Attention in Speech

Another reason that this effort is deceptive in its simplicity is that it applies in so many areas: when the conditions aren’t right for attention, we re-establish them. In our daily lives, we constantly lose attention, lose mindfulness, and fall into reactivity. At such times, we don’t really know what we are doing in the same way that when we are distracted, we don’t really know what we are thinking about. We only come to know that when attention returns, when the distraction has dissolved. In our daily lives then, we only know here and there what we have done or what we are really doing. Still, all we need to do to change this is to observe what we do. The act of observing itself initiates a process of transformation.

Many people try very hard to always say the right thing. There is a common misconception that we can know how to say the right thing, that we can have it in mind and then, when we speak, the words will come out correctly. This is the common idea of right speech. And most of us fail at it over and over again. The words don’t come out as we thought they would. Or if they do, the tone of voice is wrong. Or something else happens. It rarely goes as we planned. That’s the point. It rarely goes as we planned. We cannot plan the future. We cannot plan our speech anymore than we can plan our next thought. Whatever we are thinking now is past when it comes time to speak. How, then, are we to practice right speech?

The problem arises as a result of the confusion noted at the beginning of these notes. Right speech isn’t a practice. It is the result of an effort. The effort is to apply the principle of our meditation practice to the way we speak. We bring attention to our speech. Any idea we may have of right speech, or what is right to say in a given situation, is just that, an idea. Ideas and concepts are generally born from our habituated patterns and are almost always at odds with the situation itself. The idea we have of what we should say is almost always inaccurate. So, what do we do?

The most effective effort is to listen to ourselves as we are talking. This effort brings attention to our speech. When we do this, we will hear when what we say doesn’t fit the situation, when it isn’t what we intended to say, or how we intended to say it. We will hear, with our own ears, the different emotional patterns that take over our speech. We will hear how what we say doesn’t fit with our intention, how it comes out of our confusion, how it doesn’t quite fit with the situation. And as we make this effort over and over again, we will find that we begin to speak with attention in exactly the same way that we come to breath with attention in our meditation. This is how we practice right speech.

In her adventures in Wonderland, Alice is constantly confused by the words of the characters that she meets. She finds her own speech untrustworthy as she tries to recite poems that she thought she knew, but the words come out all wrong. Finally, she has had enough and speaks directly out of her experience, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” Immediately, her dream dissolves and she wakes up. So it is for us. When we speak with attention, we come to experience our world clearly. Everything changes. It will never be the same.

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