Authenticity and Loving Speech

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and explore together the fourth training: Loving Speech and Deep Listening.

When I talk with people about their practice of the five mindfulness trainings, they often mention that the fourth training is the hardest one to practice. Even though our aspiration may be to reduce suffering for ourselves and others, often we stumble. Despite our intention to be caring, we create distress and distance.

In the Buddha’s time the fourth training focused only on false speech, intentionally deceiving another person. The Buddha distinguished the fourth training from the cultivation of Right Speech, which was part of the Eight-Fold path to liberation. In addition to not lying, Right Speech included refraining from slanderous speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his reformulation of the trainings, extends the training even wider than Right Speech:

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. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to 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, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

When I ask myself, why are Loving Speech and Deep Listening so difficult, the first answer that comes to mind is: Because these actions cannot be faked. In Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings, the psychologist Paul Ekman explains that as emotions developed in mammals they were public expressions, ways of indicating to others the individual’s inner state: joyful, fearful, angry, etc. In modern times emotions are thought of as private, and people often put on false faces to hide their emotional states: smiling even though they are angry; trying to show contentment, even though they are upset. Ekman found, however, that he could precisely identify the physiological differences between the fake smile and the true smile, the fake contentment and the true contentment. He found also that astute observers also knew the difference, could correctly identify photographs of people faking their emotions, even if they could not explain how they knew.

Loving speech is much the same. Even if we can put the “right” words together, if we are not authentic, if the words are not truly reflective of our hearts, the result is not loving speech. If we are listening, but our hearts are not open, it is not compassionate listening. At some level we know the difference and the other person knows it, too. To truly practice loving speech and compassionate listening, the first responsibility is to be conscious of our feelings, emotions, and intentions. The second responsibility is to practice so that our hearts will be open when we speak and listen.

Mudita Niska, a Buddhist psychologist, calls this practice “intentional speech”:

To avoid the polarity of right/wrong speech, I teach the concept of intentional speech – that is, being mindful of one’s purpose in speaking. When people are aware of their intention and express their thoughts and feelings truthfully and with kindness, they are likely to achieve their aim and increase compassionate understanding. When they are unaware of their intention, they are most likely to forget the Buddha’s four principles of right speech and resort to lying or stretching the truth to make a point, shouting hurtful and unnecessary words, and wasting time talking behind each other’s backs. (From Tricycle, Spring, 1999.)

In our discussion of the fourth training, we will begin with the question: Concretely, what are the challenges we face in embodying loving speech and compassionate listening in our daily lives, and how are we addressing the challenges?

You are invited to be with us.

A excerpt on Right Speech by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner


A Calm Mind and A Joyful Heart: An Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation, January 21, 2013 at Crossings, Silver Spring, Md.

Smiling like a Buddha: A Ten-Session Mindfulness Meditation Class, January 28 to April 15, 2013 at Crossings, Silver Spring, Md.

Settling Into Silence: Still Water Practice Retreat, February 15-17, 2013 at Charter Hall Retreat Center, Perryville, Md.

From The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering Into Peace, Joy, And Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Sometimes, when there are blocks of suffering in us, they may manifest as speech (or actions) without going through the medium of thought. Our suffering has built up and can no longer be repressed, especially when we have not been practicing Right Mindfulness. Expressing our suffering can harm us and other people as well, but when we don’t practice Right Mindfulness, we may not know what is building up inside us. Then we say or write things we did not want to say, and we don’t know where our words came from. We had no intention of saying something that could hurt others, yet we say such words. We have every intention of saying only words that bring about reconciliation and forgiveness, but then we say something very unkind. To water seeds of peace in ourselves, we have to practice Right Mindfulness while walking, sitting, standing, and so on. With Right Mindfulness, we see clearly all of our thoughts and feelings and know whether this or that thought is harming or helping us. When our thoughts leave our mind in the form of speech, if Right Mindfulness continues to accompany them, we know what we are saying and whether it is useful or creating problems.

Deep listening is at the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person. In the Lotus Sutra, we are advised to look and listen with the eyes of compassion. Compassionate listening brings about healing. When someone listens to us this way, we feel some relief right away. A good therapist always practices deep, compassionate listening. We have to learn to do the same in order to heal the people we love and restore communication with them.

When communication is cut off, we all suffer. When no one listens to us or understands us, we become like a bomb ready to explode. Restoring communications is an urgent task. Sometimes only ten minutes of deep listening can transform us and bring a smile back to our lips. The Bodhisattva Kwan Yin is the one who hears the cries of the world. She has the quality of listening deeply, without judging or reacting. When we listen with our whole being, we can defuse a lot of bombs. If the other person feels that we are critical of what they are saying, their suffering will not be relieved. When psychotherapists practice Right Listening, their patients have the courage to say things they have never been able to tell anyone before. Deep listening nourishes both speaker and listener.

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