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Speech Happens: Interview with Shahara Godfrey on Wise Speech

Shahara Godfrey has followed the teachings of the Buddha since 1989; her primary practices are compassion and social activism. She has completed the Spirit Rock Community Dharma Leaders, Dedicated Practitioners, and Path of Engagement programs at Spirit Rock. She received her PhD in Humanities with a focus on Transformative Learning and Change from the California Institute of Integral Studies. In addition, she is a core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA.


Spirit Rock:
Why is Wise Speech important?

Shahara Godfrey: Wise speech is a very powerful practice. It’s thinking about how we say what we want to say, whether this is the best time to speak and whether or not it will cause harm.

Even before we open our mouths to speak, we have a whole mindset on what we are going to say. Wise Speech is taking the time to really say it in as clear and kind a way as possible. Even when we are upset, we can still say what we have to say. Sometimes we rush when we talk, and we don’t take the time to think about it. But when we think about what we are going to say, we are more effective.

Wise Speech is not only about what we say, but it’s also the act of listening. Even the act of listening is a powerful form of speech because I am giving all of my presence to this person. Right now, in this moment, they are the most important being that exists. So, I convey through my body, my actions and my presence—and not just through my language—that I am being very attentive to what is being said. This fosters understanding and the opportunity for cultivating wisdom.

SR: You have taught daylongs on "Wise Speech for People of Color" at Spirit Rock. Are there particular influences, insights or practices that are important when practicing wise speech as a person of color?

Shahara: I think practicing Wise Speech is a universal practice, first and foremost, because we can all learn how to be more skillful.

When addressing a particular audience, such as people of color for example, I like to take in nuances that are reflective of that community— the culture someone comes from, the history of where someone comes from and how all that influences one’s speech. Someone might be first-generation or second-generation American, or a recent immigrant. So, language is different for them as well. All these factors are part of how we listen.

For some of us, our communities and the world we live in have primarily been with people of color. As we move into different communities, our language or how we behave changes, which is a very common form of survival. There is actually a term for it called “code switching.” We speak one way to our friends, and we might speak another way when we’re in a classroom or interviewing for a job. All of it is appropriate, and sometimes we don’t think about it because we just naturally do it.

SR: Could you give us an example of code switching?

Shahara: I see young people do it all the time. I've noticed when the teens talk with their friends, they speak differently. They use a different language—they have different idioms and slang. When they talk with adults, it changes. It’s interesting because when they talk to adults they are familiar with, there’s another shift in language, tone and engagement. Then when they speak with their parents, it can be different again because they are usually more relaxed. The language they use is really common, similar and familiar.

I remember at one teen retreat, Marvin Belzer said during a talk, “I am probably dating myself, but what do you say when you ‘break up’ with somebody?” All the teens started laughing, because they were like, “Break up? What do you mean?” So, that was an obvious use of different language. That’s how common it is, and we often don’t even notice it.

SR: Is code switching influenced by what you refer to as the lens of identity and culture?

Shahara: Yes because being in a relationship, for example, can influence the lenses of identity; having an older brother or sister who is taking care of their sibling, or being a single child can also influence it. It can be as a single parent or where there are two adults raising a child or children. The parenting languages can be different according to how the speakers identify or see themselves. Also it is very common when involved in different institutional settings such as school, work or a hospital. Our identity can influence how we speak.

Sometimes it involves skill building. When you are used to one environment and then go into another environment and use the same language, sometimes people may not understand you. It can be confusing. You might begin to wonder why they don’t understand you. You might think, “Am I saying something wrong? Or am I not being clear?” All of those things could be there. But it’s not so much wrong, it could be different communication styles. And sometimes it’s about understanding who your audience is and how you can reach them.

Speech changes depending on who you are speaking to, and what you want to convey.

SR: How do you practice Wise Speech?

Shahara: Sylvia Boorstein has this phrase, an acronym, WAIT, for “Why Am I Talking?” I always find it helpful because it is an example of taking the time to decide if I really need to talk right now. 

I know because I have a tendency to talk a lot. I will ask myself, “Why am I talking or why do I need to say this?” It really helps me pause and recognize there are other people who may need to speak who have not had the opportunity. I can step back and just WAIT. And it really feels good that I have taken a moment to reflect. And other times upon reflection, I still need to speak, but I have taken the time to figure it out.

I really appreciate that acronym and try to use it as often as I can. People always laugh because it’s so easy to remember. Just WAIT.

SR: Does Wise Speech make sense in a culture that puts a great value on “speaking one’s truth” or exercising the freedom to speak without ideological restrictions?

Shahara: If anything, Wise Speech gives us a guide. For me that’s how I interpret it, as opposed to putting a restraint on self-expression. It gives me a guide and a framework for how I say what I want to say.

When someone says to speak your truth, they want you to be direct, honest and truthful. And then, as the person being asked to do that, you have to determine if this is the best way to say this. Is this the best time to say this? How do I say this in a way that holds my intention, as I would like it to be received? All of those ideas are considered when I think about speaking my truth.

So, I don’t see Wise Speech putting a lid on my language. I see it more as giving me tools to help me speak more clearly—not just to articulate in words, but to think about how I want to deliver my words.

SR: Could you give us an example of the tools you will cover in your Wise Speech daylong?

Shahara: I like to bring in some form of forgiveness practice. It’s important that we do not judge or compare ourselves, or become harsh because we aren’t able to say something the way we intended. We can sometimes give ourselves a hard time because it’s not coming out right or we hurt someone else because of how we said it.

But the whole point is that the practice gives us the opportunity to try again and again. And we will make mistakes. Yet, how can we be kind to ourselves in a moment when we know we have made a mistake? I think the beauty of the practice is that we get an opportunity to practice Wise Speech over and over again with so many different people and in so many different situations.

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