"As we emerge from the haste and clamor of the world that surrounds us, glimpses of silence startle us into a new state of wakefulness and sense of wonder. We awaken on a winter morning to the stillness of a world lying hushed beneath a blanket of overnight snow. Silence permeates the church in the moments before the service begins; the restlessness and chatter die away to be replaced by a collective calmness and sense of reverence. The chimes of the monastery bell are heard in a silent meditation room, greeted as a call to awareness. We walk into the welcome silence of our home after a day filled with sound and busyness, and feel soothed by its presence. Walking through the powerful silence of a forest, we are embraced in its stillness and learn to listen, see, and feel more deeply.
"The moments of silence we encounter are benedictions, blessings that echo in our hearts. They invite us to be still, to listen deeply, and to be present in this world. The glimpses of silence we encounter in the world are potent intimations of the inner stillness possible for each of us. The glimpses of silence we meet remind us of a way of being in which we are deeply touched by the mystery and grandeur of life. In the midst of silence we remember what it feels like to be truly alive, receptive, and sensitive. Silence, we come to understand, is the language of the heart.
"Silence is a treasure that is becoming increasingly elusive to us. We are the most affluent, successful, and powerful of all generations gone by. But we are also the busiest and perhaps the noisiest. On a cellular level we intuitively know the richness and value of silence, yet we sadly neglect its cultivation. Bombarded by sound, information, and sensory input, we feel the effects in our hearts and bodies of being exiled from silence. We thirst for meaning, freedom, inner spaciousness, and peace, yet too often we forget that silence is the medium for their discovery. We need silence to listen to our own heart and to touch the heart of another. The Chinese sage Lao-tzu, who lived and taught in the sixth century, reminds us:
Take time to listen to what is said without words
to obey the law too subtle to be written
to worship the unnameable
and to embrace the unformed.
"Silence lies at the heart of all the great spiritual traditions pilgrimages. It is the vehicle that encourages us to dive beneath words, ideas, chatter, and concepts to discover the unspoken truths and the unfathomable mystery of being. The variety of forms of contemplation, prayer, and meditation meet together in their reverence for the act of silence. Through them we learn to still the clamor of our hearts and the competing voices that cascade through our mind and to discover a place of profound stillness and receptivity. We soon begin to understand that silence is not a vacuum or a barren desert of the heart, but the source of creativity, love, compassion, and transforming wisdom.
"Spiritual traditions embrace silence as a beloved friend. They cultivate it, celebrate it, and probe its wonderful potential. In the presence of the sacred we naturally descend into silence. At the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, the Black Stone in Mecca, or on the banks of the River Ganges in India there is a tangible silence that has little to do with the absence of sound. These are dedicated places that remind us of the ancient quest for peace, wisdom, and stillness. We are reminded that greatness of heart is not just the territory of the saints and the sages of the past, but a possibility to be realized in our own life. When the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, speaks, his words invariably fall into a well of deep silence. His unswerving message to us is to remember our place in this world, the goodness in our own hearts, and our undeniable relationship with one another. He exhorts us to find the ways and means to live our lives with the greatest of integrity, compassion, and peace.
"Silence is a way of bearing witness to truth. In the silent revolution in Czechoslovakia, hundreds of thousands of people gathered together, a silent testimony to freedom. The candle flames held in their hands spoke more than a thousand words. Silent marches of protest against racism, oppression, violence, and torture call us to listen, to understand, and to be a witness to pain and the need for transformation. During the Civil Rights Movement, thousands of black students would walk silently through jeering, threatening crowds. It was a silence of profound dignity and truth that changed people's hearts and ultimately changed their world.
"In the face of tragedy and sorrow, silence is at times the only gift of the heart we feel able to offer. In the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing tragedy, in which 168 people were killed in a few moments of terrible destruction, the world was stunned into silence. There were no words to convey the empathy, compassion, and sorrow that echoed in our hearts. There were no explanations that could ease the grief and pain of the bereaved families and friends. Sitting at the bedside of a beloved in the last days of their life, words communicate less than the intimacy of a loving silence. There are times when we need to stand together in silence, be together in silence, and accompany each other in this life in silence. In those moments we meet in the depths of our being and see ourselves reflected in the heart of another. The intimacy of silence reminds us that we are never truly alone.
"Silence asks us to see our lives and the world we live in with fresh eyes, to look at things from a different angle. It asks us to question all of our previous assumptions about ourselves and the way we live, replacing complacency, habit, and prejudice with a willingness to be fully present and alert to the lessons of each moment. Silence asks us to find the peace and meaning that are present at the center of our lives no matter how busy our schedule may be. We assume a receptive attitude in silence that is not passive, submissive, or lazy. As we set out on the path to explore silence, we open our hearts and minds to the insights and lessons that await us.
"In Washington, a length of black, polished stone carries the names of those who died in the war in Vietnam. The war is long over; the protests, violence, arguments, and hatred that so permeated that time have been replaced by new cycles of argument and dissent. People visit in silence, sometimes to lay a flower, to weep, or just to touch an inscribed name. The wall is a symbol of human catastrophe, conflict, and loss. Its silent presence asks us to remember what it is we truly value, what gives meaning, what heals us, and the need to end the wars in our hearts. Great joy, as well as great sorrow, takes us into a realm of appreciation and celebration that words cannot describe. If we stand in front of a stunning sculpture, walk through a pristine wilderness, are present at the birth of a child, our hearts burst with the wonder of life. Silence is our way of paying homage, of bowing to the moment. In the moments before the words come, we sense a profound inner stillness and richness of being. We are truly alive in the presence of a remarkable life. Within that silence we glimpse an experience of oneness and communion in which all divisions fall away. The poetry of enlightenment celebrates this joy in simple words that convey the depth of happiness and freedom that awaits our discovery. A Japanese Zen master, Basho, writes:
These budding green
In blazing sunlight.
"Silence is a teacher; within it we learn some of the deepest lessons of our lives about aloneness and intimacy, joy and sorrow, conflict and peace. When we speak less to the world and everything in it, we bring a silence in which we can listen to the story of life, other people, and our own heart. We learn to treasure listening and the richness it offers more than the busyness of our conclusions, assumptions, knowledge, or opinions. We are humbled by silence as we discover that our words can never fully describe the fullness and richness of any moment in our life that is truly listened to. There is so much we don't know, so much that cannot be explained, and we learn to embrace and welcome that mystery. Taking nothing for granted, we enter each moment like a visitor, willing to see anew and to be touched by each unfolding moment. We discover within ourselves the willingness to be surprised and understand that our potential to deepen as a human being relies upon our capacity to be surprised. We learn the joy of the present. Silence is a refuge. There are times in our life when our worlds fall apart, when we are overwhelmed by the intensity of events, when we feel alienated, and when our life seems to make no sense. In those moments when we feel most adrift and confused, silence offers a sanctuary of renewal. In moments of confusion and complexity we are tempted to do more, to act, to find explanations, to speak. If we listen to our heart, we come to know the wisdom of being still. We calm the turmoil of our mind, feeling our feet on the earth, and connecting once more with a depth of inner silence that can guide us, heal us, and restore us.
"In moments of heartfelt connection and intimacy, silence is a shared room of peace and ease. Close friends and partners discover a way of being together in silence that is respectful, sensitive, and trusting. Theirs is a silence that communicates a deep love and care that no longer require the reassurance of words. It is a silence of unconditional acceptance and warmth.
"Silence, in its most authentic meaning, is vast, spacious, calm, and peaceful. Sadly, silence is also used as a n instrument of abuse and punishment. It is misused as a means of oppression. In conflicted families silence embodies a withholding of love and affection; it is used to isolate, reject, and punish. Those who have experienced this misuse of silence carry its memory through their life and, as a result, tend to interpret all silence as dangerous and threatening.
"Countless people in our world are made invisible and powerless through the silence enforced upon them. The elderly, homosexuals, women, children, and dissidents are cast into the shadows of life through the gagging of their voice. In a military prison lives a man sentenced to solitary confinement for murdering a prison guard. Enforced upon him is the order for 'no human contact.' For years he hasn't heard the voice of another human being, he hasn't spoken, hasn't been touched. In truth he is a walking dead man. Silence, misused, is a weapon of isolation and a form of torture. The abandoned heart is disenfranchised from life and love.
"Just as misused silence damages, wise silence heals. Too many communities, families, and relationships in our world are scarred by conflict, struggle, anger, and division. We argue with one another, judge and condemn, hurl insults, and lose ourselves in trying to shout louder than our opponent. Silence teaches us to listen to our enemies and adversaries. What difference would it make to join our worst enemy in a few moments of silence? In silence we open to the simple reality that just as we yearn for happiness, acceptance, understanding, and compassion, so do our enemies. Just as we have the capacity to experience pain, grief, loneliness, and fear, so do they. Where do hatred, division, and conflict end but in those precious moments of silence that bring depth and the possibility of a new beginning?
"All of us in our life encounter moments of profound silence. When the clamor and discordant voices are still, we are faced with a stillness that is rich in potential. Silence can seem like an accident, an unexpected and unpredictable encounter. Learning to heed those moments of silence, we perhaps begin to understand that silence is not an accident, but an ever-present reality revealed to us in certain moments when we remember to listen.
"Silence is revealed in moments of wholehearted attention, when we are fully present in this life. A Christian mystic reminds us, "Absolute, unmixed attention is prayer." The art of cultivating silence does not take us to a destination that is divorced from the present moment of reality in our life. By cultivating the art of silence, we learn to discover its richness in all moments and encounters. As we treasure its rich potential, we learn to discover what it means to live with a silent heart, rich in vitality, creativity, energy, and life."