“That is SICK.”
“You murdered it.”
“You’re the bomb.”
“You kill me.”
"I crushed it."
These are words of appreciation and encouragement in our culture right now.
Granted, there’s a part of me rolling her eyes. Lighten up. It’s just a turn of phrase, they’re just words. (Readers, keep a light heart and your good common sense perspective as I dive into this subject from another point of view. Sometimes it’s healthy to look at things differently for a more textured sense of the overall picture.)
If you're a writer you have to learn to use words in a thousand ways. But I'm not speaking as a writer now. I'm speaking as someone trying to become conscious of the world we create with our language.
In Buddhism, one of the precepts is to practice Right Speech. There are whole libraries of treatises on this subject, but this article from Tricycle Magazine is a great place to start. The best way to bring this precept to life, for me, is this: I plant seeds with my words. What do I want to cultivate?
The Buddha defines Right Speech as “refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech.”
I fail at this all day long. When I examine the nature of that failure, I see that it’s rooted in one thing. Ego.
When I use coarse language to seem ‘with it,’ ego is angling for position. I say things like, “You murdered it!” to come off as cool, so you will like me and ego will get a hit. Or I drop the F bomb (see how pervasive this is? I never noticed the word “bomb” in “F bomb” until just now) and ego imagines itself still on top, still edgy and popular.
Or let’s say my friend is dissing someone, and I feel compelled to contribute a similar story. Maybe she’s trashing her ex. The idea of not chiming in with my own similar story feels uncomfortable. I have to tell her some terrible thing my ex did to me. Why? So we’ll match. Another hit for the ego.
Here’s a tough one: Donald Trump. Try practicing Right Speech about the current administration — i.e., without engaging in any dishonest, harsh, divisive, or meaningless speech. It’s almost impossible. But it’s a great place to start because the difficulty of it is so in your face. All your resistance will show up with bells on. Ego will mount the biggest campaign you’ve ever seen, justifying anything you want to say on this particular subject.
It’s one subject that illuminated for me how easy it is for crass, violent words to show up in my mouth. It’s embarrassing. It’s humbling. And when I think of refraining from this language, there is a massive pushback from ego. My favorite version of it is this: “You’ll be inauthentic, stifling what you really want to say, and showing a false face to the world.” As I watch the ego pulling out every argument in its arsenal (yeah, I see that word — but this time I meant to use it), I understand that ego isn’t good or bad; it’s just doing what it does: fighting for its life.
This tendency is not going away by itself. So what is a sincere Buddhist to do?
Step 1: Pause Let’s say I notice the bad language coming down the pike, queuing up in my throat, ready to go. That’s when I could pause. It might even cause a little discomfort. But I do it, asking what’s behind, underneath this thing I’m about to say. Maybe it’s just a coarse, conversational “I get it” kind of thing. Or maybe it’s a reaction to a story someone is telling me, hoping I will be their ally, hoping I'll prove my loyalty with a backup story of my own. Whatever I’m about to say, though, it’s clearly violent language dressed up as friendly support. The pause helps me identify what’s happening before it happens.
Step 2: Take action But awareness is nothing without action. So what action can I take now? Silence is often a great idea, hard to put into action. Wrestling down careless speech to make room for silence can require humility, sometimes even heroism. It’s usually a thankless act, too, given that no one ever gets to know you did it. But it can mean the difference between suffering and freedom if you do it right.
Practicing Right Speech, working in this quiet, boring, hidden way is how we will build a new world.
Notice every word coming out of your mouth. Know it as a seed. Plant it as though it will grow up to be a giant thing of its exact kind for your great grandchildren to see (because, with habitual, unconscious repetition, it will). Speak it as though everyone alive will hear it, and will know what you wanted for the world because of it.
That that thing you were going to say, are you still good with it?
If so, great.
If not, reach into your other pocket, and plant a different seed.
Let’s make a new world, together. One word, one moment of silence at a time.