Right Speech: A Mindfulness Practice

Speak only if it improves upon the silence.
– Mahatma Gandhi

Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
– Lao Tzu

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.
– James 3:5b-6

Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.
– Bernard Meltzer


Over the past ten years, I have attended eight 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats. Vipassana means to see things as they really are. One of the requirements for participants in the retreat is to remain in Noble Silence until the ninth day, when you are allowed to engage in what the teacher likes to call “Noble Chattering.”

In my experience, however, even after meditating ten hours a day for 10 days, it’s easy to lose “nobility” of thought and speech, and people often return to their habitual ways of speaking, whether noble or not. Maybe that’s because even while meditating we are often carrying on an internal dialogue that is anything but noble.

I attended my first Vipassana retreat in 2008. Meditating for more than 10 hours a day was both mentally challenging and physically excruciating. On the second day, when I saw that others were allowed to sit with their backs against a wall for support, I asked to do the same. Very kindly, the course manager (the one person we were allowed to talk to) said that I would have to ask the teacher. Not wanting to make a fuss, I chose instead to tough it out and stay where I was even though my back was killing me.

Later in the evening, I was surprised and relieved when the course manager came to me and said the teacher would allow me to sit against the wall during the evening discourse. 

When the discourse was over, I remained in my more comfortable spot against the wall. But as we prepared for the final meditation of the evening, the course manager came over to me again and said I did not have the teacher's permission to stay where I was. Embarrassed, because now I was holding up the evening meditation, I asked if I could speak to the teacher. 

With permission granted, I went to the front of the room where the teacher was sitting on a raised platform, at eye level from where I was standing. I began to speak and she pointed to a spot on the floor, indicating that I was to sit before making my request. I could feel the blood rushing to my face as the outrage of humiliation boiled within me but I sat obediently on the floor, made my request, and was eventually allowed to go back to my cushion at the wall.

Sitting on my cushion in a room full of seemingly peaceful meditators, I was literally burning with anger, indignation, self-righteousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and everything else that goes with being "put in my place."

My inner dialogue went something like this:
“Who does she think she is?”
“I shouldn’t have to ask permission!”
“She made me feel like I was doing something wrong.”
“This is stupid. I don’t belong here.”
“Nobody’s going to tell ME what to do!”

The longer I stewed, the angrier I felt. My thoughts were definitely not noble and I was not speaking “rightly” to myself at all. I could feel burning sensations all over my body and wanted to get up, pack up and go home.

But the longer I sat, the more I realized that this was why I was sitting. This was why anyone would choose to spend 10 days in silent meditation. This was what I had come to learn. I needed to examine the truth of my inner dialogue. I needed to let go of my ego and be truly present to what is. And, inwardly, I began to laugh.

All of my life I had deeply valued autonomy and independence to a fault. Now, as I sat laughing at myself on my cushion, I realized that what I was really seeking was true liberation -- the kind of liberation that comes with realizing that no matter how many external restrictions you face, you can always be free on the inside. Free to choose humility over pride. Free to choose peace instead of anger. Free to choose love over hate. 

“Right Speech is a mindfulness practice.  By undertaking this practice, we commit to greater awareness of our body, mind, and emotions. Mindfulness makes it possible to recognize what we are about to say before we say it, and thus offers us the freedom to choose when to speak, what to say, and how to say it.  With mindfulness, we see that the heart is the ground from which our speech grows.  We learn to restrain our speech in moments of anger, hostility, or confusion, and over time, to train the heart to more frequently incline towards wholesome states such as love, kindness and empathy.  From these heart states Right Speech naturally arises.” –Beth Roth

Mindfulness and Right Speech can be learned, but it is useless unless it is practiced. Even with a daily meditation practice and a habit of yearly retreats, I still can get triggered emotionally. And my first negative reaction usually comes right out of my mouth, especially with my nearest and dearest, which in turn naturally triggers them.

But over time, my practice has decreased the likelihood of being triggered, or at least allows me to recognize it sooner so I can be quicker to forgive myself and others. And on those rare occasions when I am fully present, I find I can respond better in the moment.

Words are powerful. Maybe that’s why so many spiritual leaders and traditions give attention to the right use of words. 

The Pali Canon

Mimi Weaver works as a life coach, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, mindfulness & meditation teacher through her company, GraceMoves. She also serves on the faculty of the Ruah School for Spiritual Guidance at Richmond Hill. She first became involved with Chrysalis through the Group Dreamwork Training Institute in 2006 and has facilitated several workshops and classes at Chrysalis since then. She has studied Nonviolent Communication since 2004 and is delighted that her daughter, Haley, is a restorative practitioner, educator, facilitator, trainer, and researcher with the Diana Unwin Chair in Restorative Justice at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand.

Elizabeth Smartt