The Theosophical Society in America

Silence

By Mary Anderson

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2006 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Anderson, Mary. "Silence." Quest  94.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2006):186-188.

Mary Anderson

We live in an age of noise. There are mechanical noises—the rattle of a computer printer, the roar of a jet, a pneumatic drill; these might be considered useful and even necessary. Then there are sounds which man creates to entertain himself, while sometimes tormenting his neighbors, such as noises emanating from radio or television sets or discos. It is a known fact that loud noises cause deafness, and the deafer one is, the more one calls for amplification. In fact, many young people today are hard of hearing. In addition, propaganda and advertising make use of noise to influence people. Ideas are infiltrated into the subconscious and may cause certain automatic reactions which may even frighten us if we become aware of them.

It is not only mechanical noise which rules our age. The human voice contributes—people sometimes speak too loudly, too much and unnecessarily, perhaps in order to hide their inner dissatisfaction, to overcome their boredom, or to compensate for an inferiority complex by the opposite—a superiority complex.

Aldous Huxley refers, in his Perennial Philosophy, to the fact our words are often unkind, selfish, or foolish. But we are not aware of this when we go on talking without thinking.

It has been said that—in certain circumstances, for example, when we are excited—before we speak we should count to ten. It has also been said that we should ask ourselves whether what we wish to say is true, kind, and useful. The true, the kind, and the useful form a threefold sieve—the sieve of the mind, which should be able to judge what is true, the sieve of the heart (not the emotions), which knows whether something is kind or not, and the sieve of practical reason, which tells us whether what we wish to say is worth mentioning at all.

Sometimes it is asserted that what is true is often not kind but cruel and, vice versa, what is kind is not always true. But if one judges and speaks from a higher point of view, what is said may be kind and true as well. Thus, from a higher point of view, one sees not only the faulty personality but also the inner nature of the other person. There is something admirable in everyone, even if it does not appear on the surface.

The criterion of usefulness is perhaps the most strict. If we always applied it we would speak much less! It is not unimportant to distinguish between what is useless and what is useful, for useless words are a waste of energy. They exhaust not only the speaker but also the listeners. We have surely all experienced this at some time.

Control of the tongue—the "unruly member" —is one of the most difficult things. So control of speech, however difficult, is one of the most fruitful of exercises. This was recognized by Pythagoras who made the beginners among his pupils keep silence for two years. Most modern monks and nuns practice silence for long periods during the day.

Why is it so important to be silent? Why is silence so necessary and so valuable?

First, we should enquire why we often speak at all and about what. It often arises from the need we feel to assert or justify ourselves. And often we speak, directly or indirectly, about ourselves. Let us count how often people—or we ourselves—use the little words "I," "me," and "mine." As a saint once said, "When the I, the me and the mine are gone, the work of the Lord is done." It is no use trying consciously to avoid those words. It is the attitude of self-assertion and possessiveness which they express that makes them a hindrance.

Spontaneous (not enforced) silence is a sign that the little "I" is less predominant. Herein lies, in the first place, the importance of silence in the spiritual life.

Secondly, what is really profound cannot be expressed in words. In Taoism it is said that the Tao which can be named is not the real Tao. The Divine is "unthinkable and unspeakable." Sometimes people try to approach a conception of the Divine by denying everything which the mind can conceive: it is "not this, not this" — neti, neti. In The Light of Asia we read: "Who asks doth err; who answers errs; say naught." The Chinese classic, Monkey, relates how a pious monk set off westwards from China to fetch the Buddhist scriptures and take them back home. When he received them, he was amazed to see that they consisted of empty pages. He complained, and Buddha declared that, in that case, he would give him written pages for his people since they were too stupid to understand the true (blank) scriptures! Great truths cannot be expressed in words. This is clearly stated in The Mahatma Letters: "Most if not all the secrets are incommunicable . . ." It is then pointed out that, if such secrets could be told in so many words, all the Mahatmas would need to do would be to write a textbook so that great truths could be taught to children like grammar in school.

The Mahatma adds that what is necessary, if great truths are to be passed on, is inner readiness on the part of the pupil. Herein lies the third reason for keeping silence. One who speaks continuously does not listen. And one who chatters inwardly, who is constantly mulling over thoughts, imaginings, feelings in his or her head, is not open to anything. Where everything is full, there is no room for anything new. An aspirant went to a Zen master and asked for instruction on the spiritual life. The Zen master first offered him tea. He poured the tea into the aspirant's cup and continued after it was full, so that it overflowed. The aspirant protested, but then perceived the symbolic meaning of this action. If we are still completely oriented towards the earthly—the selfish—there is no room for the spiritual!

"Silence" does not only mean avoiding the spoken word. The seventeenth-century Spanish mystic Molinos spoke of three kinds of silence: silence of the lips, of the mind, and of the will.

By the silence of the lips we avoid waste of energy at the physical level. The silence of the mind can perhaps be compared with chitta vrtti nirodhah, the soothing of the waves of the mind which is Patanjali’s definition of Yoga. With what do the waves of our thoughts and feelings busy themselves? With the past and the future, with memories and imaginings. Our consciousness is only seldom in the present, perhaps because the little "I" finds no place in the present—which contains nothing with which it can decorate itself.

Concerning the silence of the will: the chattering of the will (or desire) forms, often unconsciously, the background to the speech of the mind. The silence of the will refers to the ceasing of our longings or desires and our dislikes.

How important it is for us to become conscious of those desires and dislikes! It would be a first step on the way to inner silence, the way to true enlightenment.

Wherein lies human suffering? According to the yogic philosophy of the klesas (that is, of suffering and its causes), as explained in Patanjali's Yoga-sutras, desires and dislikes are part of the chain which binds us, which causes the suffering of humanity and all beings. From ignorance, the first link in the chain, there arises the ego-sense, the feeling of being a separate "I." Ignorance here means illusion in the sense that one sees things and oneself as something other than they are. For example, we consider what is only temporary to be permanent; we may know in theory that something is not lasting but we act as if it were eternal. Thus people collect possessions which they will have to leave behind—at the very latest—when the physical body dies. And the result of this ignorance is the ego-sense, the second link in the chain of klesas. Even if only subconsciously, we also consider that the "I" —our present conscious being—to be something permanent. And that "I" wants certain things for itself and rejects others. Thus there arise from the ego-sense desires and dislikes, the third and fourth links in the chain of suffering.

Molinos, who spoke of the silence of the lips, the mind and the will, was the founder of Quietism, a devotional mysticism. His philosophy was not in line with the dogmas of the Church and he died in a prison of the Inquisition.

But, in fact, Quietism, like all types of faith, contains certain dangers, if it is wrongly interpreted. There is the danger of passivity. If we refer to the three gunas in Indian philosophy, we might say that this danger consists in overcoming rajas or excessive activity (for example exaggerated chatter) by excessive passivity or tamas instead of harmony or sattva.

Complete silence has its place but there are times and places for speech. Nevertheless, we should pause from time to time and realize what our motives are in speaking and filter our words through the threefold sieve of truth, kindness and usefulness.

Silence means, in a way, being empty and open. We must be open before we can receive anything. But openness is not everything and may be dangerous in certain circumstances. A medium is open to illusory and even dangerous influences. Our silence should be based on absolute purity, which is selflessness. Above all we should be open to what is within. This does not mean openness to astral influences, to the influences of our own imaginings, tendencies and dislikes. We must be open to a deeper level of our inner spiritual nature which is our true being. This is very difficult, because our feelings often disguise themselves as higher inspirations and intuitions. We must always be very distrustful of ourselves!

Openness towards what is within is therefore necessary but it must be openness to what is selfless, to the highest, to what is always beyond. Openness towards what is without is also necessary, but it is not a matter of accepting everything which we meet, everything about which people are enthusiastic. It has been said: "Examine all things and keep what is good." For us to know what is good, discrimination is necessary. The greatest hindrance to such discrimination is egocentricity. Our own interests distort our image of things.

Genuine, profound silence is, as we have said, not passivity, not a state of sleep. It is quietness—noiseless and therefore scarcely perceptible to our usual senses and capacities. It is pure consciousness, that is, consciousness without the "I." As Krishnamurti said, where the "I" is not, there "the other" is, meaning the Highest, the Ground of all things; where the "I" is not, there is real love.

Where emptiness or silence in this sense reigns there is energy and tremendous activity. Our strength is no longer wasted through unnecessary words, thoughts, feelings and wishes. A dynamo turns so quickly that its movement is invisible but it is the source of great energy.

This has something in common with the state of pralaya in which everything is contained, but in a latent state. "The Eternal Mother," Space, is present in pralaya, as also is the Great Breath—the constant movement of in-breathing and out-breathing. It is akin to the transcendental Deity, in contrast to the immanent deity corresponding to the manifest universe. This transcendence is the source of immanence, that is, of the manifest universe; it is at the same time its final goal. But it is also its heart. When the outer is silent, we can hear the inner voice of the silence. When the lower is silent, the higher can speak.