2021-06-15 The Dharmic Life (2 of 5) Attention to Speech
2:33AM Jun 16, 2021
The topic for this week is how to replicate at home, in your daily life, some of the benefits that come from living a religious life in the Dharma – for example, on a retreat, or living in a monastery. Some people will have a strong desire to plunge more deeply into the practice. Sometimes, because of family or work, they cannot go off and spend some serious amount of time devoting themselves to the Dharma.
That is quite a wonderful desire to deepen that way. I support it wholeheartedly. You can get a lot of those benefits by practicing in ordinary life. Sometimes when we are practicing in everyday life, and not leaving to go someplace special, the practice has an honesty to it and richness. We are really addressing some of the issues of our life, rather than avoiding them. Thinking, while avoiding them off in the monastery, we can somehow make progress.
There are some simple ways that in principle are not very complicated. In practice, they can be quite significant and profound. Yesterday I talked about bringing more attention to the body, living a more embodied life. Coming back to your body over and over again, throughout the day, whatever you are doing. Seeing and understanding what is happening in the body. Learning from the experience of the body.
Today, I want to emphasize speech – how we talk. That can be talking with our voice. It can be communication we do electronically. It can be how we talk to ourselves, our self-talk.
There are many things to say about Right Speech and speaking well. There is a tendency in Buddhism to look at it more from the ethical side, like I did last Sunday. We evaluate it by the impact or how it is we are doing it.
The other way is to practice mindfulness of speaking. Not so much looking at whether what we are saying is beneficial, true, kind, or timely. These are all good criteria for knowing how we speak. But, to simply bring non-judgmental awareness, mindfulness, to our speech, and to our communication itself.
As we do this we become more aware of how we are as we speak. What is prompting us to speak? What are the emotions? What are the body sensations? How is the body activated as we speak? Are we settled in our body? Are we outside our body? Are we leaning with our body, or pulling back with our body? What is happening with our body as we speak?
What emotions do we have when speaking? To what degree is there impatience when we speak? To what degree is there a forcefulness? (We have to get our word out. "Can't that person stop speaking so I can speak.")
There is a whole slew of things to become aware of if you start becoming attuned to what is happening with you as you speak. Just practice mindfulness of speaking.
One of the reasons why this is so powerful, is that speaking is the tip of the iceberg. It represents so much of our beliefs, assumptions, desires, aversions, and orientation about life. It represents our belief about the purpose of life and the sense of self that has been constructed and lived with. There are so many things that are underneath the tip of that iceberg. If we stop and take a good look at it, we start seeing some of these underlying things. We learn so much about ourselves.
If you want to do one thing that can reveal so much, before you speak ask yourself, why are you speaking now? Why do you want to speak? Do not settle for the first answer. "I want to speak because they asked me for directions, and I want to give them directions." Maybe that is true, but then you might be overlooking the benefits of this exercise.
Yes, they asked me for directions and I wanted to give it to them. But more deeply, "Why am I speaking?" "Oh, I'm trying to prove to them, I'm a good direction giver," or "I want them to like me." "I don't want to be seen as being unfriendly and so I want to try to make up for it." There are all kinds of things that can be there. There often is not just one reason why we speak, but multiple reasons why we are going to say what we are going to say.
It can be quite humbling to see all the motivations we have. It is a window into what is under the water of the iceberg. We can see so much more of who we are.
One of the interesting areas to look at with speech is around the idea that sometimes leaders lead in front and sometimes they lead from behind. Leading in front is like leading the charge and pushing ahead. Bringing everyone along or encouraging everyone to follow.
Leading from behind is more about encouraging. It is more like letting other people take the lead. It is giving them enough space to be who they are and go forward. And then to offer, like a shepherd, support and guidance from behind. Offer encouragement from behind. Then other people do not feel like they are in the wake of a leader. They do not feel like they are only doing someone else's bidding.
In the same way – when you have self-talk – are you asserting yourself? When you are speaking to others, are you asserting yourself? Are you pushing ahead? Do you have some agenda that you want to do? Are you leading in the front? Are you pushing yourself into the forefront?
Or is there some appropriate way to lead from behind with your self-talk or how you talk to other people? Leading from behind means that we are not asserting ourselves. We are not trying to manipulate or change situations so much – in a driven way.
We certainly can still be involved in changing what needs to be changed. But there is more of a sense of cooperation and receptivity. We are more in touch with and connected to ourselves, than if we are advancing in the front and leading the whole show.
Sometimes by being ahead of ourselves – focusing on what we want and what we want to accomplish with our speech – we often can lose touch with ourselves. We are not so much in touch with our feelings, emotions, or centeredness. We are not resting in ourselves. I have certainly talked sometimes when I felt like I was in front of myself. I was not really inhabiting my body.
When we lead from behind, then we are at rest here. We are connected to ourselves. We know what is happening. We can track our feelings and emotions. We can recognize when we are speaking in unwholesome ways much more easily. If we are leading in the front we are not following and tracking ourselves as carefully. We are focusing on what we are trying to accomplish and what we are trying to get across.
To become aware of what we are doing when we speak. Why do we speak? Why are we saying what we want to say? Go through the layers of that. Be aware of the mindfulness of the body as you speak. Be aware of what is happening in the bigger picture of yourself around what you are saying or wanting to say.
Are 'you' being driven by your speech? Are your speech, thoughts, and ideas ahead of you, pulling everything else about you with them. Are you leading from the front? Or is your thinking coming along with some deeper motivation, some deeper way of being in the world? Is it supporting, guiding and offering some leadership, but from behind? You are connected and supportive for everything that is who you are.
Mindfulness of speaking leads us to have the wherewithal to have more choice about what we say. We can track what we are about to say and notice what is wholesome and unwholesome. We can notice what might have negative consequences or be hurtful, versus saying things that are supportive, kind and positive.
We are better able to choose not to say something, but to wait and sit. Not speak until we have something better to say – something more useful to say, or a more useful way of saying it.
There is an ancient saying that speech is more like arrows than a sword. You shoot an arrow – you cannot pull it back. When you pull a sword out of a sheath, you can always put it back in the sheath. So be careful with your words, and what comes out of your mouth.
By practicing mindfulness of speaking, and leading from behind, we are better able to see what is coming. We see what words want to be said. We have much more wisdom. If our words are going to be a sword and stab someone – we can see that and put the sword back in its sheath. Then we can see if we can say something more supportive, helpful or beneficial in the situation.
Mindfulness of speaking – of course, you do not have to do this. If what you want is to live a dharmic life and have the Dharma much more fully in your life in a way that is as beneficial as going on retreats or going into a monastery, this is a way to do it. Tremendous benefit and good can come out of this.
Do it and start slowly. Do not feel like you have to do all or nothing. Do not go from zero to 60 with mindful speaking in three seconds. Maybe you do it over days, where you slowly begin to stretch yourself into this world of speaking so that you are leading from behind. You are tracking and watching. You are attentive to the whole world that is happening in yourself as you speak.
One of the great benefits of this is that you speak in the world in a way that is more beneficial for others. Also you can begin shifting how you talk to yourself. Maybe you will find yourself with more wholesome self-talk, instead of unwholesome self-talk.
So, in these next 24 hours, you might want to take time to practice with this and look at it. One way to do this is to talk with friends about mindful speaking. Ask them what they have learned. Tell them what you are learning or what you are experimenting with. Then do the experiments. Do the exercises and see what you can learn. Pause more, and thereby be more mindful. Thank you.