Friday, November 13, 2009

Mindful Speech, Part Three: Witchcraft

This is Part Three of a series of articles on Mindful Speech. Part One focused on Idle Chatter, and Part Two looked at the art of Listening and the role of Emotional Intelligence in authentic communication. This installment examines the incredible power of human speech, and the Six Points of Mindful Speech taught by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.


Speech is magical. It is witchcraft. From within the formless realm of the mind, a thought arises. Because it arises in the mind, the thought, too, is formless by nature, but it takes on the vivid appearance of form. The form of the thought represents a concept, or a tangle of concepts, which, again -- in themselves -- have no form but nonetheless find expression in the mind. As that expression of formless thought and concept in the mind grows swollen with significance and perhaps urgency, we say that the person's face becomes "pregnant with expression."

Through some voodoo of embodied mind whose mechanics we don't even begin to understand, this formless thought hurtles toward the realm of physical expression. The mouth opens, and air begins to flow from the lungs. At a level that is only partially under the control of the conscious mind, a complex orchestra of muscles and organs -- the tongue, the lips, the vocal cords, the jaw -- begins to play in unison, their combined efforts creating a particular series of sounds as the air rushes out from the lungs and exits the mouth. The sounds produced are in no way random or improvisational, but are recognized and intentionally selected by the mind as symbols or signs that, alone or in particular combinations and patterns, represent specific concepts. Concepts that have arisen formlessly in the mind have now found physical expression in the form of sound.

The sound waves emitted by the speaker travel through the air and strike the delicate organs of the listener's ear. If the speaker and listener share an agreed-upon system of signs and symbols -- if they speak the same language -- then the sounds are interpreted and an image or a concept (which may or may not resemble what the speaker is trying to communicate) begins to arise in the mind of the listener. This image or concept in the mind of the listener, like the image or concept in the mind of the speaker, is formless by nature, but arises vividly with the appearance of form. As it arises in the mind of the listener, it is already being evaluated, and instinctive reactions begin to form: the listener may like it or dislike it, or agree or disagree with it, or may feel neutral about it. Waves of positive, negative or neutral energy begin to radiate out from the listener: emotional ripples created by a conceptual stone tossed from one pool of mind to another.

All of this happens so quickly, and so automatically, that we are largely unaware of it. Whether we know it or not, every single time we open our mouths to speak to another person, we are practicing witchcraft, casting a spell of formless thoughts and intentions that generates powerful and lasting effects in the person upon whom we work the magic of speech. We are all casting these spells upon each other, all the time. Sometimes they are love spells, and sometimes they are black magic. Every one of us is like a sleeping sorcerer, unaware that he is mumbling incantations and conjuring angels and demons all around him.

Our words have the power to cement marriages and to start wars; they can melt our hearts with tenderness and they can provoke a murderous rage. No wonder the Buddha placed so much emphasis on practicing Mindful Speech.

"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

"It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will."

-- Shakyamuni Buddha, AN 5.198

Truly practicing Mindful Speech, however, requires more discipline than simply avoiding the four kinds of unvirtuous speech (lying, harsh speech, malicious speech, and idle chatter). It means bringing an intensity of mindfulness and awareness to everything we say and how we say it. This is a 24-hour practice at which we are bound to stumble and fall, repeatedly -- but one that we cannot afford not to undertake, once we have grasped its importance.

Six Points of Mindful Speech

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche also placed a lot of emphasis on practices of Mindful Speech -- often to the dismay of his American students. In the 1980s, he began to teach a rigorous program of elocution training to many students, putting them through seemingly endless drills and pronunciation exercises that sometimes felt like grammar school (and a British grammar school at that, since he was teaching them to speak proper Oxonian English). I imagine that some students had trouble understanding what these pronunciation drills had to do with Buddhism. Carolyn Rose Gimian, one of his close students and the editor of many of his books, describes being brought to the point of tears one night during a month-long retreat with Trungpa, as he kept asking her to repeat the word "thoroughly" over and over. The point, as Gimian explains it, is to bring an intensity of awareness to one's own speech and how it affects one's mind and the minds of others, and to recognize and fully embrace the incredible power and meaning that words hold.

In conjunction with these sometimes torturous elocution lessons, Chogyam Trungpa presented teachings on six ways to deepen our practice of Mindful Speech -- six aspects of speech on which to focus our awareness. They are a series of tremendously helpful and practical reminders that can help us separate and bring attention to the different layers of mind and body involved in any act of speech.

Six Points of Mindful Speech

  1. Precision: Enunciate your words clearly.
  2. Simplicity: Choose your words well.
  3. Pace: Speak slowly, without speed or aggression.
  4. Silence: Regard silence as an important part of speech.
  5. Others: Listen to the words, texture and quality of others' speech.
  6. Self: Focus mindfulness on your speech.

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Precision: Trungpa's elocution lessons emphasized the importance of precision. When we don't enunciate our words clearly, it creates barriers to smooth communication. A pattern of clipping our words or not projecting our voice so that others can hear us may symbolize a lack of confidence in what we are saying. I tend to be a quiet talker, and I have often noticed other people get frustrated when they can't hear what I'm saying -- but it's a pattern that runs deep, and I am often unaware that I'm doing it. And the frustration it causes in others comes full circle: because others can't really hear me, they might be more inclined to interrupt me, which then ticks me off. It's bad juju all around, and my own speech patterns are the main culprit. When I am able to bring a degree of mindfulness to the tone and volume of my voice as I'm speaking, I see much better results.

Simplicity: Often we don't need very many words to get our point across, but we ramble in circles or drone on and on because we don't choose our words well. If this is our habitual pattern, other people begin to tune out our monologues and think of us as blowhards. Few things are as universally irritating as someone who habitually talks too much, and doesn't know when they've said enough. A company I used to work for had the business slogan, "Simple is smart." That could be a good slogan to apply in the practice of Mindful Speech. When we slow ourselves down enough to choose our words strategically, with intelligence and discernment, we don't need to ramble on. The simplest way of getting our point across is usually the smartest.

Pace: When we talk too quickly, there is a quality of aggression that may come across in our speech -- it may be unintentional, and we may be unaware of it, but others can pick up on it. I think of this as a neurotic pattern from which New Yorkers, in particular, suffer a great deal. The general atmosphere of speed and aggression that permeates New York life -- which many New Yorkers cannot particularly see because it is the element in which they live and breathe, just as a fish cannot see the water in which it lives -- makes everyone feel impatient and edgy. In addressing each other on a daily basis, New Yorkers often speak incredibly fast, with a brusque attitude of barely concealed aggression.

Bringing mindfulness to this area of our speech means, again, slowing ourselves down enough so that we can pay attention to the tone and quality of our speech. When I think of a former colleague who habitually spoke with a tone of anger and aggression that made other people recoil from him, I can see that part of his problem was that he couldn't slow himself down enough to realize how he sounded.

Silence: Gandhi said, "Speak only when you can improve upon silence." Often, though, we speak in order to cover up the silence -- to make it go away. Silence makes us nervous, because it is too intimate -- we are forced to look at our own minds, and we are simultaneously confronted with the living, breathing reality of the person across from us. We feel awkward and exposed in the silence, and it is easier to just say something, anything -- idle chatter -- than to remain there, alone with ourselves or with another person, in that open space. But the open space of silence is the birthplace of creativity and inspiration, and without it speech could not exist -- just as the planets and stars and galaxies could not exist without the vast stretches of unseeable, unknowable dark matter that lie in between. The composer John Cage is perhaps best-known for his experimental piece 4'33", in which the pianist goes to the keyboard and does *not* strike any keys for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. For Cage, silence was the basis of all music, and the space in which all form and sound could manifest. When we regard silence as an important part of speech, we leave space for creativity and spontaneity and freshness to enter our conversations. We leave room to breathe.

Others: Listening to the texture and quality of others' speech is as much a part of mindful conversation as listening to ourselves. Sometimes we notice that the texture and quality of someone's speech is saying something different than -- or in addition to -- what their words are saying. Sometimes the body language that goes along with verbal speech tells us more than what a person is saying (the missing body language in Web-based communication is one of the reasons that emails and text messages are so easily misunderstood by the receiving party). If we see that a person's manner of speaking is bringing a higher degree of neurosis and emotionality into the situation, then we can choose how to respond in the most skillful way, in order to defuse the tension and restore sanity. If we remain unaware of it, then it's more likely we'll be drawn into the emotional subtext of the person's speech, and clear communication will be further obscured. Again, being able to pay attention to the texture and quality of others' speech means slowing ourselves down enough to step back from our own reactivity; if we're half-listening but half-caught up in mentally planning our response to what they're saying, for example, then we are less likely to perceive more subtle cues of emotional tone, pace, precision, and so on -- all the markers that point to what the person is really saying, beyond their mere words.

Self: The sixth point is like the culmination of the previous five. When we bring mindfulness and awareness to the totality of our own speech -- not only what we're saying, but how we're saying it and why -- then we can use speech much more skillfully, and wield it as a force for good. We can use it to strengthen our bonds with other people, rather than undermining them. We can use the magic of our speech to increase happiness and sanity in the world, rather than contributing our words to the witches' brew of neurosis and suffering from which so many beings are already drinking, spellbound and unaware.

Each of us is like a little Harry Potter, imbued with tremendous magical power, but shaky and uncertain about how to wield it and how to avoid getting ourselves in trouble with it. The process of coming to terms with our speech habits and developing Mindful Speech is like Harry's process of growing up and coming to terms with his own power. Like Harry, we face an array of dark forces -- both within ourselves and in the external world -- who would like us to employ the emotional sorcery of speech for less wholesome purposes. It is up to each of us to resist the darkness and bring more light into the world through the magic that comes out of our mouths.

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