“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” ~Buddha
I initially saw this quote and, in true ego-first fashion, thought of my kids: this’ll be perfect for them. I’ll put it up in the kitchen as a regular reminder to stop pestering each other.
But then, something a bit deeper poked me gently. Riiight, just for the kids, is it? You’ve got this mastered, then. I guess my true self is not afraid to use sarcasm when it needs to.
My true self was right (as it always is). When I began to think about those small regrets that plague my running thoughts, so many of them came about because I didn’t adhere to the Buddha’s sage advice.
Here are a few examples that spring to mind:
The times I’ve blurted and blathered random nonsense to other parents while waiting for my kids to appear at the school gate.
The times I’ve made a negative comment about someone.
The words I’ve chosen when pestering my kids to get things done.
All my many miserable rants about the usual annoyances in life.
When I thought about it, I decided there are common themes to the things I say which I later regret. They usually fit into one of three categories:
- I speak to avoid the discomfort of silence.
- I speak to unload an ego-driven thought.
- I speak with negative emotion like frustration or anger.
Let’s drill down to see where each of these breaks one of the precepts of speaking only good words.
I speak to remove the discomfort of silence.
So many times I’ve been in the presence of people when there is an uncomfortable silence and I am desperate to break it. But why? And is it really uncomfortable, or is that just me?
Inevitably, I end up speaking things that may well be true and kind, but are certainly not necessary. And I end up feeling like a blathering fool.
Speaking just for the sake of speaking doesn’t help. And sometimes it can hurt, if I’m speaking in a rush, without thinking. So, the next time I’m standing with someone and conversation isn’t flowing, I will always stop myself and ask: is this necessary?
I speak to unload an ego-driven thought.
By ego-driven, I mean a thought that makes my self-image feel bigger and better. Gossip fits well into this category. Or bragging. Complaining about a negative situation is another. (Because in the complaining, I’m pointing out what everyone else is doing wrong.)
If I speak these thoughts aloud, I usually do so with someone I can trust, like my husband, but that does not make it better. Vocalizing something negative about someone else always makes me feel worse, even if I can trust the person I’m sharing it with. It’s just not worth it.
I speak with frustration or anger.
This one’s a bit more nuanced, and often comes down to tone. Even if the words themselves are true and necessary (such as: “because you dilly dallied over breakfast, we’re now going to be late for school”), they are not kind. The unkindness often comes through in the tone, if not the words themselves.
As usual, sage advice seems so simple but is not at all easy to put into practice!
Here are some strategies to try:
Take a moment for a conscious breath before speaking. It’s an imperceptible pause, but it allows you the space to consider your comment before it is spoken. Not only does it give you space for second thought, it can somehow magically reframe the situation.
I’ve found that noticing the simple miracle of breath can cause me to see the current situation in a completely different light.
2. Respond; don’t react.
There is a huge difference between a thoughtful response and a knee-jerk reaction. Often, the knee-jerk reaction is fueled by subconscious anxieties.
Enabling yourself (via #1) to have a thoughtful response means taking control of the situation and not letting your subconscious run your life.
Use the lapses in judgment when you’ve said something regrettable to consider why you responded the way you did.
The trigger is usually only half of the problem. It’s worth considering what in ourselves, deep down, was irritated enough to strike back. Being aware of these personal vulnerabilities is what contributes to tremendous personal growth over the long run.
Ideally the transformation would occur at the level of thought, so words would never have to be checked at the door, as it were. Oh, to have only true, kind and necessary thoughts!
Until then, this quote is going up on our fridge as a regular reminder for me to tick all three boxes before speaking. I’ll take it one day at a time. (Heck, one hour at a time!) If it rubs off on the kids, all the better.
Woman holding mouth image via Shutterstock