Quaker Plain V: Plain Speech

[In this series, I find I have things I want to say at the beginning of each post, about what’s been said before.. It seems that, as each post ripens, there is a natural reflection on, and learning from, what has preceded it. Not just the posts themselves, but more particularly the dialog that emerges in the comments.

I do moderate comments. In part, this is to eliminate spam. Mainly, it is to help that dialog emerge most strongly. Sometimes, there is private discussion before a comment is approved; I have a sense of what the poster means, but feel it could be made more clear, for instance, or that they have not been true to their own voice — something that did not quite ring true. I don’t intend to stifle disagreement. I value it. There is no real dialog without it. So far, I have prevented two comments from appearing. In each, they had already said the same thing, quite well. Repetition does not make the position stronger or more clear. Haven’t had to ban anyone yet, thank the Lord.

When I write my posts, I do so in the same prayerful state in which I might be moved to speak in Meeting for Worship. I’m not the only Quaker blogger to do this. 🙂  what has surprised me is that, as the comments roll in, the whole thing feels more and more like Meeting. Who would have predicted? Then again, why not? God has always used His people in new and creative ways, and their technology, too. Look at the impact the Gutenberg Bible has had. I’m not sure the Internet has yet surpassed the  influence of that technical revolution.]

This is the fifth in a series of posts on plain Quakerism. In writing this series, it is my hope that I’m contributing to two things. First is a sense that, by being led to discuss plainness, many of us will be better equipped to practice this spiritual discipline in a modern context. This is not only valuable for the individual Friend who finds her spiritual life deepened and enriched. Whenever any one of us becomes better grounded in our faith, it also makes the life of her Meeting that much more profound, and her Yearly Meeting and the World at large, by extension.

In this essay we will address plain speech.

I’ve struggled with the writing of this post. I have a sense of where the leading is going, but it is simply a more subtle topic than those addressed before. Finding the right words has not been easy.

If only it were as simple as saying, “Use Thee and Thy and don’t swear oaths. Oh, and don’t tell lies.” Great. Done!

It’s not that simple. It’s not about rules. It is about the everyday application of spiritual principles, and the ways in which we are led to be faithful, in speaking as in other parts of our lives. If we consider the spiritual foundation first, then we will understand the application better.

As before, for me, humility and integrity are at the heart of the matter.

Humility, because if I sound grandiose, I will most likely be grandiose. If I sound aggressive, I will become aggressive. And so on. If, on the other hand, I restrain my speech within the bounds of what I know to be true, and (in keeping with humility) which is not self-serving, then I have gone a long way towards keeping my speech plain.

Integrity, because plain speech is more than just sticking to the plain facts. What I say must be an expression of my deepest understanding of who I am in this world. Anything else, and something has been added, something which is not needed and which takes away from the frank articulation of this precious relationship between me, my Creator, and the rest of Creation.

Let’s talk about integrity. I am going to quote at length from an essay I wrote several years ago, and incorporated into my doctoral dissertation, on which I’ve not yet been able to improve:

“What is integrity? It is not just honesty, although honesty must be part of integrity. Integrity goes farther than honesty alone, however. It may be useful to consider the relationship between the words integrity and integer. An integer is a whole number: there are no fractions or decimals. One is just one, and two is just two. If I have two teacups, and smash one, I have one whole teacup, and one whole mess.

“So integrity has something to do with wholeness. It is a state in which you are who you are, no more and no less. There is no self-deception. Part of integrity means acknowledging your flaws as well as your strengths. It means knowing when you’ve done wrong, as well as when you’ve done right. It means taking responsibility for the results of your own actions, whether beneficial or harmful. It means being comfortable within your own skin.

“It is what was meant, in the age of nobility, by honor – but you don’t have to be an aristocrat to have integrity. You do have to have courage. Integrity cannot be achieved without action. It means standing up for what you believe, acting on your values. That means risk. There is always a potential for conflict. If your convictions are at odds with someone’s self-interest, they will not like it or you. But you have to live with you, and so you find the courage.

“Integrity takes more than courage. It also takes discernment. Before you can act courageously on your deepest values and in accord with your true identity, you have to know what they are. This is an intensely practical affair. It is not a matter of gazing at your belly button. You have lived a life of a certain number of years. In that life, there are things that have happened to you, and there are the consequences of choices you made. These form a pattern, and the pattern can be read. Things that happened to you have affected your feelings and your expectations. Choices you have made reflect your true inner character. Looking over all of it, the good with the bad, you neither gloss over some parts nor emphasize others. This gives you a true picture of who you are and what you care about. If you are not satisfied with what you find, you can work to change it. But you also will see the things that you cannot compromise without doing an injustice to yourself.

“There are people who are willing to make this choice: to violate their own true self. Some do it for money. Some do it for power. Some do it to please others. They may be able to justify it to themselves. But it hurts them deeply, whether they acknowledge it or not. At the end of life, if not before, when the money has been spent, the power lost, and the people we tried to please would never stay pleased, what is left? Only the sense of whether I was true or false to myself.

“Integrity also requires humility. I must know my true size. I am often neither as bad or as good as I think I am. Both false pride and false modesty lead away from integrity.

“Integrity requires commitment to yourself or others. When steel is being made into a tool, it must be heated so that it can be shaped. Next, it has to be plunged into a liquid such as water or oil, to be tempered. Without tempering it has no strength. Commitment is what tempers integrity. All the good intentions and wonderful potentials in the world mean nothing until they have been put to the test. It is the time of testing that reveals the impurities that may exist in your character, and which gives you the opportunity to remove, modify, or overcome those flaws.”

All of that applies to every aspect of living plain. It may be most difficult to apply integrity and humility to speech. We only have to decide every so often what to wear, if we dress plain: at the store, when we are buying clothes, and in the morning, when we get dressed. The rest of the time, we just live the choices we’ve made. With speech, we decide every time we open our mouth whether we are going to speak the unadorned truth or not.

Plain speech has something to do with what we do not say as well. Of course there are those old chestnuts most of us learned at our mother’s knee: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Pretty good advice. But it’s more than that. It is also giving up control and manipulation of others. These are forms of aggression, and if plain speech is not conjoined with our other testimonies such as peacefulness, then is it plain at all?

And sometimes we just ought to be quiet. Plainness may mean keeping our mouths shut. When I was a freshman in college, I spent an entire quarter not speaking at all. For those ten weeks, I wrote what I needed to say. My professors were tolerant, and allowed others to read any questions I had jotted down and handed over. Once, when there was danger of a fire from an oil lamp, I spoke. “Throw the rug over it.” After the commotion died down, one of my friends said “Hey, you spoke!” Yes. It seemed like a good time. The rest of that quarter, I learned a lot about how much I said that didn’t need saying. When you have to write it all down, you can get pretty choosy. And concise. It was kind of like having to communicate everything through Twitter. Just as fasting is a useful spiritual practice (that I haven’t done for a while), keeping silence every so often is also a useful discipline. Maybe not for ten weeks, but even for a day or two, every so often. I think it would be good for me to try it again.

Clarity is of the greatest usefulness in plain speech. Clarity allows us to say in a few words what would take many more if we had to explain, and then explain the explanation, because it was not clear the first time. To this end, a large vocabulary is a great help, for knowing the precisely right word to use aids in clarity and in plainness. Ostentation about one’s sizable vocabulary, of course, is verboten.

I have so often heard people say that they didn’t want to pray in public (such as blessing the food at a community meal) because they didn’t know the “right words” to say. So here’s another principle that guides plainness of speech: when you speak from the heart, your authenticity says volumes that words alone could not render. I have sat in many a 12 Step meeting and heard someone falter and stammer and bring tears to my eyes because what they said was so profoundly heartfelt.

Gossip is out. Thought I’d mention that.

Oaths: don’t swear ’em. Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. Some of the old Quaker testimonies have passed down through the centuries with no wear and tear at all.

And if you feel led to say Thee and Thy, by all means follow your leading.

I am looking forward very much to comments on this one. It seems like there is more to be said, but I have come to the end of my leading and others must take over from here. I am eager to learn from others’ experience with plain speech.

5 thoughts on “Quaker Plain V: Plain Speech

  1. We have spent about 7 yrs in sort of a house church. It has served as a “church” for my husband and me, but the regulars have their own church. It is held at the home of a plain couple and was originally a meeting for their church members, but it grew into something entirely else. I have struggled with my participation throughout it all. It seems like everyone who comes in the door needing ministry – I have been there/done that. I began to feel I talked too much. And worse, I began to feel I shared too much personal information. It was a good opportunity to make it more of a Quaker meeting for myself. It already has a Quakery feel to it in some ways and I have been trying to be quiet until I am sure I am being lead to speak. I am excited to practice this. But the other part, sharing too much, is something that is weighing heavy on my heart and I have not worked it out yet. Not just in the meeting, but everywhere. I have had a lot of challenges in regard to speaking about family situations and members who are now deceased. It is very important to me to work on this.

  2. Your post on plain speaking is excellent and should be required reading for all of us.

    Thank you.

    Jane (Pretoria)

  3. Friend Bruce:
    I enjoyed this. I particularly liked your telling of the time you spent not speaking. I went through a period where I decided not to speak about anyone who was not physically present. I did this to cut through a tendency towards gossip. And it worked. It was difficult at first because a lot of our conversation is about non-present people. I finally solved this by simply telling people I was engaged in this practice and so I wouldn’t be talking about X who wasn’t present. No one responded negatively and a number were intrigued.

    I’m not sure this is appropriate here, but I’ll give it a shot. I started reading your series and came across your approving comments re Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche and his ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’. CTR has left an extremely controversial legacy. CTR engaged in blatant drug abuse, sexual exploitation, physical assaults (beatings), and financial misconduct. This is well documented and has been known for decades. I would like to add that CTR did not write any of his books, including ‘Cutting Through’. Anyone who ever heard him speak knows that these books in his name are so highly edited, so spliced together, that, in essence, it is the editors who are the authors.

    I bring this up because I think it is an aspect of plain speech. When talking about people like CTR we need to be honest even when that can be risky. Or hold our tongues. What I’m getting at is that the legacy of CTR, and the Shambhala organization he set up, is one of deceptive speech, of not having our yea be yea and or nay be nay. For example, I know of no modern western Buddhist teacher who was more trapped by spiritual materialism, more enamored of the trappings of consumerism, than was CTR.

    Please don’t take my word for this. Though I have personal knowledge of everything I have said above, I encourage people to look into CTR on their own, especially if they have bought into the carefully constructed and maintained image. Then they can come to their own conclusons. Mine is, if you want to follow the Quaker path of plainness, CTR is instructive only as a negative example.


    Thy Friend Jim

    1. Jim, what you say about Chogyam Trungpa is certainly true. Shucks, I used to run into him in the liquor store in Boulder. Everyone did. I don’t hold him up as a saint or moral example. He is a teacher who has valuable instruction on an extremely important area of the spiritual life, a take which is rarely encountered and certainly not emphasized nearly enough. I do not question who God chooses to use to teach me. I don’t have to accept everything about them; I just have to accept the lesson for which they are God’s chosen vehicle. Many of my best teachers have had extraordinary flaws.

      The Dalai Lama said this of Trungpa: “Exceptional as one of the first Tibetan lamas to become fully assimilated into Western culture, he made a powerful contribution to revealing the Tibetan approach to inner peace in the West.” Suzuki Roshi, a Zen abbot, said “You may criticize him because he drinks alcohol like I drink water, but that is a minor problem. He trusts you completely. He knows that if he is always supporting you in a true sense you will not criticize him, whatever he does. And he doesn’t mind whatever you say. That is not the point, you know. This kind of big spirit, without clinging to some special religion or form of practice, is necessary for human beings.” Jamgon Kongtrul said to some of his students, “You shouldn’t imitate or judge the behavior of your teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, unless you can imitate his mind.” Rick Fields, author of a history of Buddhism in America, said he “caused more trouble, and did more good, than anyone I’ll ever know.”

      It certainly is possible that one can be so morally repellent that no amount of positive activity makes up for it. I believe this to be true of Osel Tendzin, who was Trungpa’s first successor. I knew him, as I had known Trungpa before, and never felt he deserved the trust which Trungpa had given him. His stewardship of Trungpa’s organization was catastrophic because of his personal failings. It may be this period to which you refer when you say that the Shambhala organization was characterized by deceit. If you believe that Trungpa’s misfeasances outweigh his positive activity, as I believe to be true about Osel Tendzin, then you do. I respectfully disagree. Would I prefer that Trungpa had not been so morally compromised? Yes. It would be much simpler to esteem the value of what he taught and accomplished.

      I find it much more important to admit to my own flaws and defects. Were I to wait until I become a saint and a great moral example, I sure wouldn’t be writing this blog, preaching in local churches, ministering in Meeting, etc. While my failings may not be as dramatic as Trungpa’s, it is not my place to say that they are better or worse. I can only make amends for them where possible and try not to block God’s efforts at helping me put them behind me.

      As you say, Trungpa’s books received considerable editing before publication. And yet, having heard him speak many times, I can say that his books such as Cutting Through are an accurate representation of his teaching. If you read the Acknowledgments that many authors include in their books, editors get kudos from authors more often than anyone, with the possible exception of spouses/families. So “being heavily edited” is not a problem. You may not be familiar with how books are published. You’d be surprised how many of your favorite authors are heavily edited, and how grateful they are for it.

      I have to take exception with the accuracy of some of what you said, and not just your interpretation or understanding. Since Trungpa pointedly did not set himself up to be a moral example, and spoke often of the fact that he did not fit the mold of the saint, there is no deception there. And, while he certainly did have a fondness for material things, that does not mean that he was guilty of spiritual materialism. I know people who are not materialists in the usual, consumerist sense, who are deeply materialistic in their spiritual lives, and I know people who are wealthy beyond my imagination whose spiritual lives are marked by a deep humility.

      Finally, the Shambhala organization, under the guidance of Trungpa’s oldest son, Sakyong Mipham, has flourished and has been free of the taint of his predecessors. To refer to the present body as based on deceptive speech is an unworthy slander.

  4. I received a comment from “David.” I sent you an email, hoping you would say more, but your email address bounced. Please try again, with a valid address. I’m not trying to diss your point of view, just asking you to flesh it out.

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