An Open Heart and a Silver Key

silvwe key 2
The Key to Right Speech


“That’s a beautiful necklace,” the flight attendant said, smiling at me as I took my seat. “Does it open something?” She was talking about a large silver key that I wear on a chain around my neck, a key with such heft–it’s as long as my pointer finger–that it looks like it could open a trunk.

“No, it’s just a charm,” I said, “but I do wear it for a reason.”

“And what is that?” she asked.

I reached up and rubbed my thumb against the heart-shaped ring on the top of the key.

“Once upon a time, in a moment of great stress, I yelled at my daughter,” I told her. “I was tired and frustrated and what I said was not kind. She was really upset, and rightly so.” I looked down at the key for a moment. “It was a mistake, speaking to her like that, a mistake I swore I wouldn’t make again. So, I wear this to remind me to speak kindly.”

“What a lovely idea,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied. “I rarely take it off. Turns out I need a lot of reminding.”

It’s true. I do need a lot of reminding.

Because I get angry sometimes. I get frustrated, irritated and annoyed. Sad. Jealous. Afraid. Just like every other human being on the planet. So when I find myself in those places, the question becomes now what? What do I say? What do I do?

The key reminds me that I always have a choice and it reminds me of a specific occasion when I made the wrong one. I reach up and touch this key and I remember my daughter’s face crumpling into tears under the hurricane force of my words; I remember how long it took to repair the damage, if that kind of damage is even reparable. It reminds me that I was exhausted and feeling helpless — at an absolute loss about what to do, and that I exploded in frustration because I was out of ideas. I followed the lemmings of that rage right over a cliff. And it hurt. It hurt both of us.

So, in the aftermath, I decided that I didn’t want to make that leap anymore and I gave myself this key to help me remember that. To help me remember three simple things:

Pause. Choose wisely because it matters. Say the right thing or say nothing at all until you figure it out.

I call it my Right Speech key but unless you’re one of my Buddhist friends, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. Right Speech might be summed up as speaking kind and honest words at the right time for the right reason from a place of equanimity as opposed to say, raging anger. No lying or abusing or being divisive. No gossip either.

It is no easy task to accomplish all of that. Consequently, I’m learning to keep my mouth shut a lot of the time.

So now, if I get a snarky email and feel a swell of anger rise in my chest, I pause. If a text to my daughters goes unanswered and I feel the death grip of worry, I reach for that key. If someone I love has suffered a loss, and tears of sadness are pricking my eyes, I wait it out. Yes, even sadness. I close my mouth, I put down my pen, I step away from my computer, and I wait. That`s no small thing in our smart-phone world, in a culture that enables and seems to expect immediate responses.

I pause. I raise my hand to my chest and hold the key in my hand. I close my eyes, and I just breathe.

And what I notice is that if I wait long enough, the hot emotion will ebb—no one can sustain all that negative energy indefinitely—and space opens up. My heart, clenched tight as a fist, opens a little, and then a little more. From there, I may the see the situation differently and remember what I can control and what I can’t. I may find compassion for myself and for others and remember that we’re all just doing the best we can here. As Ram Dass says, we’re all just walking each other home.

So maybe I gave the flight attendant the wrong answer when she asked me whether my silver key open something.

Maybe the next time someone asks me that question I’ll say yes. Yes, it does.

It closes my mouth, it stills my mind  and then–ever so quietly– it opens my heart.

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