Right Speech. A Study in Failure

Michael A. Stusser challenged himself to 30 days of “right speech;” and chronicled his experience in the buddhist publication, Shambala Sun—the title of his article “Tweet No Evil.” The buddhist concept of “right speech” involves refraining from all harmful speech—so, no lying of course, but also no exaggerating, maligning, or idle speech.

I was particularly interested in this article, because I’ve actually tried to go just one day practicing right speech. It was five minutes before I’d already broken the precept. In a moment of impatience, trying without success to open a jar or almond butter, I caught myself muttering, “Fuck it!” and banging the edge of the lid on the countertop. And only moments later exclaiming “What the hell is wrong with me!?” after the pile of papers slipped out of my hands and went sailing all over the floor. So, right off the bat: blasphemy and harsh self-judgment. It was a long day full of failures. I gave up somewhere around 9:30am, so, like, it wasn’t such a long day. But I had only so much tolerance for failure, so I quit while I was behind.

The Shambala Sun article, however, spoke to so many of my issues, it revived my desire to jump in the fray and start failing again.

Like Stusser, I had wondered what would remain of my personality if I refrained from all idle speech, all exaggerations. I mean, what of “figures of speech”? What of poetic license? Humor? And doesn’t friendly conversation often involve what might, to the untrained eye, “idle” speech? Just recently, I was driving to yoga class with a new friend of mine. I’ve introduced her to yoga, and wanted to make her feel as comfortable as possible. She was lamenting a very bad meal someone had cooked for her. I watched the resistance in my mind, the voice saying “Just keep your mouth shut. Don’t say anything.” But I went ahead anyway, and commiserated, recounted various bad meals other people had offered me over the years. It was completely unnecessary, but the twisted logic was “Be with her on the same page. That’s a friendly thing to do.” But it’s not, actually. It just reinforces negativity. I could have remained silent, in a compassionate way. I could have changed the subject gently. I could have done any number of other things.

But what about when I feel strongly in alighment with the conversation? Wouldn’t I come across insufferably self-righteous if I just didn’t say anything, while everyone around me was having fun discussing the most recent Republican soundbite gone wrong. Or disingenuous if I tried to, I don’t know, say something ‘positive’ in the middle of all that? And what of my creative life? I’m a songwriter, for cryin’ out loud! How do I stay in contact with the muse if I’m always checking the rulebook for possible transgressions? It would kill the muse, right?

Well, I guess it depends on where the desire to practice comes from in the first place. For instance, if I practice right speech because I want to be seen as a good person/buddhist, then for sure I’m screwed. My ego will be running the show, and absolutely no one will be fooled. But if I practice right speech because I want to develop the muscles needed to actually BE a loving, compassionate person in the world, then I suspect everything else will fall in place.

I start tomorrow. This will be a checkin point for how things go. I don’t expect to succeed. I only expect to become aware of the many thousand ways in which I have failed—thereby becoming more mindful. And maybe a little more present (and perhaps a little kinder) in the process. Stay tuned…