Wise Speech and the Etiquette of Freedom
Carla Brennan

In this day and age, Wise Speech might be more accurately called Wise Communication. During the Buddha’s time, essentially all interaction was done face-to-face. Today our “speech” is expressed in a vast variety of forms: print, phone, emails, texting, video. Most astounding is that some of what we “say” can be “heard” by anyone on planet Earth connected to the internet. This proliferation of communication is all the more reason to be thoughtful about what we utter.

The term Wise Communication also covers when we are silent yet still interacting. Our nonverbal communication, including facial expressions, gestures, body language, and energetic state are all part of connecting interpersonally. For example, you could give someone a look of disgust or of empathy, and clearly convey your point, possibly better than with words.

To actually engage in Wise Speech takes focused awareness, clear intention, and proper effort, all aspects of the Eightfold Path. We slow down and listen. We consider when to speak and when to be silent, what to say and how to say it. We may use restraint from acting on impulsive reactions. We are simultaneously aware of our own experience, the content of what is being said, and the emotional tone of the conversation. To respond wisely, we feel empathy for the other person and have awareness of the possible impact of our behavior.

Despite its complexity, Wise Communication can come easily to us. But usually this ease only develops after repeated conscious effort, life experience, and learning specific skills. It takes maturity, training and practice and it is well worth the effort. Our ability to care for ourselves and others deepens. When we commune with another, we experience first hand the reality of our interconnectedness.

Another essential ingredient for Wise Speech is what we might refer to as Wise Listening, also called “deep listening”. By listening in this way, we open to another person without resorting to defending ourselves, or fixing, advising or rejecting them. Mindfulness itself is a form of deep listening through all the senses; it is the practice of relaxed attentiveness to our full experience, without being caught by the reactions and convoluted chatter of the conditioned mind.

Studies show that although we are listening about half the time in conversations, 75% of that time we are distracted and preoccupied. What would happen if people all over the world paused and quietly listened to each other?

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society explains that,
“Deep Listening is a way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening in the moment without trying to control it or judge it. We let go of our inner clamoring and our usual assumptions and listen with respect for precisely what is being said.

For listening to be effective, we require a contemplative mind: open, fresh, alert, attentive, calm, and receptive. We often do not have a clear concept of listening as an active process; we often see listening as a passive, static activity. In fact, listening and a contemplative mind is open and vibrant yet spacious, and it can be cultivated through instruction and practice.”

All aspects of Wise Communication, including deep listening, begin by applying it to ourselves. We learn to meet our inner habitual harsh and judgmental self-talk with a response of kindness, forgiveness and understanding. This gives us the courage to not turn away in fear but to acknowledge our own suffering with compassion. Treating ourselves in this way becomes the template on how we treat others.

The Five Precepts, in general, and Wise Speech specifically, could be called, “the etiquette of freedom” (from Gary Snyder) – that is, the code of behavior that leads to inner freedom, that promotes lovingkindness, empathy, and caring and that can help create an awakened society.