There is an old Zen saying that goes something like this, “Open mouth, closed mind.”
We can all benefit from knowing when to hold our tongue and listen, instead of speaking. All too frequently I find myself in situations where I wish I had kept my mouth shut. Especially when my emotions are bubbling up in a state of heightened negativity, like anger, fear or jealousy. There is a Jataka tale (a Buddhist teaching story) that I love to tell, which illustrates this perfectly:
There was once a tortoise who made his home in a pond amidst the rolling hills of northern India. One summer, the annual drought was particularly severe and he found his pond turning into mud as the water dried up. A couple of gold-feathered geese alighted at the edge of the pond to rest. They quacked loudly, exclaiming how little there was to drink. Hearing their chatter, the tortoise swam closer. The geese saw the tortoise struggling toward them through the thick mud and offered to take him to a nearby lake that was still full of fresh clear water. There, they told the tortoise, he would be safe for the remainder of the dry season. The geese brought a long stick over to the tortoise and told him to bite down on it. Whatever happens, the geese explained, do not open your mouth.
The tortoise nodded and soon they were flying through the air, the geese carrying each end of the stick between their bills and the tortoise hanging in the middle. As they approached the neighboring lake, the tortoise gazed down at the land below. There he saw a group of children playing in a field. Seeing the tortoise suspended in the air by two geese, the children cried out in astonishment. The sight was so unusual that they began to point up at the tortoise and laugh. Hearing their calls the tortoise became agitated. Why were they laughing at him? The more the tortoise thought about it, the more angry he became. Finally out of patience, he shouted at the children to stop laughing. The moment he opened his mouth he fell down out of the sky, landing with a thud in the dry grass. How he regretted his outburst! If only he had kept his temper in check he would surely be enjoying the cool refreshing waters of the nearby lake. (Why do I lose my patience?)
The moral of this story is that anger can cloud our judgment, making us say and do things we later regret. Whenever I begin to feel anger, agitation or impatience arise and I feel the impulse to speak, I remind myself of the tortoise. Will I regret opening my mouth later? Can what I say wait until my mind is in a more peaceful state? Usually the answer is "yes." (How do I prepare for being in silence?)