A few years ago, I went through an estrangement with a close friend because of the words I used to refer to her partner's behavior. Although he did not hear what she and I said in our phone conversation, by "chance" he saw my e-mail that followed it. I meant no harm. I thought I was being supportive of my friend. But it was careless speech on my part, and it has cost me dearly.

The painful repercussions of my experience awoke me to a simple fact. While I had been careful in watching the movement of breath in meditation, I had not been as attentive in watching the words coming out of my mouth. I'd neglected an essential aspect of spiritual practice--"guarding the tongue."

"More people get hurt by gossip than by guns."
--Zen teacher Robert Aitken

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin relates a memorable story about the unrecognized power of words and the irrevocable damage they can wreck. There was a man in a small Eastern European community who went about maligning the town's rabbi. When he was suddenly filled with remorse, he pleaded with the rabbi to forgive him. He was willing to endure whatever penance necessary to atone his wrong. The rabbi instructed him to take a down pillow from his home, slash it open, and scatter the contents to the wind.

He did this and went back to the rabbi to ask whether he was forgiven. The rabbi said, "Not yet." There was one more thing the man had to do: Gather all the scattered feathers. Aghast, the man said, "How can I possibly do that? The wind has already blown them away in every direction." The rabbi replied, "Exactly. Though you sincerely want to erase the transgression you've committed, it's as impossible to fix the harm you've done as it is to recover those feathers."

Every part of the body is integral to our spiritual practice. Perhaps most important, but least regarded, is the mouth. It appears harmless enough. Boneless, the lips and tongue are soft; yet, they can be razor-sharp. As Zen teacher Robert Aitken has said, "More people get hurt by gossip than by guns."

Generally, we think slander affects only the object of it. In fact, it hurts at least three people: the slanderer, the person being slandered, and the person listening to the slander. In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus repeats God's commandment not to bear false witness. He warns his listeners: "By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

You don't have to believe in heaven and hell in order to experience these consequences. In the present moment, you can notice immediate repercussions in your body. When you say something derogatory or you tell a lie, perhaps your heart suddenly beats faster or your stomach feels fluttery. Maybe your throat constricts or some other part of your body tightens? The Dalai Lama says, "If you find yourself slandering anybody, first imagine that your mouth is filled with excrement. It will break you of the habit quickly enough."

The listener who accepts the slander, by making herself a party to evil or unwholesome behavior, cheapens her own character. It is important not only to guard the tongue, but the ears as well.

There is a story told about Rabbi Shlomo Leib of Lentshno, a Hasid who zealously avoided engaging in or listening to idle chatter. As a young man, he lived with a tailor. Because the tailor and his helpers often talked about unseemly things, Rabbi Shlomo would wait until everyone was asleep before returning at night.

However, on one winter day, the house of study and prayer closed down. When he returned to the tailor's house, he heard the men going on in their usual way, so he kept walking up and down the street. The cold was bitter, and although the rabbi was weak, he was determined not to hear foolish conversation. Then he lay down on the ground, and suddenly a miracle occurred. The one candle around which the men were sitting went out, and they all went to sleep. Rabbi Shlomo then entered the house.

We don't have to nearly freeze to death to maintain our spiritual aspirations. But we do need to make certain fundamental commitments if we are to enjoy the fruit of practice. Whichever religious tradition we examine, we are sure to find rules or advice regarding truthfulness. For example, right speech is one of the eight steps in the Eightfold Noble Path, the Buddha's prescription for enlightenment. Monastics as well as laypeople who follow his teaching undertake to observe the Five Precepts, one of which is to refrain from telling lies.