says, “May you have happiness and the causes of happiness.  May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.”  When we understand the workings of cause and effect, we can appreciate how profound this prayer is.

The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Loving Speech and Deep Listening

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 promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other 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. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize my anger and look deeply into its roots, especially in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to release the suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. 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. I will make daily efforts in my speaking and listening to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.