Make Peace With Words
On borrowing the wisdom of mindfulness meditation to explore the desire for equanimity and emotional liberation.
By Karen Yin • August 30, 2016
Like fire, words have the power to warm or burn. And like fire, words can cause a great deal of damage regardless of intention. Much of the terminology I question these days falls in the “unintentional harm” category. This is good news: Up until college, it would have been the “intentional harm” category that dominated. Slurs, insults, mean jokes, unwelcome labels, and hate speech came from principals, counselors, and teachers as well as students. It took me years to make peace with words that had been used as grenades.
Making peace with words allows us to be present so we can take conscious action.
When I gained some distance from these experiences, I realized that some of those words were neutral in nature but had been said to me or around me with such hostility that I wasn’t able to separate the words from the ugliness of the intention. One of the neutral words that triggered a physiological response akin to a panic attack was Chinese. Of course, I had also been subjected to the typical go-to slurs, like chink, and classmates mockingly mimicked Chinese speech, but negative reactions to language preloaded with vitriol are expected. The word Chinese, however, is just a descriptor, a harmless word, and for years, it burned me, even when spoken innocently by friends.
To undo my Pavlovian response, I practiced hearing it neutrally until it lost its power. (Note: I’m not recommending this approach. We can achieve peacefulness in kinder ways.) Unfortunately, turning neutral words into slurs is still a thing. One trend I see in the conscious-language movement is the desire to liberate oneself from word-related shame. People who are embracing terms that have been used against them, like bitch, queer, fat, female, consider the attitudes and stereotypes behind the words as the real problem, not the words themselves.
Making peace with words allows us to be present so we can take conscious action. Observing our feelings without judgment as they arise and drift, for example, gives practitioners of mindfulness meditation a better chance of staying on top of the overwhelming anger, frustration, and helplessness that certain words (and people) provoke. All feelings bloom and dissipate. With practice, we can turn down the prickly heat as we hold space for our feelings and give attention to our tender heart.
“When we’re angry, we aren’t lucid. Acting while angry can lead to a lot of suffering and can escalate the situation. That doesn’t mean we should suppress our anger. We shouldn’t pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t. It’s possible to feel and engage with our anger in a healthy and compassionate manner.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Communicating
Our relationship with words is intensely personal. How words affect us depends a great deal on everything around them. Besides the context, intention, tone, and speaker, our state of mind contributes to our reaction to language (and everything else). As we are often reminded in daily life, there are no guarantees that our words will be received as intended. Like storytellers and their audiences, we all meet somewhere in the middle.
As a writer, I challenge myself to be mindful and try to do better when I fall short, but that’s my choice. It’s tempting to put the entire onus on the communicator when we are misrepresented, excluded, or othered, but if my happiness hinges on forcing people to comply, how long do I need to wait?
“Rather than trying to control what can never be controlled, we can find a sense of security in being able to meet what is actually happening…. In those moments when we realize how much we cannot control, we can learn to let go.”
— Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness
The cost of depending on people is too high. I want to be at peace now, or well on my way, regardless of whether you have your crap together. By cultivating equanimity—calm in the face of turmoil—as a daily practice, I can invest in myself, my inner strength, my mental pliability, my resilience for dealing with the joys and sorrows in life. Without needing anybody else to do anything. And that makes me really happy.
If my happiness hinges on forcing people to comply, how long do I need to wait?
Reasons to practice making peace with words:
- We can observe from a calmer place before responding to intentional harm.
- We can learn to appreciate our tender heart while inviting clarity and rationality to a situation.
- We can shift our energy and attention to what nurtures us instead of what drains us.
- We can find forgiveness for friends who use the “wrong” speech, without shying away from letting them know.
- We can be less quick to judge the intelligence, political agenda, or “wokeness” of our colleagues.
- “Make peace with words” also means “Use words to instigate peace.”
Peace to you and yours.
Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.