Praise and blame, gain and loss,
pleasure and sorrow
come and go like the wind.
To be happy, rest like a giant tree
in the midst of them all.
– Buddhist Saying
While Right Speech conventionally means abstaining from lying, gossip, vain talk, and hurtful rejoinders – all of which create turmoil in the mind – it has taken on an additional meaning for me. How we talk to ourselves is as important as how we speak to others. The way we think is as crucial as what we say loud. Both Buddhism and psychotherapy ask us to pay careful attention to the stories we repeat under our breaths. We tend to take them for granted but they do not always accurately reflect the truth.
Right Speech is traditionally presented as the first of three ethical qualities to be cultivated on the Eightfold Path. Right Action and Right Livelihood are the subsequent two. Outer speech is emphasized because there is a choice involved in what we say and how we say it. It is rare, even when we are trying to free-associate, that we actually speak without thinking, without some kind of intentionality behind what we say. The classic approach to Right Speech asks us to pay attention to the space between thought and action and to intervene when the words we want to say have a toxic quality. It asks us to abstain from language that serves no good purpose, from words that are hurtful or distracting. But we do not ordinarily experience the same kind of choice in our inner lives. Our private thoughts seem to happen by themselves. Repetitive and destructive patterns of thinking drag us into circular eddies of criticism and blame, often with our self, or those close to us, as the target.
While the classical portrait focuses on refraining from harsh outer speech, in my view Right Speech can also be applied in our inner worlds. We can catch and question our loops of thought and rein them in, interrupting what appears to be an involuntary inner cascade. Many are resigned to the way they speak to themselves. They do not like it yet they accept it as a give, “This is just who I am,” they say when pressed. But resignation is not the form of acceptance that Buddhism recommends. Right Speech asks us to take seriously the stories we tell ourselves, but not to take them for granted. Seeing them clearly gives us back some power over them. “Just because you think it,” I often say to my patients, “doesn’t make it true.”
Advice Not Given: A Guide To Getting Over Yourself
Mark Epstein M.D.