Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of April 5, 2010

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Right Speech

(Aspect 3 of the Eightfold Path)

The uniquely human power of speech may be the single most important factor biologically distinguishing our species. The use of that power merits its own aspect of the Eightfold Path, called Right Speech. This concerns what we say and how we say it, or more broadly, what we communicate and how we communicate it. These, in turn, depend on the intention and awareness behind our communication.

To be right in a moral sense, our speech needs to be helpful, appropriate, and true, non-harming, not divisive, not abusive, and not negative gossip. Listening to our conscience, our intuition of rightness, can guide us in knowing what to say and what not to say. Beyond questions of morality, which concern intentions, we need to understand in advance the likely effects of our words apart from the intentions behind them. Too often those effects work at cross-purposes to what we intended.

By continually seeking to improve our ability to communicate, to bring excellence into our speech, the practice of Right Speech passes from the required realm of morality into the realm of being-work. Excellence in speech includes a broad vocabulary used incisively and the appropriate emotional tone, supported by facial expressions and body language, which all combine to communicate our intended meaning. Words matter, enough to warrant taking the trouble to speak well and with quality. This practice affects the quality of our being, because speaking with excellence requires attention, intention, and presence.

Too often, particularly in intimate, family relationships, we speak from a destructive, emotional reaction, with anger being a common example. Speaking angrily to someone near to us poisons our ongoing relationship. On the other hand, repressing our anger, trying to stuff it down and not feel it, poisons our own psyche just as a surely as speaking angrily does. So we seek the middle ground by inwardly noticing and accepting how we feel, actually feeling it, and crucially not identifying with it. There may be anger coursing through us, but that does not mean that we must be angry. We need not become the anger and we need not dump our destructive emotions on the people around us. Instead, we see the anger, allow it, but realize that it will surely pass. It is just a feeling. It is not who I am. Then, if necessary and appropriate, we may choose to speak about the situation with the others involved. But if we are not identified, not clinging to the anger, we can speak in a constructive manner that leaves room for the other person to engage with us, without reacting.

Many of us love to talk, but fewer give equal importance to listening. Right Speech includes right listening, being interested in other people and what they have to say. In right listening we are simply quiet inside and attentive to the speaker, not inwardly criticizing, and not preparing what we will say next. Those who talk too much miss opportunities to know and enjoy the people around them as anything more than an audience. Those who talk too little, whatever the reason for their reticence, miss the opportunity to make themselves known, to fully engage in the give and take of conversation. Right Speech means finding the balance between speaking and listening. It means not being so identified with our own private world that we leave no room to listen to others, no opening for others to enter our field of care.

Right Speech also means conscious speech, being fully present when we speak and when we listen. While speaking we can practice the inner work of being aware of the sound of our voice, its emotional tone, the physical sensations in our throat, mouth, and chest, the meaning and effect of our words, and our facial expressions and gestures. This can be summed up as the practice of presence in body, in heart, and in mind, while speaking and while listening. Add to this an awareness of how our listeners are responding to what we are saying and we have the fullness of conscious speech.

Finally, there is freedom. Particularly in friendly circumstances, we relax and let the creative and spontaneous enter what we say and how we hear, which often manifests as simple joy and a sense of humor.

So the inner work of Right Speech means speaking in a way that does not offend our conscience, speaking with excellence, not speaking from a state of identification with reactive emotions, making room for others by listening, and being fully present in speaking and in listening.

For this week, be there when you speak and when you listen, and practice Right Speech.


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