The Buddha singled out wise speech as one of the important factors for awakening. It is part of the eight fold path, leading to the cessation of suffering and the realization of self-awakening. Like other parts of the path, wise speech requires effort, mindfulness and spiritual wisdom on our part to avoid harming others as well as ourselves. It is one of the most profound practices we can undertake off the meditation cushion and one of the greatest gifts we can give others. As Joseph Goldstein writes, “The care it takes to avoid harmful speech creates a vast playing field of mindfulness in our daily lives.”
Wise speech is rooted in learning to avoid four unwholesome verbal actions that cause harm to others and ourselves. These are lying (false speech), using harsh or aggressive language, divisive speech (backbiting and gossiping) and frivolous (or useless) conversation. Or put in positive terms, wise speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, comforting, harmonious, and worth taking to heart. When we practice these positive forms of speech, our words become a gift to others. The benefit of this practice is that people are more likely to listen to you and respond in kind.
One way to practice wise speech is to listen to our internal monologue. What is the tone of voice we use within our mind? Do we have a tendency to build ourselves up or put ourselves down? How often do we complain, compare, and judge ourselves? It is likely that your internal and external talk run in parallel tracks, so if we can hear and improve our internal monologue, it will help us hear and improve the way that we speak with others.
The more we practice wise speech, the more we see that the way we act shapes our experience and the world around us. If we can take some time to investigate the feelings behind our words, we may begin to uncover hidden or confused motives behind our speech. Self-righteous words may be a cover for anger. Angry words may be a cover for fear. Gossiping may be an attempt to try and reaffirm and strengthen our feelings of self-worth. Sometimes we engage in frivolous banter to cover up a feeling of unworthiness or a need for approval.
The point of practicing wise speech, however, is not to beat ourselves up. As meditation instructor Dr. Shahara Godfrey states in an interview published on Spirit Rock’s website, “the whole point is that the practice gives us the opportunity to try again and again. And we will make mistakes. Yet, how can we be kind to ourselves in a moment when we know we have made a mistake? I think the beauty of the practice is that we get an opportunity to practice Wise Speech over and over again with so many different people and in so many different situations.”
Exercises for Practicing Wise Speech
Here are two exercises that you might find useful for cultivating wise speech in your daily life.
Say Only What It True and Helpful: A succinct summary of wise speech in the Buddha’s words could be paraphrased as “say only what is true and helpful.” With this in mind, see if you’d like to pick one day a week (or month) to focus on speaking only words that to the best of your knowledge are truthful and beneficial to those on the receiving end of your words. This requires mindfulness to see what is really true for us in the moment. Unless we are aware of our true experience, it is hard to be truthful in our speech.
Give Up Gossip: Choose a time period of perhaps a day or a week. Then commit to not saying anything about other people unless they are in your presence. Whenever you find yourself tempted to gossip, try to recognize the underlying motive.
For each of these exercises take some time at the end of the day to reflect on your experience. Notice the sense of integrity and strength that comes from holding to the truth, treating people with respect, and refusing to succumb to hurtful talk. Also notice when you have temptations to stretch the truth or gossip. See if you can discern some of the hidden agendas behind these impulses. The point of these exercises isn’t to criticize ourselves, but to simply notice what words arise out of our mouths and investigate the subtle motives behind them. This is an opportunity to attend to the habitual emotions or thoughts that may block us from using our words in a more truthful and harmonious manner.
With practice, our speech can grow wiser and our hearts become lighter. We begin to see the suffering that unmindful speech causes ourselves and those around us. We see how unmindful listening creates a feeling of separation between us and others, and constricts our heart. As our speech becomes more mindful, compassionate and kind, we will sense greater harmony in our lives and promote greater peace among all beings in this world.