Do you think you could go a whole month without saying a sharp or unkind word? Without expressing frustration or impatience? Without sharing gossip? Could you do it for a week? Perhaps a day? Perhaps an hour?
It’s a tall order and, in many ways, as we look at our society and our media, extremely counter-cultural. But speaking with mindfulness is a deep spiritual practice that can be cleansing and centering, as well as helping each of us to play our part in creating the kind of community, and the kind of family that we wish to live in. Mindful speech is a spiritual practice that we find in Jewish teachings, such as the study and practice of Mussar, and many approaches to Jewish meditation, as well as rabbinic ethical teachings that warn of the damage we cause both spiritually and to our community when we engage in gossip, and other forms of negative speech (lashon hara). So central to living a spiritual and centered life, teachings on mindful speech are also found in the wisdom of many other faith traditions. For example, this year, Elul coincides with Ramadan for Muslims. You may be familiar with the sunrise to sundown daily fasting that is required during Ramadan, but did you know that refraining from speaking or listening to negative speech is also central to the spiritual practices of Muslims during this month?
Today is the first day of Elul – the month that invites us to begin our preparations for the Jewish New Year. Just as our Biblical story tells us that God created the world with words, so we too, created in the likeness of God, create, and also destroy, worlds with words. Just take a look at a very specific aspect of public discourse at the moment – the health care debate – and it is quite evident that thoughtful, ethical and loving speech is absent among many who are speaking on this issue. And it is quite clear how dangerous and destructive some of that speech is.
This blog is also an experiment in the power of words. Over the coming month, by offering daily postings for reflection and practice, and by inviting anyone to add their own reflections and experiences via the ‘comments’, we have another way to engage in ‘big talk’ (as opposed to ‘small talk’) about living spiritually, Jewishly meaningful lives as individuals and as a community.
As we begin to prepare ourselves for the High Holydays, try to begin each day with a personal affirmation to speak mindfully in the day’s interactions. No doubt, each of us will slip, but mindfulness practices are not about getting it right every moment. The ‘success’ is each moment that we are awake enough to recognize that we slipped, take responsibility for apologizing to the person we may just have been sharp or impatient with, and re-commit ourselves to the way we wish to speak today.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz