The teaching of ethical conduct or integrity is the next grouping on the Eightfold Path. Sila or ethics include wise speech, wise action, and wise livelihood – the non harming of ourselves and others. The practice is two fold: to resolve to do no harm and to restrain yourself when about to do something unwholesome or unskillful. The Buddha said that skillful actions have freedom from remorse as their purpose. They are a conscious choice to refrain from behavior that causes more fear, confusion and suffering. To most of us this makes sense, but there are increasing levels of subtlety in them so let’s look at speech.
Speech is a strong conditioning force in our lives—in our minds and in our relationships. Certain ways of speaking are unskillful and cause suffering and the Buddha cautioned against four unskillful ways of speaking: false speech or lying, angry or aggressive speech gossip, and frivolous or useless talk. That covers a lot of what is said in modern life! So how do we take these guidelines as our practice? How do we reflect on it and come back to it again and again? Words have tremendous power to harm and to heal. And we do not want to repress communication, but to communicate in a way that facilitates openness and freedom rather than constriction and suffering.
This is where the practices we developed through wise understanding and wise intention bear fruit. Our understanding and motivation – our wisdom – informs and guides our action so that our speech comes from a wholesome place. And it begins in our mind/hearts: look to see how many of your thoughts are not true, have a judgmental or harsh tone, how much is gossip, how much is useless. Note your thoughts within the 4 categories before you give voice to them. Imagine what it would be like to practice carefully enough to see motivation behind speech—see when it’s motivated by metta or care and refrain from speech when it’s not.