All our reflections on right speech seem to come back to knowing what our intentions or motivations are. This is one of the many ways that the elements of the 8-fold path support and illuminate each other.
Recently we thought about right intention (the second step on the 8-fold path) as:
1) Intention of renunciation
2) Intention of goodwill
3) Intention of harmlessness
How does this link up, in our experience, with right speech? So often we speak carelessly, with no idea of what our intention is. Or we speak with intentions of self-aggrandizement, or of impatience, or simply to fill a void. A recent study showed that many people would rather accept mild self-harm than endure their own company with no external stimulation – that’s how reluctant they were to be alone with their own thoughts! But we must come to know our thoughts if we are to stop creating problems for ourselves and others.
This question of intention is particularly challenging in modern western cultures because the cult of the individual seems to predominate. We are encouraged at every turn to create and re-create ourselves based on superficial desires. We are led to believe that what we wear, eat, drive, and what entertainments we pursue form who we are. The Buddha’s teachings are a direct contradiction to this point of view; he directs our attention to our internal experience. Only with reflection can we know our intentions, and from those intentions our actions, our words, and our thoughts flow.
We can be mindlessly driven by the momentum of wanting and acquiring, or we can go in the other direction and consider a simpler life, one that values renunciation, which we could think of as non-greed. When the Buddha talks about renunciation, he is describing the choice of a subtler and more lasting joy (peace) over short-lived sensual gratification. A quieter, more reflective life will naturally encourage our existing intentions of goodwill and harmlessness. Can we give up some moments of excitement to enjoy a peaceful heart? Whenever we make that choice, our words and actions can bring less aggravation and more joy to ourselves and to others.