Saturday, December 11, 2010

Loving Speech

A long time ago or just the other day, in a sprawling town or a small village, a gossiping man or a tale~telling woman goes to see the rabbi. “On a day when the wind howls,” directs the rabbi, “take a feather pillow to the top of the highest hill. Once there, slice the pillow through, shake it until all its feathers have blown away, and come see me again.”

The individual does as directed and returns to the rabbi. “Now go find every feather,” instructs the rabbi, “and gather them together once more.” “But that’s impossible!” the person protests. “I doubt I can find even one feather, let alone all of them, for the wind has flung them far and wide.”

“Your words, too, are feathers in the wind,” replies the wise teacher. “Once spoken, they are released in many directions and you can never pull them back again.”

* * * * * *

This traditional wisdom tale speaks to the Jewish teaching on lashon hara, which translates as “evil tongue”, and refers to speaking unconsciously or with ill intent.

“Lashon hara is a very complex phenomenon,” explains Rabbi Birdie Becker of Pueblo’s Temple Emanuel. “It doesn’t simply refer to speaking ill of others. It’s also about not being party to such talk by listening to it.” Jewish teachings are quite clear on this point. In listening to disparaging speech, we offer ourselves as the necessary platform for its manifestation and are, thus, implicated as much as the speaker.

Lashon hara doesn’t only refer to speech about others,” Rabbi Becker continues, “Denigrating oneself is not acceptable either.”

Proverbs, that most pithy of all the books of the Tanakh, the Jewish name for what Christians call the Old Testament, puts it this way: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Just like the babbling person in this tale, we often open our mouths without discernment, and what flies out can enliven or destroy. But just as the person in today's tale, we can turn toward wisdom by choosing our words with care, aware of their possible consequences.

This is not an easy task. Living in community with others gives rise to conflict~~both within us and around us~~which must be addressed for resolution to occur. But true peace cannot come or be sustained without respect. Our charge, Rabbi Becker reminds us, is “to keep the level of conversation moving always upward.”

I love that line! In the days since I first heard it, I've seen words spiraling upward, scented smoke swirling from a lit stick of incense.

We can interact with our fellows civilly, even during periods of strife, by holding a compassionate awareness of our essential kinship. Not only are we each trying to negotiate this perplexing human journey, but the very flaw we recognize so readily in another likely lies within us as well, though perhaps in a slightly different form.

If every human being carries a spark of the Divine, then to defame, belittle or disregard someone also defames, belittles and disregards the Divine. In speaking unconsciously or with malicious intent, we also actively reject our own true potential and, in the process, do a disservice to the gift that is our life.

We bear responsibility for these pillows of ours. They contain all that we are, all that we can be. Our every word and deed become feathers on the wind, the gift of ourselves to the world. What shall we offer, and what will become of these feathers of ours?

As another Jewish sage put it, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Speak well, listen well, be well!

Loanne Marie

PS. This essay had an interesting developmental process. A couple of months ago, reader Giselle Massi, sent me a link to an article she had published in the online magazine, The Edge. In it, she referred to the concept of lashon hara, without naming it. I was intrigued and spoke with a Jewish friend of mine, Judi, who supplied me the name along with her thoughts on the subject. Thus began a flurry of research, leading me at last to Rabbi Becker. Thanks to all of you!

PPS. For a Buddhist spin on lashon hara, see Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourth Mindfulness Training, in which he expands on the Buddha's fourth precept which prohibits lying.


Anonymous said...

As my wise mother put it, "If you don't have anything good to say about someone, say nothing at all." Or in another vein by Don Miquel Ruiz, "Be impeccable with your word."

Leia Marie said...

Isn't it amazing how wise our mothers~~and theirs, and theirs, and theirs, stretching back in time~~were? And Ruiz adds a nice spin to it, to be impeccable, in every way. Yes!

Thanks for writing!

Anonymous said...

I've been having loads of trouble with the VA (who doesn't?!) lately concerning a form that I have filled out twice already. I was all set to send them a fiery letter spotlighting their endless incompetence, apathy, etc., but then I read about lashon hara. So instead, I sent them a polite and somewhat dignified letter outlining the problem and what they should do to correct it.

Sure, I felt better using this approach, but in all honesty I doubt the problem will be solved. I would be greatly surprised if it was. Anyway, after reading the article I did calm down enough to compose a more professional letter. Thanks.

Leia Marie said...

Congratulations! It's precisely in these every day situations that we're given an opportunity to decide what we'll put out there, what we'll add to the cosmic stew. And you added respect, honesty, and dignity. Nicely done!

And you may be right~~the problem might not be solved. But then, would it have been had you behaved badly? Likely not. So while THE problem was not solved, you may have gone far in solving a different problem~~how to manage those maddening situations in a way that doesn't cultivate additional madness, in you and in the world.

No matter what the bureaucracy does or doesn't do, you did your part well. And I do hope the problem gets fixed!

Thanks for writing!