Choose Wisely Your Words

“Careful the things you say, children will listen.” – The Witch from Into the Woods.

This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite musicals.  But, I would go one step further and say, “everyone listens.”  Words can be a healing salve to the wounds of the heart or a painful knife blow to the soul.  It is a wise man that chooses his words carefully.


Words (Photo credit: sirwiseowl)

My favorite step on the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is “Right Speech.”  Don’t get me wrong I endeavor to work on each of them, but “Right Speech” is the one I struggle with the most.  I am extremely guilty of running my mouth a mile a minute.  I interrupt people in mid-sentence just to get my “brilliant” idea out there. My mother loves to tell a story of when I was a toddler and we made the four hour drive to Miami to visit my father’s family.  I would not stop talking.  My mother kept trying to silence me but my grandmother finally said, “let him talk, he’ll eventually stop.”  Boy was she wrong.  As the story goes my longest pauses were to take a breath or to laugh at my own jokes.  No one interacted with me; I just kept talking.  Of course the family joke is that things haven’t changed much in the 30+ years since that story took place.  I rarely need an audience and I can amuse myself by talk talk talking.  I often think I became a teacher just so I could hear myself talk and have a captive audience.

True, this is a funny and only slightly embarrassing story about my youth.  But, on the more serious side I have harmed people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, with my words. I have allowed words to tumble out of my mouth that hurt friends, family, and loved ones in a visceral way.  I could see the pain and disappointment register, no matter how briefly, on their faces.  I have (and I know this is the worst) tried to verbally “one up” my students which often ends in me doing emotional harm to their fragile egos. I am not proud of this in any way.  I knew I had to change when I got into a verbal altercation with a student during class and as he stormed out the door he yelled, “real mature, you’re supposed to be the adult.”  WOW!  I had allowed my emotions to get so far away from me that it took an 11 year old to bring me back to the reality of how damaging my words can be.

It was very soon after this kick in the teeth from my student that I began this blog and sincerely started my Buddhist practice.  Growing up I received the best piece of Buddhist advice from my devoutly German Catholic grandfather.  He often said to us (me especially) after we had made some silly or stupid comment, “you need to engage your mind before you engage your mouth.”  I have not always listened to that before my mouth got me into trouble, but I have often contemplated it following a bout of “foot in mouth” disease.  Today I might even change my grandfather’s wizened advice to, “engage your heart before you engage your mouth.”  For if we truly speak from the heart it is much more difficult to wound others.

Growing up I was never comfortable with silence.  Silence, to me, meant someone was mad at me, or I’d done something wrong.  Silence was often used as a punishment.  Now that I’m nearing my fourth decade of life I struggle with seeing silence as the positive that it can be.

English: Chinese Buddhist monks performing a f...

English: Chinese Buddhist monks performing a formal ceremony in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In many monasteries (no matter the faith) silence is the norm.  It is the best way to focus for inner prayer and contemplation.  Words cannot get in the way of spiritual growth.  I am not a monk; nor am I well suited for monastic life.  But, as I practice more and more I do recognize the importance of silence.  It may sound cliche but it truly is golden.  As I go forward my hope is to be silent more often; to listen more closely to what is being said around me and to me. This is a great exercise for each of us to consider.  Where can you be more silent in your life?  Do you suffer from “foot in mouth” disease often?  Can you listen more and talk less?  Do you need to engage your mind or heart before you engage your mouth?  Let us all begin taking the Buddhist tenant of “Right Speech” more to heart and allow our silence and our words to spread love, peace, and mindfulness to the world.



One thought on “Choose Wisely Your Words

  1. Hello Matthew and thank you for such an open and honest post about speech. It’s interesting that silence can mean different things to different people. Not really something I previously considered. To my mind silence is peace. I look forward to reading more of your posts, thank you for this reminder. Much love.

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