At a dinner party I recently attended, the host asked us: “Did your parents ever say something that you’ve carried throughout your life?” As people shared, we were struck by how many of us had been shaped by a parent’s words. The woman whose father had told her,”Whatever you do in life, be the best,” became a successful entrepreneur. The woman who had heard, “Nobody’s looking at you,” spent her career guiding powerful people from the sidelines. Words had literally defined their lives.
The power of words isn’t lost on anyone—just think of the pleasure you feel when someone pays you a sincere compliment, or the discomfort of realizing you’ve spilled a secret you’d promised to keep. Words and the energy they carry make or break friendships and careers; they define us as individuals and even as cultures. We know this, and yet we often let our words flow out more or less unmediated, like random pebbles tossed into a lake. Sometimes, it’s only when the ripples spread and cause waves, and the waves rush back and splash us, that we stop to think about the way we speak.
The sages of yoga obviously understood the human tendency to run off at the mouth, because many texts of the inner life, from the Upanishads and the Yoga Vasistha to the Bhagavad Gita, counsel us to use words carefully. The Buddha made right speech one of the pillars of his Noble Eightfold Path. On the simplest level, these sages point out, unnecessary speaking wastes energy that could be devoted to self-inquiry and transformative action. More important, though, is the power that words have to change the communal atmosphere, to cause joy or pain, and to create a climate that fosters truth or falsity, kindness or cruelty.
Of course, in an era where unsubstantiated rumors roll endlessly through the blogosphere, where lying and concealment and spin are so much a part of public utterance that words have lost their meaning and most of us automatically suspect anything a public figure says, the very idea of right speech can sound countercultural. And yet, as with so many of the yogic dicta, it makes profound sense. So much of the pain we cause ourselves and each other could be avoided if we were just a bit more discriminating about what we say. Our relationships, our work environment, even our feelings about ourselves, can be transformed simply by taking time to think about how words create reality. Yes, words create reality. That’s an understanding you’ll find in most of the great wisdom traditions, but especially the Vedic and Tantric traditions of India and in the texts of Kabbalah, with which they have so much in common.
The bottom line of the Tantric teaching on words is this: Since everything in existence, including rocks and planets, is made out of different densities of vibration—that is, out of coagulated sound—words are not merely signifiers, but actual powers. The strongest transformative energies are locked into those special words called mantras, which when empowered and properly pronounced, can change the course of a life. But ordinary, mundane words also hold their own vibratory force. All speech, especially speech imbued with strong feeling or emotion, creates waves of energy that radiate through our bodies and into the world, vibrating with complementary word streams and helping to create the atmosphere we live in.
Our bodies and subconscious minds hold the residue of every kind or cruel word we’ve ever taken in. So does the very air and soil. When you feel a particular vibe in a room, chances are that what you notice is the energetic residue of the words that have been spoken there. Words—whether spoken or thought—are constantly altering reality, shifting the vibratory atmosphere in our bodies, in our homes and places of work, in our cities. So the choices we make about what to say and not say are not just of casual importance.
Where Words Come From
To practice right speech is essentially to approach speaking as a form of yoga. The first stage in the yoga of speech is to start becoming conscious of what comes out of your mouth. You might begin by spending a day eavesdropping on yourself—ideally, without activating your inner critic. Try to notice not just what you say but also the tone with which you say it. See if you can sense the emotional residue your words create. How do you feel after certain remarks? How do other people react?
The second step in speech yoga is a form of self-inquiry, in which you ask yourself: What makes me say what I say? What unexpressed anger or grief or longing might lie frozen in my emotional body, ready to surface as lies or sarcastic remarks or words meant to mask what I really want to say? How do my words affect people?
Asking these questions may make you aware of some of the buried emotional issues that lie behind your speech patterns, especially when you hear yourself whining or speaking harshly or filling up the air with chatter. Owning and healing those issues is going to be essential, because trying to speak from an authentic state of higher awareness without having done that healing is like building your house on a swamp. The underground water will eventually flood your basement, and your disowned pain will inevitably leak out through your words.
Ideally, you’ll be doing the emotional healing work you need, whether it is through some sort of therapy or energy healing, while simultaneously working with the powerful yogic practices that can help shift your speech patterns.
One such yogic practice is mantra repetition, the turning over of a sacred sound, like Om, in your mind. Mantric sounds in Sanskrit, Hebrew, or Arabic—the three most vibrationally powerful ancient languages—can recalibrate the energy in your physical and subtle bodies and create an inner atmosphere that gives your words new clarity and power.
As our energy becomes more refined, we become more sensitive to the resonance of our own words. We can choose our words more carefully, without feeling that we are constantly quashing our spontaneity or expressiveness.
As a person with a tendency toward impulsive speech, I’ve often found it helpful to use an inner protocol that helps me determine whether the remark I’m about to make would be better left unsaid. A teacher of mine once remarked that before you speak, it’s a good idea to ask yourself three questions:
Is this true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?
She called these questions the three gates of speech; versions of them can be found in many contemporary Buddhist and Hindu teachings. Remembering to ask them will at least give you pause, and that pause can be enough to hold back torrents of trouble.
Is what I’m about to say true?
One thing I like about these questions is that they open up a big space for contemplation. For example, does “true” mean only what is literally true? You know you’re lying (hopefully!) when you willfully distort or deny facts. But what about slight exaggerations? If you leave out part of the story, is it still true? And where does opinion fit in? What is the “truth” about your friend’s boyfriend, whom she sees as smart and interesting and you see as pretentious and arrogant? In sorting out truth from partial truth, lies or distortions, how do you account for personal perspective, which can alter our view of objective events to the point where two people can see one scene in radically different ways?
Over time, you’ll want to sort all this out for yourself. But in the short term, asking yourself “Is this true?” is a good way to become aware of certain dicey verbal tendencies—the slight exaggerations, unsupported assertions, and self-justifications that burble out of your mouth. Personally, I give myself a pass on storytelling. But when I catch myself saying in a tone of authority, “Patanjali never would have said that!” I’ve learned to ask myself, “Do I know that for sure?” Often, I’m forced to admit that I don’t.
Is It Kind?
It may seem obvious that some remarks are kind and some are not. But what happens when kindness seems at odds with the truth? Are there certain truths that should not be spoken—even kindly—because they are simply too crushing? Or is it a form of cowardice to suppress a truth that you know will cause pain? What if your words could destroy a friendship, unmake a marriage, or ruin a life—do you speak them?
Is It Necessary?
“I’ve had words literally stick in my throat,” a friend once told me, explaining why he had come to the conclusion that, when he’s confronted with the conflict between kindness and truth, the best choice is simply to remain silent. But sometimes we must speak out even when we dread the consequences. It’s obviously necessary—if we want to prevent wrongdoing—for an employee to let the boss know that the accountant is fudging the books, even if the accountant is a close friend. It’s necessary at some point for a doctor to tell a terminally ill patient that she’s likely to die soon. It’s necessary to let your lover know that you’re unhappy with him before your unhappiness gets to the point where you’re ready to pack your bags. But is it necessary to tell your friend that you saw his girlfriend with another guy? Or to join in the daily office discussions of the latest management screw-ups?
A few years ago, a young woman I’ll call Greta spoke to me after a workshop. In her early teens, her father had sexually abused her. She’d been working with a therapist, and she’d decided that as part of her healing she needed to confront her father and also tell her sisters about it. She knew that this would shatter her very traditional family, humiliate her father, and perhaps not give her the satisfaction she wanted. She worried deeply about whether she was doing the right thing.
I suggested that Greta ask herself the three questions. To the first question “Is this true?” she had an unequivocal yes. She disposed of the “Is it kind?” question quickly and fiercely, believing that what she was about to do was a form of tough love. It was the third question, “Is this necessary?” that brought up her doubts.
Greta decided that speaking up was necessary, particularly because her sisters were still living at home. The effect on her family has been just as difficult and painful as she had feared; nonetheless, she believes she made the right decision. In this kind of process, we make decisions based on the best criteria we have. The consequences, intended or not, are not always in our hands.
I like to use these questions not as mechanisms for censorship but as reminders, as invitations to speak from the highest level of consciousness I’m capable of at any given moment. We all carry inside us multiple impulses, and we are all capable of operating from many layers of ourselves—from shadowy parts as well as from noble intentions and feelings.
But the magic of words is that they can, in and of themselves, transform our consciousness. Words and thoughts that vibrate at a higher level of resonance can change our inner state as well, and they certainly have an effect on the environment around us.
Kathy, who is just beginning to practice the yoga of speech, teaches at a community college that just went through budget cuts. Many teachers lost their jobs and the rest were scared and angry. So they started talking, sometimes for hours, about how the spirit of the department had been lost. The depth of their feelings powered their words, and often Kathy couldn’t sleep after one of these conversations.
One day, she said, she realized all this commiseration was creating a miasma of bad feeling that actually hurt her heart. So she asked herself, “What should I do to raise the vibration here?” Her solution was straight out of the yogic tradition: cleansing her mind with mantra. Mantra, sometimes defined as a word that liberates the one who repeats it, is considered the purest form of speech, and certain mantras can provide an instant connection to higher levels of reality. The mantra Kathy uses, Om Namah Shivaya (“Salutations to the highest consciousness”) is considered especially powerful for purifying the mind and speech. Kathy told me that after turning it over in her mind for 20 minutes she would find that her stream of consciousness had sweetened.
As her mind felt clearer, her emotions cooled and she could resist unloading her frustration at every opportunity. She suggested to her colleagues that they reframe the way they talked about work. As Kathy told me, complaining is a hard habit to break. “Negativity is one of the ways we bond,” she mused. “My friends are the people I can complain to, or be critical with, as opposed to being in public, where I have to be nice.” Yet, as Kathy found, we generate a lot of power when we speak from the highest level of awareness. “I decided that whenever I started to complain, I’d get quiet, and take my attention to my heart. Then I’d wait to see what words arose from that silent place. Nearly always, it was something unexpected—even something wise.”
Kathy discovered an important clue about where empowered speech comes from. Not from a quick tongue or a chatty mind. Speech that can change and inspire us, speech that resonates from our highest Self, comes out of our contact with the silent place behind words, the place we reach when we’re able to pause, turn into the heart, and let the stillness speak through our words. Speech that comes out of stillness is speech that comes, quite literally, from the source of wisdom itself.