Practicing The Act of Silence
“The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.” Rumi
Playing a word game on my iPhone one night, I had an “ah ha” moment: The words listen and silent are composed of the same letters! It was startling because I couldn’t believe that this coincidence of spelling had never before occurred to me. And it was surprising in its attestation to the interconnectedness between silence and listening.
Listen and silent – you can’t have one without the other. As Rabbi Solomon ibn Gabirol, 11th century Andalusian poet and philosopher, is quoted as saying, “In seeking wisdom the first step is silence, the second listening…”
The etymology of silence is instructive. It is from the Latin, silentem, “still, calm, quiet.” *
To truly listen to others, I need to be quiet. When I shut my mouth, I can open my ears. “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” according to the Greek philosopher Epictetus.
Merriam-Webster defines silence as “forbearance from speech or noise.” And forbearance is defined as “refraining from.” I like this way of thinking about silence because it feels active rather than passive. It fits with my Mussar practice of making mindful choices – silence as a conscious decision to refrain.
A bad habit of mine is to interrupt the speaker and to finish their thought or interject a reaction. That’s when I’m passively and temporarily silent – waiting quietly yet impatiently for my turn and not really listening. When I am able to mindfully silence the urge to think about my response rather than their words, I can be fully present to hear the other.
Alan Morinis says, “Often the noisiest thing in my life is not a jet engine or a loud conversation but my mind itself.” ** That reminds me that sometimes when I’m silent, it’s because I’m listening more to my internal noise than to the voices of those around me. On some occasions, it’s due to boredom or lack of interest. Other times it’s the inability to be engaged because I’m dealing with my own stuff. That’s not the kind of silence I aim to cultivate. I want to actively still the internal chatter, so I can focus on honoring the other.
Thinking about this topic was timely because my Mussar class has been studying Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “Book of Jewish Values,” and we were reading the chapter about lashon hara, which literally means evil or bad tongue. The expression is generally translated as derogatory or disparaging speech, or gossip that diminishes a person. The anecdotes in the book led to thoughtful, in-depth conversations about when to speak up and when to stay silent, when to listen and when to discourage someone from sharing gossip with you.
We tackled the question: When it is appropriate to share negative comments about a person and when isn’t it? The answer, under Jewish law, is that it’s not permissible unless there is a compelling reason, like protecting a person from harm. Interestingly, it’s considered even worse to listen to derogatory gossip than to share it. The sages say that lashon hara kills three people: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is said. So there are times when rather than be silent and listen, it’s time to speak up and say, “I don’t want to hear that.”
As a result of my word game and my class study, I developed a new Mussar practice – to treat silence as an action, to make a mindful choice about when it is time to refrain from speech…and when it’s not. Then I can be truly present, honor others and be attuned to my higher self.
“Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than the silence.” Spanish Proverb
** Silence chapter, p. 146, “Everyday Holiness” by Alan Morinis