Karen McCown, Six Seconds’ Founder, handed this article to me several years ago. It’s stuck with me as a powerful set of guidelines for being impeccable with words. The children, Patty and I have discussed the “three gatekeepers” often over the last years; we started when the kids were 4 and 6 years old and have carried it forward. I highly recommend you put this one into practice!
The Three Gates
by Eknath Easwaran
WORDS ARE THINGS. In fact, they are even more thingy than material things. If you are hit by a rock, the wound might take days to heal. But harsh words can cause a wound that festers for years, and the pain can last a lifetime.
Because we can’t see them, we throw words around without much consideration for their effect. But words leave lasting impressions. Dr. Wilder Penfield, the great Canadian neurosurgeon, describes vividly the experiments that demonstrated how easily words we thought were long forgotten can be revived by electric stimulation of the brain. It’s all still there, recorded deep in consciousness – emotional depth charges ready to explode when they are triggered.
That is why the Buddha considered Right Speech to be as important as Right Action. I think he would have liked the Arab proverb that everything we say should pass three gatekeepers: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”
The Three Gates of Right Speech
“The words of the tongue
Before words get past the lips, the first gatekeeper asks, “Is this true?” That stops a lot of traffic immediately. But if the words get past the first gatekeeper, there is a second who asks, “Is it kind?” And for those words that qualify here too, the last gatekeeper asks: “Is it necessary?“
With these three on guard, most of us would find very little to say. Here I think it is necessary to make exceptions in the interests of good company and let the third gatekeeper look the other way now and then. After all, a certain amount of pleasant conversation is part of the artistry of living. But the first two gatekeepers should always be on duty.
It is so easy to say something at the expense of another for the purpose of enhancing our own image. But such remarks, irresistible as they may be, serve only to fatten our own egos and agitate others. We should be so fearful of hurting people that even if a clever remark is rushing off our tongue, we can barricade the gate. We should be able to swallow our cleverness rather than hurt someone. Better to say something banal but harmless than to be clever at someone else’s expense.
Ekanth Easwaran, Words to Live By
The everyday quarrel
Any little remark that fails these tests – a joke, a wisecrack, thoughtless gossip, an unverified “fact” or tightly-clenched opinion – can wreck a relationship, destroy trust, even cost a job. But the most glaring violation of Right Speech is the everyday quarrel. We just don’t seem to know how to disagree without being disagreeable.
It starts simply enough: someone says something we disagree with, and for some reason we get angry. (Why? I have never seen the connection.) Or, of course, we say something they disagree with and they get angry. Either way, after just a few words, tempers fray and language starts deteriorating.
How many times have I heard even educated people begin an emotionally charged dialogue with the best of intentions: “We won’t quarrel. Let us confine ourselves to the subject at hand.” Within five minutes one is saying, “That’s not what you told me last Saturday in front of the Wide World of Shoes!” And the other replies – see the absurdity of it! – “That wasn’t in front of the Wide World of Shoes. It was the Narrow World of Shoes.”
Anything to quarrel, anything to contradict.
After that, the quarrel has nothing to do with the subject. It is mostly “You must have done this even as a child” and “I’ve heard stories about the way you behaved in high school.” We may know we are being foolish, but by then we are caught; we can’t escape. All of us have been in arguments like this.
I used to ask my teacher, my grandmother, “Granny, if you found yourself in a situation like this, what would you do?” It took years for me to understand her simple answer: “Son, I wouldn’t get into a situation like that.”
This is very practical advice. Even if somebody is being rude to you or unkind, it doesn’t help to be unkind in return. It doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help you. The more unkind you are, the more angry the other person is going to be – and then the more angry you are going to be, until two people have ceased to be human beings and have gone back to a previous stage of evolution.
Out of control
If we could see what happens in the mind at times like these, we would be embarrassed. The mind simply slips out of control, like a speeding car that careens all over the road. Only when we have some say in where our attention goes can we keep our hands on the wheel.
That is what meditation is for. Then, when we see the mind beginning to break loose, we can brake a little, check the words that are about to burst forth, and choose speech that is kind, constructive, and respectful instead.
If we were to ask the Buddha why we lose control at times like these, he would give a precise diagnosis. First, he would say, the mind never was really in our control. The very nature of the mind is to be fickle, distractable, constantly in motion – in a word, to do whatever it likes. For it to behave the way we like, we have to train it through meditation.
But the real problem, he would say, is self-will: the fierce attachment to our little personal self, our opinions, our ego, that insists on having its way whatever the consequences to others. We just can’t bear to be contradicted, so we get angry and lash out with hurtful words. Most of us would be chagrined to see the underlying message: “You aren’t worth my respect. My ideas are superior; you don’t count.”
Bear with others
To break this cycle, we have to learn to be patient under provocation. “Suffer hard words,” the Buddha says, “as the elephant suffers arrows in battle. People are people, most of them ill-natured.”
There you get the Buddha, who really knows human nature. He doesn’t try to idealize. He doesn’t say, “Everybody is beautiful. Everybody is divine.” He says, “Factually speaking, most people lack courtesy.” This is the characteristic touch of the Buddha, standing firmly on the ground and then trying slowly to help us rise until our heads touch the stars.
For an Indian audience, the elephant is a familiar illustration. The elephant is the mightiest creature on earth, so tremendous in strength and endurance that in battle he ignores his wounds and goes forward gallantly even when his body is bristling with arrows. But he is also a very gentle creature. If you offer him a peanut on the palm of your hand, he will take it without even touching you.
The Buddha’s audience would have grasped the message immediately. Shrug off the daily darts and arrows that life sends, he is telling us, but never shoot such arrows at others. Never upset people, never be unkind to them, never hurt their feelings or treat them with lack of respect, how-ever they might behave themselves.
“In other words,” he says, “in personal relationships, be prepared for a certain amount of impoliteness and discourtesy – not because people are bad, but because they have self-will and can’t control it, just like you.”
This is one of the curious fallacies of self-will. We expect others to show courtesy to us, but we also expect them to bear with us if we happen to be a little unkind. We expect to have our way, but why should others have theirs?
It’s good, I think, not to get upset if you find somebody not showing respect to you, for the simple reason that you may well not be showing enough respect yourself.
Here the Buddha asks a simple question: If you get displeased when others are unkind to you, why don’t you get equally displeased when you are not kind to others? In other words, there is no mystery about these things. You don’t like anyone to be unkind to you. Why don’t you remember that the other person is just like you? Like you, he doesn’t like unkind words. Like you, she appreciates courtesy and respect.
Oddly enough, the person who usually gets upset is the man who expects extreme courtesy for himself, the woman who finds it easy to be discourteous to others. The realist is the mystic, who says, “Well, the world is like that. It takes all sorts.”
In The Imitation of Christ – a marvelous book of spiritual inspiration for any religion – we often come across this same counsel: “Bear with people. Don’t answer back.”
Believe me, for those of us who have lived in the world of education and had our intellect sharpened to be sarcastic, it’s very difficult to restrain oneself. At a meeting when you’re being criticized or attacked, it’s considered part of your academic responsibility to answer back with compound interest.
I, too, was in the habit of doing that, until I began to understand that if somebody attacked me, there was no need for me to get exasperated. After all, most people are capable of using their judgment. So I started just repeating my mantram silently – Rama, Rama, Rama – and keeping quiet.
It was not at all easy. To make things worse, it was sometimes misinterpreted. Somebody who used to keep quiet would think I was at a loss for an answer and join the others in jumping on me. It was difficult training, but very soon I began to see that I was getting detached – not from my colleagues, but from my own opinions. When they were criticizing somebody, they weren’t criticizing me. They were criticizing a statue they had sculpted and set up in the corner. Why should I be bothered if they threw darts at a statue they themselves had made?
This doesn’t mean making a doormat of yourself. Just the opposite. It is training. You are getting your mind under control. First you learn to break the connection between stimulus and response. Once you have a measure of detachment, you can reply to criticism without identifying yourself with your opinions or the other person with hers. Then you are free to choose words that are kind, respectful, and to the point.
The more self-willed and insensitive the other person is, the more reason for you to alert your mind to be calm and compassionate – and, if necessary, to face opposition firmly but tenderly.
We aren’t helping self-willed people when we give in to their demands or let them walk all over us. It only feeds self-will to let them have their way. We have to learn to show respect by opposing them – tenderly, nonviolently, but firmly.
This is a lesson all of us need to learn, and it’s not at all easy. Particularly in personal relationships where people are insecure, they will feel resentment but they will not try to oppose tenderly. When self-will gets inflated, you look upon others as part of your own ego – a kind of ego-annex. This is very common today, especially between parents and children. In such cases it is particularly painful – and all the more necessary – to learn to oppose tenderly, with detachment and respect.
The mental attitude
Criticism, of course, can be useful only when it is constructive. Comments can be useful only when they are friendly. Persuasion can be useful only when it is loving. Even from the point of effectiveness, then, unkind comments only add to the problem. Disrespectful criticism makes the situation worse.
Often, of course, it is necessary to make a constructive comment or suggestion. It is the mental attitude – the tone, the respect, the loving concern – with which we put forward ideas op-posed to others that makes the contribution effective.
I would suggest that whenever you feel you have to make a suggestion opposed to someone else’s, take time to get a little detached from the situation by repeating the mantram silently. Then, when your mind is calm, offer your suggestion in a friendly, warmhearted manner with great respect for the other person. This takes practice, but you will find that it works. It is effective.
Here it helps to remember the Buddha’s observation: most of our problems arise from inflated self-will. And one of the surest signs of inflated self-will is in an inability to see the person’s point of view. It is not that we have to accept the other person’s point of view, but under no circumstances should we refuse to acknowledge that the other person has a point of view – one that deserves to be listened to with respect and evaluated with detachment.
Everyone acknowledges this in principle, but in practice it is all too rare. On campuses I have found even the best-educated scholars sometimes unable to concede that others have a cogent point of view.
This is the intellectual climate I was trained in. It took years of retraining my mind through the practice of meditation to learn to listen with respect to utterly opposite points of view and yet retain my own.
When you are able to do this – to be completely loyal to your ideals and yet not reflect on other people’s integrity – often the other person begins to respond. What matters is the friendliness you show, the lack of ill will – and, more than anything else, the complete absence of any sense of superiority. The more spiritual you become, the less superior you feel to others because the less separate you feel from others. The superiority complex is most rampant where separateness is inflamed.
By making Right Speech part of his Eightfold Path, the Buddha is giving us a precious clue. Right Speech is not just a nice way to behave. It is a spiritual discipline, part of a very skillfully designed path for self-realization.
Once we grasp this, every disagreement becomes an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Facing anger, for example – your own or others’ – is one of life’s best opportunities for training. It’s very much like learning to lift weights. You start by lifting chairs, then tables, then a desk, and after a while you’re lifting a VW Bug. You can pick up a thousand pounds, raise it over your head – what do they call it? “clean and jerk” – and then drop it onto the mat with a lot of noise.
It is the same with anger. You start with those absurd little quarrels about the Wide World of Shoes. As you learn to be patient, you get confidence. Next time, when a bigger outburst comes, instead of retaliating, being unkind, making sarcastic remarks, you use the incident for training the muscles of your mind by repeating the mantram.
Just as we admire people who can lift a thousand pounds, we all benefit by being with somebody who can be patient under attack, kind when opposed, and detached enough to see the situation clearly and compassionately. This is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength.
Athletes, I understand, often keep a daily record of their training. In the same spirit, I take a few minutes every evening to get a bird’s-eye view of training my mind and see where I can improve the quality of my daily behavior.
This is not a negative survey. You are not finding fault with yourself. You are asking, “Where can I be a little more patient? Can I be a little more loving toward Amelia tomorrow? Can I be a little more helpful to John?” These are the positive ways in which we can improve the quality of our daily living tomorrow in the light of what we have done today.
Interestingly enough, this makes every day new. Tomorrow is never the same old day. There is always something more to be done: one or two more steps to take on the path upward, some greater care to avoid the mistakes that all of us make in some small way. Instead of repining over mistakes or being resentful over them, I would suggest taking every possible care not to repeat those mistakes tomorrow and make at least a little improvement in your daily behavior.
This is why we have been given the competitive instinct: not to compete with others, but to compete with ourselves. Every evening you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, “You did a pretty good job today, I agree. But watch out! Tomorrow I’m going to outdo you.”
When you refrain from unkindness, you are uncovering your real nature. That is the real meaning of the Buddha’s word nirvana: the removal of every shred of the selfish conditioning and self-will that brings such sorrow to us and others.
When we have removed all anger, what remains is compassion. When we have removed all selfishness, what remains is selflessness. When we have removed all hatred, what remains is love.
This is the glory of the mystical tradition: We don’t have to make ourselves loving; we have only to remove hatred from our hearts. Those who have learned to be kind even when others are unkind move in the world with freedom. Their love flows to all around without any question of “Is he being nice to me? Is she being kind?”
Life holds us hostage with such questions. But when we are free – when we attain the stage where there is no possibility of my dancing to your tune or making you dance to mine – all sorrows come to an end.
“You cannot add to the joy of such a man,” the Upanishads say. “You cannot add to such a woman’s security. Whatever life gives, whatever life takes, they are always full.”
From an article by Eknath Easwaran in Blue Mountain, the Journal of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, Summer 2004; reprinted by permission of Nilgiri Press, P. O. Box 256, Tomales, CA 94971, www.easwaran.org