An Xennial's Unlikely Journey of Spiritual Discovery
Right Speech as a Way of Cultivating both Mindfulness and Ethics in Daily Life
I want to share something that I've been doing for a couple of months now that has proved very supportive of my practice. As my mindfulness continues to grow, I started noticing that much of the things that I regretted and that caused harms to others emanated from what Buddhists would call "wrong speech". I then took it upon myself to commit to "right speech" as much as I possibly could. To operationalize this aspiration, I decided to use a "three gates" approach to speech (a formulation attributed to Sufi origins, but it's unclear). As I'm sure many of you know, speech is wholesome under the three gates approach when the following three questions (the three gates) are answered affirmatively:
Is (what I'm about to say) true?
If so, is it also necessary?
If so, is it also kind?
What I do with this is I use moments during the day when I engage someone in conversation or someone engages me in conversation as a "mindfulness bell or alarm" of sorts. By that I mean that I've trained my mind to use conversation or speech as a trigger or alert for coming back to the present moment and being more mindful. The goal is to take a pause before I speak, check in with my feelings, and then do the three gates analysis. If I conclude that what I feel inclined to say is true, necessary, and kind, I say it. If it's not, I abstain. I, of course, don't always succeed in doing this, but I'm getting better every day.
In doing this, I've noticed that a good proxy for whether speech is kind is how the body reacts when I think about what I'm about to say. This is typically a "below the neck" inquiry, so to speak. In other words, it's not a conceptual or intellectual endeavor. Instead, it's a more intuitive/experiential approach to the question. If the body feels contracted or constricted, it's usually a good sign that what I want to say is unkind or unskillful. Contraction in my case if often felt as a tightening of the chest, or as tension in the shoulders or elsewhere in the body. On the other hand, if the body feels expansive it's usually a good sign that what I'm about to say is kind and skillful. In my case, signs of expansiveness in the body include looseness in the muscles and general bodily relaxation.
The beauty of this practice is that it kills two birds with one stone. First, it develops mindfulness in daily life, as we typically have dozens if not hundreds of opportunities to speak any given day. And, at least pursuant to the approach that I've adopted, it is a pretty complete mindfulness practice, in the sense that it requires you to not only pause and connect with what's here now, but also to check in with your body and notice the subtle and not so subtle ways in which mind and body interact in the context of conversation. Second, it develops sila or morality as well, for it leads to abstaining from speech in cases where speech would be unwholesome. This reduces suffering in the world by simultaneously not causing suffering to the hearer, and by not causing you (the speaker) downstream suffering when you realize that what you said was hurtful and you'd like to take it back. Win-Win-Win.
On a side note, I've also noticed that this is also a good way to approach posting in internet forums such as this one, especially when the post is a comment to an already existing thread. I've often caught myself about to write a snarky comment or about to respond defensively to what appeared to be a snarky comment directed at one of my posts. When I catch myself about to do that, I take a moment and check whether the post or comment passes three gates muster. It seldom does!