Monday, July 11, 2011
The Power and Potency of Silence
Most of the crowd just looked and didn’t understand. They were used to him giving them words they could hear and understand. This time he was giving them silence.
Mahakashyapa looked closely at the flower being held up by the Buddha, and he smiled softly. He understood, and the Buddha named him as his successor.
-The Flower Sermon
For most of us, there is something inherently unsettling about silence. While we complain about living in a noisy city, we seem driven to create as much background noise as we possibly can throughout most of the day; we have earphones plugged into our heads, there's the sound of television or music going on as we work or interact with other people, and we’re constantly checking email and text messages instead of sitting quietly with things as they are.
Something unbearable comes up when we are sitting across from someone and there’s a sudden lull in the conversation, even if just for a few seconds. Have you ever had this happen and felt so awkward about the brief gap in conversation that you’ve glanced at your watch, feigning a look of surprise and declaring “I guess I’d better get going now”?
The silence I'm describing isn't just the "peace and quiet" variety, but a state in which we don't have to move one way or the other out of discomfort. It's about just being with whatever is happening without struggling to embellish or push the experience away through unnecessary words or actions.
We tend to think that intimacy is only possible through speech. I once dated someone who every few weeks would say “I really don’t know you very well.” This made sense for the first month or so, but after a while I realized it meant he just wasn’t really listening to me. Not just to my words and my lame, limited declarations about myself (I’m a Buddhist, a liberal Democrat, a meat eater, a beer lover, this makes me happy, that makes me sad, etc.) but to my actions, my gestures, my expressions.
If you want to get to know someone, listen to what they do, not just to what they say.
Perhaps one of the reasons we find silence so threatening is because it requires that we pay attention to the constant chatter going on within our minds. When I’m sitting quietly without any distractions around me I have to pay attention to what my mind is doing, and it ain’t always pretty. It’s like when I first tried Campari—initially I hated it’s boring flavor and I wanted to switch to something sweeter and more instantly pleasurable. However after a while I acquired a taste for it. There is something very interesting about it’s bitterness and simplicity.
We all try very hard to avoid silence at all costs because when we do so, the real noise of our minds can be deafening. But paradoxically, settling into silence is the only effective means we have of overcoming the constant discursiveness going on in our brains.
Words have their place in our world—we can’t simply hold up a flower if our boss comes over and asks us where the latest numbers report is, or if our partner wants to have a conversation about where the relationship is heading.
But we can be more aware of when we’re using words wisely and when we’re just trying to fill up space that otherwise might give room for something more productive to take place.
Right Speech is one aspect of the Eightfold Path that the Buddha prescribed as a way to manage our chronic discomfort. However, one aspect of Right Speech is knowing when to say anything at all and knowing when to shut the hell up. It’s important that we learn to discern when it’s appropriate to say something and when it makes more sense not to say anything at all.
One way to judge whether or not our words might be useful in any particular situation is to consider an old Buddhist saying:
Do not speak unless it improves upon silence.
You can begin right now learning how to make peace with silence and how to make more room for it in your life. Even if you can only do this in small doses and gradually work your way up, creating more gaps that aren’t filled with noise and chatter can become the soil from which more clarity and peace of mind can arise.
Real life exercise: At least once this week, consider having a meal alone without reading or listening to music or talking to someone else as you eat. Try existing without your earphones on in situations when you normally would—even if you can only manage this for ten minutes. At work, instead of dividing your attention between the task at hand and Facebook, or your email, or the last text message, concentrate entirely on what you are doing and notice what comes up when you work this way.
Silence can become a good friend if we just learn to acquire a taste for it.