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“Guarding the Tongue: Why We Should Practice Right Speech”


A few years ago, I went through an estrangement with a close friend because of the words I used to refer to her partner’s behavior. Although he did not hear what she and I said in our phone conversation, by “chance” he saw my e-mail that followed it. I meant no harm. I thought I was being supportive of my friend. But it was careless speech on my part, and it has cost me dearly.

The painful repercussions of my experience awoke me to a simple fact. While I had been careful in watching the movement of breath in meditation, I had not been as attentive in watching the words coming out of my mouth. I’d neglected an essential aspect of spiritual practice--“guarding the tongue.”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin relates a memorable story about the unrecognized power of words and the irrevocable damage they can wreak. There was a man in a small Eastern European community who went about maligning the town’s rabbi. When he was suddenly filled with remorse, he pleaded with the rabbi to forgive him. He was willing to endure whatever penance necessary to atone his wrong. The rabbi instructed him to take a down pillow from his home, slash it open, and scatter the contents to the wind.

He did this and went back to the rabbi to ask whether he was forgiven. The rabbi said, “Not yet.” There was one more thing the man had to do: Gather all the scattered feathers. Aghast, the man said, “How can I possibly do that? The wind has already blown them away in every direction.” The rabbi replied, “Exactly. Though you sincerely want to erase the transgression, it’s as impossible to fix the harm you’ve done as it is to recover those feathers.”

Every part of the body is integral to our spiritual practice. Perhaps most important, but least regarded, is the mouth. It appears harmless enough. Boneless, the lips and tongue are soft; yet, they can be razor-sharp. As Zen teacher Robert Aitken has said, “More people get hurt by gossip than by guns.”

Generally, we think slander affects only the object of it. In fact, it hurts at least three people: the slanderer, the person being slandered, and the person listening to the slander. In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus repeats God’s commandment not to bear false witness. He warns his listeners: “By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will condemned.”

You don’t have to believe in heaven and hell in order to experience these consequences. In the present moment, you can notice immediate repercussions in your body. When you say something derogatory or you tell a lie, perhaps your heart suddenly beats faster or your stomach feels fluttery. Maybe your throat constricts or some other part of your body tightens? The Dalai Lama says, “If you find yourself slandering anybody, first imagine that your mouth is filled with excrement. It will break you of the habit quickly enough.”