The Power and Nobility of Silence

noble silenceDear Friends, A few years back I went on my first 10-day silent meditation retreat.  On the first afternoon of the retreat, we took seats in the meditation hall and introduced ourselves to the person next to us.  On my right was a young woman from Canada. We exchanged pleasant greetings and then entered into silence for the remainder of the retreat.  Most of each day we spent on the same cushions in silence, either meditating, stretching or listening to a talk.

At the end of the very last day, we were invited to break the silence and say hello to the people next to us again. As soon as we looked at each other, the young Canadian woman and I fell into a loving embrace. We proceeded to talk about how connected we had been with each other throughout the 10 days. I told her how I had worried when she wasn't on her cushion, and she said she had been touched when she heard my quiet tears. We marveled at how close we felt to each other without uttering a single word.

This kind of silence is called Noble Silence. It is different from the kinds of silence that are born from anger or despair. The concept of Noble Silence originated with the Buddha, who stayed silent when asked questions about philosophy such as what happens to us after we die. He believed that answering such a question would not lead the listener to more understanding, so he stayed silent. His Noble Silence arose out of care for the listener and not out of disdain or anger. This is the kind of silence that we practice on a silent retreat.

It's very interesting to experience the kind of connection that can arise between people in Noble Silence, especially since, as a society, we find ourselves increasingly talking, writing, skyping, and texting to each other. We assume that more verbal connection equals more connection.  But my experience on that first silent retreat, and many others since, has been that the wise use of Noble Silence can deepen our connection with others.

My guess it that the reason we can connect so deeply with others while in Noble Silence is because, in silence, we are connected to ourselves. And when we are able to stay connected to ourselves in the present moment, we can more easily connect with others. In the midst of conversations, whether in person, phone or by text, we tend to get disconnected. Think about how easily we forget what someone has just said to us. Or how often we are planning our next words while listening to someone talking to us. We get caught up in our own anxiety, fear, or excitement about the words being exchanged, and so we stay on the surface of connection.

"You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard form himself in a long while." -- Henry David Thoreau

Replace "letters" with "emails" in Thoreau's quote, and it applies as well today as it did when he wrote it.

Think about a time when you were sitting with a friend or loved one, maybe looking across the table at him or her, not saying a word.  You were really there, and they were really there.  And when both of us are really there, true connection can occur. (Watch the clip of performance artist Marina Abramovic here as she practices connecting in Noble Silence to each person that sits down at her table for almost three months. You can see and feel the connection that she makes with each person without a single word.)

Meditating with others is like this. When we sit together in Noble Silence, we learn how to sense each other's presence, rather than just hear it. We tune into the more subtle clues about them. When I am sitting in meditation with my eyes closed, I can often tell who came in by the way they walk, the sound of their bags being set down, their energetic fingerprint. And there is something deeply satisfying about connecting with others in this way. As we begin to sense the real person right there with us, our imagination about who that person is starts to drop away, and we have a chance to clearly see the other person for who they are, not simply the projections that we bring to them.

Don't take my word for it, try it out and see for yourself. You can practice Noble Silence without going on retreat. Try setting aside a few minutes, hours, or a whole day to be in Noble Silence.  And sense whether you find a change in the quality of your connection with others. And leave a comment here to let us know what you find out.