Mindful Speech: The Power of Words

Photo by Cristina Gottardi

Mindfulness has been described by some teachers and traditions as a kind of radical intimacy with our experience – “no gap” between awareness and what is here – oneself (body, speech, and heart-mind), this moment, the objects around us, nature, community, etc. The words we choose to communicate our experience to ourselves and others can help facilitate intimacy when we are mindful – or they can widen the gap when unexamined.

Since we are affiliative beings, we relate to the world through our relationships, assisted through language. Communication is thought to be both an innate capacity and a learned cultural system, within which words play an important role (in addition to non-verbals such as tone, gesture, facial expression, posture, etc). We both describe and construct our world with words, whether thought, voiced or digitally spoken, signed, or written. The development of language changed the course of history. Through words we made the following survival supporting capacities more accessible:

  • intersubjectivity – the sharing of perspectives, intentions, and feelings
  • social trust – expressing and demonstrating honesty, integrity and reliability
  • egalitarianism – sharing resources equally rather than competing to dominate, conquer or exploit

Communication shortcuts, like anything that saves precious energy and time, can be very helpful. But, when over-relied upon, they can widen the gap between experience and awareness. This is because these shortcuts rely on broad assumptions for both the sender and receiver. They allow us to bypass our own intentions behind our words while requiring others to guess at our full meaning. One example of this is when we state the apparently obvious, saying what otherwise goes without saying:

  • “I don’t agree with everything they say/do.”
  • “It’s not for everyone.”

Can you think of any mortal human whom you agree with on everything they say or do? And the only things I can think of that are for everyone are things in which we have no choice but to participate, like birth, breathing and death. So what are these communication shortcuts meant to convey? There usually is a deeper meaning to unpack, varying by person and context, that the speaker may not even be fully aware of. A shortcut leaves the subtleties and the details ambiguous and unexamined. It lets the speaker off the hook in the short-term, but at the expense of true intimacy.

…I think a question we fail to ask, so much, in American life — we just haven’t hung on to this muscle — is not just, what do I want to happen here; what do I have to say; what do I care about; what is at stake? But what is the most effective way, in fact, that my words can be heard? What is, in fact, the most emotionally intelligent way, which is also going to be a productive way, that I can embody and represent and give voice to what I care deeply about? – Krista Trippett, On Being

Other verbal habits that can cause us trouble include an over-indulgence in superlatives, using distortions of truth for self-dealing purposes, and speaking in a way that is insensitive or uncivil. In the ancient tradition that undergirds the modern practices and attitudes of mindfulness, there is the concept of “right speech” that provides guidelines for skillful communication that we can practice. What might it be like to increase awareness of the words we use in conversation? We can train in this skill through the following practices:

  • prioritizing listening deeply before speaking
  • cultivating a sense of curiosity and a beginner’s mind
  • contacting the intentions behind our words
  • as best we can, speaking the truth as we understand it, with kindness
  • being wary of excessive mindless chatter – noticing what’s behind these urges and observing the consequences of indulging them or not
  • meeting regularly with a mindfulness community with whom you can safely practice wise communication

Relationship is the frontier of deep learning. It is where we get to explore and excavate our own hypocrisy and insecurities, and to discover our threshold for deep intimacy. Everything we do in this incarnation is within the structure of some sort of relationship. Be that to self, to another living being, to a community, to an ecosystem, or even to an institutional structure… Intimacy speaks simply to the ability to be transparently honest with yourself, and to communicate that honesty in a non-violent way with your surrounding reality and communities… This level of contemplation allows for deep respect for the path of creation and connection, and therefore an intimate perspective that helps center the value of the “relationship” itself—as opposed to seeing the relationship primarily for what we can get out of it, or solely from our own perspective.Sue Hunt

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