There are many paths to awakening, and practicing the Buddha’s ethical trainings is a particularly accessible one. Starting from where we are, we can continuously refine our practice right up to a breakthrough of understanding.
Monitoring our speech can progress from (1) listening to ourselves to (2) filtering which impulses (to speak) actually produce words and which are set aside, to (3) hearing the quality of our thoughts before they are articulated and, within our minds, cultivating the wholesome and abandoning the unwholesome.
A test we can use when developing right speech is to ask ourselves these questions:
- Are my intended words true?
- Are they beneficial?
- Is it the right time to speak?
If the answer is yes to all three questions, we we should proceed. If the answer to any of the three is no, then we should patiently wait and re-examine our motives. If we think the answers are all “yes” and discover afterwards that we were wrong, we can make an honest effort to figure out how we misled ourselves.
This brings us to the question of intention. Whatever intentions we carry around as our default mode will be the default intention behind our speech. If we’re usually grouchy and defensive, this will be reflected in our verbal and non-verbal communications. If we’re usually spaced out and disengaged, likewise, that is what we bring to others when we meet them, unless we have a separate gear for when people are around. And if we feel metta and compassion when we look at others, this will radiate to them via our words and physical gestures. There’s no faking it!
This is why we bring mindfulness to the training of our speech. If we have a regular sitting meditation practice or another method of developing inner calm, our chances of observing our words and intentions more closely improve. But not being a meditator is no excuse for neglecting to take responsibility for how we address the world. If we attend closely to how our words affect others, and consider how our intended words are likely to affect others, we are nourishing our natural compassion. Simply watching what we say may be a shortcut to developing a more compassionate attitude in general.
One more thought on developing metta and compassion through practicing right speech: listening could also be considered speech. Developing a sincere desire to listen deeply to others is an exercise in opening the heart.
BTW, I reprint the five precepts on each of these posts because the five interact so closely, it is helpful to keep them in mind as a group.
1. I undertake the training rule to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking what is not given.
3. I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. I undertake the training rule to refrain from false speech.
5. I undertake the training rule to refrain from intoxicants which lead to heedlessness.