Mind & body

Martin Ste­pek on how mind­ful­ness can keep speech on the Right path

Sunday Herald Life - - Mind & Body -

THE pen is might­ier than the sword, so the say­ing goes. But hit some­one with a sword, and be­lit­tle some­one with words, and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem his­tor­i­cally will view the for­mer as crim­i­nal and the lat­ter as noth­ing to do with it. An­other old phrase is “Sticks and stones make break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Try telling that to the fam­i­lies of peo­ple who killed them­selves af­ter re­ceiv­ing vin­dic­tive or un­pleas­ant abuse over so­cial me­dia or face to face.

We have what I con­sider a much-needed and ma­jor de­bate about the prin­ci­ple of free­dom of speech and lim­i­ta­tions on this free­dom. Free­dom of speech is a ba­sic and much-loved hu­man right. Yet here in Scot­land and in the rest of the UK we have what are com­monly re­ferred to as hate crimes, which are es­sen­tially thoughts put into words. So we have thought crimes (as soon as the thoughts are trans­lated into words).

This spills into politics and history. Six­teen Euro­pean coun­tries and Israel have in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion crim­i­nal­is­ing de­nial of the Holo­caust. The UK and USA have not. Ear­lier this year Poland made it a crime to state that the Pol­ish nation or gov­ern­ment par­tic­i­pated in or sup­ported the Holo­caust in Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Poland. This caused an out­cry across the world.

Peo­ple who are put on trial, even when found not guilty, suf­fer the au­to­matic re­ac­tion of much of pub­lic opin­ion, in­clud­ing large sec­tions of the me­dia which, con­trary to the maxim in­no­cent un­til proven guilty, con­clude that some­one is guilty if ar­rested. These in­di­vid­u­als suf­fer enor­mous stress, hu­mil­i­a­tion and de­pres­sion even af­ter the ver­dict of not guilty is pro­nounced.

The same abuse, pain and be­wil­der­ment of­ten faces those who claimed to be vic­tims of a crime, if the re­sult of the case is ac­quit­tal. Peo­ple, usu­ally through so­cial me­dia, heap abuse on these peo­ple, as­sum­ing they made up the story, rather than the al­ter­na­tive pos­si­bil­ity, namely that the jury sim­ply didn’t have enough ev­i­dence to con­vict. This causes most an­guish and dif­fi­culty when it hap­pens in rape tri­als.

We are clearly in a world where how and what we com­mu­ni­cate has be­come a much more free­wheel­ing and chal­leng­ing thing to un­der­stand and re­spond to in a sane, wise way. Yet sound ad­vice ex­ists. Around 500 BC two great thinkers looked at this prob­lem be­fore any form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion other than speech was in com­mon us­age. Gau­tama Sid­dhartha, the Bud­dha, de­voted one of his eight “paths” to free­dom to this sub­ject. He called it Right Speech, mean­ing speech that aims to achieve con­struc­tive or help­ful out­comes. Look at any po­lit­i­cal or news com­ments and see how few meet that no­ble pur­pose.

He set out his def­i­ni­tion of Right Speech, as ex­plained by Walpola Sri Rahula in the clas­sic “What the Bud­dha Taught” which I rec­om­mend. Right Speech is “friendly and benev­o­lent, pleas­ant and gen­tle, mean­ing­ful and use­ful”. He goes on to say that “if one can­not say some­thing use­ful, one should keep a no­ble si­lence”. How many times have we wished other peo­ple did that? How many times would it have been bet­ter if we had just re­frained from re­act­ing with harsh and un­war­ranted words?

The other great teacher of that time was the au­thor or au­thors of the book in verse, the Tao te Ching, com­monly at­trib­uted to Lao Tzu. In the last of its eighty-one verses the poet says “Good peo­ple do not quar­rel. Quar­rel­some peo­ple are not good”.

Ear­lier it says “those who would be above must speak as if they are be­low. Those who would lead must speak as if they are be­hind”. In other words be hum­ble and con­sid­er­ate in your speech, not ar­ro­gant and re­ac­tive as if ev­ery word should be heeded.

De­spite de­vel­op­ing our skill in con­struc­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion we still may dif­fer from one an­other about the pros and cons of leg­is­la­tion on com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Be­ing mind­ful does not mean ev­ery­one reaches agree­ment on all mat­ters. But I think we should ed­u­cate not just the school-age gen­er­a­tion, but all gen­er­a­tions, about skil­ful and con­struc­tive com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and the con­se­quences of de­struc­tive and hurt­ful words. Some­thing does not have to be il­le­gal to make it wrong, and some­thing does not have to be phys­i­cal to cause harm. As the great Dy­lan Thomas put it in one of his rare po­lit­i­cal po­ems “The hand that signed a paper felled a city”. Through reg­u­lar prac­tice of mind­ful­ness meth­ods we de­velop skill in con­struc­tive and pro­duc­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, so we never have to think “these fin­gers that typed a com­ment harmed a life” or dam­aged a mind.

The op­po­site ef­fect is pos­si­ble. The words we use can lift some­one out of their own em­bed­ded hate­ful thought. Your words can nur­ture a per­son’s un­der­stand­ing of how to live life more fully and en­joy­ably. Your words can put a smile on some­one’s face, or at the very least, bring a lit­tle ray of light or hope, to some­one who is des­o­late. These re­sults of your own fully de­vel­oped Right Speech are achiev­able, not just oc­ca­sion­ally but ev­ery sin­gle day, and in this way you play your part in detox­i­fy­ing the world of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and re­plac­ing it with thought­ful, kind tones. Martin Ste­pek is founder of Ten­forZen, of­fer­ing guided mind­ful­ness ses­sions in handy, 10 min­utes a day, au­dio courses. Au­thor of four books, he is fre­quently asked to speak on mind­ful­ness, his re­mark­able fam­ily her­itage, and on business. See ten­forzen.co.uk and www.mar­tin­ste­pek.co.uk or email martin@ten­forzen.co.uk

In writ­ing “the hand that signed a paper felled a city”, Dy­lan Thomas knew that some­thing did not have to be phys­i­cal to cause harm

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