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The Importance of Silence

And the Wordless Language of Spirit
 
 
The Theosophical Movement
 
 
 
 
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The following article is reproduced from
the March 2013 edition of the international
magazine “The Theosophical Movement”.
The magazine is edited in Mumbai, India, by
Associates of the United Lodge of Theosophists.
 
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“… However, to keep silent when one hears
an innocent person slandered is unthinkable.”
 
 
 
Folk Wisdom has intuitively grasped the importance of silence, enshrined in the saying, “Speech is silver, but silence is golden.” One of the evils by which modern society is debased is constant prattle, which is misuse of the power of speech. Too many of us talk for the sake of talking. When two or more people come together, they indulge in idle talk, small talk, or crack jokes, often at the expense of the absent person. Idle talk easily degenerates into gossip and backbiting. It is quite a challenge to be part of a group and yet not be party to gossip and slander. It is only with some effort that now and then, one succeeds in diverting the conversation to discussing weather or some social or political issue. Mr. Judge almost laments at this folly of humanity, saying: “What a petty lot of matter we spend time on, when so much is transitory. After a hundred years what will be the use of all this?”
 
To begin with, it is a helpful and uplifting exercise to observe silence by avoiding the abuse of speech through gossip, obscene jest, personal and curious prying, and idle talk. It would be quite useless to observe silence for an hour or more, and then indulge in any of the sins of speech. Many of us indulge in idle talk. The best way to determine what talk is idle, is to put a simple question:
 
“Is it necessary?”
 
If that which is not necessary to say is said, it comes in the category of idle talk. If something is necessary to say, then further questions, as to how to say it, when to say it, arise. There is a Chinese aphorism:
 
“A sage does not say what he does; but he does nothing which cannot be said.”
 
There are families where very little is exchanged among the members by way of verbal communication.
 
Yet, a lot of support is drawn from silent presence. We keep our personality in the foreground by inordinate self-assertion, in small and seemingly harmless ways, such as, telling others what we are going to do in regard to matters that are not necessary to communicate. Some of us just have to narrate every trifling detail of happenings in the office to our family members, and likewise, cannot help but discuss our family life with our colleagues.
 
We may not perhaps be guilty of outright gossip or obscene talk, but under the guise of interest in the welfare of another we may slip into the sin of prying into other people’s affairs. Talk about our own personality tends to strengthen egotism. Mr. Judge’s advice is that during conversation we must try to keep in the background, and our effort should be to allow the other person to speak. We must suppress in ourselves the desire to tell about ourselves. To begin the fight against sins of speech is to prepare for real silence. Regularity in the observance of silence is a great aid. Observance of silence for a few minutes every day at the same time is better than an hour of silence observed at different times day after day. By observance of silence at regular hours memory and attention get their training.
 
There is something like unuttered speech as well. In one sense, silence is unuttered speech. There is a Sanskrit verse to the effect that the guru is a young man, and disciples are elders; the teaching is silence, and yet the doubts of the disciples are dispelled. There are occasions when words are not necessary. A mother who sits by the bedside of her sick child does not have to go on speaking reassuring words to her child, and yet something warm and comforting spills out of her heart, and that is felt by the child.
 
One of the requirements of spiritual life is to learn the value of silence. Silence is needed to conserve spiritual energy, as one of the main avenues through which it goes to waste is through empty sounds and vain speech. At the highest level, the power to speak emanates from the Higher Self.
 
Thomas Carlyle says:
 
“Speak not, I passionately entreat thee, till thy thought hath silently matured itself, till thou hast other than mad and mad making noises to emit: hold thy tongue till some meaning lie behind to set it wagging. Consider the significance of SILENCE.”
 
Theosophy warns against the hypocrisy of observing silence outwardly and allowing the mind to be noisy and turbulent. In Hindu homes, often elderly ladies follow the discipline of observing silence for an hour or so. But they would sit and observe their daughters or daughters-in-law, who may be working in the kitchen, and continually communicate with them by sign language or by gesticulation. This is not true silence. Silence means silencing the chatter of the lower mind. The mind must be made silent, not by making it blank, empty or passive, susceptible to any outside influence, but by bringing it to dwell on some great and noble idea. At the base of every word there is thought. A petty or mean or distracted mind is bound to produce petty, mean and rambling thoughts. Ultimately, observance of silence is a soul-exercise. In the process of spiritual development, help and guidance comes from the inner planes of being and to avail of it we must stop inner and outer chatter.
 
Sometimes silence is the best response. In a domestic quarrel or otherwise, if we do not want to aggravate the situation we may keep silent, even if we are being wrongly accused, so long as we are the only affected party. Instead of condemning or reprimanding, when one withdraws in silent pity, it gives that person a chance to turn the corner. We may choose to keep silent if that is going to save someone’s life. There is the story of a sadhu who was asked by a group of men running with open swords, in which direction the thief had gone. The sadhu kept silent though he knew the answer.
 
However, to keep silent when one hears an innocent person slandered is unthinkable. Commenting on the violence against women, Ashwin Sanghi writes that we can no longer remain silent in the face of outrages. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the injustices our own society continues to heap upon women. He quotes Martin Niemoller, an anti-Nazi theologian, who spoke of the inactivity of German intellectuals during the rise of Nazi power, thus: “First they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist….Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” It would be worthwhile for the silent majority to take to heart the words of Martin Niemoller and break their self-imposed silence. On the other hand, those who have been incessantly talking may keep in mind the words of Martin Farquhar Tupper, a 19th century English poet and philosopher, who wrote: “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.” (“The Times of India”, January 14, 2013)
 
The dirt and dreg of kamic nature often find their outlet in useless or injurious speech. There is a verse which says that “it is not what goeth into the mouth that defileth, but what comes out of it.” After we eat the food, there is assimilation of food and elimination of waste-products. The health of the body improves or suffers with every morsel we take in. One of the main ways of determining the condition of the body is to examine the process and product of elimination. Our psychic nature feeds on certain thoughts and desires, and has its own ways of assimilation and elimination, of sustaining itself in good or ill health. One of the modes of elimination is related to power of speech, writes Shri B. P. Wadia.
 
Further, he points out that in spiritual growth learning and listening go together; they precede teaching and speaking. In ancient India, an earnest seeker who sought to walk the spiritual path was called shravaka, a listener. In ancient Greece he was named Akoustikos. He was not even permitted to ask questions, but instead, bija-sutras or seed-thoughts were given to him to ponder over and understand to the best of his ability.
 
These thoughts were intended to be purificatory food, which if assimilated properly, would cleanse his kamic or desire nature. Once started on this path, he was ready to become, in the course of time, a positive doer, an exerciser, Shramana, which is the Asketos of the Greeks. Those who are in search of the pearl of wisdom must acquire the strength of muscle, through the vow of silence. It consists in self-imposition of periodic silence; not indulging in injurious, useless or untruthful speech; not speaking of our own faults and weaknesses, lest by speaking of them we lend them the strength which ensues from the power of speech. Lastly, we should not speak even that which is true unless at proper times, to proper people, under proper circumstances.
 
Gandhiji told a visitor to Sevagram in December 1938 that silence had become both a physical and a spiritual necessity for him, adding:
 
“Originally it was taken to relieve the sense of pressure. Then I wanted time for writing. After, however, I had practised it for some time I saw the spiritual value of it. It suddenly flashed across my mind that that was the time when I could best hold communion with God.”
 
There are a thousand and one voices within and without demanding our attention. There are many voices of the flesh, such as, “I am tired; I am cold; I am hungry”; then there is the voice of selfish desires and ambitions; there is also the voice of the lower mind, which is continually planning and scheming to gratify those desires. There is the voice of personal affection and care for family and friends. The multitude of these voices tends to drown out the “still small voice” of our Higher Nature. Now and then, when we succeed in controlling the chatter of the lower mind so as to be in attunement with our divine nature, we do receive “communication” - guidance and illumination - from the inner planes of being, which is described as, “voice of conscience,” or “whisperings of Buddhi to Manas”.
 
“Light on the Path” tells us that “to obtain pure silence necessary for the disciple, the heart and emotions, the brain and its intellectualisms, have to be put aside.” It is then that one is able to hear the “Soundless sound” or “Voice in the Spiritual Sound”.  The very first Fragment of “The Voice of the Silence” points out that there comes a definite stage in the life of an aspirant, when he will hear the voice of the inner God, or Higher Self in seven manners. It will be first heard as Nightingale’s sweet voice, next it will be like the silver cymbal of the Dhyanis, and the last will vibrate like the dull rumbling of a thundercloud. The seventh sound swallows all the other sounds - it is the voice of the silence. This must happen in the high state of Samadhi, when one loses all sense of individuality and becomes the ALL. The fragment also points out the prerequisites for hearing the Voice of one’s Higher Self, such as, silencing one’s thoughts, withdrawing one’s mind from the external sounds and sights and fixing one’s whole attention on the Master.
 
We might learn to spend some time every day in solitude. The mystic traditions of Islam emphasize the need to be away from the activities of life and spend some time every day in quiet contemplation. Some of us cannot remain alone for more than 10 to 15 minutes, without reaching out for a phone, or switching on the television set or music system. Every day we should observe silence for a few minutes and set apart half-an-hour for meditation.
 
David Villasenor, in his essay on “Silence,” puts it thus:
 
“Silence among Indians is that state reached when the mind of man is an absolute vacuum to the physical world, empty of physical ‘selfness’....Civilized man feels a loneliness and even an extreme melancholia in the jungle of the mind that may make stillness a terrifying experience, but he can pass through this barrier if he will learn to understand it. Then he would discover, as the Indian did long ago, that to stand in solitude on a mountain top at sunrise or sunset, or by a waterfall in some hidden canyon of ethereal beauty, and to absorb this majesty with utter peace and awe, in which soul merges with creation, and self is forgotten, is to become one with a joy and happiness so tremendous that no mere earthly pleasure can compare....Silence is truly the language of the spirit among the Indians.”

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The Importance of Silence




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