The Value of Silence

But it’s not only that we should refrain from speech that’s behind this idea of silence. It’s that we should learn how to use speech and silence both, in a creative sense, spiritually, and in fact, wrong silence can be just as harmful as wrong speech.

Robert: Welcome to Inner Sight. Inner sight is simply seeing that which is always present but not yet fully recognized. You have within you the ability to see yourself and the world around you in a new way, with new eyes. So, stay with us and together we’ll look at the world and ourselves with inner sight. The poet Marianne Moore has an interesting comment on silence: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence but restraint.” It seems a little bit paradoxical, that statement. Could you comment on that? 

Sarah: Well, it is a bit mysterious. But I like the suggestion within it, that silence—meaning cessation from speech—doesn’t necessarily indicate depth of feeling or depth of character; maybe because that old saying that still waters run deep has always annoyed me. I think what she’s trying to say is that the real depth of expression, the depth of consciousness, is found in a monitoring of one’s expression, a careful discipline or a monitoring of one’s speech, one’s reactions, and so on; not just by keeping mum. I don’t know. Do you see it differently? 

Dale: No, that’s right. Restraint can be positive and can actually create quite a sound if it’s a proper kind of restraint and if it’s an inward restraint.  

Robert: So, it’s thinking before you speak, is that what you’re saying, Sarah?  

Sarah: Yes.  

Robert: Which a lot of people don’t do. Doesn’t silence foster suppression? And aren’t we always supposed to, as they say in this day and age, “let it all out,” and say what we really think? 

Sarah: Well, that’s certainly the standard that people seem to go by today. These talk shows where people come on, and before an audience of complete strangers say the most incredible things. They reveal aspects of their personal life and of their attitudes towards others that just stun you with the crassness and sometimes the cruelty, if not just the lack of discretion. But modern psychology is right; if you damn things up through silence, things you really want to express, that’s not healthy. But the alternative is not just letting it all out in speech. I think there’s another alternative which deals with the problem at the source, which is in the mind, in the emotional reactions; you can overcome a complaint or a grievance by dealing with it emotionally and mentally within yourself. And that doesn’t require that you tell somebody off. It doesn’t require that you speak in a way that might wound or cause disturbance. I think psychology is trying to promote a more healthy view of life than the suppressed, so-called Victorian era, but we’re not there yet. 

Dale: Yes, it’s okay to bring up some of these ideas, perhaps that have been suppressed, but then what do you do with them? I think that’s the key factor. 

Sarah: I think people think that once they’ve expressed something, it just sort of dissipates. 

Dale: Well, it actually tends to create more of the same problem. I think you’re just expounding and building on the same old thought form that got you into trouble in the first place. 

Sarah: Fostering it, probably. 

Dale: Yes, so you’re not really working towards silence or restraint. You’re actually feeding it and making it worse in some respects. 

Sarah: There’s way too much talk on the level of problem solving, in my opinion. People think that talking it all out is going to help. Sometimes that’s possible with careful preparation about what you really want to say, and with the willingness to listen. But this brutal levelling, with just saying what’s ever on your mind and with the desire to humiliate and destroy and put right another human being—it’s not very successful. 

Robert: I remember something you said in a prior show that was interesting, more or less a criterion for how to speak. I remember the beginning of it: before we speak we should determine whether it was true—and what was the rest of it, Sarah? 

Sarah: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? And if you can’t answer all three of those questions, maybe you shouldn’t say it. (laughter) 

Robert: Maybe it’s time to be silent, right? (laughter) But today is such an unusual age because there doesn’t seem to be much silence at all. Doesn’t it seem like today people are actually afraid of silence? 

Sarah: Well, you’d think so, seeing all the people walking down the street, talking into their cell phones in the midst of traffic and all. I guess I’m showing my age! I find it incredible, especially because I’ve never liked the telephone anyway, and then to actually carry one around with you so that people can reach you at any moment—I’m mystified. There’s not only the cell phones, but there’s also the media, television, radio, the Internet, computers. We are constantly communicating and I suppose that’s a real sign of spiritual progress; we are communicating with each other and with people on the other side of the Earth, but the noise level is something that is staggering. 

Dale: You wonder, though, if people are afraid of silence because you know when the power goes off and there’s no more TV and there’s no more lights—well, you can have a battery-operated phonograph or Walkman—but there seems to be this unwillingness to just sit down and think and enjoy the silence, or going out on the hillside, or into the country and simply sitting there quietly enjoying the silence. That’s very rare. I think most people just don’t do it as much today. They’ve got to have their phone with them, they’ve got to have something there to keep them in contact with the world. It’s kind of arrogant in the way that they have nothing to learn from silence, but I think we do have a tremendous amount to learn. 

Sarah: Well, maybe they are afraid that there would be nothing there in the silence, that it would be a vacuum, because they’ve never really explored it. This is something I wonder about with our young children today, especially who study with the radio or television on. I was never allowed to do that as child; you had to have quiet. Now multitasking is such a common and acclaimed habit where you’re doing several things at once, driving and talking on the phone, or whatever. All of it is part of the stimulation of the times. It’s an extremely stimulating period, spiritually, that we are living in and I think we’re all a little bit crazy from all the stimulation. It’s probably quickening to the soul, but the effect of noise, and chatter, and expression, the desire to express oneself, is probably an effect of spiritual stimulation. It could be well balanced with periods of silence; I don’t mean that everybody should go into a cave and live there, but like Dale says, just occasionally enjoy the moments of quiet and cultivate them. 

Dale: Yes, I think it’s a product of the of the human mind; the development and the sensitivity of the mind that has grown. It was in such great proportions over the last couple of centuries that the mind is so busy. It enjoys being busy, likes multitasking, not just doing one thing, but doing six things at once. That’s why we try to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, and we find that it’s not so easy to do and that we can get into a lot of trouble. I think it’s a product of the development of the mind and all of this stimulation of noise, and talk, and music, etcetera, is coming from without, when perhaps we should be stopping and taking time to listen to what’s going on within. There is another whole beautiful world within, that we should be trying to listen to. That requires the silence of the mind; a mind at rest, one pointed, and peaceful. 

Sarah: That was a requirement of one of the ancient spiritual schools run by Pythagoras, a school called Crotona in Ancient Greece. Applicants who entered that school had to take a vow to be silent for two years. Can you imagine two years of silence? I wonder if any of us could do that, but I think it’s still a practice because I read a book by a western Buddhist, Surya Das, who’s from Long Island. Actually, he wrote a wonderful book on Buddhism and said that at least twice in his life he has gone on retreats where he was silent for six months at a time. So, it is a spiritual practice. What would be the purpose of it? Well, for one thing, to learn to speak properly and appropriately. So many of us, people might say that right now we babble. We speak without preparation, without thought, without consideration of the consequences and the effects. That’s the point of that little saying, to ask oneself, “Is it true, is it kind, or is it necessary?” Doing that examines the effects of speech and we don’t do that enough. But there’s another consideration to Pythagoras’s rule that I think Dale hinted at; it’s that in silence, spiritual energy is channeled, mobilized and directed. 

Dale: Right, and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why he made that ruling, so that there could be that spiritual connection. In fact, even in some of the monasteries today, they still practice that. The monks lead a life of silence; there’s no talking. 

Sarah: Maybe it’s that old expression, “I can’t hear myself think.” Maybe they learn to hear their thoughts, their inner meditation, by cultivating silence. 

Dale: Well, yes, and I suppose as far as the monasteries are concerned, you’re there to hear God, to be one with God, to walk with God and to work with God in whatever you’re doing. So, it’s God’s work you’re doing in the world. 

Sarah: The first expression of God’s voice is the Voice of the Silence, which is the note or the sound of the soul. The indwelling divinity within every human being is called the Voice of the Silence. You can’t hear it if you’re talking. 

Robert: That’s a good point. 

Sarah: Very wise of me, wasn’t it? (laughter) 

Robert: In case you’ve just tuned in, you’re listening to Inner Sight, and our topic today is silence, and I like to think of it as the power of silence. What Sarah and Dale have been saying is, it’s the way we develop our spiritual power, the ability to look within, examine, question and discover our relationship with our Creator and how we can grow and maybe even think about what areas of life that we need improvement in; all can emanate from the sound of silence, so to speak. If you want to explore the power of silence further, you might take a look at one of Alice Bailey’s books, Esoteric Psychology, where you can explore further the theme of silence, and the importance of silence to the spiritual growth of the individual. Speaking of silence, you mentioned restraint before, and what came to my mind was what I used to do as a child, sometimes, if I got into a frustrating situation. Is there any value in the old saying, “Count to ten?” 

Sarah: Yes, we can hear our mothers saying that to us even now, can’t we? (laughter) The purpose of it was to not speak until one had really prepared oneself. So many human problems could be avoided by preparation of what you want to say, when it concerns something difficult, or perhaps something with the potential for misunderstanding. Count to ten, think about the effect you want to create, which is probably not to irritate or upset another person, but to achieve understanding, which is not usually gained by saying the first thing that pops into your mind. But it’s not only that we should refrain from speech that’s behind this idea of silence. It’s that we should learn how to use speech and silence both, in a creative sense, spiritually, and in fact, wrong silence can be just as harmful as wrong speech. What I mean is, staying silent in the face of evil, in the face of wrongdoing, because you’re afraid of creating a ruckus, afraid of being thought a troublemaker, or whatever. Wrong silence is condoning something that you know is not right. By not speaking, you’re condoning it, you’re giving the impression of agreeing with it. 

Dale: Yes, it’s knowing when to speak and how to speak. A lot of people speak when they shouldn’t; they say too much, and other people just don’t say enough and perhaps should say more. It’s a matter of learning how and when to speak and what to say. That reminds me of the silence that sometimes arises in relation to non-criticism. If we can hold ourselves back— and this goes back to the whole thing about counting to ten before you speak— because too often we will blurt out some kind of criticism about somebody or something without thinking, and perhaps it would be best if we could count to ten and step back and not say what we were going to say. So, that’s a very good thing, I think, to keep in mind. 

Sarah: Silence also has to do with how we use our minds, our imagination, our reverie. We may think that as long as we’re not speaking, it’s okay. But if we’re using our imagination to fantasize about the mistreatment of others; harm coming to someone that we do not like, who we feel has wronged us, or if we are using our imagination in ways that create violence or unwholesomeness, that’s also a wrong use of silence. So, it’s not only the retention of speech, but also dealing with the creation of ideas and thoughts at their source, making sure that they are true, wholesome and pure; out of that, right speech automatically flows. 

Dale: Yes, and there’s a reason for this. It’s not just because it’s a nice thing to do, because once you step onto the path of discipleship—and everybody will eventually, whether you will know it or not— this whole idea of silence becomes very important. Once you move into the higher levels of spiritual thought and into the spiritual groups and ashrams, as they are sometimes called, there are certain lines of thought which just are not allowed. So, that’s another aspect of silence that we all have to learn— what not to think, what lines of thought we just don’t allow ourselves to think or get into. And I think we can begin to even practice that today, because as you mentioned, having unwholesome thoughts, or our imaginations going wild, these are lines of thought that can be controlled. We just don’t have to allow ourselves to go down that path, because it creates more pollution for our own self; our own mind gets polluted with all of this stuff. So, I think that’s another aspect of silence too. 

Robert: From the literature of Alice Bailey, I more or less derive the idea that silence can be creative and it can be healing as well. Would that be correct? 

Sarah: Yes, and in our present day it has to be cultivated, because the world we live in is very, very noisy, filled with outer activity, noise, comings and goings, the activity of the lower mind, as Dale mentioned earlier. And so, the challenge is to create this silence that leads to germination of something deep within us. Meditation is probably the best way to do this. Meditation is a creative cultivation of the spiritual consciousness within us. It cannot come to light if we are living lives of outer activity, noise, and incessant expression, without taking time to listen to the Voice of the Silence. Silence can also be a way of creating peace, not only within oneself, but between oneself and others. How the world would benefit if we had more periods of silence before engaging in conflict resolution. I sometimes wish maybe countries like Israel and Palestine could have a period of just silence on all levels towards each other. 

Dale: Yes, there is a very interesting creative aspect of silence used in creating, in building ideas and thought forms. In fact, the Alice Bailey teachings go into this quite a lot—the work of building thought forms. It’s very necessary at the beginning stage that the work should be dealt with very quietly because these thought forms are very delicate and they’re just ideas that are in the mind, and unnecessary words can literally shatter these thought forms. So, that’s a very good thing to keep in mind when you’re creating anything, actually. I’m reminded of people in an old tradition in the theatre. If you’re up for a part, you just don’t talk about it with anybody because that will literally shatter the whole idea and you won’t get the part and it will go to somebody else. I don’t know if the people in the theatre understood really…  

Sarah: Sounds like superstition. 

Dale: Well yes, probably. (laughter) But there is an esoteric spiritual basis for doing that because you’re up for this part and it’s a very delicate situation. There are a lot of other people that are up for the same part and so you don’t want to make it worse. You just don’t go around telling everybody that you’re going to get this part, you know it, you know it, you know you’re going to get this part; and then you don’t. 

Sarah: It can dissipate energy, I think is what you mean, and this pertains to any project you’re working on—to remain silent about it while you’re creating it, building it. If you speak too early, it dissipates energy, I think. 

Dale: Yes, that’s exactly what will happen. 

Robert: I’m confused about something. What do we mean by a thought form? I’ve got some ideas on it, but I think also for the sake of the audience, they might question what a thought form might be. Do we have an example perhaps? 

Sarah: Well, all of our thoughts are thought forms. Ideas are things, they are creations, they are an accumulation of energy. So, a thought form simply means a complete integrated thought and idea. It’s a fancy term for idea. 

Robert: I see. From our discussion, it seems as if there are many different kinds of silence, doesn’t it? Is that true? 

Sarah: Yes, there’s the silence of wrong speech that creates harm. Then there is the silence that is retention of energy, which was hinted at in the opening quote about the restraint of silence. And then it occurred to me there’s another kind of silence that’s very important on the spiritual path, which is not sharing spiritual teaching or spiritual truths with the unready. This is a phenomenon that might ruffle the feathers of our very democratic society, but it’s a very universal concept in spiritual growth. The Bible says, “do not cast your pearls before swine.” Do not share spiritual teaching with those who are not ready to assimilate it. 

Dale: I’d like to mention briefly one more use of silence, and that’s in the composition of music. So oftentimes they will use silence as building tension— to create tension. And the beautiful example of that is in the Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah; right at the very end, just before the final few bars, there is this big pregnant pause and this tremendous amount of anticipation that is built up just by the silence. 

Robert: That’s a good point. Well, I hope we’ve learned about the power and the value of silence today, and that’s about all the time we have for our discussion. You’ve been listening to Inner Sight and now we would like to close with a world prayer called the Great Invocation. It’s a call for light and love and goodwill to flow into the world and into our hearts. Let’s listen for a moment to these powerful words. 

Sarah: Closes the program by reciting the adapted version of the Great Invocation

(This is an edited transcript of a recorded radio program called “Inner Sight”. This conversation was recorded between the host, Robert Anderson, and the then President and Vice-President of Lucis Trust, Sarah and Dale McKechnie.)

(Transcribed and edited by Carla McLeod)




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