Updated: Dec 7, 2022
"Words are meaningless." "Actions speak louder than words." "Talk is cheap." "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." These are phrases that no writer, no newscaster, no broadcaster, no audio performer, no teacher, and no professional speaker believes. I'm with them.
I believe words have the power to hurt, uplift, elevate, depress, motivate, and transform, especially if those words come from the mouth of someone you love and respect. What a glorious feeling it is to hear someone say, "I love you." If someone shouts something insulting at you from across the street, it will undoubtedly hurt your feelings. It doesn't matter how far along you are on your spiritual journey, how much clinical therapy you've had, or if you have finally arrived at the perfect mix of antidepressants. Fortunately, you will most likely shake off an insulting quip from someone you don't know very well (or at all), compared to if it was your child or your parent who was flinging a hurtful reprimand or angry insult at you.
Instead of reacting to negative words, you may choose to ignore them, citing temporary insanity on their part. Words of anger or any negative emotion are something we call examples of "wrong-thinking" in the yoga-realm. But it takes much discipline to simply ignore hurtful words. Hurtful words hurt those of us who receive them, and they hurt those of us who utter them, as well.
Words can uplift our soul. We know this through our experiences of art in the form of literature, poetry, and music. When we are uplifted, we sometimes react viscerally. When I hear something that moves me in the realm of music, the hair on my arms will rise, or my arm will tingle; sometimes both arms and both legs. When the opposite happens, we might change the channel, skip to the next song, close the book, or close the window. It goes both ways.
One of my favorite psychology books, Growth Through Reason, by Albert Ellis, contains a quote that has always stuck with me: "The only thing that can hurt you is a brick falling on your head." It's another take on the old "sticks and stones" theory. I find it thought-provoking, and I do see Truth in it. But I don't think sublimating one's feelings about anything should be a goal in life. In fact, quite the opposite. We desperately need more awareness of and ways to express our feelings. How many of us dislike not being heard? My hand is up.
Our society has given up many of the ritualistic practices that celebrate our joys, our sorrows, and the phases of life that we all eventually go through. We recognize life's milestones through feelings and through the words that we generate to express those feelings. Thus, the creation of the poetry, the music, the literature, and all the glorious art forms. This is how we communicate, after all. Words can be joyous, words can be painful. Either way, they generate feelings and behavior which often come out of our mouths in the form of words.
This leads us to the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness can be asked for and, in turn, given. Saying "I'm sorry" is so difficult for many of us to say. But what if instead of getting ourselves - yet again - into the position of needing to apologize or needing to ask for forgiveness, we could make the initial effort to not say those hurtful things to others in the first place? We can compare this concept of prevention to preventative medicine or preventative health care: if there are many people sick, the answer is not to build bigger hospitals. The answer is to figure out how to keep people healthy.
As a yoga teacher, I watch very carefully what I say to my students. I teach them that words they use to describe themselves have power. When you say things about your body aches and pains like, "my stupid ankle hurts today," or "my dumb shoulder aches again," the fact is that your ankle is not stupid and your shoulder isn't dumb. Insulting yourself isn't going to help anything. Unconscious self-deprecation is just as bad as conscious self-deprecation. This is an all-too familiar truth for those of us who have relentless negative internal dialogue not just for body-aches, but for our behavior and feelings about the decisions we make, the people we love, and how we interact with people at home and work. If you can begin from the place of prevention by not calling your shoulder "stupid," it follows that you might be able to stop calling yourself and others the same.
What about the way we comment on beauty in the world? We say things like, "breath-taking," and "heart-breaking." We don't really don't mean it in a literal sense, but these are the words we choose and use to describe something that touches our heart and our soul in a wondrous way. Yoga teachers, physical therapists, and all bodywork professionals don't tend to use metaphors or euphemisms to effectively communicate how to come into a body-placement. I always prefer the direct and literal approach, even when a situation is uncomfortable. I'm not willing to take the risk of miscommunication when directing a student, client, or class into a pose involving standing on one leg or hanging upside down. Another demographic that works the style of literalism to an actual art form are the Scots. In America, for example, we put the warning "Don't Touch: Danger!" on an electrical pole. In Scotland, they take it further to make sure we really, really understand: "Don't Touch: Danger of Death!"
Whether we approach the world through a literal lens or through the beauty of a metaphor, when it's our turn to speak, we can watch the words we choose and say them more clearly, more carefully. We can work on taking the preventative approach to communication. Striving to say what you really mean and what you really feel should be an uppermost goal in life. Words have power.