We often tend to struggle with speaking the truth versus avoiding hurting the other person. When our words can hurt, should we speak them at all, we wonder. The post below details this aspect of compassionate communication and suggests that sometimes, even if words can hurt, they are necessary for the long run.
The great sage Chanakya was a thinker par excellence and chief advisor to one of the most powerful kings of India: Chandragupta Maurya (321 – 297 BCE). Chanakya was, in fact, not just a mentor but a kingmaker for he had taken on Chandragupta, from an ordinary family, when he was a mere child and led him to be an emperor. He was once giving counsel to the young king and the following conversation ensued:
“A king’s life is a life of sacrifice. He must live for others,” Chankya then said pointing at the sun. “This entire planet is surviving because the sun burns itself to generate heat and light. That’s what leaders do. Look how happy everyone is when the sun shines. Crops flourish, flowers bloom, rains fall.”
“Agreed,” Chandragupta replied thoughtfully. “But, if I have to make everyone happy, that means I can’t punish criminals. No one is happy being punished.”
“Aha!” Chanakya exclaimed. “A king must not consider only the sukha (happiness) of the other person but also his hita (welfare). Hita is what is right and appropriate. And sometimes, what is right may not make us happy. At times, we might not want to swallow a bitter pill, but it is necessary to cure the illness. Similarly, many decisions may seem disturbing in the initial stages, but in the long run, they are beneficial. This is real hita.”
After handing a few more nuggets of wisdom, the sage concluded, “A king should consider the entire kingdom in making a decision and not just an individual criminal. Therefore, punishment is an important aspect of good governance. But even so, you must never forget how to punish them.”
Someone had asked me a question at the retreat that reminded me of this story I’d recently read in Katha Chanakya by Radhakrishnan Pillai (slightly paraphrased).
This person I met was greatly distressed and said, “I want to speak the truth but what to do when truth hurts the other person and not speaking it hurts me. Should I keep hurting myself out of compassion just to keep my family intact? Does compassion mean that I shouldn’t chastise my children when I know they’re going offtrack or tell my partner when something is bothering me, for example?”
It was not just this person’s question. It’s a dilemma we all face as regularly as the weekly edition of a newspaper.
Compassion or love is not always speaking flowery words especially when you don’t mean them or when you are hurt. At the same time, it is not about hurting the other person to get your point across. Besides, and more importantly, I don’t think we have to see everything under the lens of hurting the other person or hurting ourselves. You can have a difficult conversation with a difficult person in a gentle manner. Sometimes, confrontation is necessary, but you can confront someone lovingly and compassionately. You can make your point in a soft tone without accusing the other person.
At any rate, compassion is not acceptance, it is understanding. Once you understand others’ actions or their viewpoint, you may not actually feel angry at all. You may naturally feel empathy towards them. Empathy or compassion does not mean that you let a child play with fire just because pulling him back will make him cry. Sometimes, you have to choose firmness over giving in for the cause of greater good, for everyone’s benefit.
Zen master Dogen’s disciples began feeding a deer that often sojourned the monastery. At first, the animal was hesitant but soon it became friendly with the monks. Dogen hurled stones at the deer as soon as he found out. The monks were shocked to see their master’s violent act. They confronted him that this was no compassion.
“What do you think you were doing?” he scolded his disciples. “Today you are befriending this deer and it’ll start trusting humans. Tomorrow, it’ll walk into the hands of a hunter and be killed. This is not compassion but foolishness. It’s an animal of the wild and it knows how to survive in the woods. Let it.”
Between Chanakya and Dogen, I doubt I can give you a better example. You can’t always speak endearing words or cause the other’s heart to flutter. For, at times, you have to utter beneficial words that may not be enchanting for the other person. For their own benefit, you choose to be helpful than adorable.
It is impossible that all your decisions or conversations are going to be comforting, endearing or delightful. That, however, can’t be the reason to avoid such decisions. When you choose to ignore or accept (especially in a parent-child relationship) where you should be putting your foot down, you are not helping your child. No, I’m not suggesting that you always either be firm or soft. Just be mindful. Try to strike a balance.
Compassion does not mean that you give others the right to mistreat you, abuse you or disrespect you. Be firm where you need to be, but as Chanakya said that even if we have to confront, we must never forget how to do it. Often, it’s not what you say but how and how much you say. And, when you say, of course.
You take care of how, how much and when, what and who matters not much then. Isn’t that something to learn from the lives of some of the greatest people? Think Christ, think Buddha. Think Martin Luther King, Gandhi. You can make a point without hurting.
Mulla Nasruddin was traveling with his wife on a long journey. They stopped over to stay the night in a serai that had a small eatery. They both sat down to eat their dinner. While she was considering what to eat, a mosquito started to buzz in Mulla’s ear. Whack! and Mulla killed it with a clap.
“You are so cruel,” his wife scorned. “You’ve no compassion for living creatures. It’s not like it was going to kill you but look how you crushed it.”
Mulla felt very bad and for a moment thought that his wife was right. He just killed a little insect.
“What would you like to order?” the waiter asked.
“When there’s chicken on the menu,” Mulla’s wife said pointing at the board, “I can’t have anything else. One large butter chicken and kebabs.”
It’s very easy to lecture others or to feel that they are wrong. As they say, we act as lawyers for our mistakes but judges for others’.
You can confront, you can speak up, but just take a moment to reflect deep within. Do you really have to say what you are about to? Now? In the manner you are about to? As much as you intend to? Is it beneficial? Will it solve any purpose? If the answer is yes to all, if you have thought it through, go ahead and carefully string your words together and lay them out. It’s okay to be helpful than delightful under such circumstances.
If you are mindful about both sukha and hita, if you are truthful, your words will make a difference. Truth always does. Only truth does, in fact.
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Even though we are aware cruel words can hurt others and thoughtless actions, most of us still fall prey to them. Our best intentions are not enough sometimes. The questions below offer insight into mindfulness of speech and actions. Words can hurt but their impact can be reduced considerably. Words can hurt but the power to change them lies with us.
Though I know words can hurt, I still speak harshly when I’m angry. How do I overcome this?
The next time you find yourself worked up, just bear in mind, one episode can undo years of hard-earned spiritual attainment. If you have to be firm, should you need to put on a display of anger to get the job done in the real world, you can do so without using hurtful words. Because let’s be clear, words can hurt.
Half the things we lose sleep over, most of what we lose our peace over, they are rarely ever worth it. Life can do without them. Keeping anger inside has never solved anyone’s problems or made them any happier. Read more here.
Words can hurt me regularly as can the actions of loved ones. How do I get over it?
As Shakespeare said, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head.” The gifts of hurt are something like that, they teach us, elevate us, and above all, force us to connect with our highest state of consciousness for answers and solutions. Painful but useful. Inconvenient but inevitable. Words can hurt but they are one of our best teachers.
In this conditional world, our attachments blind us and crush us, they don’t do us any good. The day you realize and internalize this truth, your life will never be the same again. Read more here.
Sometimes, my words can hurt others. How can I practise kindness and change this?
If it is spiritual progress you aspire for, the virtues of compassion and gratitude, of empathy and humility have to be inculcated and practiced. There is no other way. You can be firm, you can say no, you can deny a request, you can do all that and much more without foregoing compassion. Words can hurt but it is in our hands to choose them wisely.
The path of goodness is most rewarding for the one who seeks enlightenment. Read more here.
When I know words can hurt, why do I still end up suffering when others say cruel things?
We mistake our pain for our suffering. We have little control over the former but the latter is almost entirely in our hands. We can take things in our stride or be tossed in the tide. This choice, we must remember, is in our hands. At all times. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
Fill your heart with loving-kindness, your time with noble actions, your mind with good thoughts and suffering will disappear from your life like sadness from a content heart. You will realize your soul, your self. Then, even in times when words can hurt, you will rise above. Read more here.
Words can hurt us, people can hurt us, the world itself can be hurtful. How do I be mindful in all this?
The average human lifespan: 72 years.
That’s 0.00000001% of the life of our beautiful planet. It’s infinitesimal. Even a blink takes way longer.
Think about it. No, really, just think about it. Is it worth holding on to those emotions, conditioning and beliefs that limit our spiritual growth; those feelings that put a lid on your greatness? Now is the time to live fully, to express your love, to complete yourself and to live like you always wanted to.
Others’ words can hurt us but we can do everything possible to not reciprocate. In the words of an Auschwitz survivor, “I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.” What a beautiful way to practice mindfulness of the speech. Imagine if we extended it to our actions and thoughts too. Such a person will become a beacon of hope and love for eternity. Read more here.