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Mindful Speaking

By Gil Fronsdal

There’s a Buddhist saying that states: “When meditating, watch your mind. When in the world, watch your words.” Being mindful of what we say is as important as being aware of what goes on in the mind. In fact, some aspects of the mind do not reveal themselves until we talk. By becoming aware of what motivates our speaking we can discover aspects of our inner life that may be “off- line” when meditating or when we are alone.

Some people find speaking to be one of the most challenging areas in which to be mindful. The interpersonal concerns, wishes, and feelings that come into play when speaking can be so compelling it is easy to lose ourselves in conversations.

By being attentive while speaking it is possible to grow in self-understanding. One way to do this is to simply ask yourself why you say what you do. What motivations prompt you to speak? What emotions and feelings influence what you say? What are you trying to accomplish in speaking? What are you thinking just before speaking?

Often there is not just one answer to these questions. Continued reflection can reveal how complex and varied the motivations are for what we say. Even something as simple as providing information someone has asked for can have multiple motivations or influences. Most obviously we may want to be helpful. In addition we may wish to make a good impression or, at least, avoid a bad impression of ourselves. We may hope for something in return, even if it is just a bit of appreciation or admiration. We may desire to keep the conversation going or we may be trying to end it. We might speak out of a generous impulse or it may be out of a sense of duty. Because there can be so many simultaneous motivations or concerns operating in even the simplest act of speaking, it is useful to keep inquiring so we can recognize as many intentions as possible.

Being mindful as we speak can reduce tension we may have while speaking. This is especially the case when mindfulness includes “bodyfulness”, i.e., awareness of our body as we speak. When we recognize the physical tensions or strains that build as we speak, we can relax, or at least not continue letting the tension build. We might notice that our physical posture and gestures reinforce psychological tensions as much as express them. The more we are aware of these physical aspects of speaking, the wiser we can be about how we use our body.

The rewards of mindful speaking are great. We are less likely to say things we later regret and more likely to speak wisely and thoughtfully. Remaining mindful while speaking gives us more choice in what we say. By recognizing these choices, speaking can become more deliberate and considered. For those on a path of compassion and liberation it becomes possible to choose. The Buddha provided five criteria for deciding when to speak. These are to speak what is true, kind, useful, timely, and conducive to concord. For the Buddha, all five of these criteria must be met before speaking.

Liberation and compassion depend on being honest. Mindfulness itself is a practice of honest recognition of what is happening. When we speak what is not true we are going “against the grain” of the Buddhist path; we are heading north when we are trying to go south. By speaking only what is true we are also speaking in ways that support the clear seeing that mindfulness fosters. As the saying goes, Lies hide, truth reveals.

Just because something is true doesn’t mean that speaking it is kind. In fact it can sometimes be so unkind that speaking the truth is likened to a stick with which to club people. The greater good for everyone, including the person who speaks, is better attained by speaking with genuine interest in the welfare of others. How we speak has a powerful effect on the way we affect each other. While speaking harshly with hostility may accomplish what we want in the short term, it is counterproductive in the long term. By speaking in ways that are kind, friendly and respectful, we are better able to foster ongoing considerate regard for each other. By speaking with kindness people are also better able to hear the important things we have to say. Or even better, we can aspire to speak so people are uplifted more than depressed by what we say. The saying associated with this is, Kind speech are words from the heart.

Speaking the truth is not always useful or beneficial. It is not useful if whom you are speaking to is unable to hear it or take it into account. It is counterproductive if the person ends the conversation or becomes excessively defensive or offensive. Considering how to speak the truth is an aspect of considering what is useful. Speaking respectfully is helpful, as is being careful with the words we use or the tone of voice in which it is spoken. The saying is, If not beneficial, why say it?

Sometimes it is only useful to speak if the timing is right. By including ‘timeliness’ as one of the criteria for speaking, the Buddha is encouraging us to be mindful of the context of the situation and of the person to whom we are talking. Someone may not be in the mood for the conversation, or they may not have the time or energy to attentively listen. They may be too preoccupied or defensive. Or perhaps it is not useful or kind to speak about some things if third parties are listening. Even though something is true doesn’t mean it is appropriate or helpful for the conversation to be public. It can therefore be useful to wait, sometimes a long time, until the time is right for speaking. The saying is, Only when the time is right does truth take flight.

The final criterion for mindful speech is to consider whether what we are going to say and how we are going to say it is conducive for social concord. Does what we say create more division and separation between others and ourselves or does it support mutual understanding, healthier relationships, and social harmony? Stated more simply, do we speak so it pushes people apart or brings them closer? This last criterion is an encouragement to avoid any rigid separation between self and others, between one’s own group and other groups of people, and between one’s own welfare and the welfare of others. Instead we search for ways to have mutual understanding and mutual support. This is related to the saying, Speak so you become each other’s companion on the journey.

These five criteria are particularly important when we are having difficult conversations. At those times strong mindfulness can help us avoid saying that which makes things worse, not better. Not only can we stay rooted in the present moment so we can track our feelings, thoughts and impulses before we speak, it is also a time to consider if what we are about to say is true, kind, useful, timely, and conducive to concord. If it’s not, then it is time to consider other options for how and when to speak.

Speech is an expression of one’s inner life. Through mindfulness we can better care for the quality, well-being and development of our inner life. Prior to speaking ask: Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it useful?
Is it timely?
Is it conducive to concord?