“Utter only speech that neither torments oneself nor harms others.” (SN.8.5)
If we’re serious about liberation, meditation practice doesn’t end when we leave the cushion-it just gets more real. There are countless ways to bring these teachings to life. One of the most powerful (and frequently overlooked) vehicles for transformation is that of “Right Speech.” The Buddha spoke regularly of the power words have to heal or harm, as well as to play an active role in our awakening individually & collectively.
As social creatures, speech holds a crucial place in our lives. Many of our deepest joys & sorrows come from our relationships, where verbal communication can determine the quality of our connection. Internally, thinking & perception continually shapes experience. Externally, language has the potential to bridge the gap between us & connect our inner worlds. What’s more, from the Buddhist perspective, speech is one of the three doors of action by which we create kamma, intentional acts that affect our wellbeing & shape future habits.
The classical definition of Right Speech is clear enough: abstain from false, harsh, divisive & idle speech (SN 45.8). Yet to implement this requires careful attention not only to what we say, but to why we speak, as well as how & when we speak. Practicing with these guidelines shapes our mind for our welfare & steers our conversations towards more harmony & meaning.
The teachings on speech go far beyond this basic definition. At the core, Right Speech means using language in service of awakening. It is to use our words-internally & externally-to cultivate skillful qualities & reduce unskillful qualities of mind. How often do our conversations (& our thoughts) enhance healthy states like patience, generosity, kindness, truthfulness, simplicity? How often do they instead reinforce unhealthy habits or stimulate impulses that only entangle us further?
The more I study these ancient teachings on speech, the more I see them as a dynamic template meant to inform our lives. They provide guidance to orient our intentions & to navigate an increasingly complex world. Where they lack specific instruction on how to implement their wisdom, we can rely on more modern disciplines to fill in the gaps. (E.g., I’ve found great benefit in Nonviolent Communication as an adjunct).
When we take up this practice of Right Speech as a core part of the contemplative path, we gain a tremendous arena for training the mind, and create more opportunities to give voice to our deepest values. As we witness the extreme polarization in the world today, the absence of real dialogue in so many sectors of civil society, we need these tools more than ever.
Oren Jay Sofer teaches meditation & communication retreats & workshops nationally. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication & a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for the healing of trauma. Oren also holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University & is the author of a new book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.