In yoga classes, we frequently hear about how powerful an intention can be. I’m often invited to set an intention at the beginning of class. As our teachers explain, our intentions guide our thoughts, words, and actions. Our words, or our speech, form a very potent part of our intentions and related actions.
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Our words have the power to bring about peace in our homes, relationships, communities, and even countries. But our words can also incite havoc on our environments – be it hurting our loved ones, wrecking a situation at work, or even serving as a catalyst for physical violence and destruction.
Is my speech truthful, beneficial, and pleasing?
Am I the right person to say it?
Is it the right time?
I visited the Vedic Cultural Center near Portland, Oregon recently to take part in their weekly Sunday gathering. We explored speech and the power of words, using the Bhagavad Gita as a reference guide. The discussion specifically looked at verse 17.15:
satyaḿ priya-hitaḿ ca yat
vāń-mayaḿ tapa ucyate
Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature.
What usually happens when there’s a conflict at work? When parents and children have an argument? When faced with stressful situations or emotional upheaval, what is our usual reaction? Mine tends to be to raise my tone of voice, or sometimes even lash out verbally.
I don’t mean to do it, but words just seem to slip off the tongue. How many times has that happened to you too? And what can we do about it?
For me, I constantly need to remind myself to put myself in the other person’s shoes. I try to empathize and understand where they are coming from before I speak. It’s useful to remind myself of the phrase I often heard growing up – “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Another question we explored is when it is appropriate to bring certain topics up in social situations, and when it’s better to politely stay silent. In my own life and interaction with others, I often come across this in reference to vegetarianism. While I am a strong advocate of a non-meat based diet for a whole host of reasons, I don’t want to alienate people from the idea by pushing too hard.
Instead, my strategy is to invite people over for vegan meals, or order catered (and delicious) vegetarian meals in to work for special celebrations. These tactics sometimes work better than other methods to ‘push’ or promote a non-harming diet.
And when the timing is right, a discussion on vegetarianism can lead to fruitful results. Oftentimes a dinner party is the perfect way to create that timing!
The temple’s presenter that week also touched upon austerity of the mind as related to austerity of speech. “Austerity burns away what’s impure in life,” he explained. “Any activity you do should be done with faith in God, and without expecting anything in return.”
This is in fact one of the major themes of the Bhagavad Gita – offering your efforts to the divine and expecting nothing in return. We probably could have gone on for hours to dissect that thought, but it was a good reminder to take home and contemplate.
I know I often need to be heard. I need to talk things out, and it’s my universe that I want to talk about. I have observed that many of my friends and acquaintances can be the same way.
Sometimes, though, it’s time to just step back and listen. Make a point to focus on the others in the room or the other side of the phone receiver. How is your friend’s day is going? What has s/he been dealing with lately, and is there a way you can help? Are you really listening when they talk to you, or are your thoughts somewhere else?
As we interact with others, listening and speaking are flip sides of the same coin. Once we’re mindful of how we listen, the next part of the equation is to pay quality attention to how we speak. Strive to pick words (and actions) that are meaningful, timely, and uplifting to others. Simply stated, consciously employ “yoga talk” in your everyday life!