Knowing when to speak and when not to speak is a practice of patience and loving kindness to oneself and others.


Here is a tale based on a West African story from Nigeria… I have always loved this tale since first reading it in a 1930’s NY Board of Education collection of African tales in a school library in Harlem.

      A hunter saw a head lying on the ground on top of a high hill. There was no body,     just a head. The hunter heard a voice, “I got here by talking.” The hunter looked everywhere for a person, not able to imagine a dead head speaking. But when he leaned down, the voice reverberated from the skull,   It said again, “I got here by talking.”     He raced down the hill to inform the Chief of the remarkable head.   He thought, “To enhance the power of the Chief is to bring greater importance to myself .”

He told the Chief about the talking head on the mountain. The Chief responded, ”I have no time for fools  Dead heads don’t talk!”   The hunter insisted. He finally offered, “If the head does not talk you can cut off my head. ”The chief followed behind the man with an entourage of warriors. They came to the head. The hunter requested the skull to speak. It remained silent. He leaned down and begged the head to talk.   After some time, the Chief ordered a warrior to cut off the hunter’s head.   It rolled beside the first head.That evening, as the sunset, the first head turned to the hunter’s head.   It said, “You see what I mean about talking.”

Thinking about this tale, I contemplated another African tale: A woman informed her husband of something extraordinary she had witnessed. It was sadly the ultimate cause of the death of her child.   Again and again in the great wisdom tales of the world we are warned: Be careful of revealing too muc too soon and know to whom you sharing a secret!    Or be wary of boasting about what we have done or seen. To understand the possible consequences of sharing a secret that should not be spoken can be life saving.  To remain silent is not simple. Reacting quickly with words, is often the cause of unforeseen disaster and confusion.

This contemplation helped me realize that a root cause of a particular long lasting trouble in my life stemmed from telling someone something that was best to have left unshared.   All blame to them for the results had to be forsaken when I recognized my part in the seeding of troubles.   Like a cascade of stones down a waterfall on a mountainside, the ramifications were painful and long lasting.

I now think of the Talking Head story with more respect.   I sometimes hear it told jokingly. But humorous as it is, it is not that funny. The patience I have had to learn, decoding stories, did not come easily.   I had to practice -pausing – before responding. Or making an immediate excited, “I get it” when first hearing a story.

I had to develop a discernment about whom I thought to share something of importance with, or a particular tale; to hold secrets close to my heart, and to recognize my responsibility as a storyteller as far more than putting my voice on words that I interpreted .  Even more fundamental – I had to sometimes not agree to keep someone else’s secret.  The energy that propelled me to share a secret or an event in a tale that was not yet ripe in my heart, is a harsh teacher. Part of the ultimate joy of being a storyteller has been to come to know that who tells the story and how it is told makes the difference of how it is heard.

In Buddhism there is a practice called “staying like a log.”   The task is not to suppress the urge, but rather to sit with the energy of the arising immediate desire to speak about something .   When I feel that urge of energy arising, I stop. I push the storyline to the sideline and find the feeling inside of me, as I have been taught.    I breathe into it. (a practice taught by Pema Chodron) And then I might discover the motivation was not kind, but self-serving.   I want to make someone happy or myself more important; to win their trust or some momentary reward by sharing a covert revelation . The effect doesn’t stop once the words are shared.  Finding my own sense again, I see the situation more clearly and kindly. I attempt not to race down the mountain.  The longer I sit with the energy, the more it reveals about myself and about potential consequences. Slowly, I win my own trust.

If  I sink deeper into the speaking skull story, I recall  images of skulls – from Neolithic caves, from Mayan temples and Tibetan shrines – heads, skulls adorned, and speaking bones. The language beyond death is a mystery whose wisdom has to be earned by patience. How a story image moves inside of us when we slow down to meet the radiance of meaning that bubbles up in the discipline of unbiased listening..    I am loosening my compulsion to understand. As I contemplate , without rush still feeling the speed, what might lie within the story beyond the obvious, can resonate     I also feel the poignancy of how speed removes from what the story has to offer. Interpretations, learned opinions stack up like a wall between myself and the nature of image .   Feeling the fear that arises when reckoning with the unfamiliar or illogical opens a path toward greater wisdom and awareness. Now, from the recollection of bones that speak comes joy.

In a traditional culture, the hunter has learned the way of the animal and the spirit of the animal; the world he walks in and the truth of death. He (or she) is protector of the tribe, providing food, skins and bones, He is protector of the environment. Joy comes with knowing interdependence; sacred web of life – our nurturence.   In the moment, the hunter’s thought, a hook, carried him away. He lost his head . But in the telling of that moment, we re-find our own. And we hear, what the King did not hear, the voice of the speaking skull.

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