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Sticks and Stones and Words that Hurt

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!"

After spending the past three years in a different linguistic and cultural context (Singaporean English is its own flavor...flavour?), it has been jarring at times to return to American English. Just recently I was indulging in an afternoon latte with a side of sci-fi at a local coffeehouse. I couldn't help but overhear the nearby exclamation of, "The politicians should be executed!" followed by a stunned silence. Then, bashfully, "Was that too much?"

Yes. It was too much.

Rather than launch into a commentary about American culture or politics, let's step back for a moment and observe common speech. In everyday exchanges, we all effortlessly weave words of violence into our communication. When was the last time you heard one of the idioms below? What other similar phrases come to mind? Do you have any "favorites"? (I definitely overuse the second example.)

We say...

We mean...

Break a leg!

Good luck!

Knock yourself out.

Give it a try.

I'm under the gun.

I'm under pressure.

You kill me!

You make me laugh!

Oh, and what about our complicated relationship to time, expressed with phrases like "punch the clock," "killing time," and "deadline"?

By no means am I sitting atop a gleaming throne of perfection. In fact, just yesterday I "blazed through" an engaging book! Rather, I call you to muse with me about how our speech reflects our inner state. This is the invitation of ahimsa ("non-violence") and satya ("truthfulness") in Patañjali's Yoga Sutra. How can we communicate what is true and beneficial, in a way that is clear and dignified? What does it mean to speak and to live honestly? How can we interact without leaving harmful residues on others or ourselves?

Paradoxically, ahimsa and satya can sometimes appear to be in conflict. I'm sure you can think of an example of when "the truth hurts." Is it even possible to be non-harming and honest at the same time? Gandhi wrote about his commitment to these values in The Story of My Experiments with Truth; it was challenging even for him! So again - instead of shackling on injunctions of should and shouldn't, we can reflect in the mirror of ahimsa and satya, in order to better understand our current location. Try one or more of the following and see how it feels...

  • Today, bring attention to the words you choose to communicate. Is there alignment between your intentions and speech?

  • This week, listen for common phrases that contain words of violence. What feelings, thoughts, or memories arise within as you notice?

  • Find words that feed your soul - what quotes, songs, or poems uplift you with their kindness or honesty? Curate a collection of favorites, and place it within easy reach. (One such song for me, below, is on my "positive vibes" playlist of music.)

  • On Saturday, September 10th, you're invited to further explore these ideas as part of a contemplative community, in our next "Muse and Meditate" session! Move, write, and reflect with us @ 8:30-10a EST.

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