An experiment in right speech

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Although I’m not Catholic, nearly every year I observe Lent along with my wife, who is Catholic. In a society fueled by instant and constant gratification, the idea of passing on pleasure is a nearly heretical practice. But this ancient practice of giving up cherished habits can be a powerful experience.

In past years, I’ve given up chocolate, beer, potato chips, reading the news, and other guilty pleasures.

This year, I took a different approach, combining the Christian practice of Lent with the Buddhist practice of “right speech.” The sacrifice I aspired to make was “harmful or otherwise negative speech.” Instead, I’d try replacing that with “helpful or kind speech” wherever possible.

Seems like it shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Turned out this proved to be far more difficult than giving up chocolate, my favorite (daily) treat.

Why? For one, as I soon discovered, there is a lot more “mental monitoring” involved. Not eating chocolate is a binary choice: you either eat it, or you don’t. If you make it through the day without eating it, congrats. Now just keep doing that for 40 more days.

Practicing right speech requires constant mindfulness. There isn’t just “one thing” to look at. Right speech lies on a spectrum from harmful to helpful. Within the range of harmful speech, at one end you have outright hostility, with gossip and complaining towards the other end. This includes any speech that might cause negative feelings for others. The range of helpful speech spans from simple kind words to anything that promotes harmony, wisdom, or joy. In other words, any speech that might cause positive feelings in others.

And in the middle of this spectrum, like my grandma used to say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Sometimes silence is the best speech.

Throughout the day, there are so many different ways to respond to the flurry of circumstances coming your way. There is rarely a clear binary choice of what to say. There’s an awful lot of mindfulness needed to consistently choose the “helpful” side of the spectrum. I don’t always have that degree of awareness.

Another difficulty was the social bonds we often tend to share in the fine art of complaining. Whether it’s a group of coworkers, or family members, or old friends, finding something to complain about is a shared language. Resisting the urge to join into these semi-toxic reindeer games requires not just mindfulness, but a willingness to go against the tribe. In these cases, the “silent option” was often the best. But even that requires giving up the perceived benefits of scoring humor points with the group.

Finally, another major obstacle was the occasional fiery blast of emotion. This is no doubt a common barrier to the success of other Lenten sacrifices. Intense emotion tends to obliterate whatever mindful control we have over our urges. And it probably goes without saying that in this strange age of COVID-19, the roller coaster of emotion is no joke. Fear, anger, resentment, or even just a dull, aching anxiety… these rise up like thunderstorms, and rain down all kinds of crap on our heads. And on those around us. Just ask my wife about my “right speech” during some of these days of quarantine.

All that said, this experiment in right speech wasn’t an abject failure. Many days and on many occasions, I caught myself on the verge of complaining, or judging, or talking trash – and quickly zipped it up. I’d like to think I also said a few nice things about and to other people.

On those days I was able to mindfully observe my thoughts before they barrelled forth from my lips, I certainly felt better. Practicing right speech gave me a sense of optimism. Setting an intentional practice like this could be personally and collectively transformative.

I also felt a bit lighter from shedding the weight of “needing to seem cool” – and the heavier weight of guilt from adding to the toxic stew our society is immersed in. Wading into the polluted bog of social media, I could observe the drama in silence without adding  further negativity. Perhaps one day I’ll even work up the mindfulness to join the conversation as a positive voice. I could brush off ad hominem attacks with calm, and help to reestablish positive dialogue.

Perhaps the most helpful lesson for me from this experience was a simple question that often came to mind: “Will this be helpful?” That short phrase often helped to create a pause between thought and speech – which sometimes even led to saying something nice.

Cover photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash