The Vitalness of Silence

There are two kinds of people: those who like to be quiet and those who like to talk. But even some of the people who like to be quiet look at me glass-eyed when I suggest doing a Day of Silence. “I can’t be silent for a whole day”, I don’t want to be silent for a day”, “I don’t have time for a day of silence”, “I don’t mind not talking but I cannot do nothing all day” are all understandable objections. However, a Day of Silence once in a while is vital for our well-being. I would even argue that it might be the solution to world peace.

I vividly remember my first day of silence during a yoga retreat I attended on Bali. We were instructed not to speak, to refrain from reading and using our phone, and to “simply be”. I was nervous and looking forward to it at the same time. “What if my mind goes nuts?” “What if I cannot stand all the thoughts that present themselves while I cannot do anything to distract my self?” I was wondering. Besides two yoga practices with some meditation, there was no traditional schedule of alternating seated and walking meditation that day. I enjoyed a 2½-hour spa treatment – during which I was silent anyways, so that was easy -, took a nap, sat at my porch to watch the greenery around me, and wrote in my journal. In hindsight this was a rather ‘easy’ day of silence, compared to the more rigorous silent retreats I did in later years (read Walking with Metta). And yet the result was profound. In my diary I wrote: “Suddenly it is very apparent to me how my thoughts are separate from who I am. My thoughts keep going because they like to be occupied, while my whole being wants to be quiet and contemplative. (…) And when I am trying to write down my thoughts they are gone abruptly.”

The practice of being silent is intended to withdraw the senses from the outer world in order to observe what is present within. The practice of mouna (Sanskrit for “silence”) is not just a matter of not speaking, but an effort to not engage with anything that is going on outside of yourself. During a traditional day of silence it is suggested to refrain from any activity that takes the mind out of the present moment. Obviously this means no cell phone or computer use. And also: no reading, listening to music, writing, or non-verbal communication with others. Especially the latter is something that people find the most difficult, as is my experience from leading a multitude of silent days.

At the end of every Day of Silence I have led, there were always several people who noted it was not being silent that was difficult, but the non-communication with their fellow practitioners. “I felt rude not smiling”, “I felt awkward avoiding their gaze”, are comments I have heard so many times. It is true that human beings are highly communicative – and one could even argue that our survival depends on it, as studies have shown that people live longer when they are not in solitude. More often than not, what we really want from other people, however, is that they meet our needs. When you smile at someone you want them to smile back so you feel appreciated. When you look at someone, you want them to see you and acknowledge your presence. However, the point of a silent day is to become self-fulfilling, to really get to know your self, to fully acknowledge your own presence, and to see yourself as you really are. You do not need anyone else for that. All you have to do is become still.

The cultivation of self-awareness, and the subsequent realization that ultimately there is no Self (which the Buddha called anatta), leads to the understanding we can be completely free. We are not confined – nor defined – by our thinking mind. If only every single person came to this insight, the world would be a different place. We need to risk revealing who we really are. Be brave and be still, even if it just for one day.

Marije leads a monthly Day of Silence in New Jersey. Learn more here.