Thursday, May 21, 2009

Watching My Words

Look at this beautiful Buddha.  Last week I came home to find a large package on my back step.  It was the Buddha you see here and he had travelled all the way from Australia.  He was tired and thirsty and needed to be busted out of his bag.  One of the fun things on Etsy is that sellers sometimes do trades.  And through a series of conversations with Kazmattas we decided to trade one of her silk screens for one of my "Paint Box Buddhas".   I love that this Buddha is silk screened on to a wonderful patchwork fabric in one of my favourite colours, mossy green.  Right now he is hanging out with his other Buddha buddies in the dining room and looking right at home.

But enough about packages and Buddha trading (is that like horse trading?)  I have been thinking about right speech.  Right speech is one of  the members of the eightfold path (no that's not some bizarre cult, it's the path that leads to the end of suffering).  It's pretty evident that saying unpleasant things to people out of anger or pride or greed is wrong speech.  And most of us on the path know to heed the advice of Bambi's friend Thumper who said, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."  This doesn't mean that you need to go roll around in the sugar bowl and come out all candy coated, it just means, use speech with care.  If you're angry or can't find the appropriate response it's probably best to wait.  You can always add to conversation later, it's more difficult to eat your words.

The aspect of right speech I have become more aware of lately in myself is a kind of complaining or fault finding.  I have seen it before but seeing it was as far as I got.  But the other day I got this heady whiff of it  and it was calling for attention (is that the ocean or does this conversation really stink?).  It went like this.  My partner and I were out for a walk.  We were chatting about various things, his visit with his mother, the neighbours building a new deck, this and that.  But as the conversation progressed I became painfully aware of how it included so much fault finding about things people were doing that WE thought they shouldn't be, their issues, their obsessions, their peculiarities.  Some of the comments were even amusing and entertaining in a cynical kind of way.  But suddenly it came up for me very strongly what an energy sucker this type of conversation was, how ungenerous it felt, how it left both of us in a slightly grumbly mood on a beautiful sunny day.   There was a stinginess of spirit to this talk and it felt pointless in a what-are-we-doing-this-for sort of way.

When I pointed it out we could both see that it is an habitual way of being in the world.  It is tempting and alluring because in a strange way it's like eating a whole bag of potato chips.  It feels good at the time but with a little awareness we notice later how crappy they make us feel.  And why do we do it?  Are we trying to make ourselves feel better, fuller, more satisfied?  Like the chips this conversation fills a gap.  It's familiar, comfortable and soothes the vulnerable little self  (because heavens, we'd never do those foolish things)  How often does conversation with friends and family revolve around this he said/she said kind of business?

Now I won't go so far as to say I will never slip into this type of conversation again but I am doing my best to notice the inclination toward it and avoid it, or stop if I catch myself  mid grumble.   The fact that this conversation feels like a form of suffering and stinginess all of a sudden makes it feel strongly like a poison to avoid (okay who sprinkled the hemlock on my potato chips?)

And the interesting thing I've learned is that two things happen when I'm not complaining or finding fault with others in my conversation.  There are more quiet moments and it opens up the opportunity for more wholesome conversation, conversation that is based on gratitude and a more positive approach to life.  It is again that stance of looking up, instead of down.  It is a changing of habits.  It is the ongoing work of practice.  There are those things we know in our head and one day without warning they finally drop down to our heart and radiate out into the world from there.

I will end with this quote from Master Hsu Yun: "We think that words are not deeds, that they have little power and a short life, that somehow words evaporate with the breath that speaks them.  But words do have power and they can live forever; and furthermore, they can heal as well as harm."


  1. I thought of the following question while reading your post: When can right speech turn into a form of self-repression? I think you answered this questioned for me. If the right speech “law” stays in the head only there is a danger of repression, but not if the law is written on the heart, (that sounds familiar). What was it you said, let me read it again, oh yes, “There are those things we know in our head and one day without warning they finally drop down to our heart and radiate out into the world from there.” That is beautiful.

  2. Thanks Tallis and that is such an insightful comment about "self-repression" These things can get really subtle. Are we practising skillful means or are we just pushing our stuff away? It can get tricky. For me I find I have to be careful about "the wanting" to make things happen. That's when I push the training too hard, wanting things to happen RIGHT NOW, instead of allowing them to "drop down to the heart level". Another expression of this I like is "understanding something in your blood & bones" as opposed to just that decoration we wear on our shoulders! bows to you!

  3. Your metaphor of the bag of chips really spells it out for me. Negative talk always feels good at first but in the long run, it is draining. I am trying to focus my energies on what I can change and not complain or speak negatively about what is out of my control.