To be mutually one in heart is better than to be one in speech…
for often our words do not reflect what is in our hearts.
Our spiritual work is to balance our heart with our speech
so that both are beneficial to ourselves and others.*
Lately, in my work as an educator, I have been thinking deeply about this concept of right speech. What does it mean to demonstrate right speech? What does it mean to be a person who consciously practices right speech? And, what implications does right speech have in my teaching and research as well as in everyday life?
I believe bell hooks (1994) would approach right speech with her explanation of Self-actualization. Self-actualization is the magical and spiritual moment when who we are, what we say, and what we do are in complete alignment. Here I capitalize the “S” in Self to denote my own belief that she is referring to our higher Self – our soul embodiment as compared to our individual ‘selves’ that are formed when we develop our persona during this lifetime. I also believe educator and scholar, Paulo Freire, would describe right speech as the commitment to “the way [we] act and think when [we] develop all of [our] capacities” (Freire & Betto, 1985, pp. 14 – 15) while working “to shorten more and more the distance between what [we] say and what [we] do” (Freire, 1997, p. 83). In essence, to me right speech is being consciously aware of the power and resonance of our words. It is a deliberate choosing of the most appropriate word to convey our heart’s messaging.
It is spoken at the right time
As educators, right speech is spoken at the right time as we weigh out if others are ready to hear our message. Speaking from our heart means taking a risk, particularly within a society that is hardwired to condemn vulnerability and emotion. Emotionality from a woman in academia can be problematic as we are, many times, perceived as being either hysterical or incompetent (Onwuachi-Willig, 2012). But when viewed through a lens of right speech, we are demonstrating courage and strength. We are removing filters and layers to speak truth. However, knowing not only the right time but also the right audience is key. Showing my true Self to others is a GIFT that should not be a precious pearl thrown to swine, meaning only that some people may be unwilling to open their hearts to your message. Discerning the right time and the right people is essential in maintaining my sense of integrity and dignity. Those who aren’t ready or willing to accept my heart’s messaging are not individuals with whom I want to share my heart with in a particular moment. Therefore, as an educator I need to be aware of when and with whom I can give my whole Self as I am teaching, learning, and engaging with others.
It is spoken in truth
Right speech has to reflect my own truth as a woman, educator, mother, wife, biracial Mexicana, and cancer thriver. In one space I cannot espouse to be one thing when in another I claim a different perspective or identity. Being in alignment means being true to who I am and speaking my words while standing firmly in my own truth.
It is spoken affectionately
Sometimes it is very challenging as an educator to speak to students with affection when what they say or write is in complete contrast to what I believe in. For example, when students take a firm anti-immigration stance, I – who am pro-immigration – find myself needing to breathe deeply and reflect, not only on what I am going to say, but the tone in which I am going to state my words. Reaching in deeply to find affection or compassion is, in many instances, a struggle. However, I am finding when I can demonstrate love and openness with another – even if I am actively disagreeing with their point of view – that the outcome is generally more constructive. In fact, because I am willing to actively listen to their perspective without trying to judge them, they are, oftentimes, left perplexed as they begin considering my perspective. The dissonance created in showing my students I can still care for them while disagreeing with them jars their own thinking and causes many of them to reconceptualize their own understandings.
It is spoken beneficially
Right speech means that I am thinking not only about the processes of communication and interaction with another, but also the overall outcome. As an educator, I need to think about the end game. In other words, what is the purpose of aligning my heart with my words? What is the purpose of sharing with my students or colleagues my true Self in a particular moment? If the answer to these questions is to provide a constructive and mutually beneficial outcome then, no matter how difficult the interaction, I am more willing to engage. Knowing that I have the highest good in mind is a critical indicator for whether or not I move forward with right speech. Though I want to always engage others with right speech, sometimes, if my heart is not fully convinced of the overall benefit to everyone, I retreat by pulling back and only giving as much as I feel is necessary.
It is spoken in a mind of loving-kindness
To me, right speech “in a mind of loving-kindness” invokes Christ consciousness, which is a comprehensive knowing that who I am as a loving being is fully in alignment with my words and actions. This level of right speech is something to which I am constantly striving. Being in loving-kindness does not mean allowing others to take advantage of our willingness to be good. Rather, it means standing up for ourselves, setting strong boundaries, and stepping into a tough love that demonstrates our fierceness for humanity and our courageous fight against injustice, hatred, and dehumanization in all forms. Right speech in a mind of loving-kindness also goes beyond this fight and provides us with a window out of which to see how each one of us is interconnected. In loving-kindness, we rely on our hearts to discern the humanity within each person while choosing words that resonate to the highest level of love possible in that moment.
*A very special thank you goes out to Lynn Santamaría, my mom, who provided the Rumi quote and the “Right Speech” figure.
Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the heart. New York: Continuum.
Freire, P., & Betto, F. (1985). Essa escola chamada vida. São Paulo: Atica.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.
Onwuachi-Willig, A. (2012). Silence of the lambs. In G. Gutiérrez y Muhs, Y. Flores Niemann, C. G. González, and A. P. Harris (Eds.). Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (pp. 142 – 151). Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.
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