How to increase our self-knowledge and improve our relationships

Course Map:

  1. Introduction
  2. Verbal Defenses
  3. Listening
  4. Productive Complaints
  5. Necessary Explanations
  6. Leaving Center Stage
  7. Taking Distance from the Past
  8. Peacefully Silencing Ourselves
  9. Transmuting Aggravations
  10. Thoughtful Judgment
  11. Constructive Criticism
  12. Fruitful Discussions
  13. Useful Defenses
  14. More about Listening
  15. Judicious Opinions
  16. Appropriate Advice
  17. Measured Words


At first glance, the series of exercises described in these Teachings might seem like a utopian proposal. Faced as we are with widespread violence and international tensions that threaten the uneasy peace we
have, it might seem like a digression from the seriousness of our problems to insist that words matter. It might not seem worthwhile to consider the value of the words we use.

However, we believe that the focus of working on how we use languageis realistic; its aim is to reconsider the value we give to what we say and to understand the effect we produce with how we talk.
We don’t always remember that language is the basis of interpersonal communication. How we use it determines not only the nature of our relationships but also the quality of what we feel and what we generate in others and the environment we share.

For this reason the way we use our words is very important to our development as individuals and as a society. It is with words that we create or destroy relationships, it is with words that we learn and teach, it is with words that we create to a large extent the world in which we live and the way we live in it.

If we consider the process leading to interpersonal problems, misunderstandings between couples, and even conflicts between social groups and communities, we find that it all begins with words: what we say,
how we say it, why we say it and how others interpret what we say; what we declare, what we proclaim, and what we don’t say about what we think and do.

If we say unwise or ill-timed words, we can’t erase them nor can we avoid their consequences; likewise a silence loaded with passion is not easily forgotten, and its effect can sometimes last a lifetime.

Those of us who yearn to unfold our possibilities look for ways to expand our ideas and contribute to human advancement, but we don’t always pay attention to how the language we use and the way we express ourselves affects our relationship with others. That is why it’s really worthwhile to pay attention to our words.

We discover that language gives us a valuable tool for mastering our emotions and especially our moods. We gradually understand that we can use our words to master what we feel and then what we do.
The way we express ourselves can also show us aspects about ourselves we are not always willing to explore. For example, when we’re talking to someone about how we think or feel, or even if we’re chatting idly with them, we might often find ourselves speaking as if we needed to protect ourselves from an attack that threatens our feelings of self worth and identity. In other words, we discover our automatic verbal defenses. As these can strongly influence our moods and relationships, we will dedicate space in these Teachings to this topic. Perhaps when we’re reading this we’ll recognize some of our verbal defenses. We might even get discouraged if we think of them as defects we shouldn’t have. They aren’t. Our defenses are natural responses that allow us to maintain a certain inner balance and we will doubtless continue to have them even if we faithfully practice the exercises suggested in this course. But
when we exaggerate those defenses, or use them incorrectly or inappropriately, instead of helping they affect our moods, cloud our discernment and damage our relationships. We will be describing exercises of stopping as a way of working on those defenses.

We call them exercises of self-knowledge because, when we deliberately stop our automatic impulses, we allow forces and motivations to surface that we previously ignored or rejected. If we learn to let them surface, we can see not only what’s in them, but also what’s behind them and behind our acquired notion of who we are.

We also call them exercises for living in harmony, because they teach us to consider and appreciate those who are kind enough to listen to us. Our close relationships will greatly benefit from our practice of these

These exercises will also help us stop the impulse that compels us to talk without thinking or considering how our words will affect others.

Of course, the exercises proposed here do not replace conversations, but they certainly can be helpful.

Conversation is an art that we very seldom practice or try to learn. Instead we transmit information by talking about things that happen to us or others, expressing our memories or plans, or sharing our problems and sufferings. We may talk to reinforce our opinions with those who already think like us, or argue these opinions relentlessly with those who do not share them. Sometimes we learn something from the words we exchange but at other times we learn very little.

The exercise of reflecting on what we say helps us converse in an interesting, entertaining, and even instructive way. This is how we discover that conversation creates the fabric of our relationships. How we consider and choose our words, along with the intention and attitude behind them, determines the quality of that fabric.

Exercises of introspection, as well as those of reflection and meditation, allow us to step back from our actions in order to know ourselves and decide how to direct our efforts so that our lives will follow the desired direction. Our words, on the other hand, place us at the moment of action, at the instant when we actually decide where we want to go. The way we use words can calm a mood or exacerbate it. They can help us attain an insight or lose it. We could say we manage a great deal of our unfolding with the words we use, and our future along with it. One of the purposes of these Teachings is to emphasize the importance of our words and offer tools for working on them.