Recently subjected to verbal rants disguised as opinions or information, passionate distortions and hurtful jokes, I have felt terribly trapped and upset. I suffered for days from reverberations and dissonances. I hung my head in sorrow, coming to know that as offensive as it all sounded to me, as painful as it was to hear "a nice person" speak so mean, so blind, so destructive; the same was also in me. I, too, have spoken without thinking that I was forcing someone else to swallow my words. I, too, have been passionate in my opinions, pushing others into silence about their own experiences or feelings. I, too, have assumed too much without grounding, have sought an object upon which to blame a frightening outcome, have wanted to make others feel responsible for a set of conditions resulting from behaviors or choices. Being human and verbal, I, too, have felt and done these things.
I know that I live in a world that makes some human beings into property. I know that I live in a world where people believe they can own land, displacing natural habitats and tolerating that others are homeless. I live in a world where essential resources are being bought and sold all the time for profit. The truth is that these are all conditions, not finite, not infinite, just conditional. Speech also reflects the conditional moment. It is here that I can cultivate Right Speech, one of the aspects of the Eight-fold path of yoga practice.
Patterns of behavior can be recognized and understood. Opinions and blame, hate and disrespect, aggression and fear are all conditional. It is this, in part, that unifies all of us human beings -- with specific conditions, we have specific reactions or responses. Once seen, these conditions can be recognized, and reactions can be seen for what they are -- reactions. Once seen, these reactions can also be understood and the root causes can be seen and recognized too. Not everything can be changed, but much can be, and sometimes simply seeing things as they are is enough to change the conditions and enable a choice of reaction.
Listening is part of speaking. I heard my neighbor speak of so many others as flawed and wrong and stupid and mean. I heard my neighbor separate himself from others as though he plays no part in decisions and choices, relationships and actions around him. I hear him sounding helpless, in a way reviling this helplessness, fearing for the future and bemoaning his inability to solve the problems he sees -- just as he blames others for this. This is what I hear when he faults the inequity of a nearby neighbor's action, or the greed of a business or ineffectiveness of a government, or the beliefs of people in another land. It is his pain I hear when he makes a derogatory joke about people he does not know; he is ill at ease in the world in which he sees himself.
It is suffering I hear, and it is this suffering that I feel for days. I think now that this suffering is mine because, in fact, we are not separate, my neighbor and I. The urge I felt to respond as he spoke, the deep desire to shout louder than he, to drown out his suffering, to say it is not so: this is my own human condition. To be inflammatory or dismissive is so easy. To denigrate the way others live and think, to find ways to blame and fault are all coping mechanisms inside each of us, as if it protects us from feeling helpless in the face of fear and pain and uncertainty. I can do it too. The insults come out when we see ourselves as separate from "the other," or perhaps we turn hatefully towards ourselves. Jokes prompt that uncomfortable laughter to hide how offensive a remark really is.
To stop it I acknowledge the pain, though this is where I sometimes get stuck - in the pain. Being open to the infinite imperfections in all of us, this is where I begin to feel the true laughter. No one knows the way, no matter how strident they are. There is no path. Just walk and see how it is and is not. The path is under my own foot! I can let words haunt me, or see them as shells in the sand. The ocean and the wind hear nothing separate.
Right speech acknowledges the fullness of silence, seems inclusive of the pain and the laughter, lets the words be like rain falling into a pond -- already the words are the breath. Perhaps right speech is simply allowing the words to be breath, that energy and release shared with all living beings, not something we wish was finite. I cannot stop the pain my neighbor feels, but I can take the precaution of doing no harm. It does not stop by asking him not to speak to me this way or of these things. He will simply carry his pain elsewhere. What I can do is be present, and truly see him there too, knowing and acknowledging that we are not separate. That world that he paints is a world where I also live. I am continuously choosing to water different seeds in myself and my experience, perhaps making a space possible where he can hear his own voice and recognize himself. I cannot avoid myself much as I might like to run away (think of the idea of gaining strength to stay within the context of meditation), and by being present, perhaps I encourage right speech in others as I do in myself.