By Catherine L. Schweig
Unlike the old adage that many of us heard growing up, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” words do indeed cause harm.
Sadly, history is full of examples in which carelessly spoken words have led to shaming, discrimination, shunning, prejudices, suicides and executions. From the Salem witch trials—that were sparked by gossip and rumors—to online bullying by “haters,” humans have used words as weapons for ages. Words do indeed have the power of ripping apart close friendships, marriages, families and even whole communities—if we let them.
During the years I lived in a spiritual community we followed many guidelines to help sustain harmony between us. While most of us strictly adhered to our vows—deliberately abstaining from counterproductive behaviors—there was one noticeable activity that many of us found difficult to renounce: idle chatter, or prajalpa in Sanskrit. This human tendency to let conversations wander idly into frivolous subjects is also referred to as gramya-katha in medieval Bhakti literature. And it is, perhaps, the most rampant deviation from harmonious speech we fall into. This kind of speech can tear at the very fabric of communities (and individual relationships) by destroying trust. Especially when it is of the gossipy variety.
Ironically, many of us find ourselves unwittingly participating in gossip because we want to feel closer to others.
Humans naturally seek connection with other humans. We may be engaged in a perfectly harmless conversation with someone, enjoying the exchange, when, suddenly, they begin to speak about a third person in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable. Part of practicing conscious speech is noticing what we do in such instances. Do we assert our discomfort, or remain quiet? Do we add our own kindling words to the fire, or try to change the subject? Are we more responsible as a listener, or as a speaker of such gossip?
According to the medieval Bhakti saint Chaitanya, we should neither hear such talks (gramya-katha na sunibe), nor speak them (gramya-varta na kahibe). This is because gossip is destructive. For the most part, it severely compromises trust, which is the foundation of loving relationships.
When sattvic (illuminating) conversations we are a part of, begin to drift into judgments of others with rajasic (agitated) or tamasic (hurtful) undertones, a spiritual practitioner remains committed to elevating the conversation. If the gossiper is equally committed to cultivating conscious communication, sometimes we’ll be able to dig deep and help uncover the real reason behind the gossip.
Social anthropologists cite four main reasons humans tend to gossip:
- It minimizes one’s own feelings of inferiority, and/or anxiety, by making another person sound worse-off, thereby artificially elevating one’s status in comparison.
- It subconsciously allows us to project uncomfortable feelings we have about ourselves onto others, using them as scapegoats.
- It can create an immediate—but false and fleeting—intimacy with the listener, thereby creating a kind of superficial bonding.
- It can give one a superior sense of authority, or self-importance over the listeners for having (often private) information they don’t.
While self-analysis can be helpful at times, becoming aware of all the reasons we say what we say can be overwhelming! In fact, in the context of reincarnation—in which we import emotional residue from our past-life traumas into this one—we may never really know. Our fear of ridding in airplanes, for example, could be residue from an airplane crash experienced in our last life which we’ve long forgotten about, despite our lingering fears. For this reason, conscious speech is more about genuinely connecting with the feelings behind our words, than with tracing out their obscure origins.
Still, we all carry emotional residue with us, and catching each of our emotional issues in time before they accidentally slip into conversations with others can feel like a tall order for many of us. Equally challenging is remembering that others are also drawing from their own unconscious issues when conversing with us. When our unconscious and unprocessed issues, or traumas, enter into conversation with those of another person, our speech will naturally wander into all kinds of hurtful and destructive directions.
So that we may avoid hurting one another, both Buddhist monasteries and Hindu ashramas and sanghas offer the same five guidelines for creating harmonious communication:
- Speak truthfully: be genuine and honest
- Speak kindly: be compassionate and loving
- Speak beneficially: be thoughtful and generous
- Speak with good intentions: be conscious and helpful
- Speak at the right time: be sensitive and considerate
This encourages sensitivity to time, place, listener and circumstance. It also requires connecting with our own hearts and psyche. For, ultimately, heartfelt sensitivity is at the center of harmonious speech. This sensitivity includes all empathic, compassionate, nourishing styles of communication.
In this context, our words behave as healing balms, positive instigators, soul medicine, etc. They become deliverers of comfort and love. They create trustworthy, safe spaces encouraging others to occupy them, and share deep, meaningful conversations with us. This is the kind of uplifting and enlightening dialogue spiritual practitioners seek to create with others.
And even when we don’t—for whatever reasons—that’s okay. There’s always next time.
Catherine L. Schweig has practiced yoga in the Bhakti tradition since 1986. Her regular treks into nature and relationships with others are a valuable part of her spiritual journey. Passionate about inspiring women to honor their voices, in 2012 Catherine founded the Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry Blog, through which emerged four anthologies, the latest titled GODDESS: When She Rules (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2018). Catherine is also the creator of the Vaishnavi Voices Poetry Project. As co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute, with her life partner, Graham M. Schweig, Ph.D., she designs yoga workshops and publishes in various yoga magazines, and co-authored Yoga in the Gita: Krishna & Patanjali, The Bhakti Dimension, (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2016). Catherine lives in Virginia with her partner, and their cat, where she also makes vegan, Waldorf-style dolls. You may connect with Catherine on Facebook, email her or visit her website: catherineschweig.com
Editor: Dana Gornall
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