Phrased in the positive, the goal recommended by the Buddha is to make our speech trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart.
Let’s have a look at comforting speech. The precept that this refers to is: “I undertake the training rule to refrain from harsh speech”; so we are using “comforting” as the opposite of “harsh” in this case. This guideline is a particular challenge for me. Words spoken in haste or anger are rarely comforting, so this rule encourages me to slow down and to try like the dickens not to speak in anger.
Harsh speech includes both specific words, particularly swearing, and tone of voice and body language. Angry speech, including sarcasm, needling, belittling speech, and unnecessarily loud speech are all forms of harsh or rough speech.
This precept reaches deep into my sense of self, and I had a small demonstration of that just this week. I was out for a social evening with relatives and all was going well – until I make a private comment to one of them that he really did need a hearing aid. To me, this was not criticism or “putting down” speech, but I forgot to remember the sensitivities of the other party to the conversation. Rather than react, he just slid away into the group. Only later did I realize that I had hurt his feelings. I did phone and apologize, because I really don’t want to hurt his (or anyone’s) feelings. But I don’t feel confident that I can avoid hurting feelings in this way in the future. My interactions with others still originate strongly with what I’m thinking and feeling, including the assumption that others will react the way I think I would react. So not true!
Refraining from harsh speech and offering comforting words are intimately connected with how much or little attention we give to others.
Sadly, a number of young people post swearing and other inappropriate language on their Facebook pages (and I suppose in other places, too). It may be that their closest friends will not find this noteworthy, but it makes some of the older friends and relatives feel shame on their behalf.
When I hear people swearing on the trains or elsewhere in public, it makes me feel a little sick. Loving human connection is shut out by this use of language. Of course, part of my repulsion is the memory that for a period of time, my language was very harsh and not worthy of the people I cared about. Only when my beautiful step-children came to live with us did I make a concerted effort to reflect only my best in my words.
More on this topic next time.