Why is Loving Speech So Difficult?

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Dear Still Water Friends,

The Five Mindfulness Trainings were offered as guidelines for mindful living by the Buddha 2500 years ago. Over the past forty years Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community have re-interpreted the trainings so that they more clearly address the conditions of modern life. This past Saturday, a Transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings Ceremony was held in Oakton, Virginia, and 35 members of the regional mindfulness communities publicly committed themselves to receiving, studying, and practicing the trainings. Fourteen were from from the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center, It was a lovely and moving ceremony for those taking the trainings as well as for the many family and friends there to support them. Congratulations to all.

This Thursday, as we do on the second Thursday of each month, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on one of the trainings. The topic will be the fourth training, “Loving Speech and Deep Listening.”

In the time of the Buddha, the training was simply to refrain from false speech (musavada veramani). However, speaking truthfully, refraining from false speech, was only one component of what the Buddha called Right (or Wholesome) Speech, the 4th element of the eight-fold path. Right speech also included:

  • refraining from slanderous speech
  • refraining from harsh speech
  • refraining from idle chatter

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his expansion of the training, brings in these and other elements and phrases them in a positive way. For me, the heart of the fourth training is the sentence:”Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope.” (The full text of the training is below)

Often practitioners say that this training is for them the most difficult of the five to practice. The opening question for our Dharma sharing is: Why is this so? Why is it so difficult to speak “truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope?”

When I asked myself, the response that came to mind was that practicing the Fourth Training is more closely related to my inner life and emotional states than the other trainings. I can be sad, angry, or envious, and I can still choose not to kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, or consume inappropriately. However, if I am sad, angry, or envious, I may not be able to speak so that I “inspire confidence, joy, and hope.” It is very difficult to fake. Before I can fully actualize loving speech, I have to transform myself, and that is not easy.

David Loy, in his essay “The Suffering of Self,” identifies the socially constructed self, which has no inherent substantiality, as the cornerstone of our suffering and emotional turmoil. It is experienced personally as a feeling of lack: not having what one needs to be happy, content, and centered.

I think this is one of the great secrets of life: each of us individually experiences this sense of unreality as the feeling that “something is wrong with me.” Growing up is learning to pretend along with everyone else that I’m okay, you’re okay. A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we’re all really okay even though inside we feel that we’re not. When we look at other people from the outside, they seem quite solid and real to us, yet each of us feels deep inside that something is not right – something is wrong at the core.

. . . Usually that void at our core is so uncomfortable that we try to evade it, by identifying with something else that might give us stability and security. Another way to say it is that we keep trying to fill up that hole, yet it’s a bottomless pit. Nothing that we can ever grasp or achieve can end our sense of lack.

Loy goes on to explain that the way to overcome the sense of lack is to open to it through mindfulness and meditation.

So what happens when we don’t run away from that hole at our core? That’s what we are doing when we meditate: we are “letting go” of all the physical and mental activity that distracts us from our emptiness. Instead, we just sit with it and as it.

… if I can learn to not run away, to stay with those uncomfortable feelings, to become friendly with them, then something can happen to that core – and to me, insofar as that hole is what “I” really am. The curious thing about my emptiness is that it is not really a problem. The problem is that we think it’s a problem. It’s our ways of trying to escape it that make it into a problem.

. . . Instead of being experienced as a sense of lack, the empty core becomes a place where there is now awareness of something other than, greater than, my usual sense of self. I can never grasp that “greater than,” I can never understand what it is – and I do not need to, because I am an expression of it. My role is to manifest it.

You are invited to join us this Thursday for our meditation, recitation, and exploration of the fourth training. The full text of the training is below, along with a related excerpt by Thich Nhat Hanh from For a Future to Be Possible.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

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.

The Practice of Right Speech
By Thich Nhat Hanh from For a Future to Be Possible,.

Unless we look deeply into ourselves, this practice will not be easy. If there is a lot of suffering in you, it is difficult to listen to other people or to say nice things to them. First you have to look deeply into the nature of your anger, despair, and suffering to free yourself, so you can be available to others. Suppose your husband said something unkind on Monday and it hurt you. He used unmindful speech and does not have the ability to listen. If you reply right away out of your anger and suffering, you risk hurting him and making his suffering deeper. What should you do? If you suppress your anger or remain silent, that can hurt you, because if you try to suppress the anger in you, you are suppressing yourself. You will suffer later, and your suffering will bring more suffering to your partner.

The best immediate practice is to breathe in and out in order to calm your anger, to calm the pain: “Breathing in, I know that I am angry. Breathing out, I calm my feeling of anger.” Just by breathing deeply on your anger, you will calm it. You are being mindful of your anger, not suppressing it. When you are calm enough, you may be able to use mindful speech. In a loving and mindful way, you can say, “Darling, I would like you to know that I am angry. What you just said hurt me a lot, and I want you to know that.” Just saying that, mindfully and calmly, will give you some relief. Breathing mindfully to calm your anger, you will be able to tell the other person that you are suffering. During that moment, you are living your anger, touching it with the energy of mindfulness. You are not denying it at all.

. . . After you breathe in and out a number of times to recover your calmness, even if your anger is still there, you are mindful of it, and you can tell the other person that you are angry. You can also tell him that you would like to look deeply into it, and you would like him to look deeply into it also. Then you can make an appointment . . . to look at it together. One person looking at the roots of your suffering is good, two people looking at it is better, and two people looking together is best.

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