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Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature. - Bhagavad Gita 17.15
Is my speech truthful, beneficial, and pleasing? Am I the right person to say it? Is it the right time? I listened to these questions at the ISKCON Vedic Center near Portland, Oregon, on a recent sunny Sunday morning.
Using the Bhagavad Gita verse as a guide for discussion, we explored speech and the power of our words. We often hear in the yogic context how powerful an intention can be. Our intentions guide our thoughts, words and actions. Our words - or speech - is a very potent part of intention. Our words have the power of bringing about peace in our homes, relationships, communities and even countries. But our words can also incite havoc on our environments - be it hurting our loved ones, wrecking a situation at work or even serving as a catalyst for physical violence and destruction.
When faced with stressful situations or emotional upheaval, what is our usual reaction? Mine tends to be to lash out verbally. It's often not meant, but words just seem to slip off the tongue. How many times has that happened to you too? And what can we do about it? For me, I constantly need to remind myself to put myself in the other person's shoes. Try to empathize and understand their side of the story before I speak. It's useful to remind myself of the phrase I often heard growing up - "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all".
Another question we explored was when it is appropriate to bring certain topics up, and when it's better to politely stay silent. In my own life and interaction with others, I often come across this in reference to vegetarianism. While I am a strong advocate of a non-meat based diet for a whole host of reasons, I don't want to alienate people from the idea by pushing too hard. Instead, my strategy is to invite people over for vegan meals, or order catered (and delicious) vegetarian meals in at work for special celebrations. These tactics sometimes work better than other methods to 'push' or promote a non-harming diet. That, and when the timing is right; often a dinner party can lead in to that timing. At that point, a discussion on vegetarianism can lead to fruitful results.
The temple's presenter also touched upon austerity of the mind as related to austerity of speech. "Austerity burns away what's impure in life," he explained. "Any activity you do should be done with faith in God, and without expecting anything in return." This is in fact one of the major themes of the Bhagavad Gita - offering your efforts to the divine and expecting nothing in return. We probably could have gone on for hours to dissect that thought, but it was a good reminder to take home and contemplate.
I know I often need to be heard. I need to talk things out, and it's my universe that I want to talk about. I have observed that many of my friends and acquaintances can be the same way. Sometimes, though, it's time to just step back and listen. Make a point to focus on the others in the room or on the other side of the phone receiver. How is your friend's day is going? What has she or he been dealing with lately, and is there a way you can help? Are you really listening when they talk to you, or are your thoughts somewhere else?
As we interact with others, listening and speaking are flipsides of the same coin. Once we're mindful of how we listen, the next part of the equation is how we speak: to pick words (and actions) that are meaningful, timely and hopefully uplifting.