right speech

I never took any religion or philosophy classes in school and I grew up in a small Midwestern town in Wisconsin where Christianity prevails, so my exposure to other faiths and philosophies has been very limited. In my house we were taught The Golden Rule, which is a great general approach for human interaction, but fails to put forth a very detailed prescription for living an honorable life. For a number of years I have been drawn to Buddhist philosophies, mainly because they are deeply rooted in peace, non-violence and compassion, but for most of that time my knowledge was confined to a modest familiarity with the Dalai Lama and those happy, laughing Buddha figurines. It wasn’t until moving to Hippieville, USA and a literary love affair with “Eat Pray Love,” albeit Hindu-inspired, that I’ve gained greater access to a Buddhist education. I didn’t want to continue on in ignorance, so I recently signed up for an 8-week workshop that focuses on The Noble Eight-Fold Path, one of the main teachings of the Buddha and the one which, in my opinion, offers the “prescription” that is missing from The Golden Rule. Each week in class we focus on one of the unique “folds” or elements of the path – this week’s focus is on “Right Speech.” If you want to read more about this teaching and the other elements, I suggest a quick Wikipedia search:


The point of this post isn’t to push anything on anyone, but rather to offer a little background on what I am about to express my frustrations over and also to clue you in as to how I’m spending my Thursday nights for the next seven weeks.

So, right speech.

There are several interpretations of right speech, but the most easily understood and applicable translation for me is “words that do no harm.” Hmmmmm…so if I want to live an ideal Buddhist life, I can’t use words that do harm? Ever? But words are my gateway to emotional freedom! I mean, sure I would rather use words for positive reinforcement, thank you notes, “I love yous,” and sales growth activities, but…BUT. There are just times in my life (or every day) when the only way I feel liberated from the abuse of other clearly less dignified people (also known as “morons” or “assholes”) is by using words that do harm. It’s not me, it’s them, I swear!! How else can I stand up for myself, or in a case like this morning, for all womankind, if I don’t use some choice words to respond to this Facebook exchange with a man from our neighborhood. After introducing myself and the fact that I have two young children, he makes the following thoughtful suggestions:

“There are other families with very young kids and you should get to know them. Hopefully you are a stay at home mom or at least part time stay at home. There are several groups that you may be interested in. If your husband is a hiker you can have him contact me for hikes.”

Yep. That happened. I promise I’m not paraphrasing. This is one of those situations where at first I’m left speechless. Speechless because people don’t really still say things like that in this day and age, do they? It’s like when I was pregnant and other moms warned me about the “stranger touching belly” phenomenon. No, I thought, that doesn’t really happen, you are clearly exaggerating the fact that your huge belly just brushes against people all the time because you forgot that you have a HUGE BELLY now. But yes, folks, it does happen. Some of the more polite grocery store patrons will at least ask you before swooping in with their greasy paws, but there are also those few who just don’t give a damn and put their prego belly fetish way above appropriate social conduct. Such is the WTF reaction I initially had to this morning’s exchange with Old Man River. Do they count as harmful words if you don’t express them directly to the offender? Yes? Grrr. I have to double-check this with my teacher, but I don’t think they count if you just think them. There is an element we will discuss in coming weeks called Right Thinking, but I can only begin at the beginning. Right now I am merely trying to refrain from using my words, because the only words I have for this man are harmful. Words like, “Actually, I am both a full-time breadwinner and the primary hiking enthusiast in this household, you #$@%.” Sean had a great little nugget about how I’m working full time to pay his social security benefits. A coworker thought I should say I would love to stay home with my kids except for the fact that I’m too busy shipping $15M in product. Great idea except that the first part would be a total lie and apparently lying isn’t considered right speech either.

Part of my homework is to jot down situations in which I wanted to use harmful words, but stopped myself short. Since last Thursday I’ve been able to come up with a handful of such circumstances, but this one has really tested not only my ability to hold back, but also my humility. We are only products of our individual experiences and I am trying to remember that he is an old man and that soon (not soon enough, if you ask me, since clearly I thought we were done with shit like this) such ridiculous prejudice will be virtually eradicated in this country. For now I have restrained my words, but not my sense of self-worth as a working and hiking mother. Nor have I restrained my immaturity through an emphatic Facebook de-friend from Old Man River.

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