Skillful Speech

by Roger Walsh
This article was originally published in the Dzochen Center newsletter.

Religious traditions regard speech as enormously powerful.  In the 3,000 year old Hindu Vedas, sacred speech is regarded as a primal creative force, while the Christian gospel of St. John opens with, “In the beginning was the word.”  These texts imply that the power of speech is awesome.  And so it is.  A hateful outburst can hurt and harm; kind words can heal and help. In fact, kind words offer much and cost little.  Not surprisingly, skillful speech is regarded as a key component of ethical living, and ethical living is a key component of spiritual practice.

When properly understood, ethics is not self-sacrifice but rather enlightened self-interest.  Ethical living helps, heals and creates happiness, not only for others, but for ourselves also.  It is truly a win-win practice, and a key element of that practice is skillful speech.

One would think our words, so fleeting and unsubstantial, would be easy to change.  In practice, it is quite a challenge.  Most of us have grown careless with our speech: sometimes saying what people want to hear rather than what is true, spouting little lies to protect our egos, big lies to protect our little lies.  All too quickly this becomes a vicious cycle that harms us in ways we don’t even recognize. In her wonderful book Kitchen Table Wisdom, the physician Rachel Remen tells the following story of the costs of unethical speech.

A woman with heart disease had suffered frequent chest pain from her disease.   Over the years she modified her diet, learned to meditate, and had been successful in controlling most of her pain.  Yet some of her pain had been resistant to her efforts.  Paying very careful attention to this, she had been shocked to notice that she experienced pain when she was about to do or say something that lacked integrity, that really wasn’t true to her values. These were usually small things like not telling her husband something that he did not seem to want to hear, or stretching her values a bit in order to go along with others.  Times when she allowed who she really was to become invisible.  Even more surprising, sometimes she would know this was happening but sometimes the chest pain would come first, and then, examining the circumstances which provoked it, she would realize for the first time that she had been betraying her integrity. Stress may be as much a question of a compromise of values as it is a matter of external time pressure and fear of failure.

Once the toxic costs of unethical behavior are recognized, life is never quite the same.  After all, who wants to continue hurting themselves once they see this is exactly what they are doing?  For thousands of years the great religions have warned about the cost of unethical living, and now we see that these costs are not only spiritual, but also psychological and physical.

In light of this, it is no wonder the great religions urge us to choose our words with care and compassion, and to say only what is true and helpful.  Buddhists call it “right speech.”  Right speech requires sensitivity both to other people and to our own motives and emotions. Only then can we see what is both true to our experience and also likely to be helpful.
Right speech is a skill, and like all skills it improves with practice.  Practiced over time, it becomes increasingly effortless and produces a growing sense of peace. Gradually it becomes apparent that Jesus was not exaggerating when he claimed that, “The truth will make you free.”  According to the Buddha, those people who master right speech

Offend no one,
Yet they speak the truth.
Their words are clear,
But never harsh.
They do not take offense,
And they do not give it.

I have found no better nor more succinct summary of skillful speech than the words of the Buddha who recommended, “say only what is true and helpful.”  This is the essential guideline for practicing skillful speech.  So with this guideline in mind, here are two powerful exercises that put it into practice.

Exercise #1: For a Day, Say Only What It True and Helpful.
This exercise has multiple benefits.  First, it requires being sensitive to your experience to see what is really true for you.  For actually, the only thing you can tell the truth about is your own experience.  Second, it helps us notice all the temptations to lie or fudge.  Suddenly we become sensitized to the fears and phobias, dubious motives, and hidden agendas that can color our words.
To enhance the benefit, it’s worth taking some time at the end of the day to reflect on your experience.  Were you tempted to fudge, and if so why? What did you gain from truth telling?  Less guilt?  Perhaps a sense of strength and integrity?  This truth telling exercise requires only a few minutes during the day but can offer insights that endure for years.  The long-term goal is to eventually make truthful, helpful speech a natural spontaneous way of communicating.

Exercise #2: Give Up Gossip.

Curb your tongue and senses,
and you are beyond trouble.
Let them loose and you are beyond help.
—Lao Tzu

For this exercise choose a time period of perhaps a day or a week.  Then commit to not saying anything about other people unless you have already said, or would be willing to say this to them directly. Whenever you find yourself tempted to gossip, try to recognize the underlying motive.

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. “Better than a thousand hollow words,” said the Buddha, “is one word that brings peace.”

With practice, skillful speech and ethical living become a way of life.  Then they are no longer a struggle or even a practice.  Rather they become a natural, effortless, and enjoyable expression of our true nature.  Jack Kornfield summarized the growth of ethics as follows:

At first, precepts [ethics] are a practice.  Then they become a necessity, and finally they become a joy.  When our heart is awakened they spontaneously illuminate our way in the world.  This is called Shining Virtue.  The light around someone who speaks truth, who consistently acts with compassion for all, even in great difficulty, is visible to all around them.

Effortless skillful speech and spontaneous ethical living are expressions of the higher reaches of spiritual practice in general, and of Dzogchen practice in particular.  Dzogchen is rare among spiritual traditions in emphasizing spontaneity as both a powerful practice and a culminating way of being.  Skillful speech and ethical living allow us to recognize that we are not who we thought we were, and that who we are is naturally ethical and trustworthy.  As such we can relax and simply be ourselves, trusting that the natural expression of our true nature will tend towards appropriate, compassionate action guided by the desire to ensure the well-being of all.

This discussion is based on the section on ethics from Roger Walsh’s book Essential Spirituality: The Seven Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind, (Wiley Press: 1999).