The Contradiction of Silence
Covering an area of one square inch, a small red pebble lies atop a moss-covered log in the wilderness of the Olympic National Park. Though easy to miss, the pebble marks the quietest place in the United States. It is the result of the efforts of the award-winning acoustic ecologist (one who records natural sounds), Gordon Hempton. Keen to counteract the damaging effects of noise pollution on the environment, Hempton hoped that by dedicating a single square inch to silence, this might give rise to other areas devoid of human noise. The detrimental effect of noise pollution is a phenomenon that scientists have only recently begun to explore, but the mystics have long been teaching the importance of silence. In so doing, they highlight the composite layers of silence, each one of which – as explained in the three excerpts at the end of this article – will be penetrated as we attain the ultimate spiritual goal of realizing the Shabd.
The morality of silence
Morality forms the basis of all religious and spiritual traditions. For instance, right conduct is expressed in the notion of dharma in Hindu philosophy whilst Buddhism incorporates the principles of a virtuous life in its ‘eightfold path’ to liberation. In these and other faiths, ‘right speech’ is an integral aspect of morality that all spiritual aspirants are expected to practise.
Right speech encompasses three dimensions. At its most basic, it means one should refrain from criticizing or speaking ill of others. In Philosophy of the Masters, Vol. III, Maharaj Sawan Singh advises, “Keep watch on your tongue so that it may not utter any improper … or abusive words.” Harsh words are an obstacle to spiritual progress because they injure the feelings of others, but also because they emit anger, undermine self-discipline and fuel the very passions we seek to overcome. The Bhagavad Gita puts it like this: “From anger comes delusion, from delusion the loss of mindfulness, from the loss of mindfulness the destruction of discrimination, and from the destruction of discrimination he perishes [utterly fails to attain his spiritual goal].”
Right speech also entails speaking the truth, which Maharaj Sawan Singh defines as “to describe a thing exactly as seen or heard.” Untruthfulness, on the other hand, not only fosters disquiet within oneself, but renders void the good results that come from devotional practice. Indeed, cautioning us that, “Without truth there can be no remembrance of the Lord,” Maharaj Sawan Singh explains, “There is no austerity like the truth, and no sin like the untruth. He who has Truth in his mind, the Lord himself dwells in him.” Truthful speech, therefore, is an essential precondition for realizing the Shabd.
The third aspect of right speech – the topic of the Hasidic poem reproduced at the end of this article – is to talk sparingly. Expressing the same sentiment, Maharaj Jagat Singh advised, “Much physical and spiritual energy is dissipated by talking. Silence is golden. Speak as little as possible.” And Mirdad instructed: “Refrain from speaking much. Out of a thousand words uttered, there may be one and only one that need in truth be uttered. The rest but cloud the mind, and stuff the ear, and irk the tongue, and blind the heart as well.”Talking scatters our attention. It prevents us from using that time to repeat simran. By controlling our speech, we begin to discipline the mind. This is why the mystics place such importance on talking sparingly.
The nobility of silence
Thomas Merton, the influential American Trappist (a branch of Roman Catholicism) who was ordained in 1949, often described the highest degree of union with God as occurring in absolute silence; to be able to hear the Word of God, it must be received in silence. Thus, in one text he wrote, “the Word emerges first of all from silence. When there is no silence, then the One Word which God speaks is not truly heard as Love.” There is a further reason why Merton believed that “silence is better than speech.” As he explains in his book The Ascent to Truth, words are utterly inadequate when attempting to describe God. Therefore, it is better to say nothing than to try to describe that which is beyond language and human comprehension.
The idea that the inadequacy of words compels silence is also found in Buddhism. The Buddha, for instance, is thought to have practised ‘noble silence’; that is, he would remain silent whenever questions were put to him about the nature of reality. Like Merton, the Buddha believed that is better to remain silent than to respond with answers that mislead or are limiting. This approach is particularly popular in the Zen school of Buddhism where silence is the means by which teachings are taught and learned. As summarized in The Flower Sermon sutra below, the spiritual teacher does not speak because this silence imparts spiritual wisdom that words are incapable of explaining.
The infinity of silence
The one-square inch in the wilderness of the Olympic National Park is, in reality, far from silent; previously suppressed by human noise, the wilderness is now loud with the sound of nature. This is the contradiction inherent within silence. When noise is quietened, what was once imperceptible becomes perceptible. This is why silent meditation is the cornerstone of spiritual practice advocated by mystics. The Buddha achieved enlightenment through silent meditation; Soami Ji Maharaj meditated silently and virtually non-stop for seventeen years; “Be still and know that I am God” advises the Bible. As the author of From Self to Shabd explains, silent meditation means making the mind completely motionless; that is, rendering it devoid of any thoughts. It is not enough to merely not speak. Outward silence must be accompanied by inner silence. This is because if the mind continues to think, one’s attention remains at the surface of our being. However, the only way to make real spiritual progress and reach a higher level of consciousness is to transcend surface level thinking and, to do this, one must make the mind motionless. The eleventh-century Indian mystic Nāropa calls this ‘the emptying of consciousness’: “Outwardly this is a process of dying, while inwardly it is an increase and gathering of light…. The attainment of this goal is an access to a sphere of life larger and more powerful and divinely inspired than the normal conscious life.” This is also the experience of Kabir, given in the final one of the three excerpts. It was only after he had become completely silent that the voice of God became audible.
Inner silence, then, leads to an emptiness and it is in this state that the consciousnesses comes to apprehend that it is a drop of the Infinite Source. So, when Mr. Hempton describes his square-inch of silence deep in the piney wilderness as “not the absence of something” but “the presence of everything,” he is expressing a thought that the mystics have been teaching us for centuries.
The following poem is advice given by a famous Hasidic rabbi to his disciples.
Do not speak at all of everyday matters,
not even of important concerns,
from the time you get out of bed in the morning,
until one hour after prayer
not even with your spouse or children,
unless it is urgent.
Even then, be as brief as possible.
Avoid idle chatter all day long.
Restrict your conversation, say only what is needed
for your livelihood or other essential matters.
As the sages said
“Speak words of Torah
but do not indulge in worthless conversation.”
Idle talk is obviously forbidden at a time when you
could be studying Torah.
But even when you cannot study,
cleave to the blessed Creator;
do not let your attention wander from him.
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, Likkutei Amarim, included in God in All Moments by Rose & Leader