Living with Right Speech

From Lammas, the first harvest, to the Spring Equinox, in my spirituality I focus on a specific aspect of the Buddhist Eightfold path – Right Speech.  For every one of the eight pagan festivals, I have corresponded a part of the Eightfold path, finding a great blending of the two traditions together (see my book, Zen Druidry, for more details  To me, at this time of year when the Celtic peoples gathered together to celebrate the harvest, participate in games and competitions, wedding ceremonies and such, considering how to converse and behave appropriately was paramount in order for the tribe to thrive and meet other tribes without violence or bloodshed.  I see this paralleled in the Eastern concept of Right Speech.

So, what do we mean when we speak of Right Speech?  The concept of right speech involves four elements; abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harsh speech and abstaining from idle chatter.  For the Buddhist, this shows the sacredness of speech, and gives us a framework within which we can work towards more compassionate and thoughtful speech.

Here is a quote taken from The Secular Buddhist:

“The Buddha divides right speech into four components: abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harsh speech, and abstaining from idle chatter. Because the effects of speech are not as immediately evident as those of bodily action, its importance and potential is easily overlooked. But a little reflection will show that speech and its offshoot, the written word, can have enormous consequences for good or for harm. In fact, whereas for beings such as animals who live at the preverbal level physical action is of dominant concern, for humans immersed in verbal communication speech gains the ascendency. Speech can break lives, create enemies, and start wars, or it can give wisdom, heal divisions, and create peace. This has always been so, yet in the modern age the positive and negative potentials of speech have been vastly multiplied by the tremendous increase in the means, speed, and range of communications. The capacity for verbal expression, oral and written, has often been regarded as the distinguishing mark of the human species. From this we can appreciate the need to make this capacity the means to human excellence rather than, as too often has been the case, the sign of human degradation.”

Living in such a verbal society, we must take extra special care of our words, both verbal and written.  It is an increasingly difficult thing to do, in my opinion, when we are living “virtual lives” more and more with the internet.  We have an “online presence” as much as our real physical presence.  It is up to the individual how closely the two are related.

What we say, both physically in face to face encounters, as well as in a virtual community or forum may have varying degrees of impact, dependent upon who is actually listening.  The fact of the matter remains – whether it is virtual or physical, there is an impact.  For someone to be cruel to another person online could have devastating consequences (as we have seen recently with the suicide of two teenagers bullied on a social media forum).  A person may be attacked by an online community, and feel no repercussions whatsoever.  In a face to face situation, the reverse might happen.  One thing remains – we are personally responsible for our own behaviour, for we cannot control the behaviour of others. We can lead by example, but underlying fundamental control of others is beyond our grasp.

I have been verbally attacked on social media forums, bullied and trolled.  As yet, it still does not get any easier with time.  I stand by the view that the internet is as much a tool for sensitive souls as it is abused by being a playground for trolls.  I do not think that sensitive souls should have to “toughen up” in order to be online or to deal with face to face encounters. I think that people should be responsible and culpable for their actions, whether virtual or real, and take others thoughts and feelings into consideration.

As a recent example, a friend of mine told me that there is now a new term in a couple of UK LRP (LARP) communities/systems which is replacing a previous term.  He finds this fascinating, as he loves studying etymology.  It is indeed food for thought!  The previous term within the community was “special snowflake”, something that people used to deride another person on the basis that snowflake in question thought of themselves as being unique, and therefore life should go according to their own terms on this basis.  The new term that has cropped up to replace this,  is “bluebell”.

Now, some of you may know of my decision to abstain from a particular company due to the reason that I cannot condone the fact that each spring they hold battles in woodland that is carpeted with the most brilliant bluebells.  For an in depth look at this, please see my previous post “ Druidry and Choices” here:  It would appear that some players have decided to take it upon themselves to take this particular subject and twist it around to insinuate that I was a “special snowflake”.  There was some agreement by players on a social media board, before it exploded and abuse and trolling were hurled by some members.  All I asked what if others felt the same way as I did about protecting what I saw as a beautiful woodland – I did not, in fact, want to change the system to suit my needs.

And so, the new term “bluebell” has been born to denote a self-centred, self-indulgent ignorant person who wants to have their own way as opposed to someone who loves and cares for the environment.  This was, in all honesty, quite hurtful for me to hear, and I wondered at the people who would twist such a simple stance to suit their own agenda.

Then it got me thinking.

So, why on earth would someone want to do such a thing?  The obvious response is that it makes them feel better about themselves by putting someone or something down.  I cannot know for certain, however that this is the case.  Looking at popular culture, however, would seem to indicate that this may, indeed be the way that things are heading.  Why? Because more and more we see people criticising others using derogatory terms.  Instead of discussion, debate and honest criticism, we see through television and other media people judging other people with harsher and harsher verbal terminology.  Just watch any “reality” television show where they have judges – how many judges simply put a value on a performance without becoming personal?  There is a growing trend for celebrity television judges to make it personal, to get people on their side, to appear “cool” or “funny”.  This is also the case in everyday life.

In our ever-growing faceless society, the need to “save face” is, ironically, coming to the fore.  With an unseen audience of who knows how many, we feel we have to witty and clever. (Yes, I do see the irony in putting this in an online blog).  For some, the easiest way to do this is by putting another person down – in essence, to be “bigger and more clever”.  Well, as the British saying goes – it’s not big and it’s not clever.

Having spoken to people in science based professional fields, there still seems that there is the ability for disagreement on a subject to occur within the professional sphere without someone feeling the need to act “big and clever”.  Of course, there are always exceptions, but generally debate is still held within certain bounds of respect and integrity that may be lacking in popular culture debates and interactions.  They are able to criticise things without being derogatory, something which I think is falling by the wayside in mainstream society.  I’m still mulling this one over, and your thoughts would be appreciated!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you don’t need to blow out someone else’s candle for yours to burn all the brighter.  We can use words and speech, whether online or offline to interact with each other respectfully.  In Zen, it is agreed that we cannot control the behaviour of others, and so to ponder why people do the things they do is, in fact, a bit of a waste of time.  But I still do wonder why people do the things they do – I can’t help it, and I’m working on it as much as I can – I’m no Buddha.  I find it easy to have pity for people, however, pity requires making a judgement call on their life which may or may not be true – ie. I pity someone because they must have such a dull life they have to hurt other people to make themselves feel better.  This isn’t right, I know.  What I should be doing is having compassion for people – compassion, unlike pity, requires a total lack of judgement on the individual’s part.

Compassion is both the easiest thing and the damned hardest thing in the world.  To learn the ways of compassion, one must first release the notion of the self, the ego that one clings to, in order to see that we are all related, that we are all connected – that there are no “special snowflakes” or even “bluebells” 🙂   There is no one to hurt and be hurt by.  We are all Buddhas.  By taking advice from Buddha’s Eightfold Path, we can learn how to live more compassionately.  By focusing this Lammastide on Right Speech, I hope to change my behaviour so that I may benefit the world and not just my own agenda.  Like racism, sexism and a host of other human ills, hateful speech is learned behaviour.  The good thing about that is that it can be unlearned.

Like I said, I’m working on it.

8 thoughts on “Living with Right Speech

  1. I do so agree with you. I always try to say something positive and, if I cannot say something positive, I will either remain silent or just smile.

  2. Totally agree. Many people hate feeling wrong or stupid, and so to avoid feeling that, will respond with agression, verbal or physical, to the person who made them aware of their own shortcomings. There are times when helping people approach that can be productive, but the less judgemental, critical, blaming we sound when we take issue, the easier it is for a person who may be in error to consider it without feeling they have lost face and need to protect themselves. That’s my current working theory, at any rate.

    • Yep – it’s a theory that makes sense to me! As soon as you include derogatory terms when engaging with criticism, you shut off the person and they immediately go on the defensive. With good reason. Having editors and being a dancer, I value criticism – it’s a great way to learn. It has to be done in a way that learning can occur, however, and when you put someone down, that ain’t ever gonna happen… x

  3. You know, one of the things I learned early on when I first got in the interwebz 13 years ago was what an absolute ass I was capable of being. Indeed I was clever and witty about it, but yet an ass is an ass regardless of how cleverly they can twist words around.

    It made me look at how I treated people in “real life” as well.

    What I realized is that somewhere a long the way I went from being a person often described by people as extremely nice to being the very thing I despised.

    I used to know this guy that everyone thought was crazy – maybe he was, but I really liked him. He used to always tell me “Words are power, words are magic, if you don’t believe me read up on great wizards like Merlin”. Turns out that while he might have been crazy, he was also right.

    Great post as always Joanna, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

    • Thank you for sharing your comments and past experience! I can remember times when I was an ass, both online and in person as well – not often, I am happy to report, but it is so easily done when one is not aware or conscious of what they are saying – being an ass is easy, speaking with intention, clarity and repect requires thinking of what you need to say, the people who are listening, and trying to establish the best line of communication possible in order for the words to be understood, fully understood, mind body and soul… x

  4. I think your case for people feeling it is “cool” to act “big and clever”, and in many cases trying to outdo each other (and encouraged by many “reality” TV shows which are anything but “reality”) is a good one. I think that this is indeed a large part of what is happening in society these days.

    But I also feel that it is a cover. I think that it’s a cover because if you could pierce through that “big and clever” veneer, you would see that these people are struck by the truthfulness and honesty of the sensitive souls, and because they are afraid or unable to examine themselves and the hurt or damage they have caused, they instead turn on the “messenger”, so to speak.

    In the case of the bluebells — and I read that post and in no way did it sound like you were being a “snowflake,” given your definition — those trolls were suddenly presented with a truth about something they had never considered before, and which they knew that they “should” care about, but they didn’t. Even the fact that they didn’t caused them a degree of guilt, which they could not bear to admit, so it was just easier and less painful to turn on you.

    The world is full of these people, and it is indeed one of the hardest tasks we sensitive people have to undertake, to feel compassion for them as much as anyone else. It is only by understanding the very bottom of what underlies such hurtfulness (or worse), at times — or acknowledging that I cannot understand what underlies such hurtfulness — that I am able to find it within myself to have compassion for people who cannot rise above their own pain and anger enough to see it for what it is.

    • Your words ring so true! I’ve been reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, and he states that we must first remove the dagger in our own hearts before we can help others to remove theirs. So much pain is caused by fear, and we must look deeply into the heart of that fear to understand it both in ourselves and in others. I now understand that theirs was a reaction, a fearful reaction, to the possibility that they were not doing the right thing, to guilt, to a whole host of reasons that I cannot simply fathom from a great distance. I must have compassion for them, for their fear, for their hurt and their pain, as well as having compassion for myself. Awen blessings. x

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