I’m curious about the spiritual concept of “evil tongue” (speaking evil of others) and its pervasiveness in our culture. Why do people become energized when they say or read something negative about someone else? What does it say about where that person is? What are the consequences of perpetuating negativity or feeling schadenfreude?
Michael Berg replies:
Most of us don’t give much thought to the things we say. We assume that once we’ve said something, it’s over and done with. Spiritually, this is not true. Words are energy and they live on. The comments flowing out of our mouths do not simply disappear into thin air. They remain with us at all times, hindering or helping our spiritual growth.
When we speak positively and refrain from evil speech, we surround ourselves with more and more positive energy, therefore sustaining our spiritual growth. Conversely, when we speak negatively about others, our words stay with us wherever we go, blocking our happiness. For instance, when we wake up in a bad mood for no apparent reason, Kabbalists explain there is a reason. The energy we created by maligning someone’s character yesterday adversely affects us today. And if we don’t go through a process of cleansing that energy by apologizing or committing to never do it again, it continues to stay with and influence us in negative ways.
As a great Kabbalist once said, “Pay more attention to what goes out of your mouth than to what goes in.”
Furthermore, we each have dormant, spiritual forces within – both positive and negative. These forces are awakened depending on where we focus our thoughts, words and consciousness. When we are busy focusing on and discussing the positive aspects in others, we awaken the sleeping beneficent forces within, enabling us to experience more joy and fulfillment in our lives. However, when we focus on others’ bad traits and gossip about them, we awaken the sleeping forces of negativity within, which have a very real, damaging effect on our lives.
The triggering of these forces is what determines whether we live a life marked by chaos and lack or joy and fulfillment.
Without a doubt, we are each constantly thrust into interactions with difficult people, leading us to want to judge and see their worst qualities. However, it is in our own best interest to fight this innate tendency of focusing on the negativity we so plainly see and instead to speak only of the good.
It is my hope that by understanding how evil speech damages us – not the person being spoken about – we will all be a little more mindful of the words we choose to speak so that we can experience greater joy and fulfillment in our everyday lives.
– Michael Berg
Michael Berg is co-director of the Kabbalah Centre.
Shaikh Kabir Helminski replies:
Why do we gossip? Why do we even listen to gossip? Why do we enjoy negativity? Why do we do many things that result in our consciousness being veiled or our hearts becoming corroded? Perhaps it’s because we haven’t experienced the alternative fully enough. Perhaps we can’t bear to live at a higher vibrational level, preferring the habitual, the commonplace negativities that pass for normal everyday life.
In Sufism, we try to remember the advice of the Prophet Muhammad who said that gossip is worse even than adultery! “But what if what we’re saying is true?” someone asked. “That’s what I mean by gossip!” he said, “If it’s not true then it’s slander. Gossip is saying anything about anyone which, if they were to hear you say it, they would be hurt and you would be ashamed.”
Imagine a community of people who would be fastidious about this, people you could trust not to criticize you behind your back (They’re still free, of course, to process problems or criticisms face to face). It’s a very high standard to live up to. When you speak negatively of someone and they learn about it, you become detestable in their sight. Remember the Bob Dylan line, “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes…you’d know what a drag it is to see you.”
Talking negatively about others is like leaving garbage inside and outside your own house. Thinking and speaking kind and positive thoughts, as much as possible, is like planting beautiful gardens around your house. Our spiritual work is to transcend the petty ego and assume the Divine perspective. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, we discern the good from the bad, but we don’t indulge in blame or assume we have the right to judge the souls of others. Let the Cosmos and Karma handle that. Let’s be a comfort to each other.
– Shaikh Kabir Helminski
Kabir Helminski is Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order, Co-director of The Threshold Society (sufism.org).
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
Hmmmmm...I wish I could say that all this trafficking in negativity was bad for your health, but I can’t honestly substantiate this. Based on my own fairly limited sampling, it seems as if some of the most maliciously evil-tongued folks live on to a ripe old age (but then, they always said vinegar was a good preservative!!). That legendary twentieth-century spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff would merely cluck his tongue and mutter, “Misuse of the sexual center” – and it does indeed seem true that negativity can become a kind of aphrodisiac. You can actually get high on it.
All that being said, however, the real damage done by “evil tongue” is that living in negativity is like living in the basement of your home, unaware that the view gets progressively better as you climb the stairs. “Evil tongue” both reflects and maintains a very low level of being, far short of what we humans are capable of and what actually feeds our souls. Another wise modern teacher, Maurice Nicoll, puts it this way: “As your being increases, your receptivity to higher meaning increases; as your being decreases, the old meanings return.” “Receptivity to higher meaning” means your capacity to experience joy, goodness, coherence and ultimately, divine compassion; it allows you to live in a world in which you can actually personally experience that “all things work together for good.” To do this requires a fairly high level of being. The more you are dominated by negativity, the more you will experience the world as threatening, isolated, competitive, harsh and even meaningless. And the more you lash out at others to shore up your fragile sense of identity, the more firmly you chain yourself to the bottom of the staircase. Your level of being dictates the reality you perceive, not the other way around.
Thus, spiritual teachers in all the great traditions have unanimously insisted that if we want to know the good, the true and the beautiful as active energies in our lives, we need to stop trafficking in negativity (gossip, slander and evil tongue at the top of all lists). The active practice of lovingkindness is not a Pollyanna-ish evasion of reality; it is the surest and most time-tested way of accessing that alternate – and higher – reality: like moving up to the penthouse of your being rather than hanging out in the basement.
Yes, evil tongue may be a good pickling agent, but lovingkindness, consistently practiced, gradually sculpts people whose faces shine with gentleness, serenity and delight (just think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama). It’s the most ancient and universal beauty secret in this world.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel replies:
Unfortunately, saying or hearing negative things about others not only damages them, it can have the effect of solidifying and building up our own ego. The gratification of putting someone down, or even hearing or reading such words spoken by others, gives us the sense of being better than others and pleasure at somebody else’s expense.
In Zen Buddhism we have the Ten Grave Precepts. These Ten Precepts fall into three categories: body, speech and thought. Of these ten, four are concerned with Right Speech, because negative speech seems to be one of the major traps that we as human beings fall into, and it is so detrimental and affects karma.
Participating in slander and gossip is a symptom of how inadequate we feel. If we truly felt whole, complete and okay – which is the awakened state of mind we wouldn’t need to fall into the trap of negative speech. When we see that our own true nature is not lacking in any way, we ultimately want to rejoice and celebrate other peoples’ success and well-being. When we do not see our own true nature, we mistakenly believe our ego-centeredness, which I call the small and limited self, is who we really are. We do not realize the True Self, which transcends the limited ego self and the limitless Big Mind.
When we go beyond the limited and the limitless and realize our True Self, we can embrace our own ego. Recognizing that we can’t be completely free from ego, we are no longer in denial of the ego. At this point, we are coming from an awakened state of mind that includes and yet transcends the ego.
We normally fall into the trap of either trying to get rid of the ego – which is virtually impossible because we need an ego to function – or denying the ego and believing we are selfless or egoless. And still it is ego. The key is to recognize and be aware because it is only by recognizing and through awareness that we can truly transcend the ego, which means embracing and yet moving beyond ego-centeredness.
From the perspective of our True Self, we hold no preference for our own self-centeredness or selflessness. This is what it means to include and go beyond the self. As soon as we hold a preference for one over the other, it is the ego that is at work. As long as the ego is in charge, then we delight in speaking ill of others, putting others down or rejoicing in their misfortunes because we don’t see that we are all one and connected, that intrinsically I am you and you are me, that your good fortune is my good fortune and your misfortune is my misfortune.
– Dennis Genpo Merzel
Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel is the founder of Big Mind Big Heart, A Western Zen Practice and head of Kanzeon Zen International. His latest book is Big Mind, Big Heart: Finding Your Way. For more on Dennis Genpo Merzel’s work, visit www.bigmind.org.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes replies:
I have been giving a great deal of thought to why people feel a need to speak badly about others or become energized and excited when they become aware of negativity surrounding another. I have been doing yoga now for several years. My teachers are constantly repeating that in order to elevate one’s self in a yoga pose, one must root down into the ground in order to lift up. I feel this metaphor is applicable to this question.
When a person does not feel good about himself or herself, they will look for ways to elevate their self-esteem, even momentarily. By looking down at others or deriving glee at the misfortune of others, they feel a sense of lifting up of their own self-view. Often, this works even for groups of people, as in cliques or gangs. By being negative about the “outsiders” to the group, a sense of commonality and bravado develops within the group.
Sometimes, this need for putting others down is also generated by fear of people or groups who are different and therefore “threatening.” Some of this need for negativity is probably evolutionary in origin as a way that clans of people bonded together to protect themselves from harmful outside forces. However, in general I believe that the need to speak “evil” or to relish in other’s problems is a fast and cheap way to falsely raise one’s own self esteem. A much more positive and long-lasting esteem booster is to feel positive energy toward others and develop empathy and compassion when one comes upon the suffering of a fellow human. I think if we are truly honest with ourselves, we all know that when we wish others well, whether close relations or strangers we hear about in the media, we get a more glowing and positive feeling than the temporary and superficial rush of wishing negativity or relishing in their suffering.
Over the years I have worked closely with many types of people as a therapist. I have no doubt that good energy put out into the world will always be reflected back in positive ways. We tend to attract what we generate...I am sure that all of us would rather attract lightness and well-being than darkness and negativity.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. See her website, drkarennyc.com, for more information.