The Challenge of Loving Speech and Compassionate Listening

The Challenge of Loving Speech and Compassionate Listening

Discussion date: Thu, Jul 13, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

When I was a little girl, I was always getting my feelings hurt. My older boy cousins teased me relentlessly, and I’d go crying to my mother. My mother often said, “Just tell them, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.’” In retrospect this sounds like one of the worst pieces of advice one could ever give to a child! We all know that words can hurt when they are said in anger and when their intention is to wound. Words can hurt even when no harm is intended – when the speaker (and I have been that speaker, and probably you have, too) is just speaking unmindfully. Unkind words can continue to hurt when remembered years later; likewise, words of understanding and empathy can comfort and uplift us when we recall them years after they were spoken. Words are important and powerful, and this is what the Fourth Mindfulness Training on Loving Speech and Compassionate Listening is about.

In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) says that practicing the Fourth Mindfulness Training is “a great gift.” It is so important, he writes, that “If you fail in this training, you cannot succeed in restoring harmony, love, and happiness” in your relationships.

When Thay crafted this training, he spelled out the most important purpose of Right Speech: to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in ourselves and other people. He added sentences about anger, the first of which is “When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak.”

It has taken me some time in the practice to see the wisdom of not speaking when angry. After all, don’t I have the right to express my anger? I’ve come to understand that taking the time to breathe and walk mindfully and to ask myself, “What is it really that I’m so angry about?” is an act of love and respect for myself. When I understand the root cause of my anger, I calm down, and I might even feel some compassion for myself and the person who did or said something that triggered my anger. I might be able to let in the possibility that the person was not intending to hurt me at all; she was just going about her habitual way of doing things. Then I’m more able to speak calmly and skillfully to her about my anger, and she is more likely to hear me.

The other aspect of Right Speech is our capacity to listen to one another. Thay writes,

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.

If we are suffering because of a conflict with another person, we might consider whether the other person is suffering, too. If they are, we can offer them the great gift of listening to their side of the story – listening without judgment, criticism, or condemnation — listening, as Thay says, “with the single purpose of helping the other person suffer less.” This is not easy, and Thay says repeatedly that we have to practice, we have to train ourselves to listen In this way.

From the Buddhist perspective, speech is an action, a karma that has consequences. In Buddha Mind, Buddha Body, Thay writes about “triple karma”: the actions of thought, speech, and body. All three kinds of action go out into the world and in the direction of the future; Thay says that they are our continuation in the future.

What will happen after your body disintegrates? The answer is that you are continued by your thoughts, your words, and your physical actions. If you want to know how you will be in the future, just look into these triple actions, and you’ll know. You don’t need to die in order to begin to see it – you can see it now – because in every moment you are producing yourself, you are producing the continuation of yourself. Every thought, every word, every act bears your signature – you can’t escape. If you produce something not so beautiful you can’t take it back – it has already gone out ahead into the future and begun to produce a chain of action and reaction. But you can always produce something different, something positive, and this new action of yours, in terms of thinking or speech or action, will modify the previous negative action.

Realizing that my thoughts, words, and bodily actions have effects and repercussions in the future, even after the death of my body, is sobering. It motivates me to stop and look deeply into the kinds of thoughts I habitually think and the way I habitually speak to people. And, as Thay has pointed out, I am producing my future self with every action that I take in the present. This is a hopeful thing because, with mindfulness, I have the ability to choose actions that go in the direction of compassion and understanding, and to create a more compassionate “me” in the future.

Right Speech is a lot more than just “being honest.” I may be tempted to be “brutally honest” with another person out of frustration or because I think it’s the only way “to get through to them.” I have never enjoyed being on the receiving end of someone’s brutal honesty, though. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay writes about the care and attention that is called for when we want to speak about something difficult with another person:

The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is “Right” in both form and content. The Fourth Mindfulness Training also has to do with loving speech. You have the right to tell another everything in your heart with the condition that you use only loving speech.

This sounds simple – but not easy. Of course, we make mistakes. None of us speaks skillfully all the time. Speaking lovingly and listening compassionately is a practice, and we get better at it by practicing it, mostly imperfectly. When I realize I’ve said something unkind or unskillful, I feel ashamed and humbled. I’ve learned that the best antidote is to apologize to the person right away. The person may or may not accept my apology, but I feel better for making the effort to express my regret. I take a deep breath and set an intention to be more mindful now and in the future.

This Thursday evening after meditation, we’ll have the opportunity to share our experiences and insights in practicing loving speech and compassionate listening. Here are some questions that we might like to consider:

  • How do you prepare for conversations about difficult or painful subjects?
  • What helps you stay calm, fully present, and able to listen with compassion during the conversation?
  • What changes in your relationships, if any, have come about as a result of practicing with the challenge of loving speech and compassionate listening?

We hope you can join us on Thursday evening.

The text of the Fourth Mindfulness Training is below.

Bowing and smiling,

Connie Anderson


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 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 my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found 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 transform 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 practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jul 13, 2023


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