Watch yourself in two activities: speaking and eating.
Khwaja 'Azizan 'Ali al-Ramitani [taken from 'Masters of Wisdom of Central Asia' by Hasan Lufti Shushud]
As I stood on a car ferry today, I was struck by the signs around me: “Beware of moving vehicles”, “Engine off - Handbrake on”, and so on. What if signs, and language more generally, didn’t exist? I suspect we would be less aware of the world around us.
Language is how we make sense of experience. Putting into words makes things clear, to ourselves and to others. How often have you searched for the right word, or the right way of saying something, or not been able to find the words you wanted to say? Have you noticed how finding the ‘right’ words brings relief, or how simply talking about something can alter your relationship to that thing?
I have found it useful (as a teacher and in the course in counselling that I am currently taking) to recognise this difficulty in finding the right words (in myself and others), often when trying to express something at the edge of awareness, or perhaps something that may not be easy to say.
I am surprised at teachers who enforce working in silence, given the crucial role that language plays in making explicit what was previously implicit. That is not to say that one cannot learn anything from working in silence, but that enforced silence may not be beneficial when trying to understand something, such as mathematical concept, that is at the edge of awareness.
Labelling some experience, so that it can be brought into existence as something that can acted upon, is fundamental to educating awareness. We acknowledge, connect, focus, reify, challenge and express ourselves through language.
That said, certain modes of talking might be less than useful. Have you noticed how words just seem to come out of your mouth when you speak, or how you sometimes say things you didn’t want to say? P.D. Ouspensky calls this phenomenon the ‘habit of talking’.
J.G. Bennett talks about the (negative) effect on self-esteem of getting drawn into a cycle of negative expression. I am conflicted about this, as it is certainly useful to talk about one’s problems, but have also experienced the dissipation of energy that occurs when caught in a conversation in which one or more people are expressing negativity.
What would it take, and what might be the benefits, of a more conscious way of talking? I have been considering a more conscious way of eating recently, starting at the very first mouthful of a meal. it is not easy to do, but I have found that when I have remembered, this has changed my appreciation of what I am eating, and my role in the transformation of energies.
I feel that there may be a connection between conscious eating, and a more conscious way of talking. Might it be useful to remember myself too at the first moment of speaking in order to become more aware of my relationship to the other?
As I gain more experience in counselling skills, I become more aware of (resisting) certain habits: the feeling of being obliged to speak before I am ready, the temptation to say something that might not be useful to others.
In the counselling situation, it is very easy to (subconsciously) steer a session onto something I have been thinking about, to give advice and solve problems, rather than following what the speaker wants to talk about. In group discussions, I have noticed a need for approval in the things I say, or a need to raise myself by showing how much I know about something, often at the expense of another.
This is balanced by (my becoming aware of) being afraid to take risks, such as making some connection, offering some insight, or posing a challenge, that might be useful to others. I have found that increased self-awareness (generally through talking to others!) has led me to be more able to judge what is useful for others, to “be myself” in the role of listener, to speak with genuineness, without over-analysing.
As with all habits, the habit of talking has it uses, and may be necessary at times. However, as with most habits, I feel it can also create problems, particularly when experiencing strongly felt (negative) emotions. Conscious talking, then, is the ability to remember oneself when about to speak, particularly when it matters.
I suspect the ability to become more conscious of what I am saying might start at, and even before, the very first utterance, in the same way as conscious eating. As I have become more conscious of the way I eat, I have become more aware of what has gone before, and what comes after: the production and preparation of the food, what the food enables me to do.
In the same way, conscious talking involves setting myself (as listener) to consider more consciously my relationship to the speaker. I have found it useful to set myself physically, perhaps taking a more attentive posture, and seeking some form of contact with the speaker, usually (but not always) with my eyes. It is my conjecture that remembering myself at the point of talking may also lead to a greater awareness of the possible consequences of what I am about to say.