For the last year, my intention has been to focus on a specific spoke in the wheel of the eightfold path—Right Speech. Almost immediately after I set this intention, I experienced big challenges and big failures. The lessons learned were painful but utterly necessary to truly take Right Speech to another level. Through the process it has been easy to see how the spokes are related to one another—Right Intention and Right Speech are intertwined at every level.
My first lesson came in the form of a deep intuition of a long friendship. It was clear to me that the stories some friends had of me were not how I saw myself or my current story. I felt this disconnected undercurrent as I struggled in my new and stronger self, one that left any trace of victim aside. The new self was one that others could not recognize, and one that showed significant growing pains through repeated mistakes.It would be the easy way to go back to feeling misunderstood and as a victim of others’ opinions of me—however, I was focusing on MY Right Speech. I could not judge if they were following their own path.
I realized that Right Speech was not just the words that came out of my mouth, but the stories I told that they would never hear. These stories, told to myself or others, colored my speech and must have been affecting the other.
Managing Right Speech while holding stories of the other that are outdated, judgmental or demeaning, is like trying to hold a lid on a boiling pot—sooner or later the lid is going to slip and not hold in that steam. Right Intention guides us to let go of the many ego-centric causes of these stories. The stories can cast us in the role of victim, rescuer or the abuser. We may be looking to fill an emotional need that is not right for that person to be asked to fill. We may be expressing anger towards this person or another. Keeping our focus on ‘us’ as separate and different from the ‘other’ turns up the heat.
We tell that story of the ‘other’ that meets our needs, and sometimes the other has little impact. Then maybe we cringe. We know this story is not all the truth, we know this story does not encourage compassion. Feeling our failure, we can sit in compassion for ourselves and the other. We can also heat up the stove, tell it to others, and get validation to justify telling the story to begin with.
We know we are not separate—we experience we are not separate when we meditate. We are not our own little unique snowflake, but rather part of a storm. So by holding this hurt we only keep it going, setting everyone up for hurtful speech which passes on and on.
The question is how, how do we transform a lifetime of not watching Right Speech and possibly being in a culture that focuses more on the negative than the positive in others?
First of all, metta. Start with people who are a little easier than the person you feel many negative emotions about. Then ease into those who anger us. The entire process takes a lot of metta towards ourselves since we will not get it right very soon. Remember it is all practice, on and off the cushion.
Next, examine those stories about self and others. That friend who is always a victim? Treat them as a powerful survivor. This does not take away their challenges but may empower them.
Watch what causes more negative stories and makes that metta difficult. After two weeks, I can say I am almost ready to practice metta for the person who verbally attacked someone I care about because of a misplaced protective feeling towards me. That is pretty huge, but if Ghandi could do this for his would-be assassin, then it is possible. Take your time and give yourself compassion until you are ready. This may take dropping or limiting some friendships, not watching the news or reading horrible stories or putting a reminder alarm on your phone to bring yourself back to your practice.
Notice I did not say goal. Setting our goals, New Year’s resolutions and exercise plans can be helpful, but more often we get discouraged at a setback and then judge ourselves until we quit. This is not going to be a goal we achieve but a practice that refines over time. You will be aware of one area to work on and then feel as if you are starting over. The rewards, however, are still very powerful.
One result of my focus on Right Speech has been being seen as a strong positive force in my workplace, and as a result having my input respected even more. I am getting more opportunities to train and speak in groups to represent the interests of our programs.
For me, Right Speech has meant shutting up often, but even more than that—speaking up.