Returning home, halfway around the globe, I drift into the tranquil hum of the long Trans-Pacific flight. Back on the East Coast, things happen quickly. I fall crazy in love with my brilliant graduate student, Stevi, who is finishing her Ph. D. in human development, supervised by the President of Fordham University. Stevi is a trained observer of human behavior and an invaluable extra set of eyes. We begin to pay attention to a puzzling phenomenon about silence – many Americans hate it.
Silence is deeply uncomfortable for many Americans – it bothers them and throws them off. There is often an overwhelming wish to fill silences. Even in the midst of important negotiations, Americans are known for sometimes agreeing to practically anything in order to end a silence. Something deep and beneath the surface produces this strange behavior, so widespread in our culture.
THE PROBLEM WITH WORDS: There are huge cross-cultural differences in how we understand and respond to silence. Some cultures (like mainline Americans) are more talkative, others are less loquacious (like Native Americans and Finns).
While silence is typically seen as socially uncomfortable in the West, it is seen as a virtue in East Asia. Silence means you are fully listening, certainly a positive trait. Silence shows harmony, respect, and wisdom. Silence is even seen as an essential condition for experiencing the highest bliss and truth. Especially in Japan, silence is deeply valued; eloquence and verbosity are suspicious and reflect superficiality.
Our puzzling anxiety about silence can be traced down to the very foundation of how we experience things. Words.
Twenty four hundred years ago, Plato described life as like being chained in a cave, allowed only to see shadows on a stone wall. We rarely experience our everyday worlds directly. Our experience is almost always filtered by words. An important axiom, in the field of intercultural relations, warns us to never assume that the same words, even in the same language, have the same meanings for everyone.
A look at the origin of the word “silence” shows why Westerners have a limited understanding of this very large and deep dimension of being human. We don’t really have a word for it. The Latin origin of the word “silence” is desinere, meaning “stop”. One of the roots of the word “silence” is the Gothic verb anasilan – the “wind dying down”. Westerners tend to think of silence as a lack of action, an ending, an absence of anything
In ancient Sanskrit, however, the word for silence has quite a different meaning. It is maunam, मौन , a word for vast deep stillness – silence is rich and full. A Japanese word for silence, mokura, combines the words “silence” and “thunder”. Silence is a powerful force where opposites are resolved. It is “stillness in motion”.
So, it is easy to misunderstand silence. The word “silence” is, of course, just a label for a wordless experience. It is a huge dilemma.
The most powerful experience of silence for me has been the wordless world of my own Zen meditation practice. This is where I have come to know silence as a familiar and vast unbounded space.
Of course, deep silence is not unknown in the West, if you know where to look. Throughout history there have always been seekers of silence among us, in all cultures. Fortunately, there have been a few individuals, East and West, who have not only explored this nearby universe but also found ways to overcome the incredible difficulty of communicating the non-word nature of silence. In silence they have learned powerful secrets. In the chapters ahead we will see how these silent explorers investigated silence.
SILENCE-SEEKING is part of the collective human story; it has been part of every era, in both East and West. The deep culture of every society can be seen in its philosophies and religions. Silence is at the center, or at least the edges, of all religions. “Otherwise dissimilar spiritual traditions – Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American all agree on the importance of observing silence as a tool for inner growth and self-transformation.”(1) The prophetic traditions, like Kabala, Sufi found that silence allowed direct experiences with the divine (moksha) or enlightenment.
So, the roots of silence-seeking lie deep in human nature itself.”(2) There is ample evidence of a universal impulse for living in silence. Silence has tugged deeply and continuously at human nature throughout history.
Silence-seekers have always been among us
TOOLS FOR EXPLORERS: finding access to deep silence
Silence is the bedrock of monasticism. There have been great monastic movements throughout history. In an upcoming chapter, we will see that the first solitary monks were part of the Jain religion far back as 1500 BCE. By 750 BCE, silence had become central to yogic meditation practices which emphasized the elimination of distractions.
In the 4th century CE, people from all over Europe flocked to “temples of silence”. These institutionalized monastic communities offered a structure and conditions for exploring deep silence. The prehistoric practice of meditating in caves continued in the man-made caves called monasteries. In June of 1084, almost a thousand years ago, a forty-nine year old man named Bruno of Cologne founded a monastery in the French Alps. This monastic community grew into a Catholic order, for men and women, which continues today. They are known as the Carthusians.
Explorers of silence have been major sources of wisdom for the world’s great religious traditions. Because of the difficulty of translating silence into words, few explorers have been able to leave a record of what they learned. Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and a host of other great visionaries into the human condition sought solitude in forests and caves. Their epiphanies were sparked here, in deep silence.
These investigators needed to discover the conditions and passageways that led to the direct experience of deep silence. Each of the world’s great religious traditions developed its own particular ways to understand silence. Each developed methods and a vocabulary for entering this rich inner world. These entry points were based on their own cultural, linguistic and geographical surroundings. Some religious traditions kept these silent practices alive but secret, entrusting them to only their own members. Practitioners learned from each other and refined their methods. Silence was seen as a tool, a rich source, and a way of awakening. But it was also used for punishment and suffering in some traditions.
The medieval Carthusian monks discovered something extraordinary. Just after midnight, after a short sleep, the monks would meet for compline, the last of the day’s seven prayer services. Afterwards they returned to the inner recesses of the monastery. During the still of the night, when the world is most silent, they reported a powerful experience, an immensely deep quiet stillness at the core of their being. They called it “Great Silence”. A chapter ahead will tell the story of my strange experience with these Carthusians in Manhattan will be told in an upcoming chapter.
Monasteries provided some optimal conditions for exploring and living silence. St. Benedict’s Rule called the monastery a workshop(3), a place where one could “be silent and listen”. This highly structured and obedient life, however, was not for everyone. It had little allure for me personally. There were always some solitary monks who just wanted to live alone; it was the silence, not the religion that drew them.
Silence is not dependent on a religious setting; it is not essentially a religious act. It is Religious traditions provide their own particular narratives which give shape to the experience of silence.
There are many accounts, East and West, where “Great Silence” is found in remote places, in forests and caves, canyons and mountaintops, oceans and deserts – places with fewer external distractions. Great beauty silences us. This deeper silence is sometimes described as the Still Point or the Silent Source; it is sometimes called positive or monastic silence, sometimes simply stillness or quietness.
So there is plenty of evidence that humans have gone to great lengths throughout history of seek silence. But, why have we always been drawn to silence? What pulls us? What draws me so powerfully to silence?
How could something so big, so close and so powerful be so hard to grasp? Could I find a passageway into the vast inner world of silence – the great source of wisdom and insight – the invisible force that has sparked mass movements several times in history? It is a powerful force today just as it has always been.
Some monks just wanted to live alone; the silence, not the religion, drew them.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
- Write about your earliest memory/memories of silence.
- Find a very quiet place where you can listen to the quiet sounds of silence. Write about what you notice.
- If you were raised in a religious/spiritual tradition, write about how silence was regarded and practiced.
(1) Lababidi, Yahia, “Notes on Silence”, p. 5 Tikkun Mar/Apr 2010.
(2) Schneiders, Sandra, IHM “The Anthropological Archetype: The Monk”, Religious Life in the New Millennium, 2014.
(3) Order of St. Benedict, OSB Archive accessed 9/1/15.
©Robert Charles Smith, PHD