Being silent means more than just holding your tongue. It means listening for the softest, most subtle sound of all – the sound of the soul.
Tijn Touber | July 2008 issue
I’m not listening. “Hurry up, sir. You have just half an hour to reach the hotel. After that the whole island becomes silent.”
Sweating, the man grabs my bags and rushes to a throbbing taxi. I trudge after him, exhausted from the trip and the sultry heat that has enveloped me. When I boarded the plane in Amsterdam 20 hours earlier, it was snowing in the Netherlands.
I arrive at the hotel just before midnight, after a harrowing ride during which the driver does his best to evade the monsters. Literally. It’s March 6, 2008, the night the Balinese celebrate New Year’s Eve. Each village constructs its own monsters—some several metres high—which are ritually carried through the streets.
The next morning I awake to a deafening silence. Only the birds and crickets seem unaware that today is the day of silence. It’s “Nyepi,” the first day of the Hindu new year, when no one talks, travels or works. It’s a day of silence, prayer and reflection that enables the Balinese to start the New Year with spirits renewed.
From my balcony I see a lush green valley and the blue glitter of the Indian Ocean beyond. It’s my first day of silence for a couple of years and I’m excited.
My thoughts wander to my first silent retreat in the Tuscan hills. After a week of silence, I wanted to remain silent forever. I never wanted to open my mouth again to utter words that so rarely reflect reality. Never before had I felt such intense contact with everything around me—precisely because I hadn’t uttered a word. It was as if all my senses were wide open, as if I were tasting ice cream, watching a sunset or seeing someone smile for the first time.
Annemieke Rodenburg, from the Netherlands, is an apostle of silence. For seven years, this inspired fortysomething woman has been organizing silent retreats for those under the age of 28. She never fails to see the magic. “After five days of silence, young people often have the feeling they have developed a deeper friendship with the other silent participants than with friends they’ve known for 10 years.”
As odd as it sounds, Rodenburg says words often create distance in relationships. “If people no longer use words to shield them, they shed their masks. You get to the point that you’re no longer trying to get attention from those around you. You step out of your patterns and stories and make contact with a layer in which everything and everyone is connected.”
Young people clearly long for this, as evidenced by the avid interest in the silent retreats organized by the Own Way Foundation (in Dutch, Stichting Eigenwijze, eigenwijze.org), the organization Rodenburg founded in 2000. By January, summer retreats are already booked solid.
It’s difficult to get those who’ve tasted the beauty of silence to return to the world of noise and masks. The American eco-activist John Francis has witnessed this first-hand. Once he experienced the beauty of keeping his mouth shut, he didn’t open it again for 17 years—at least not to talk. Francis’ decision was prompted by an environmental disaster in San Francisco Bay. When two oil tankers collided there in 1971, Francis initially decided to stop using motorized transport and then stopped using words. Between 1973 and 1990, he made only one exception: to tell his parents how much he loved them.
During those 17 years, Francis discovered not only the beauty of silence, but its effectiveness. “Because I didn’t speak, everyone paid attention,” he says. Francis studied environmental science and even taught silence as a guest lecturer at the University of Montana. He also became a local celebrity who regularly toured for lengthy periods to “speak” with everyone and anyone about important issues, using meaningful looks, gestures and—in extreme cases—pen and paper.
The interesting thing about Francis is he led a relatively “normal” life and didn’t withdraw from his surroundings as most people do who choose to be silent for any length of time. In fact, Francis had girlfriends who, he says, thought it was “rather nice that I kept my mouth shut.”
The South African-born spiritual teacher Isaac Shapiro also experienced how inspiring it is to be around people who are silent. Shapiro is a student of the Indian Advaita (“non-duality”) teacher Ramesh Balsekar who, in turn, is a student of the late Indian spiritual teacher Ramana Maharshi. “According to Ramana Maharshi, silence is the only way to convey real knowledge,” says Shapiro. “Maharshi often sat in silence for days on end at this holy mountain in India, absorbed in bliss in the silence of his own being, not speaking to anyone. And when people came around him, their minds didn’t function. His silence was so profound that all their troubles would disappear, and I mean severe troubles like losing children, divorces, all kinds of problems that can happen in life.”
Francis once joked that the decision to hold his tongue was born out of compassion for his fellow humans. “I talked a lot,” he confesses. Like Francis, I also experienced how much people appreciate it when you hold your tongue. At the end of my silent retreat in the Tuscan hills, I received a letter from one of the participants: “Dear Tijn, it was nice meeting you and great not talking to you.”
When you’re silent, you give others the space to be silent too, and to be themselves. That may well be the greatest gift you can give. When you’re silent, you can truly be there for someone. In the book Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time, Francis writes he was never really there for others. He didn’t even hear them. “Most of my adult life I have not been listening fully. I only listened long enough to determine whether the speaker’s ideas matched my own. If they didn’t, I would stop listening, and my mind would race ahead to compose an argument against what I believed the speaker’s idea or position to be.”
According to Francis, truly being silent means much more than just holding your tongue. “Silence is not just not talking. It’s a void. It’s a place where all things come from. All voices, all creation comes out of this silence. So when you’re standing on the edge of silence, you hear things you’ve never heard before, and you hear things in ways you’ve never heard them before. And what I would disagree with one time, I might now agree with in another way, with another understanding.”
Meanwhile, back on Bali, breakfast is served in silence by a young woman with a smile so serene it nearly frightens me. I realize this introverted dignity is rare in my part of the world. Not so strange, perhaps, if you consider that we normally ring in the New Year with a hangover instead of silence. Not to mention the rest of the year. Most of my friends have agendas that resemble busy train schedules and can’t imagine where they’d fit in a silent moment. But the Balinese do things differently. The Western business people I meet here are driven to distraction by their employees, who seem to have one ceremony or another every day.
Of course, we can look on them with pity, describing those poor Balinese as impractical and unproductive, but the fact is their way of life makes them beautiful people. The Italian psychiatrist Piero Ferrucci would be proud of them. According to him, silent contemplation is a necessity. In a 2005 interview with Ode, he said, “Our culture is suffering from an overdose of action and a shortage of contemplation. I consider contemplation a basic need; you even see it in animals. Just think about dogs and cats. You often see them staring off into space. I think that’s their way of meditating, their way of recharging their batteries. We have that need too. But we deny this basic, physiological need—as if an entire society were to forget to go to the bathroom. That’s serious!”
In Western countries, the modern, runaway 24-hour economy has clearly won the battle against people who want to “go to the bathroom” regularly. Forget about days of silence, occasionally leaving the car in the garage or shopping-free Sundays. Many countries are literally never silent. A few years ago, a Belgian radio journalist was given the task of recording five minutes of silence somewhere in the Flanders region. The poor man spent months working on the project, day and night. Each recording was interrupted by trains, cars, airplanes, radios, voices, sirens. He was finally forced to conclude it was impossible to find five minutes of silence anywhere in Flanders.
And Flanders is nothing compared to a city like Cairo. A recent study showed that the sound level in the Egyptian city between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. averages 85 decibels. That’s comparable to the noise made by a lawn mower left on or a freight train rushing through your house.
What on earth is wrong with modern people that makes us bent on doing whatever we can to chase away the silence? Are we afraid of it? French philosopher Blaise Pascal felt that way. “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces fills me with dread,” he once wrote.
Lama Drimed, the American-born Buddhist monk, put it this way: “Silence is confrontational to the unstable mind. It won’t allow you to escape from all the voices in your head.” He should know. Drimed has been leading silent retreats for 20 years and several times has withdrawn into complete silence for three months at a time. It doesn’t surprise him at all that some institutes that organize silent retreats require their participants to undergo a psychological test.
Of course it’s scary to be confronted with all those voices in your head. It’s unpleasant to hear voices of pain, despair or depression. But the point is it’s far scarier not to hear these voices. Silence may be scary, but a lack of silence is much scarier. Those who don’t seek occasional silence to make contact with their deeper core, higher self, pure soul, Buddha nature or whatever you want to call it, become detached from God.
As a yogi friend said, “To hear the voice of God, you must be silent.”
I asked why.
He looked at me as if the answer were obvious. “Because God whispers.”
It has become warm on my balcony in Bali. It’s nearly midday and I still haven’t spoken. It feels wonderful, yet I have a problem with silence. You see, when my mind is silent, I become more receptive to inspirations, so I get the most beautiful ideas. Afraid I’ll lose them, I run to my laptop in an attempt to capture these flashes of the sublime. I know it’s a fruitless effort, but I can’t help myself. It reminds me of what Cistercian monk and priest Thomas Keating said: “Silence is the language God speaks and everything else is a bad translation.” Still, I keep looking for the right words.
I sit under a palm tree (after assuring myself that all the coconuts have been removed, a leading cause of death in Bali, according to insiders) and open my laptop. What was that sublime flash again? Oh yes, the insight that we’re afraid of silence because it reminds us of our greatest fear: death. Gautama Buddha, one of the most brilliant psychologists, said we’re afraid of being “nothing.”
French monk Matthieu Ricard has also said most people live in a permanent state of fear. “That’s because most people aren’t able to fathom the reality—the silence—behind the symptoms. As a result, they hang on to manifestations: their job, body, religion or ideas. Because you can lose your job, body, religion or ideas, most people live their lives in perpetual fear.”
Still, I can well imagine people are afraid of the idea that they are “nothing” or “empty.” Would it help if we replaced these concepts with words like “whole,” “complete,” “full,” “potential” or “the life force energy”? These terms are, in fact, more accurate reflections of reality. Quantum physicists have known for some time that the so-called “empty space” between atoms is filled with life energy. Physicist Albert Einstein spoke of this field as “the only reality.”
When you look at it this way, contact with this invisible dimension is nothing to be afraid of. Who wouldn’t want to be connected to the force behind life itself? Not to be connected is far scarier.
People who don’t allow themselves the time to contact this underlying energy and intelligence remain deprived of something at least as vital to their well-being: inspiration. That’s because scientists suspect this quantum field carries the blueprint of creation. It’s a databank of all the information from all time. All the brilliant ideas, insights, wisdom, symphonies, poems, musings and intentions are stored here. Tuning into this field grants access to the library of creation. And the only thing you have to do is be silent, tune in and download the “programs” you need.
“Real innovation,” according to German author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, “can only come from contact with the timeless space that is hidden behind form. True intelligence can only be found in silence. All other forms of creation are uninteresting copycat behaviour.” Real (life) masters don’t copy others but open themselves up to a greater intelligence. Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversations with God series, once said, “The question is not to whom does God talk, but who listens.” It wasn’t as simple for him as sitting down every day to take dictation from above. Sometimes his ego got in the way and he couldn’t hear a word God said.
My yogi friend put it this way: “Listening to God is the process of getting out of the way.” But who can manage that nowadays? Who, in a world where we’re doing our best to make names for ourselves and score points, has the nerve to buck the trend? What rebel has the courage to be quiet and listen?
We live in a time when in which it’s no longer the ear that dominates, but the eye. The “eye” symbolizes the male approach—the penetrating, ruling, controlling, superior, distant, business-related energy. In this type of society, there’s little room for silent, receptive, feminine energy symbolized by the womb, the earth, the yoni (a Hindu representation of the vagina as sacred), the shell of the ear.
When the “eye” isn’t kept in balance with the “ear,” it runs wild and becomes destructive. The “doing” energy wins out over silent energy. If we’re no longer able to be quiet and listen, we can’t hear our own voices or those of our fellow human beings and our greater environment. That’s downright dangerous. I can’t put it any more clearly (or beautifully) than Joachim E. Berendt, author of Nada Brahma: “The new human being will be a listening being, or he will not be at all.”
Evening falls in my silent paradise. I’ve put away my laptop. It’s time for meditation. I still remember how difficult that would have been for me 20 years ago. Back then, try as I might, I couldn’t settle my mind. Now I know it’s nearly impossible—and I know it isn’t necessary. The mind settles by itself if there’s someone willing to listen. As soon as all those voices in your head are truly heard, they stop yammering. That’s simply how voices are. It works the same with us: As long as we have the feeling that no one has heard us, we keep repeating ourselves until someone listens.
Meditation is another word for listening. The word “meditation” literally comes from two Latin words: medio, which means “centre,” and sto, “to stand.” So meditation means “to stand in the centre.” When you’re at the centre of your own realm of thought, you’re in the eye of the storm—the only place of calm. It’s an accomplishment to get there and stay there. It’s the accomplishment of not being carried away by the storm of emotions, images, desires, judgments, thoughts, habits.
If you can stand in the eye of the storm and observe all those voices from a distance, you can give them your full attention—with no fear of losing yourself. If all the voices (yours and those of others) are allowed, life itself will flow through you. You become the channel for life itself. It is as if you no longer existed (as if you were nothing), or were life itself (everything).
According to Tolle, there can’t be problems in the eye of the storm because “problems are nothing but thought structures you can step out of any time.” That’s why Annemieke Rodenburg calls silence the solution to all the masks, patterns and conditioning. “When, in silence, you feel once again who you really are, you experience such a huge sense of safety that problems are resolved like waves in the depths of the ocean. Silence is a solution.”
As night closes in, dark clouds gather above my hotel and lightning strikes in the distance, I feel free, happy and inspired. And what did I need to accomplish that? Nothing. Quite literally I needed nothing. Forty years after John Lennon wrote the Beatles song “Across the Universe,” I suddenly read his lyrics with different eyes. Is it possible Lennon meant the line “Nothing’s gonna change my world” literally?
To be silent, we need nothing. And nothing aside from nothing can help you be silent. You can’t become silent, you can only be silent. Silence is not something that’s over there or happening later; it’s always here and now. There’s no path to silence; silence is the path.
And if, after years of searching, longing, plodding, thinking, arguing, controlling, studying, praying or meditating, you finally allow yourself to be silent, you will have come home. Your journey will come to an end because there’s nowhere to go beyond silence.
After pulling the mosquito net over my head, I switch off the lamp and watch the lights of the boats dancing in the distance to the rhythm of the storm. I don’t envy the fishermen and fall asleep with the comforting thought that you can always be safely at home—at home in the eye of the storm.
Tijn Touber is a senior editor at Ode.