Since every situation is different, we may feel that coming up with Right Speech is near impossible. We need to think on our feet. We don’t have time to ponder what would be the most perfect skillful words to say.
If we are rooted in Right View and Right Intention, then pausing briefly to take a breath and bring our awareness fully in the present moment, is sufficient to assure us that the words we speak will be as skillful, heartfelt and timely as possible.
But we are human and we misspeak at times. Right Speech will not spout forth from our mouths just because we’ve heard a dharma talk and agree with the concepts in principal. Buddhist practice is an ongoing experiential exercise in learning how to access our deepest understanding.
All of the aspects of the Eightfold Path are life-long practices of awareness. Expecting that suddenly, having heard about Right Speech, we will know the perfect words for every situation is just one more way to cause ourselves suffering. But as we develop greater awareness through our practice, we may begin to notice our words. And this noticing is a great leap toward Right Speech.
We may also notice the variety of causes and conditions that can affect our speech. If we find ourselves babbling, we can notice if we are nervous, excited or if we are experiencing any biological fluctuations, energetic or hormonal, that may be influencing our speech patterns. As we notice, we can focus on our body sensations including the breath. This focus on sensation will help us to be fully present in the moment. Skillful speech might be giving ourselves a rest from speaking all together by asking the other person(s) a question, and then practicing being present as we really listen to their answer.
For most of us this is a new and challenging activity. No one has yet invented a mechanical filter to attach to our throats to assure Right Speech. Fortunately we do have some tools to work with: We have our intention to meditate regularly. We have our intention to bring our attention to the present moment every time we notice that our minds are stuck in the past or the future. And we have our intention to be as kind as we are able to be to ourselves and others.
If we practice honoring our intention, we can trust that our minds will become more spacious and peaceful over time. Then our speech will attune to this state, and be more rooted in the truth of our experience, more anchored in the present moment, and more filled with our growing sense of caring and compassion.
Of course, we are so used to instant gratification of our desires – if only we could charge enlightenment on a credit card! – that we may become frustrated when our minds keep falling into old habits of seeing and thinking. At the moment that we notice we have the opportunity to bring ourselves back to the present moment where expectation and disappointment find it difficult to take root, for they thrive on leaning toward the future and dwelling in the past. We’ve all had the painful experience of saying or hearing words dredged up from disappointment or aligned with expectation. So just this intention to return to the present moment will make us more skillful speakers.
More tools at our disposal are skillful questions with which we can explore our words. Choose any of the following questions that are resonant for you, or create your own:
Are my words reactive or responsive?
(Reactive words often feels defensive, self-protective, justifying our position. Responsive words are spoken from a deeper place and let the person know we have heard them.)
Do my words lean toward connection or separation? Do my words lean toward inclusion or exclusion?
Do I feel tension in my body when I say these words? (If so, what is causing this tension? What am I afraid of?)
Am I speaking from the present moment? (Or am I speaking from past disappointment or future expectation?)
Do I have lingering misgivings about my words? (If so, explore to see if the words you are concerned about were true, useful and timely. Accept this valuable lesson, bring this new awareness to any future conversations, and let this memory go.)
Is what I am saying in harmony with my core values?
Are my words sabotaging me into inaction? Am I saying I can't do something, I'd like to do something, I want to do something, or I'm trying to do something, instead accessing our awareness of ourselves as connected, expansive, expressions of all that is, and going forth and doing it?
What do I hope to achieve by saying this?
When I’m telling my story, am I using my words to show off or to share?
Do I see the person I am addressing as ‘other’ or even as ‘enemy’? (From this dualistic view, real deep sharing is impossible.)
Questions help to create spaciousness because by questioning our assumptions about the way things are, we free our minds to look at things anew. Answers are all around us, if only we have the right questions with which to explore ourselves and the world.