You can change the world, or at least your experience of it, by becoming conscious of the words coming out of your mouth.
By Sally Kempton (originally posted here in Yoga Journal)
At a dinner party I recently attended, the host asked us: “Did your parents ever say something that you’ve carried throughout your life?” As people shared, we were struck by how many of us had been shaped by a parent’s words. The woman whose father had told her,”Whatever you do in life, be the best,” became a successful entrepreneur. The woman who had heard, “Nobody’s looking at you,” spent her career guiding powerful people from the sidelines. Words had literally defined their lives.
The power of words isn’t lost on anyone—just think of the pleasure you feel when someone pays you a sincere compliment, or the discomfort of realizing you’ve spilled a secret you’d promised to keep. Words and the energy they carry make or break friendships and careers; they define us as individuals and even as cultures. We know this, and yet we often let our words flow out more or less unmediated, like random pebbles tossed into a lake. Sometimes, it’s only when the ripples spread and cause waves, and the waves rush back and splash us, that we stop to think about the way we speak.
The sages of yoga obviously understood the human tendency to run off at the mouth, because many texts of the inner life, from the Upanishads and the Yoga Vasistha to the Bhagavad Gita, counsel us to use words carefully. The Buddha made right speech one of the pillars of his Noble Eightfold Path. On the simplest level, these sages point out, unnecessary speaking wastes energy that could be devoted to self-inquiry and transformative action. More important, though, is the power that words have to change the communal atmosphere, to cause joy or pain, and to create a climate that fosters truth or falsity, kindness or cruelty.
Of course, in an era where unsubstantiated rumors roll endlessly through the blogosphere, where lying and concealment and spin are so much a part of public utterance that words have lost their meaning and most of us automatically suspect anything a public figure says, the very idea of right speech can sound countercultural. And yet, as with so many of the yogic dicta, it makes profound sense. So much of the pain we cause ourselves and each other could be avoided if we were just a bit more discriminating about what we say. Our relationships, our work environment, even our feelings about ourselves, can be transformed simply by taking time to think about how words create reality. Yes, words create reality. That’s an understanding you’ll find in most of the great wisdom traditions, but especially the Vedic and Tantric traditions of India and in the texts of Kabbalah, with which they have so much in common.