My reasoning for focusing on the practice of mindful speech is due to its straightforwardness and its applicability. As I’m fond of saying, “You can be mindful of anything.” Speech is no exception. In addition, speech is one of the most common activities that we do every day. So, constantly working on being aware of our speech strengthens our ability to be mindful. Finally, speech is a powerful thing. It has the ability to express love and hate and everything in between. Mindful speech can be a powerful tool for creating more peace in the world.
from “Skillful Speech” by Bhante Gunaratana
The second aspect of Skillful Speech is avoiding malicious talk. As an old folk saying tells us, “The tongue is a boneless weapon trapped between teeth.” When we speak malicious words, our tongue releases verbal daggers. Such words rob people of their good name and their credibility. Even when what we say about someone is true, if its intent is to cause the person harm, it is malicious.
The Buddha defined malicious talk as speech that destroys the friendship between two people. Here’s an example: Suppose on a trip I meet one of your good friends who lives far away. I remember that several months before, you had told me an unflattering story about this fellow. I may not remember your exact words, so I add a little flavor when I repeat what you said. I even make it look like I am doing this guy a favor to let him know that you have been talking about him behind his back. Your friend responds in some heat. When I get home, I repeat his words to you, spicing them up a bit to make it a better story. Because it causes disharmony and breaks up a friendship, such speech is malicious.
Sometimes we disguise malicious speech as concern about another’s behavior. Or we reveal a secret that someone has confided to us, believing that we are doing so “for his own good.” For instance, telling a woman that her husband is being unfaithful because “you don’t want her to be the last to know” may cause more suffering for everyone involved. When you are tempted to speak in such a way, ask yourself what you hope to gain. If your goal is to manipulate others or to earn someone’s gratitude or appreciation, your speech is self-serving and malicious rather than virtuous.
Public speech can be malicious as well. Tabloid newspapers, talk radio, Internet chat rooms, and even some respectable news media seem to be making their living today using words as weapons. A fresh shot at this week’s media target scores points that translate into increased viewers and advertising dollars. Malicious speech knocks someone down to raise someone else up. It tries to make the speaker look incisive, smart, or hip at another’s expense.
Not all malicious speech sounds nasty. Sometimes people use words that seem gentle but have a derogatory meaning. Such disguised verbal daggers are even more dangerous than overtly malicious words because they more easily penetrate the listener’s mind and heart. In modern terms, we call such speech a “backhanded compliment.” We say to someone, “How clever of you to fix up your old house rather than moving to a more fashionable neighborhood,” or “Your g~ray hair is so becoming. Isn’t it wonderful that looking older is acceptable in our profession?” Skillful Speech not only means that we pay attention to the words we speak and to their tone but also requires that our words reflect compassion and concern for others and that they help and heal, rather than wound and destroy.
This week, please try and remember to pay attention to (i.e., be mindful of) the spectrum of kindness in your speech. As you go through the week, each night before you sleep, reflect on how you spoke during the day and make notes in your journals of 3 instances where the quality of kindness was present or absent in the way you spoke. In addition, reflect on these questions:
- Am I using speech to gain something from the person that I’m talking to such as appreciation or reputation or sympathy?
- Do I use my speech as a way to wield power over someone else?
- When I speak unkindly, what’s going on under the surface? Can I recognize a sense of “lack” fuelling the intentions behind my words?
- Do I speak to myself unkindly – if so, what’s going on there?
- When I speak kindly or unkindly, what does that feel like in my body? For instance, is there an excited feeling in my belly; is there a hardness in my heart, etc.?