Sticks and stones may break my bones……..

..but words will never harm me.


We have known this simple rhyme since childhood but how often do we get ourselves into trouble by unnecessary responses to words that don’t harm us?

When we live in close proximity to others, their cute little habits and idiosyncrasies may lose their charm when experienced 24/7. In addition to this when somebody in your family is experiencing some form of stress, irritability or mood swings, their responses and behaviour can become erratic, careless and hurtful.

How great is the temptation to fire a caustic comment in response?

Burning arrow

“How dare he / she speak to me like that” and a million other thoughts flash through our head, before we know it we are verbalizing an unpleasant aggressive response just to “let them see who’s boss”.

The problem is that this angry retaliation is more likely to exacerbate the situation both for them and for us. Sometimes just one mildly irritated reply can provoke a major outburst from our family member, especially if we are dealing with a troubled teenager.

Sometimes we may become bombarded by a torrent of verbal abuse for no apparent reason and the urge to respond angrily can be overwhelming.

But as Geshe Kelsang Gyatso  says in his book “Joyful Path of Good Fortune“:

“Why am I getting angry? These words cannot hurt my body, and they cannot hurt my mind, but the anger I am generating does harm my mind”

If you have read this article you will already understand a little about anger.

Anger is a delusion i.e. a negative state which arises within our mind and destroys our peace and happiness. This is so obvious we never see it! Do we feel happy inside when we are angry? No. We cannot hold a positive peaceful mind at the same time as a negative angry mind. So no matter how ‘justified’ we feel our anger is, it is harming our mind as well as inflaming any situation.

This does not mean that we do not verbally respond in an appropriate way when necessary but any comment made with an angry mind is not likely to be helpful or constructive. Instead we can remain calm and peaceful and respond according to the needs of the situation.

Keep calm and say nothing

“That’s easy for you to say”, you may reply, ” you should have heard the things he/she said to me last night, how could I possibly stop myself from saying…….”

It is possible and here’s the plan……………………..

1. Understand why we respond angrily.

When we are insulted or criticised we experience uncomfortable feelings in our mind, we never stop to see where they are coming from: we don’t like them and want to get rid of whatever/ whoever we think is causing them as quickly as possible.

But in actual fact this situation / person is just a trigger for the potential we already have to experience these feelings. (Otherwise known as ‘Karmic imprints’, more coming soon).

We have created these potentials, or tendencies, long ago, when our mind was under the influence of delusions , so if we have a lot of ‘angry potentials’ , a trigger can easily cause us to respond in an angry manner.

The person or situation is just ‘pushing our buttons’, accessing that potential, which we have already created in the past, resulting in our angry response. Retaliating not only causes us problems in the present moment but also causes more negative potentials or ‘seeds’ to form. A simple example of the ‘law of cause and effect’.

But the good news is that if we create positive peaceful potentials we are more likely to remain calm in our responses. This means that by ‘training our mind’ gradually over time, we can eventually lose that painful anger and,through familiarity, be happy more of the time!

Three smileys

When we feel discomfort in our mind, we tend to panic, however as you can see from one of my favourite quotes:

“In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm……… Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings. And just as the storm has no power to destroy the sky, unpleasant feelings have no power to destroy the mind”

(How to solve our Human Problems. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.)

If we think about this, we can lose the panic and give ourselves a mental ‘breathing space’ in which we can choose a constructive response. (Even if that response means remaining silent)

2.Develop the skill of Non-Retaliation.

The concept of non-retaliation often goes against our ingrained mental habits due to our familiarity with this response. However as we can see from the above reasoning, retaliating, i.e. responding with an angry mind, is of no benefit to ourself or others, so to develop this skill we need to combine ‘Patient Acceptance’  with compassion.

This is a method to deal with our mental reaction to painful uncomfortable feelings in our mind but does not prevent us from acting appropriately,e.g protecting ourself from physical harm should we be in a dangerous situation.

‘Patient Acceptance’ means to accept patiently the things we cannot change. In the context of family relationships, we need to  patiently accept that the insulting or critical words have been said, nobody can undo them, so let go of them. There is no value in mentally grasping onto them…..”I don’t believe he said that”, “How could she possibly have said that to me”, “How could he say such a vicious thing to me, his own mother/ father/sister/brother” etc etc….we mull over the words again and again which serves only to increase our discomfort and pain.

Once the words have been uttered, we need to let them go, let them become the ‘past’, don’t carry them forward into the present or future.

Every day people patiently accept far worse experiences such as natural disasters, terminal diagnosis’ and bereavement, so where do a few harsh words stand in the grand scheme of things?

Don’t give them power and they will have no hold on you to hurt you or destroy your happiness.

Being patient is not weak or cowardly, we are going head to head into battle with our delusions when it would be far easier to respond in an automatic angry way. It takes courage to confront our lifelong habits of intolerance and non-acceptance.

Brave smiley

‘Compassion’ is when we understand that the person uttering these words is under the control of their delusions, the ‘inner enemies’  which destroy our happiness and peace of mind. None of us choose to become angry or irritable, these delusional minds arise uninvited according to causes created long ago. Whenever the required conditions come together we activate the potential to experience that negative feeling or experience in our mind.

Like planting seeds in the garden (the cause), when the correct amount of sun, moisture, nutrition and temperature come together (the conditions) the seeds will ripen (the effect). Another simple example of cause and effect.

Similarly our previous angry words or deeds lay down ‘seeds’ deep within our mind and when these causes are activated by the required conditions, we experience the effect… angry mind.

Angry image

(This also works in the same way with all other experiences and feelings both negative and positive)

If we apply this understanding to our family member, we can see how, at this moment, they are involuntarily under the grip of their angry mind, they too are in pain. Ask yourself…..’If they were happy at this moment in time, would those words have been uttered?’ We can then mentally wish for them to be free of their mental pain and anger. This in itself distracts our mind from the urge to respond unpleasantly.

If we can begin to hold a compassionate mind in this way while accepting patiently any unpleasant words, not only do we maintain our peace of mind in this present moment, but we are also planting the seeds or laying down potentials, to be able to hold this happy mind more easily in the future, until eventually it becomes ‘second nature’, an automatic response.

The resulting effect is that all our relationships become more harmonious, not only those within our home. By training our mind in this way we learn to remain in a happy frame of mind despite encountering difficult situations and events, eventually developing the ability to transform problematic conditions into opportunities to develop our positive qualities.


“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me…….”

The harsh words are a symptom of pain in the mind of the person expressing them.


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