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Learning The Four Gates Of Speech

What weighs practically nothing yet is almost impossible to hold? My tongue! The power to articulate well is a learned art: words can flow like honey and dissolve barriers like sunlight on ice. Or they can break hearts as irrevocably as a bullet ripping through flesh.

The creative and destructive properties of words appear in every religion and spiritual philosophy. Countless stories and teachings in the yogic tradition refer to speech as an aspect of Supreme Consciousness; language, particularly in the form of mantra, is considered the sonic body of God.

To access the power of language as well as experience union between myself and the infinite forms of the Lord, I try to practice the four gates of speech. Here are the ones I’m learning, along with my evolving understanding of how each can support the integrity I desire.

1) Is it true? This used to be the only gate of speech I cared about. Speaking truth to power, naming the elephant in the room. It would start as a burning in my stomach that pushed me to speak even when I was nervous. As my capacity for quietude increases, I see how my definition of truth is just that: one possibility among others. If I step back, does it continue to be true with the benefit of some context and perspective? In contemplating this gate, I love Byron Katie’s comment, “When I argue with reality, I lose–but only 100% of the time.”

2) Is it necessary? As someone with little distance between brain and mouth, my words used to rush through this particular gate as well. Especially when I thought a situation needed correcting. Thanks to plenty of painful missteps, I’m ever so slowly developing discernment – that muscle of extending the benefit of the doubt. This allows room for others and their good intentions, agency and capacity. When I can remember, Gandhi’s advice to “speak only if it improves upon the silence” gives me a great rule of thumb.

3) Is it kind? I used to think this one was for Pollyannas and saps. It took a long time to see the value of being “nice” and after that, to separate “kindness” from cowardliness and compliments meant to ease discomfort or manipulate a situation. It’s weird how the hard thing to say, when true and necessary, and filtered through the gate of kindness, can be totally uplifting. The last lines of the Rudram (a 5000-watt Vedic hymn guaranteed to cleanse the tongue), say “I will think that which is sweet, I will do only that which is sweet. I will select only sweet things for the worship of the gods. I will speak only those things which are as sweet as honey to the gods and human beings who want to listen to good things.”

4) Is it the right time? This one is the cherry on top, bringing the others together to create impact. Without this last condition in place, words will be wasted. It’s difficult to master this one without the value of hindsight or clear threats of imminent danger. Wrong times? it’s rush hour or it’s not my turn or place to speak or the person on the other end, for whatever reason, simply isn’t in a position to hear. John Baldoni, a writer for Forbes, offers this advice for finding the right moment: “When discussions hit a stall point, offer suggestions. If others are intrigued, proceed. If people turn away, wait for another time.”

Working with these gates resembles the process of discovering how the same asana can either heal or hurt. It involves a lot of trial and error. Sometimes it feels like the “better” I get, the trickier the practice.

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