One of the distinctive traits of human beings which differentiates them from animals, is their capacity for speech. Words can create enmity or friendship, can win or harden hearts, can deceive others or open them to new pathways of understanding. [The opening of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to chapter “Proper Speech” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony.]
Mindfulness of our speech is a limitless field for learning. We are speaking animals, and our talking often continues internally when it stops externally. One benefit of pursuing an examination of our speech is that we can hear our silences as well as our words.
Monks, when speech possesses five factors, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, and it is blameless and irreproachable among the wise. What five? It is spoken at the proper time; what is said is true; it is spoken gently; what is said is beneficial; it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness. When speech possesses these five factors, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, and it is blameless and irreproachable among the wise. – AN 5:198, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
It would be very challenging to pass these five tests each time we open our mouths: Is it the proper time? Is it true? Are we speaking gently? Is it beneficial? And are we speaking with a mind of loving-kindness? It could be awkward to take the time to review these questions before every time we speak. A short-cut may be to prepare by using the last instruction as a general checkpoint. Anything that is said carelessly or in anger will fail the test of being spoken with a mind of loving-kindness. If, when we are about to speak, we use the time it takes to breathe in to check our intention, we may be able to avoid saying something we regret. It is better to not respond “in rhythm”, to allow an unexpected silence, rather than to speak with a negative intention, or to speak without thinking at all.
Speaking off the top of our heads can cause misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Interrupting is almost never “at the proper time”. Even if we feel we are speaking from the heart, it’s important to consider the situation and the listener(s). This will be for our own benefit as well as that of others.
How can we approach the intention to speak well, as described above, as a practice? First, we need to listen to ourselves. It may also help to listen to others, to compare their speaking habits to our own. Some people seem to have difficulty not speaking, even when they should be silent. Others will express their personalities almost every time they speak, for good or ill. What are our characteristics in speaking?
We might focus on truthfulness, or timeliness, or checking for the intention of loving-kindness. Undertaking one of these qualities at a time may make our progress more discernible. Considering silence as a option can also be helpful in many situations.