Self-deception, deception of others, cheating, gossip and carelessness with language are all disloyal to the peace in our heart of hearts. Words expressive of that peace are true. Silence expressive of that peace is true.
—Aitken Roshi, The Mind of Clover
It has come as some surprise to me, a profuse talker who has earned a living manipulating words, to find myself training in holding my tongue. But often it now feels that right speech—especially in family matters—is minimal speech or no speech at all. Of course, efforts in this direction can sometimes go awry, like when, several months ago, panicking that I would escalate a battle of words, I hung up precipitously on my eighty-five-year-old mother. Not an approach I recommend.
Raised in Manhattan, I grew up with a New Yorker’s love of conversation. At its best, this can be stimulating, exploratory, leading to understanding and collaboration. At its less savory, it can deteriorate into gossip—telling intimate tales of others’ lives or judiciously selecting facts to imply blame. The latter has gotten me into a lot of trouble, contributing to rifts with family and friends, to say nothing of tumult in the mind.
As a child of divorce, shuttling between my mother’s and my father’s homes, I learned to cope at an early age through insinuating criticism of the “other family.” When I stayed with my dad, I implied that my mum’s home was uncontrolled—too much yelling, stomping and slamming of doors. At my mum’s, the reverse. I suggested that life at my dad’s was overly contained, inwardly violent—too many held breaths, clamped jaws, locked shoulders.
Warped speech—gossip, blame verging on slander—became a way of life for me. It was a path of ever-shifting alliances, a strategy of exclusion. When I’m with you, “we” are in and “they” are out.
After thirty-plus years of sitting meditation and studying Buddhism, I have set an intention to practice inclusion, not to leave anyone out. Careful speech is essential to this intention. I am trying to find kind, nonjudging, neutral language and—the really tough one for me—not to talk about those who are not present.
What better context for the challenge of practicing inclusion through right speech than orchestrating a family reunion? The occasion presented itself this past summer. It was the anniversary of 120 years of life (my husband, Patrick, and I had both just turned sixty) and twenty years of marriage and family. This latter achievement is to be particularly celebrated. An enduring marriage and a relatively harmonious family (me, Patrick, one daughter, one dog) has been no mean feat. Considering my entrenched habits of blame and not-so-right speech, I have contributed to the flourishing of this family through lots of mistakes, apologies, forgiveness and years of therapy and meditation practice.
So I planned a weeklong celebration by the sea in the house where Patrick and I were married twenty years earlier, invited thirty-five family members to stay with us, to be joined at the culminating party by 100 friends, some traveling across the country and dating back to our childhoods.
Over the years since our wedding, some family relationships had deteriorated. I myself had been painfully estranged from a much beloved relative. I spent years making pleading calls to him and other family members whom I badgered endlessly for insights into his withdrawal. Eventually, I began to see that all these words, instead of bringing understanding or relief, were causing more suffering. I was finally able to gather that complicated bundle of hurt and anger and sit on it—in silence.
Several weeks before the reunion extravaganza, I had a rare visit with my estranged relative. At some point, he turned to me incredulous that I had invited an elderly cousin, known in the family for her crabbiness, and said “Why did you invite her?” And I, following the dictates of my new experiment in true, minimal and impersonal speech, replied, ”I wanted to invite everyone.” That was that. The truth. No further comment.
It took some firmness of intention to stay on course. Not to give a hint or a laugh, not to raise an eyebrow in collusion. I resisted the habitual temptation to swerve and make a joke, “I know, I must be mad . . . ,” or an excuse, “I felt I had to . . . ,” or to suggest distaste and alliance, “I can see why you wouldn’t. . . .”
Instead I tried to stay with what was honest and simple, something I could stand by. And to keep my tone sure but light.
I sensed a subtle shift in the room, impossible to pinpoint.
The following week, a close cousin, learning that I had invited my estranged relative, asked, aghast, “What possessed you? Why did you invite him?” And I, now more practiced in this communication: “I wanted to invite everyone.”
Again, it took restraint, curbing my tongue and watching a rush of reactions. I could easily have slid into the old traps, fomenting more trouble. I was so used to taking the side of the relative with whom I was currently on board, creating a momentary alliance, a feeling of “us” against “them.” This time, I recognized a creeping nausea, familiar from all of the times I’d talked behind someone’s back.
In restraining the habitual speech, I tapped into a stillness cultivated through years of sitting meditation. So when I did speak, it was from that stillness. Once again, I felt a shift in the mood of the room, a tiny release of rancor, a relief.
Later I passed on the simple statement to my friend Margery: “I invited everyone.” She reminded me of a haiku by the Japanese poet Issa:
In the cherry blossom’s shade
there is no such thing
as a stranger
Yes, in collusion, a swerve off course, I’d make my cousin, my aunt, my mother a stranger. And I’d risk that feeling of nausea at making a stranger of some part of myself. I thought of the double agent in spy novels, true to neither side, supposedly out for himself, but in ever-shifting alliances, losing all authentic connection and everything he once believed or valued.
I don’t think that I could have kept my commitment to right speech in the week of family visiting through discipline alone. But the mere intimation of that sick-at-heart feeling became enough of a deterrent. I didn’t want to say things that would make me feel that way.
Thirty years earlier, when I first began meditating, my teacher, Joseph Goldstein, had commented, “If you practice right speech, there’s not much to talk about.” I didn’t realize how true that was until this family gathering when I took a long hike with my brother under my new speaking guidelines. Ordinarily, I might have bent his ear with stories and queries about other relatives. Not so this time. Our big topic of conversation was a hornet’s nest. Mostly, we walked in silence.
On a beach trail, he had pointed above our heads to the torn and abandoned nest. Our conversation continued on to beehives and underground yellow jacket lairs, to nests that offer refuge to colonies of thousands of individuals. I thought about our vacation house full of relatives: a potential hornet’s nest. Though sorely tempted to riff on the metaphor, I restrained my punster inclinations and refrained from comment.
As the week continued, I kept reflecting on the Issa poem as a reminder not to make anyone a stranger. I repeated the verse to a guest, who told me that in Japan, where he had lived for several years, the cherry blossom is an emblem of transience, its ephemeral beauty here and then gone. I thought of the cherry tree in our yard at home, planted in memoriam for a dear friend, how it has always bloomed late, blossoming white with a blush of pink, and how the petals have blown away with the first spring wind. It’s here so fleetingly we’ve sometimes missed it.
I began to wonder if the word shade in Issa’s poem had a double meaning, one “protection,” the other closer to “vulnerability.” In the protective shade of enlightened understanding, there is no longer any sense of separation. Nothing and no one is a stranger. But on the flip side, shade, in its transience, takes on a dark cast: vulnerability to loss. No one is a stranger to that. Twenty years later, with a number of us from the wedding party now ill or dead, this meaning feels apt to me.
The message is simple when the two meanings interplay. Given how fleeting our lives—for family who may see one another for a few hours, if that, every few years—how sad to make anyone a stranger.
And what better vehicles for separation or inclusion than the innuendoes of speech and the power of silence?