The Virtue of Silence

‘Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world’ explains Paul Goodman in his altogether wonderful but sadly out of print work, Speaking and Language.: A Defence of Poetry

But, continues Goodman, ‘there are grades of each’. Just as there is speech to hold a family together, a sophist’s speech to hide the truth, and the enquiring speech of a friend to help the other make their point,

There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts.

Linguists, semioticians, sociologists, and philosophers have long focused on the power of speech, but often at the expense of any consideration of silence. And just as one cannot have foreground without background, one cannot make sense of speech without silence.

Kuheli Sarkar, Silence

Both speech & silence have something unique to offer; trying to explain the non-verbal with words or speech with action, is as doomed as trying to make everything foreground or making a song with only one note. Emphasising the point, Goodman notes,

An anatomical demonstration of a corpse is not an illustration of the lecture but a way of teaching in its own right that makes the lecture make sense; starting from that sense, the lecture, too, has its own kind of message.

It works both ways. Just as you cannot accurately put onto canvas Marx’s Grundrisse, there are some emotions that you cannot put into words. Silence and speech offer separate, and perhaps quite exclusive ways of being in and understanding the world.

Leny Meulendijks, Emptiness

Despite their respective virtues, we treat silence as mere space, as something use-less, without substance, and therefore, lacking anything to offer. Something to which Josef Pieper would surely object. Yet, this is only one interpretation of silence, and perhaps if we could change our interpretation, we could change how we interact with it.

Alternatively, silence can be thought of as ‘fertile’, as prophetic, as embryonic; not seeing an unfilled cup as a sign of ‘nothing is here’ but, rather, as a sign indicating ‘something is to come’. What is? Who knows. But space is necessary for something new appear.

Put differently, silence is valuable not despite its emptiness, but precisely because it is empty. It is space not as absence but space as promise. If speech is expression, silence is potential.

As Alan Watts was fond of observing, if all we do is talk, eventually we will have nothing to talk about except our own talking. To avoid this, we need to practise what is perhaps the purest form of silence: listening.

To listen is not merely to be quiet; it is to pay attention, be sensitive, and be vulnerable; allowing oneself to be affected by what one hears. When we cultivate silence, life can move into spaces previously unavailable. Whether one is listening to birds, listening to the rhythms of their body in yoga, or listening patiently for a deep truth to reveal itself, one is partaking in an active process of ‘making room’, of emptying the cup so that it may be filled once more. From this perspective, speech and silence are absolutely complimentary; like breathing in and breathing out.

Gregor Ziolkowski, Emptiness, 2008

Yet, while we find it rather easy to talk and talk, it does not quite go the other way. People cannot handle long bouts of silence, especially in therapy. The sustained silence carries with it so much possible surprise that it becomes unbearable. How will the potential be expressed?

Predictably, our endless absorption of content, which has left us with few moments not absorbed by the chatter of ourselves or others, has transformed the prospect of silence – of ‘being with our own thoughts’ – into something terrifying. It is the metaphysical equivalent of being scared of the dark. Perhaps there is nothing there, no repressed emotions, no uncomfortable thoughts, but what if…? The potential is frightening.

Like a gardener tending their soil, by cultivating silence, we nourish essential space, allowing new thoughts and feelings to flourish. From this perspective, silence is not a transition between states, but an important state in of itself that must be respected, and in a world of incessant stimuli, zealously guarded.

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