Friday, 17 September 2010

The language of mindfulness: Is right speech hampered by English?

I've been doing quite a lot of media interviews for The Mindful Manifesto over the last few weeks, and I'm consistently struck by how difficult it is to explain what mindfulness actually is, especially to people who haven't yet had a taste of meditation practice. The most oft-quoted definition is Jon Kabat Zinn's 'paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present momemt, and non-judgementally', but I suspect that for most people, that doesn't make it any clearer. In which particular way? How would you pay attention by accident? What's the present moment? What do you mean by judgement here? I don't claim to have managed any better - in fact, I'm not all that keen on one-line definitions of mindfulness - I don't think you can reduce something as profound as meditation to just a few simple words.

Nevertheless, we do need a way to explain mindfulness in order to help people approach it. One short-hand I use is the ABC model - A is for awareness, B is for being with, and C is for choice. We pay attention to what's going on and stay with our experience long enough to make good choices about what to do rather than being always driven by habit and impulse. I also tend to use analogies with physical healthcare - we all know that brushing our teeth is good for our teeth, and most of us manage it once or twice a day, as a matter of course - so, meditation is mental health care just as teeth-brushing is dental healthcare.

And we all know that exercising the body can help keep us physically fit - similarly, meditation is a form of mind training. There is a danger of reinforcing a mind-body duality here, as of course anything that impacts the body also impacts the mind and vice versa, but it probably isn't skilful to muddy the waters with that when you've only got 3 minutes on local radio - possibly also not the best time to start expounding the tenets of the 'mind-only' school approach to experience.

In any case, all these descriptions are limited, inadequate ways of attempting to transmit something with a depth which language can't quite express. No wonder there is a noble tradition of realised masters who decide to remain silent - indeed, even the Buddha at first supposedly declined to teach, because he felt that he would not be understood. Still, we need language if we are to be able to encourage people to explore meditation for themselves, and we have to do this using concepts - words are the fingers pointing at the moon, it is said - useful, as long as we don't mistake them for the moon itself, which can only be perceived directly.

I suspect we are hamstrung partly because our language itself has evolved from a culture that has little experience of meditation practice. I don't speak Tibetan, Pali or Sanskrit, but I have had a glimpse of the vast array of words that can be used to describe meditative experiences. Words whose very subtle nuance must be easily lost when translated into English or other Western languages. Our word meditation is a good example - what does it actually mean? Mindfulness meditation? Mantra recitation? Prayer? Having a good think? Chances are it means all these things and more to different people - hence it's all too easy to perpetuate misconceptions about the practices - we don't even know what name(s) to give them.

When we decide to challenge our unconsciously mindless language, we face an uphill task. I try to watch my language (as a writer, it's my job) but I frequently find words slipping out of my mouth that undermine my  mindfulness -  pehaps they're inaccurately absolute  ('I feel completely exhausted' 'I'm totally convinced'), invite speediness ('Go for it!'), unnecessarily negative ('I'm terribly upset!), or take us out of the present moment (I'm really looking forward to that!) One of the main linking verbs in English is 'to do' (I don't like it, Do you want some tea?), so it seems we can't avoid using language that tends to perpetuate the sense of always needing to take action - whereas it takes (me, anyway) conscious effort to employ words that reflect a sense of spaciousness, of patience or middle ground. I think this is important to recognise, because if we can recognise it, we can begin the long work of evolving a kind of 'right speech' that can support a more meditative way of life, work that will no doubt take many generations, even once it is is consciously embarked upon.

The psychoanalyst Eric Berne used to talk about life scripts - our tendency to unconsciously follow patterns set for us by our parents and our surroundings, and which we are doomed to play out, unless we can wake up to them. Mindfulness practice is one tool we can use to begin to notice and let go of those scripts and start to choose more consciously how our lives will be. Scripts are made of words, so if we want to change the scripts, perhaps we need to look at changing our words...


  1. Thanks for this Ed - interesting piece.

    I agree that it's less an issue of language being limited but more an issue of education around misconceptions of what meditation is and what it isn't.

    However I was a bit surprised to read your statements about right speech and colloquialisms such as "i feel completely exhausted" as somehow being a threat to your mindfulness. Likewise "i'm really looking forward to that" can just be an expression of a live experience of excitement.

    There is a danger here that we begin/continue to mistake mindfulness practice for an anodyne way of being. Right Speech - for me - is a training in non-harm, using speech in such a way that minimises harm and brings forth the heart qualities - both for oneself and for others. Is saying "go for it" really a harmful act? I'm not convinced.

    And since we're talking about language and terms - I think one of the best in the business is Shinzen Young. Check out for an example


  2. Thanks for that Rohan. Undermine was probably too strong a word to use (hmm, some irony there). I'm not suggesting we need to eradicate phrases like 'looking forward to' or 'go for it'. But I find it interesting to notice how much of our language tends to propel us into the future, or take us towards extremes of view. Not to get too hung up on it, but to be aware of it...

  3. Kristen Mendez8 July 2014 at 02:47

    This is very interesting to know how much our language tends to lead
    us in the future. Its true that it is less of an issue of language being limited but more of a education issues around misconceptions of what meditation is and what is not. Thank you for sharing this wonderful essay writing services essay.