Speaking or being spoken

“The road to refinement is difficult.” But you’ve made a great start just by shutting your mouths! Congrats!

In the first chapter of Meditations on the Tarot, our Unknown Friend mentions speech almost in passing (when talking about concentration or yoga as stilling the oscillations of the mental substance, or willed silence of the automatism of the intellect and imagination). His point is that to most people, speaking is automatic. Not in the positive sense that you don’t need to think of how to move your tongue or your vocal cords, but in the negative sense that words just jump out of your mouth without a conscious decision to speak, much less exactly what to speak.

He says that the Pythagorean school prescribed five years of silence for beginners, or “hearers”. Only once they had learned fully how to be silent, could they be allowed to speak. At this time, it was judged that they were no longer just speaking automatically.

By default, there is an inner pressure to speak. The restless activity of the mind seeks an outlet. It is not so much that one has something to share with others, or even that one asks others for a favor.  Rather, there is speaking inside the head and it comes out. In the really bad cases, this is similar to how a baby excretes bodily wastes – it just happens, and the best one can do is clean up the mess afterwards. This is generally how children speak for many years after they have learned continence on the other end. Some people remain in this sad position throughout their lives.

Others – probably most, now that service is such a main source of employment – learn to “potty train” their mouth, so that they can hold back the words that bubble up inside. It may require them to ball their fists in their pockets or behind their back where the customer cannot see it, but then as soon as the source of their agitation is out of earshot, it all comes out.

This kind of verbal excretion is mentioned by Jesus Christ, who says that it is not what goes in through the mouth that makes a human unclean, but what comes out through the mouth: Evil thoughts that come from the heart and pass through the mouth; these make a human unclean. We Christians call this Jesus Christ “our Lord”, but it actually does not come easy to us to obey him in this. Of course it does not, for as long as the evil thoughts (or at least “thoughtless words, which cut like swords”) bubble up inside, the pressure will just keep rising if we close our mouth. Silence of the mouth is a terrible fate if one has no way to achieve at least a modest degree of stillness of the heart.

Stillness of the heart, then, is required in order to truly speak, rather than being spoken by the pressure of words that bubble up from inside. Stillness of the heart is hard to achieve without some degree of solitude. In fact, it takes a lot of solitude for a long time, for most of us. It is not impossible to arrive at this stillness in a noisy, busy, crowded life; but it takes an inordinate amount of dedication and grace put together. To expect that God’s grace (or some other karmic benefit) will make up for the lack of outward quiet – when one has a choice of such quiet – is rather similar to jumping from the top of the temple spire, relying on God’s grace to not get hurt.

Of course, not everyone can live alone or should live alone, or in a monastery of silent monks or nuns. Sometimes you just have half an hour now and then, or perhaps Divine providence makes it so that you cannot sleep for a period at night, so that you then get a chance to still the waves of your mind and commune with the Light in the depths of your heart.

But first and foremost we need to become aware of the words we speak (or type, for those of us so inclined!) We need to choose self-reflection: What did I just say? Where came these words from, did I really mean to say this? We need to reflect on our spoken words for sure if we shall ever hope to reflect on our thoughts.

To the religious, self-reflection saves from Hell; for it is written: “Pay attention to yourself and the teaching,  keep doing this; for when you do so, you shall save yourself and those who hear you.” (The phrasing in your particular religion will vary, but not the fact, surely.) But even if you are not religious in the traditional sense, surely you have a higher aspiration, or you would not be here reading this. You are not like cats or dogs, who make sounds merely to scare enemies, attract mates, evoke sympathy and obtain food.

I have had the opportunity for transformation in this regard that only a tiny, tiny fraction of humanity has ever had in all of history. If I have achieved some degree of awareness and choice of speech, it is no more than is required under such circumstances. In truth, almost certainly less. So I am not here as a teacher to instruct you, but as a fellow aspirant to encourage you in our shared hope and aspiration. May my words have been acceptable.


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