Wise Speech rests in and arises out of a spacious peaceful, deeply connected silence.
So I want to begin our exploration of of this aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path with that silence. In class we rested in the silence of our meditation on a foggy morning that lent a cozy muffled silence to our practice.
What comes up for you when I say ‘silence’?
For many of us silence is not a welcoming, deepening sense of connection at all. Perhaps we are uncomfortable being left alone with our thoughts, so we fill our minds and our environment with noise to mask them.
We may have had to learn to navigate in a dangerous world of potentially violent silences, developing hyperactive skills on reading the body language of parents, boyfriends or spouses, in order to protect ourselves or our children. This is a sad skill that so many women, in particular, have had to develop. The CIA has found that women have the heightened ability to read men’s motivations, to read the silences and see beyond the words. So women make up 50% of the staff at the CIA and the majority of its leadership. Some pretty hard-earned early life training those women had, no doubt.
We may have been silenced, told to know our place, to stuff down our words, to hold our tongue, or to “stifle” ourselves, as TV character Archie Bunker so often said to his wife Edith on the sitcom ‘All in the Family’. More insidiously, we may have been asked to be silent and keep secrets we now know we should have reported to the nearest responsible adult. (If any of this brings up personal memories, please pause and send some metta, loving-kindness to that young person that was you, and to that aspect of self that may feel to blame. Then if you are able to do so, send loving-kindness to the person who put you in that position. May they be well. May they be at ease. May they be at peace. Metta practice is not always easy, but it is always powerful in its healing.)
Here are some traditional sayings from a variety of cultures that remind women to curb any inclination to speak up:
Women’s tongues are like lambs’ tails – they are never still. – English
A dog is wiser than a woman; it does not bark at its master. – Arabic
The tongue is the sword of a woman and she never lets it become rusty. – Chinese
Where there are women and geese, there’s noise. – Japanese
Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man or a quiet woman. –Scottish
When both husband and wife wear pants it is not difficult to tell them apart – he is the one who is listening. – American
The woman with active hands and feet, marry her, but the woman with overactive mouth, leave well alone. – Maori
While a group of women together can certainly carry on a lively conversation, studies show that in social settings with both genders, women talk less. Women often hold back. Women often stifle themselves without men needing to request it. The culture has historically required it, and women, especially women of a certain age, still feel that unspoken demand to stifle ourselves.
Why does this matter? The person who holds the proverbial talking stick is the one who directs or at least influences the action of the group. To be quiet is to go along with the program. To speak up is to take charge, to be a leader. Women of the 21st Century have at last taken the reins of leadership to a much greater degree than women have for many millennia! Hooray! Given that newfound sense of expression, why would we want to be silent?
We can see why our attitude toward silence is plagued with distrust, discomfort and fear: Silence is repression. Silence is a scary emptiness that will let the inner demons out.
I understand this, believe me! And yet I keep championing silence, particularly a long silent retreat! Why? Because a silent retreat is a key part of the insight meditation experience. A daily meditation practice gives us a grounding in the skills to be present and to quiet the mind, but on a silent retreat, even the periods of not meditating are in silence and attentive to the present moment.
In those periods when we are not meditating but are still very much in silence, there is a unique opportunity to see the nature of our thinking mind, to see the thoughts that repeat themselves ad nauseum.
We can rail against the thoughts or we can develop a compassionate, curious but clear relationship. We might address a recurring thought with, ‘Oh you again! Haven’t heard from you in, gosh, twenty-two minutes!’ We can think about Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi Tree greeting Mara again and again, saying, “I know you.” These recurring thoughts are Mara too. We can recognize them without going to battle with them. A simple noting is sufficient, and can short circuit the train of thought. If the thought is a plan, we note ‘planning’. Likewise, ‘memory’ or ‘regret’. We might develop our own little creative ways to cease struggling with thoughts and yet curtail them. For example, I sometimes think of the thought as a ribbon I tie into a bow that turns into a butterfly and flies away. This keeps the process light. We are so prone to being punitive, it helps to have a light-hearted method that keeps us from succumbing to antagonism.
Only when we give ourselves an extended state of silence without much external stimulation do we begin to really see clearly the nature of persistent thoughts. We see their associative connections. We might notice that a sight or smell or texture triggered a particular memory that brought forth an emotion that caused a physical manifestation, such as tension in a certain area of the body. What useful information! We can apply compassionate inquiry and discover we have been operating on a totally erroneous assumption. This can be big life changing news that can liberate us and end suffering.
Silence allows us the spaciousness of mind to see the weave in the fabric of our mental processes. That spaciousness in the environment, in the silence, the stillness of being, the easing of physical tension, the simple structure of the retreat schedule that takes away the constant need to make decisions or to get things done, all helps to settle our minds and open our hearts to the sweet rich quality of being. With that clarity of mind and compassion of heart, we are inclined to have insights that awaken us.
So as scary as silence may seem to us, in fact when we give ourselves to it in this way, it proves to be the greatest gift we have ever received.