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Vol. 8, No. 2, 2009
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Yahia Lababidi, Egyptian-Lebanese poet and thinker, is the author of Signposts to Elsewhere, elected for Year in Books (Sun Sentinel, USA, 2007) as well as Books of the Year (The Independent, UK, 2008). Lababidi's aphorisms are included in an encyclopedia of The World's Great Aphorists, while his poetry and essays have appeared throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East.

It may seem like a betrayal to speak of silence, to break an unspoken pact. Yet, whether we are conscious of it or not, it is there, inextricably woven into the fabric of our lives. As Sufi poet Rumi writes, “a person does not speak with words. Truth and affinity draws people. Words are only a pretext.” It exists in the gaps between our words and encounters with the natural world. In fact, silence is a platform from which we observe and interrogate ourselves and our world.

What’s more, silence is a prerequisite for certain vital solitary activities, such as contemplation, meditation, prayer, healing, as well as overhearing the dictates of our conscience.

© Chris Honeysett

But, ubiquity does not ensure intimacy. Thus, silence, this quiet capital of riches, is both under-considered and undervalued. Perhaps by learning to recognize our silences in their many guises, we may begin to demystify them and make them more intimate.

Whether longed for or reviled, summoned or thrust upon us, silence is an inescapable force in our lives. Yet curiously, as a discipline, Western Philosophy seems not to have deeply investigated this constant presence -- leaving it up to spirituality, poetry and psychology to explore this elusive territory. Perhaps for philosophers, maddened by their own music -- as they tend to be -- this slippery subject is perceived as a kind of rebuke to philosophy’s lust for logic and systems. In the words of that rare Western philosopher, Wittgenstein, who acknowledges the limits of reason and the sayable: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Yet contemplatives, poets and thinkers alike, have long hinted at a wisdom beyond words, straining the limits of language and sense, to describe the ineffable. And, even if this love of silence (and attendant solitude) is not explicitly expressed in works of philosophy, it is behind the scenes in the lives of philosophers, often informing their utterances and positions. This is the case of that great solitary thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, who wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "It is the stillest words which bring the storm. Thoughts that come on doves’ feet guide the world." Likewise for Samuel Beckett who, in his plays, seemed to be heading towards silence -- such that, in works like Breath or Act Without Words, it almost comes to overtake speech.

Still, rather than being defined negatively -- as the absence or perhaps failure of words -- silence may instead be viewed positively as somehow existing before and beyond representation, a primordial essence that lurks beneath our constructed world. In the immortal formulation of Tao Te Ching: “Returning to the root is silence/Silence is returning to being.” Just a pause in speech can offer us an unexpected glimpse of this -- sending us spiraling down the black hole of silence, where matters are more dense, and consciousness itself seems more intense. As the silence-revering writer Emile Cioran observes, “A sudden silence in the middle of a conversation suddenly brings us back to essentials: it reveals how dearly we must pay for the invention of speech.”

© Chris Honeysett

It is, in silence, that things patiently unfurl, open up and trust us with their secrets, or reveal their hidden natures -- be they shy ideas or creatures, daybreak or a work of art. In this fundamental and seemingly privileged state, what seems to elude the world of words and sound may otherwise appear to dawn on us; perhaps since we are now in the position to overhear ourselves and tell ourselves that which we already know. Unsurprisingly, realizations and revelations are forged in this realm. Silence is, after all, the best response and conduit for our most profound experiences: Awe, Love, Death.


Cultivating silence can also mean cultivating attention, so that we are present to ourselves and the deeper life that is continually unfolding within and around us. We may begin to do so by investigating the silences available to all of us, knowing them better as well as their judicious uses. Three categories we can explore in some depth are: silence as language (wordless communication), as entity (physical presence in nature) and as a kind of metaphysical portal (for contemplation, meditation, transcendence).

As a language, silence can be the thing and its opposite: eloquent or clumsy, despairing or serene. It can be polite, communicating respect, empathy, or even a form of restraint - - i.e. abstaining from unkindness, or being drawn into argument or pernicious gossip. Or it can be impolite, transmitting anger or hostility -- such as a sullen, resentful silence.

Moreover, it can mean varying things within different cultural contexts. For example, a silence that is considered socially embarrassing or awkward in a Western setting is not at all in parts of the Far East (such as China or Indonesia). In fact, the contrary can be true. Most notably in Japan, where silence is deeply valued; it is eloquence that is regarded with suspicion, since verbosity is often associated with a certain superficiality. In Japanese, there is even a word for wordless communication -- haragei -- used to refer to the preferred modes of expressing emotional matters.

Which is to say, as a means of wordless communication, silence is as fluid and protean as the emotions and situations it is born of, often conveying what words cannot. As poet Rainer Maria Rilke confesses: “Things aren't so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered.”

With their arsenal of ravishing phrases, poets are perhaps most acutely aware of how words fail us; are not there when we reach for them. Here is T.S. Eliot elegantly bemoaning the shortcomings of his bread and butter:

Words strain
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place
Will not stay still.

What’s more, not all of us have the right words, or find them at all times. Such as when silence lodges itself in our mouth or throat, when we are handed an unexpected piece of bad news, leaving us stunned and speechless. Confronted with the enormity of a situation, we are simply left with a silence that is as authentic, integral and universal as body language; shrugging off the need for words, altogether.

As an entity too, Silence can be difficult to define. For it is not merely the absence of sound, but may be perceived as an actual physical presence, as well. The elemental silence found in the natural world is a case in point: whether it is relative (in the forest, or underwater) or absolute (as within the desert, before a storm or, ultimately, in outer space). There may be grades to silence in the natural world, but such encounters with it as an entity may be said to represent a kind of auditory equivalent to stillness.

© Chris HoneysettAnyone who has crept upon a morning, for a stroll at dawn knows this holy hush. Just as someone who has experienced sound swallowed whole in the mysterious silent underworld of the sea, or drunk deeply of the quietude of desert air will also be familiar with this sense of the numinous -- where Time appears to collapse and one is afforded glimpses into Eternity. Great beauty silences. Even if accompanied by the rich tapestry of the sound of creatures quietly going about their daily affairs, silence is the solemn companion of nature enthusiasts and can presence like the very pulse of Being.

Here is how spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, describes this mystical state: "And it is only where there is space and silence that something new can be that is untouched by time/thought. That may be the most holy, the most sacred -- may be. You cannot give it a name. It is perhaps the unnamable.” Grappling with such mysticism and the unnamable is harder for philosophy, but the younger Kant makes an attempt at it: “In the universal silence of nature and in the calm of the senses the immortal spirit’s hidden faculty of knowledge speaks an ineffable language and gives [us] undeveloped concepts, which are indeed felt, but do not let themselves be described.”

Yet another category of silence is that of portal. One is said to ‘enter’ and ‘emerge’ from this state, as though it were an actual physical territory. We cannot forcibly break-in and enter, or rush through this portal to arrive at a meditative-reflective state; but instead must patiently wait to be granted access. Sculptor Rodin’s Thinker is a monument to this invisible art of turning inward. He is not seen surrounded by others, in the midst of conversation, but rather depicted quite alone -- lost in thought and found in silence.

There are also temples of silence -- secular spaces of worship, study and healing where silence is cultivated, such as: libraries, museums, hospitals, cemeteries and prisons. On account of the intellectual, moral, or spiritual seriousness of such spaces, they foster a certain respectful reflection, thereby permitting us to pass through this silent portal.

Reading, can act as a springboard to access this region of the soul, where one is transported, and our external surroundings seem to fall away like so much dead skin (to the extent we may even become oblivious of our own bodies). Extolling the pleasure and spiritual edification of the written word, bibliophile Susan Sontag describes reading as “that disembodied rapture . . . trance-like enough to make us feel egoless.”

Quiet reverie, or the art of (apparently) doing nothing might be another route to ‘disembodied rapture,’ and can also serve as an escape from the tyranny of Self, Space, and Time. Within this realm, we are free to travel backwards and forwards, conjuring up both memories and fantasies. Not as frivolous as this may seem, such flights of imagination are necessary for our sanity, affording us a creative space for playful inner work and a restorative psychic flushing out (of daily toxins such as pressure or worry).

Obviously, prayer is a central portal to access this condition of blissful silence. We see it prescribed in Sufi wisdom writings stressing the significance of seeking inner silence, or Buddhist injunctions to let the mind become silent to attain enlightenment, or in Quakerism, as a feature of worship, where silence is an occasion for the divine to enter the heart. More extremely, in the case of Trappist monks, a life-time commitment to silence aims to foster solitude in community as well as a mindfulness of God. All of these varying notes reverberate in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s inclusive definition of prayer as “the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul.”

Meditation, without silence, is inconceivable. Here, stillness and self-emptying are requisite in order to attain any kind of calm or peace. In mysticism -- perched as it is on the precipice of all organized religions -- Rudyard Kipling is repeatedly refuted, and the East and West do regularly meet. In the pregnant prescription of one who devoted an entire book of thoughtful meditations to this subject, Christian philosopher Max Picard: “Silence is listening.” And, as attentive practitioners of this metaphysical art may sense, it can sometimes be unclear who is doing the actual listening… us, or Silence itself.

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/self- transformation. More recently, based on scans of Buddhist monks’ brains, the young science of Neuroplasticity indicates that meditation actually alters the structure, and functioning of the brain. In other words, our thoughts and silences can, in effect, change our minds, and even our lives: the ultimate goal of philosophy or religion.

Moreover, these three categories of silence -- communication, entity and portal -- need not inhabit separate spheres and exist in the same medium. For example, while in media technology -- i.e. television and radio -- silence is perceived as ‘dead air’, the three silences are successfully employed to dramatic effect within the Arts. This is evident in theatrical work, or a piece of music, or even stand-up comedy where silence may be used to communicate nuance and depth, or else serve as a pause for reflection on the parts of viewers and listeners.


Perhaps more than ever before, it has become necessary to speak up in praise of silence, as an attempt to redress the balance in a cacophonic contemporary culture that appears alternately suspicious or outright contemptuous of silence. Living as we do, in the busyness of this modern world -- hooked up, beeping and under the false imperative of needing to keep in touch with everything -- we find ourselves in the unhealthy situation of losing our silences and the sustenance that comes with them.

So we desperately rush, hurling ourselves from one activity to the next, without ever pausing to process what it is we’ve learned, or dilute the concentration of experience with reflection. To combat the distraction of noise, we may turn to the discipline of silence which, practiced consciously, can be as much of a renunciation as fasting -- or the ascetic exercise of denying the physical body in order to nourish our spiritual entity.

As it is, the erosion of silence in our lives is unmistakably connected with our noise-ravaged nerves, or increased stress levels, as well as increasingly shortened attention spans. This, in turn, negatively affects our ability to both think and feel deeply in order to sift through the deluge of stimulus that informs our hurried and harried days. To the list of offenses resulting from the loss of our silences we may add the corruption of the art of conversation; since no matter how effortless or ephemeral good talk may sound it is invariably rooted in, and the product of, sustained private reflection.

Previously a portal to silence, the culture of reading is currently imperiled in favor of ‘information snacking’ to accommodate our hectic schedules. This, coupled with the media’s shrill and insistent competition for our attention, makes it necessary to guard our silences even more vigilantly. In this context, for example, we can more closely examine how the Internet affects our concentration and capacity for critical thinking. (Author Nicholas Carr’s critical and provocative article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" -- The Atlantic, July/August 2008 -- might serve as a thoughtful point of entry regarding this controversial debate).

If French philosopher Blaise Pascal is correct, that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” then the proliferation of talk and reality shows may be seen as symptomatic of our cultural malaise. Namely, reality shows, which actually serve to distract us from reality, or being present to ourselves, are precisely a reflection of our collective “inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Just like silence, noise, too, can be the absence of sound. Noise is also the silent invasion of our inner spaces by the clutter of undigested information and unsorted emotions that pile up throughout the days and weeks. With our private spaces thus encroached upon, we risk becoming alienated from ourselves until our lives are something foreign to us.

Rather than allow ourselves to be shoved into the bathroom -- perhaps the last sanctuary of personal space and reflection -- we should instead question the necessity or merit of amusing and multi-tasking ourselves to death. Against the odds, of what at times appears to be a conspiracy of noise, we must try to assert our birthright to retreat, reflect and regenerate.

Solitude tends to produce an understanding of our own limitations, and forces us to seek our own council in dealing with them. And, in turn, the insights and greater self-awareness attained in solitude eventually need to be tested in the company of others.

Emerson sums this up succinctly: “it is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Yet, silence, like any controlled substance, must be handled with care. Initiates, or masters of silence -- such as solitaries, thinkers, monks, hermits, and ascetics -- have long known how to mine it for fortitude and insight, or to arrive at ecstasis (to be or stand outside oneself). But it is up to each individual to determine how much is desirable or useful; as too much of this good thing might be counterproductive for some, even dangerous -- leading to despair, madness or even suicide.

Just as the monastery and institutionalized silence are not for everyone, so too extended travels to the foreign land of silence are not for tourists. Snake-handlers of the spirit -- those versed in playing with dangerous things -- may engage deeply with the death-in-living that is desert dwelling, the soul-trials of solitude, or even their own shifting images in the mirror. Others, less practiced, might not endure such extreme experiences (of the Limit), and might emerge damaged. Which is to say, striking out fearlessly into treacherous, interior territories is not for dilettantes; and deep and prolonged silence might prove the undoing of those who flirt with it, ill-equipped.

“Social intercourse seduces one into self-contemplation,” muses writer Franz Kafka. The aim, then, is to try to find that healthy balance -- between silent fasts and noise feasts -- on the slippery road to moderation.

Photos courtesy of © Chris Honeysett =

Related Articles:
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