One of my lovely and wonderful friends is departing for the island of Sri Lanka this month, to spend five weeks at an ashram, practicing mindfulness and meditation. Once I stopped plotting how I could sneak myself along in her suitcase, I started thinking about the details of her stay that she filled me in on during our last visit together.
She told me that a large portion of her days will be spent in Noble Silence, a practice of intentionally not speaking in order to calm the mind and body. Speaking is not expressly forbidden, or punished; it’s more like everyone, together, agrees to take a break from speech for a designated period, in order to better listen to other things in the world around them, and to avoid saying hurtful or unnecessary things.
There is also a designated period each day for gathering and discussion, and after observing Noble Silence, speech should now be proceeded by thought and consideration. Words should be spoken because they are necessary, not to fill in silence or to distract.
Speech should be undertaken with care. This is called Right Speech, and it is speech that does no harm – speech that is not a lie, that is spoken with intention and conscientiousness. (There are much more to both concepts, of course, but as a newcomer to them, these are the best and briefest explanations I can give.)
Reflecting On My Words
This got me thinking – how often do I say things that I hurt others, things that are unnecessary or even untrue? Unfortunately, probably several times a day. I speak just to fill in silence, I speak even when I know that what I’m saying is not going to be well-received by the person I am speaking with. I say things out of anger that are hurtful, and this is what I regret most, especially if what I say is directed at my children.
The worst part is that remarks made out of anger are almost always lies, or at least, half-truths. If I snap at my husband, there is certainly a kernel of truth in what I say, but the words I choose to cloak it in are always an exaggeration. Anger, fear and sadness easily take control of our emotions and make us say things that we don’t even really mean. The really bad part is that even if we know in our hearts that we have aimed a barb at someone just to get under their skin, they don’t know that. What they hear is that we mean what we are saying. That we care so little about them that we will say things just to hurt them.
Is Silence Golden?
How can I stop this? With two very young children, it would not be easy, or even useful, to practice Noble Silence for any extended period of time with them, although I can see how calming and introspective it would be. But Right Speech – that I can do. I can work hard (and it is hard work) at being more aware of how my words affect others, and of the potential they carry. I can ask myself, when I hesitate before speaking, is this the right time? Am I putting this the right way? If I was on the receiving end of these words, would they hurt me?
Of course, in moments of anger, I may not be able to think that clearly, that rationally. What I need to work on then is not saying anything at all. It’s a bit of a corruption of the idea, of course, but that can be my own kind of noble silence.
Not keeping in or hiding emotion, but waiting until I am calm enough to not let loose a wave of hurtful words. Waiting until my thoughts sort themselves out and I can say what I really mean, in the best way that I can. Words have the potential to do a great deal of damage, or to work like a balm, or a building block.
As someone who loves the art of writing, I know the power that words hold for me. I need to let that awareness spread to all areas of my life, so that I can choose my words to others with care and conscientiousness, just as thoughtfully as I choose these words I write.