Like Medicine or Bullets: Our Words

Once upon a time, I was finishing an intake with a new patient and I semi-jokingly asked her, “Is there anything else I should know before I stick needles in you?”

“Yes,” she replied, “I don’t have a second chakra. An intuitive healer told me so.” I was living in Portland and I remember thinking this exchange would have been perfect for a scene in Portlandia.

But she seemed genuinely concerned about it. Imagine where your mind might go if someone you trusted told you, “Everyone has a set of vital energy centers. They’re thought to be instrumental to your health, happiness, expression, and spiritual growth. And you’re missing one of them.”

I was reminded of this conversation when a friend told me of a similar experience last week. She had taken her daughter to get a massage, and at the end of the treatment the therapist stated that he had picked up important information about the girl which he felt compelled to share. According to his intuition, her daughter had some significant internal and developmental health issues. However, he didn’t quite know what they were or what could be done about them.

I’ve been on the receiving end of similar comments myself. I once visited a Chinese massage therapist to see if he could help my tension headaches. After working on my back and neck, he felt my pulse and gave me a grave look as he spoke the only five English words of our session: “Your lungs are very weak.”

Another time, I bumped into a woman at a party who looked familiar. It turned out she was a cashier at a little organic co-op where I often picked up a morning snack. She said, “Hey, you’re that afraid guy!”

“Excuse me?” I said, feeling very confused.

“A bunch of us watch you come into the store and you barely say anything,” she explained. “We talk about how you’re too terrified to speak. We’re like, ‘Here’s the fear guy’ when you come in. What are you so afraid of?” She looked well-meaning but smug. The idea that I didn’t make more small talk because I was full of fear felt completely off the mark to me.

I recall not hiding my displeasure well and I said something like, “I’m flattered that you’re all so concerned, but I think you’ve misread me.” However, I couldn’t help thinking, Am I unknowingly giving off some kind of fearful vibe? – just as I also fretted, Is there something wrong with my lungs? My friend had a similar reaction. Despite having always thought of her kid as healthy and robust, she’s now wondering if she should get her specialized medical testing. And the woman I mentioned at the beginning was worried about the problems that might result from lacking a second chakra.

I think it’s great for people to develop and utilize their intuition, but I also think it’s important to practice what Buddhists call right speech or sammā-vācā. The scriptures of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions include instructions on when and how to speak in a way that contributes positively. These instructions can be pretty well summed up by three succinct questions that were taught by Rev. James Haldane Stewart (1778-1854) to be asked of oneself before speaking: Is it true? It is kind? Is it necessary?1

If the practitioners and cashier mentioned above had sincerely asked themselves the first question before sharing, they may have concluded that they didn’t really know for certain that their hunches were true. And then, no one would have heard anything about a missing chakra or weak lungs.2 However, they might have responded, “Well, it feels true to me,” which brings us to the next questions.

Is it kind? There’s a bit of personal discretion in determining what’s kind. When the intuitive healer decided to tell the woman she had no second chakra, perhaps he thought, “This is kind because it will enable her to get the help she needs,” or, “This is kind because she can understand herself better with this information.” However, without providing any solution or direction, it wasn’t kindand that goes for all the other cases above, too.

Finally, is it necessary? Does the other person need to know what we might say? One could argue that all sorts of harmful communications are necessary, but if we’re really honest with ourselves about this criterion, most are not.

Of the three questions, this one could be unnecessarily restrictive if we were to apply it robotically. Of course, it’s not necessary to deliver a compliment or to express one’s awe at the beauty of the snow, so this leads us to a fourth useful question (of unknown origin, but often attributed to Indian holy man Shirdi Sai Baba): Does it improve upon the silence? Again, it’s a matter of personal opinion, but if we were to consider before opening our mouth, “Is this likely to degrade or enhance the atmosphere?” it’s not too difficult to predict.

For people who are reasonably self-aware, there’s a single question that gets to the root of all four of the above. Before you say something that’s likely to have an impact on another: what is your purpose?

Is your purpose to help? To cause pain? To impress? To prove something? To provoke conflict? To connect? To love? I would guess that part of the purpose – if not the sole purpose – behind all the questionable communications discussed above was to appear magical or unusually insightful in order to gain power, respect, or approval.

I’ve focused on these cases because of how often I’ve encountered people who seem to believe that having a feeling about someone means their interpretation is true and must be shared. But of course, these aren’t the only kinds of communications that are made for less-than-noble purposes.

In looking at my own poor communications, I’ve realized that my most common offense is to crack jokes that aren’t funny or appropriate. My purpose has been mainly to generate warmth between me and the other person (usually my wife) or to bring lightness to the atmosphere. When I’ve failed at this purpose, it’s often been because I was actually serving a secret, ulterior purpose: to make myself feel comfortable. When I’m committed to a purpose of fostering warmth and lightness, it goes differently. There may still be jokes – eventually – but I have to begin with a willingness to be totally present for the other person – even if it’s uncomfortable.

I encourage you to try this over the coming week:

  1. Bring more attention to the things you say to others. Just notice your words and the energy behind them.
  2. Try to perceive the impact your words have. These first two steps can teach you SO much.
  3. See if you can pause before you speak – even if just for one second. In this space there’s a moment to align yourself – a moment to make sure the words match your true intention. You could ask yourself, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” or the simpler “What is my purpose?” But even if you forget to do this, try to still practice step 2 – perceive the impact of your words. If it’s not a favorable impact, you can still ask yourself if your words were true, kind, and necessary, and you can retrospectively figure out what purpose you were serving by speaking as you did.

If you’re on the receiving end of a communication that feels unproductive (or worse), you can try asking, “What’s your purpose?” Not everyone can receive that question and give you a heartfelt response, but it can serve as an opening to a more authentic exchange (which should also include being responsible for your own feelings and interpretations).

As I tried to express earlier in this article, sometimes we can allow others’ perceptions of us to affect us even if they have no qualifications and even if we don’t really care what they think. A simple statement like, “Are you feeling run down?” or “You seem to be carrying around a lot of anger,” can get your mind spinning and cause you to feel something’s wrong.

Remind yourself that people project their feelings on each other all the time and people are simply wrong a lot. If someone is intuitive enough to pick up something really important, hopefully they’re also intuitive enough to recognize how it would affect you to tell you this information.

Finally, when someone tells you something about yourself, it’s useful to run it through your own intuition. Does it feel true to you? If you have trouble accessing your intuition, I recommend you join my wife’s group, Love Rising.  She helps people develop this faculty.

In this age of “fake news,” social media, and presidential communications being made via Twitter, it’s more vital than ever that we practice discernment with what’s coming in and we become clear about our intentions before we speak.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten



  1. These three questions have also been (probably erroneously) attributed to Rumi, Buddha, Socrates, Shirdi Sai Baba, and others – though this attribution is apparently because these teachers all had similar things to say about right speech. I haven’t been able to find proof that anyone but Stewart asked these questions in these exact words.

2. The question Is it true? can be asked on different levels. In an absolute sense, it could be argued that it’s impossible to know anything objective for certain (see The Work of Byron Katie, John Locke, etc.). This would cause one to always answer “no” to the question of truth, and to hence refrain from ever speaking again. I believe Stewart meant it in an everyday way – i.e., would most reasonable and kind people agree that it’s true? – and I think that’s sufficient for most cases.

5 thoughts on “Like Medicine or Bullets: Our Words

  1. Thank you for this succinct, complete discussion that hit home today on the first read and for future reference: All the snippets cohesively and simply explained (including with historical context). Grateful for action steps I can, and will use.

    1. I appreciate this post very much. Saving it for future reference.

  2. Thank you for this article; I really enjoyed it. It is always good to be reminded of these three questions, and to be refreshed on being thoughtful of what and how we speak to others.

  3. Mii gwetch (thank you) for this thoughtful and insightful post.

  4. I really loved this post! I believe intention is everything so I like the question, “What is your purpose?” Certainly, it can be difficult to apply this type of internal questioning while in the throes of communication but that is definitely the goal. Thank you!

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