Posted by: Banta | December 13, 2015

The weight of words

The three gates of speech

If social media is any kind of barometer, we humans have thrown ourselves headlong into a virtual street brawl. The weapons of choice? Angry, hate-filled posts and tweets being hurled like verbal grenades into cyberspace. The noise is deafening, the tone often harsh and unforgiving.

It helps to remember that anger is the bodyguard of fear. When anger rules the airwaves, we can be certain that waves of fear are roiling just beneath the surface. If you’ve ever lost sleep waiting for a teenager to come home, you know this truth. Your chest is tight with worry, imagining the worst. But when the key turns in the lock and she walks in the door unscathed, the anger jumps out to ambush you both, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been worried sick!”

Whether in the privacy of parenting or in the public eye of social media, our trigger-happy reactivity—in the form of words and feelings—nearly always does more harm than good. Every time I react with anger or defensiveness, my words feed the beast. Every time I allow myself to be carried by the energy of hate or terror, I feed the beast. Every time I indulge an impulse to lash out in frustration and demean a particular group or politician or fanatic, I feed the beast. Every minute of air time, every line of print the news media gives to speculation and sensationalism, feeds the beast.

The beast in these examples thrives on anger, hate, fear and revenge. Sometimes the beast resides within us, quiet until triggered. Then it roars forth blindly, brandishing word swords, or rushing out to buy a gun. Sometimes the beast takes the form of a politician who incites a crowd to his own advantage, or a group of radicalized terrorists who play to our fears.

I no longer want to feed the beast. Not with words or “Likes” or rushes of adrenaline. I want to retreat from the virtual street brawl and find more positive, more productive ways to respond. Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl, famously observed, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

One way to cultivate the space between stimulus and response is by using a protocol made familiar by Quakers, Sufis and Buddhists alike, in the story of the three sieves, or the three gates of speech. Before we allow our words to pass through each of the three sieves or gates, we pause to ask these questions: Is what I’m about to say true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Each of the questions opens up a Pandora’s box of other queries. Is it true because I heard it on the “news” or read it on the internet? Is it true, but only partially so? What part of this ‘true’ statement is simply a collage of well-constructed opinions from biased sources?

The kindness of a remark may seem obvious at first. But sometimes that which is true will cause suffering to a friend or colleague. Is speaking this truth the kind thing to do? When does truth trump kindness? And how much of what we say is necessary?

Meditation teacher and author Sally Kempton suggests we use these questions not to censor ourselves but more as an invitation to speak from the highest level of consciousness we are capable of in any given moment. She says, “Speech that resonates from our highest Self, comes out of our contact with the silent place behind words, the place we reach when we’re able to pause, turn into the heart, and let the stillness speak through our words. Speech that comes out of stillness is speech that comes, quite literally, from the source of wisdom itself.”

Words matter. They have energy and weight, the power to wound or heal. I want to use my words for healing. I want to move the conversation forward, with grace and civility. Will you join me?

We are members of one another, kindred with all we meet.

May we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. 

May the words of all our mouths be a benediction and a blessing to those we encounter.

May what we say be kind, true, and necessary.





  1. Beautifully said. May it be so.

  2. Banta, You are a wonderful writer, thoughtful, thought-provoking, sensitive, and deeply caring. Thank you for your gifts, and being the person you are. Mana

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