By Daniel G. Weidner
It was 2015 when a wealthy real estate playboy came down his golden escalator to announce that he was running for President of the United States. His speech was so outlandish, vulgar, and banal that many observers figured that he did not stand a chance to win election to the nation’s highest and most powerful office.
But it got much worse moving forward from there… He effectively opened
up a sewer of disrespectful, bigoted, condescending, mendacious, and harmful speech. This was the beginning of the end for the norms of political speech in our country -- which were not that great to begin with.
This breakdown in ethical and respectful speech was amplified through postings on social media as well as through propaganda inserted into social media from foreign nations and some “news” outlets. A toxic fermentation of this kind of speech became the new normal in our political dialogue. It continues to this day.
As a practitioner of Mindfulness and as a person who is attempting to integrate the Noble Eightfold Path into my life, I have struggled with this unwholesome and disrespectful type of speech. I have found myself expressing my anger and concern about the current political situation (in person, in text messages, and on social media) in ways that clearly do not follow the ethical blueprint put forth in the Noble Eightfold Path – specifically Right Speech.
Right Speech is described as abstaining “…(1) from telling lies, (2) from backbiting and slander and talk that may bring about hatred, enmity, disunity, and disharmony among individuals or groups of people, (3) from harsh, rude, impolite, malicious, and abusive language, and (4) from idle, useless, and foolish babble and gossip.
When one abstains from these forms of wrong and harmful speech
one naturally has to speak the truth, has to use words that are friendly and benevolent, pleasant and gentle, meaningful, and useful. One should not speak carelessly: speech should be at the right time and place. If one cannot say something useful, one should keep “noble silence.” (As described by
Walpola Sri Rahula in the journal Tricycle: The Buddhist Review).
This is clearly a high bar to negotiate in our current culture of discourteous, brash and often audacious speech. Speech is herein defined as any form of communication with another.
Engaging in Right Speech involves the inclusion (and practice) of the other components of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right View, Right Thinking, and Right Mindfulness being the most salient for the practice of Right Speech. It is within these components of the Noble Eightfold Path that one finds
the attributes of compassion, empathy, understanding, acceptance, and non-judgement.
These five components might also be considered as essential for “wokeness”. Finally, Right Speech must include speaking (or other forms of communication) the truth. Truth is sometimes cited as justification for speech that would not be considered as Right Speech. Thich Nhat Hahn says: “It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept.”
In other words, truth is not a justification for the use of mean spirited, toxic, or harmful speech. Thich Nhat Hahn includes filmmakers, musicians, artists, and writers in his description of Right Speech -- if we intend to move
again in the direction of peace, joy, and faith in the future.
Thich Nhat Hahn (TNH) considers deep listening as foundational for the practice of Right Speech. He says that if we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. He goes on to say that “…if you really love someone, train yourself to be a listener.” We do this because this is the best way to show someone that you love them.
The Bodhisattva Kwan Yin is the one who hears (deeply listens to) the cries of the world. She has the quality of listening deeply without judging or reacting. Therapists and counselors who practice Mindfulness endeavor to suffuse this philosophy into their professional practice.
TNH goes on to say that: “Our anger, anxiety, and fear are the ropes that bind us to suffering. If we want to be liberated from them, we need to observe their nature, which is ignorance, the lack of clear understanding.” It is, in fact, ignorance that I believe is at the root of much of the trouble in our nation today. It is a lack of clear understanding, combined with fear and resentment, which lie at the base of the divisiveness and harmful speech that we see so prevalent in parts of our political and social milieu. I sincerely believe that Mindfulness is a practice that can help to lift us out of this quagmire of ignorance, fear, and resentment.
So, where do we go from here? Every path of change begins with recognition. Recognition of the way that things are. Specifically, recognition of our own role and behavior in relation to all forms of “speech”. Once recognition is attained, we then must move to acceptance of the way that things are.
Acceptance does not mean liking or disliking the way that things are -- that is judgement. It means accepting things as they are in the present moment. We must recognize and accept the reality of the way that things are as we experience it.
Once we have attained recognition and acceptance we then find ourselves with choice. The choice that we have is to do something that will be a part of the solution, or to (at least) discontinue any behaviors that can lead to the ongoing dysfunction in our culture and society. This choice then offers an opportunity to initiate a mindfulness practice that will lead to a better understanding of the way that things are.
There are three basic questions, that when asked of ourselves can lead us to recognition of our speech as right speech or unacceptable speech. Before we speak, or write, or otherwise communicate, we can ask ourselves:
Is this true?
Is this necessary?
Is this kind?
This mindfulness practice does not require a great deal of time to effectuate. It does, however, require (1) recognition of the impact upon us of what we are hearing (reading, seeing) in the current moment, (2) consciousness of our response options, and (3) understanding of the resultant impact
of whatever action that we might choose when initiating a response. When there is injustice, condemnation, blame, anger, or resentment involved in a specific event (or perception) this task can become more complicated.
When we find ourselves in a situation that generates emotional reactivity
it can be somewhat more challenging to not react in an impulsive and unacceptable manner. This, again, is where recognition must be where we begin. It is essential that we first recognize our own feelings, history, and past responses to similar situations that generate emotional reactivity within us. We must also recognize our own emotional reactivity as it is happening, in the present moment. Recognition in this regard then offers us the opportunity to choose Right Speech.
All human endeavors (i.e., art, music, cooking, engineering, science, etc.) begin in the human imagination. Therefore, we must first be able to imagine a better, more considerate, and peaceful world. That conceptual recognition can then lead us to practices that will result in a better world. Right Speech is something that each of us can contribute, on a daily basis, to the creation of a more just and peaceful world.