Ok, back to Wise Speech. No doubt, bringing mindfulness to habits of speech is one of the trickiest, hardest and rewarding domains of practice. I was raised in family and school environments where the art of verbal ju-jitsu was not only required for self-preservation but also a highly-esteemed character trait. The perfectly-timed, razor-sharp, dryly-delivered insult or wise-crack became, in a strange way, the most salient aspect of my personality.
For better or worse, after years of practice, I can report only modest shifts in the skillfulness of my speech. It’s mellowed, for sure. There’s less anger and hostility, too. But those latent tendencies have yet to be uprooted. So rather than regale you with my own botched efforts at cleaning up my mouth, I wanted to share a reflection from Thanissaro Bhikkhu from his new book, available freely on-line, With Each and Every Breath.
“Lesson number one in meditation is keeping control of your mouth. If you can’t control your mouth there’s no way you’re going to control your mind. So, before you say anything, ask yourself: (1) “Is this true?” (2) “Is this beneficial?” (3) “Is this the right time to say this?” If the answer to all three questions is Yes, then go ahead and say it. If not, then keep quiet.
When you make a habit of asking yourself these questions, you find that very little conversation is really worthwhile. This doesn’t mean that you have to become unsociable. If you’re at work and you need to talk to your fellow workers to create a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace, that counts as worthwhile speech. Just be careful that social-grease speech doesn’t go beyond that and turn into idle chatter. This is not only a waste of energy but also a source of danger.
Too much grease can gum up the works. Often the words that cause the most harm are those that, when they pop into the mind, are allowed to go unfiltered right out the mouth. If observing the principle of moderation in conversation means that you gain a reputation for being a quiet person, well, that’s fine. You find that your words, if you’re more careful about doling them out, start taking on more worth. At the same time, you’re creating a better atmosphere for your mind. If you’re constantly chattering all day long, how are you going to stop the mental chatter when you sit down to meditate?
But if you develop the habit of watching over your mouth, the same habit comes to apply to the meditation. Your committee members all start learning to watch over their mouths as well. This doesn’t mean that you have to give up humor, just that you learn to employ humor wisely. Humor in our society tends to fall into the categories of wrong speech: falsehoods, divisive speech, coarse speech, and idle chatter. There’s a challenge in learning to use your humor to state things that are true, that lead to harmony, and actually serve a good purpose. But think for a moment of all the great humorists of the past: We remember their humor because of the clever ways they expressed the truth. You may or may not aspire to be a great humorist, but the effort spent in trying to use humor wisely is a good exercise in discernment. If you can learn to laugh wisely and in a good-natured way about the foibles of the world around you, you can learn to laugh in the same way at your own foibles. And that’s one of the most essential skills in any meditator’s repertoire. “
Originally published on March 21, 2013