blog post
Middle Way Philosophy, Psychology, Religion


But hark to the suspiration, the uninterrupted news that grows out of silence.

(Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegy 1)

I have just been thinking about the role of silence, after reading a review of a new book by Diarmid McCulloch on Silence in Christianity. There are two types of silence: the absence of communication and the absence of ‘mental chatter’ or left brain activity. I am interested here in the second. The mere absence of communication may cover up a huge amount of obsessive thinking, suspicion, or other negative emotions. We can read what we wish into someone else’s silence (although there are often lots of contextual clues). The second type of silence, however, marks a temporary change in mental states and attitudes.Winter_Silence Laszlo

Silence of this kind is very basic: we become watchful and receptive rather than trying to manipulate the world in any way. We switch from a mode in which the left hemisphere of the brain is dominant to one where the right hemisphere gets its turn. The extent to which the right hemisphere really takes over depends on how deep that silence is. It might just be a momentary pause for re-balancing, after which the left hemisphere takes over again. A deeper silence, though, can be developed in successful meditation practice, or indeed in any other receptive activity: really listening to a piece of music, for example.

Diarmid McCulloch points out the importance of silence in the history of Christianity from the beginning. When Jesus was before Pontius Pilate, his response to some of the accusations was silence rather than an attempt to defend himself. Perhaps we could read into this a recognition that further justificatory words from the left hemisphere would merely entrench the existing conflict. The same point applies to the ‘silence’ of the Buddha, when asked questions about metaphysical truths beyond experience. Recognising that any possible answer would merely entrench left-brain responses in a way that completely excluded any consultation with experience through the right brain, he could only point to the openness of the right brain by remaining silent. Just referring to the right brain in language (as I am doing now), does have the merit of the left brain recognising its own limitations, but it doesn’t necessarily do the job, as it is always possible to come up with some kind of rationalised objection if you stick only in the terms of the left brain.

The skilful use of silence thus seems to be an important part of following the Middle Way, for it enables greater integration between left and right brain functions. It’s not an aspect of the Middle Way I am particularly good at myself. I have a tendency to go on arguing beyond the point where many others have given up because they recognise the debate as useless. My left brain also has a tendency to enter periods of hyper-activity, one of which I have been in recently, where I am ceaselessly involved in plans and analysis. However, I do recognise that it is important to be able to get out of this state and develop a wider perspective. Tomorrow I set off for a holiday – a week’s walking on the Welsh coast – which I hope will cool down my habitually over-heated left hemisphere and get me a bit more in touch with silence, through the medium of physical activity.

The theme of silence also has a relationship to my previous review on this blog of the book ‘Quiet’. It tends to be introverts who appreciate the value of silence more than extroverts, and who are constitutionally more likely to fall into a watchful rather than a manipulative mode. But of course, that doesn’t mean that extroverts can’t be quiet too, and the categorisation of introvert/extrovert masks an incremental gradation of degrees of appreciation of silence. One of the complaints Susan Cain makes which I would support is the dominance of society by extroverts, and this is reflected in the lack of appreciation of the value and function of silence. The ceaseless blather of background radio noise in some shops and other public places is one thing that introverts such as myself tend to hate. The assumption that silence in a context such as a classroom or an interview implies lack of confidence rather thoughtfulness is another problematic assumption of the extrovert-driven society. Even religion – unless you join in silent prayer, meditation or Quaker meetings – tends to be dominated by babble. We need a public recognition of the value of silence, starting in education and going on in other public contexts.

For the moment, though, I’m going to spend time with the crashing waves, the roaring wind on the cliffs and the cries of sea birds.

Picture: Winter Silence by Laszlo Mednyanszky (public domain)


About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


5 thoughts on “Silence

  1. “I have a tendency to go on arguing beyond the point where many others have given up because they recognise the debate as useless”.

    I think you do yourself a disservice in entertaining this idea. My own experience of your setting forth ideas is that they have changed my own entrenched opinions and world view. You should perhaps accept that this is a slow and gradual process, Maybe you are impatient for results. You often recommend incrementalism, but maybe you should accept its implications more overtly. What is it about the way people respond to you that leads you to believe that others have ‘given up’? Is it – perhaps – their silence that disconcerts you?

    I’m nor a devotee of silence, you know that. I’m often quick to respond – too quick maybe But there is an inherent silence surrounding my cognitive busy-ness and left-brain verbosity. A place where we meet, and encounter a kind of truth.

    Posted by bagmanhattan | April 1, 2013, 10:16 pm
    • Hi Peter,
      I think you slightly misunderstand what I intended here. I was not referring to putting forward my arguments im general (and persisting with doing that), but ‘arguing’ in the sense of one-to-one discussion where there is disagreement. I know that I do have a tendency to persist in such debates under the impression that just one more clarification, or one more assumption pointed out, will help the other person to reconsider their position. It’s not that I’m always expecting to ‘win’ exactly (though I wouldn’t claim to be pure of such motives) as that I expect progress to be made somewhere. But this is the triumph of hope over experience (on the internet at least). It seldom actually happens, because even relatively open-minded people are unlikely to really consider their most basic assumptions.

      I wonder what you mean by “an inherent silence surrounding my cognitive busy-ness”? Do you mean that your thoughts have benefitted from previous silence or wider perspective? To some degree my experience is that one can coast – the benefits of previous right-brain integration will remain and inform one’s perspective. But to some degree also one can gradually lose that perspective if it is not refreshed. I think of Darwin losing his ability to appreciate poetry in his old age, or perhaps of the scholasticism of Theravada monks gradually taking over from the meditative tradition, until the normal monastic condition no longer contained any meditative element.

      Posted by Robert M Ellis | April 9, 2013, 6:21 pm
  2. Interesting and helpful question (about my thoughts and silence). About ten years ago I had a severe depressive reaction and was eventually told to accept antidepressants or be sectioned. I started Lustral and after a couple of weeks noticed a very marked reduction in the pressure of thoughts. Long gaps between thoughts. Very much less pressure to speak. A great sense of liberation. The experience has never entirely left me although I stopped taking the antidepressants six or more years ago (I weaned myself off them over a couple of months).

    That’s a fuller and I think more accurate description of what I mean by inherent silence. It’s more a lack of pressure of thought, I’m less reactive to events, and less attached to ideas and opinions. There is always some space around thoughts, ideas and opinions that I generate and hold. Thoughts and ideas don’t travel beyond me as far or as fast, and have less impact on others. I’m better able to call them back.

    I don’t really ‘do sitting meditation’ any more these past five years or so. I often take five minutes of just sitting with eyes open and unfocused, hands relaxed. I also often do a hand massage on myself, this takes about ten minutes, five minutes or so each hand. Various other mindfulness ‘exercises’ around activities of daily living. These and a few other ‘integrative techniques’ I’ve picked up over the last thirty years do seem to refresh my perspective. One involves writing down five words that express my state of being at the time of writing. Almost ‘automatic writing’, followed by a short period of acceptance and affirmation.

    I’ve also mentioned the integrative influence of your own writings. There’s a quality to your writing that goes beyond the content, although the content sometimes seems to fill a gap’ like Polyfilla. Something is smoothed out. You aren’t the first writer to have this kind of brain-wave modulating effect on me. The other was John Heron whom I’ve mentioned before. But it’s an effect that is different from other effects. Don’t ask me where it comes from, it may be that you have developed the knack of enabling a switching in right-brain/left brain integration or inter-hemispheric capacitance in susceptible others, of which I’m one. The tendency to flip out of it is still there. But once the switch has occurred, it’s progressively easier to make it.

    I’m glad you corrected my misunderstanding of your intentions in referring to your argumentation. It’s clearer to me now. Your correction also reinforces your lesson about how hard it is to get away from my assumptions about everything, my ‘default settings’, perceptual, cognitive, emotional, behavioural etc. But I do appreciate that these settings are just settings, and they can be adjusted, although they tend to slip and revert to the default position.

    Time to go. The last paragraph has set off in me a train of thought, creative possibilities for our stewardship of the Agape cafe, or chain of Agape cafes………

    Posted by bagmanhattan | April 14, 2013, 1:08 am
    • Interesting that a drug can have that effect. As I understand it, depression is very much a product of a disconnected left brain. McGilchrist discusses the links between left brain dominance and a range of similar conditions, such as schizophrenia and anorexia. It’s obviously a complex picture though, with different kinds and degrees of connection and disconnection which may depend on the setting up of neural pathways in the first place and then them being sufficiently activated and maintained. Your short exercises sound like a great way of maintaining the connection.

      I also wonder whether meditation is more concerned with keeping those pathways open at a basic level than it is at a higher level. At a higher level (again according to McGilchrist) it stimulates the frontal lobes of the left hemisphere. Maybe that’s the point at which meditation starts to become too much of an end in itself – an escape-trip rather than an integrative exercise.

      I’m also currently reading Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ which has some fascinating stuff in about the causes of violence, including its origins in the brain. Violence seems to me to be about disinhibition plus brain conflict, and I’ve written something about that in the recent ‘Integration of Desire’ book, but Pinker offers more insights. I hope to review Pinker’s book here when I’ve finished it.

      I did read John Heron’s ‘Confessions of a Janus Brain’ on your recommendation. Parts of it seemed rich and fascinating, and it was certainly an eye-opener in the kinds of ‘clairvoyant’ experiences that some people can have. I continually read his ‘ka-world’ as an archetypal one of meaning, and it provided a helpful perspective when writing about meaning. However, he certainly also stretched my tolerance threshold for new-ageiness, and he sometimes spiralled off into ways of thinking in which he made a lot of unwarranted assumptions on the basis of his experiences, regardless of his apparent caution at the beginning (Ted Meissner and his naturalist friends would absolutely hate it!). I tried some of his exercises, but didn’t get very far – maybe I don’t have the capacity to benefit from them.

      Posted by Robert M Ellis | April 14, 2013, 9:32 am
      • “Maybe that’s the point at which meditation starts to become too much of an end in itself – an escape-trip rather than an integrative exercise.”

        This makes a lot of sense to me. As I’ve commented before, my wife is an objective commentator on my real-time relatedness to a wider reality. She’s told me over a number of years that when I meditate regularly i become more, not less, self-absorbed and less accessible. My own subjective experience is the opposite. I certainly feel more relaxed and sensitive to others, and maybe that’s because I’m more preoccupied with my own experience and less open to a wider experience. That I’m less effective seems to be hers, and I’ve found it useful to pay attention to where our fields of experience overlap!

        Anyway, her opinion is one reason why I’ve stopped regular solitary sitting meditation. It’s also rather anti-social. My wife is African and it’s my experience of African family life that individuals just don’t go and sit on their own away from others, in a private place. This isn’t to say that an African person might not sit alone; but choosing private isolation is different. It might seem a rather odd thing to do.

        I can agree that mental functioning is a very complex matter. The only productive ‘way in’ for me has been the kind of body-oriented integrative psychology I’ve dabbled in since the late 1980s, beginning with short courses at the University of Surrey’s Human Potential development project run by John Heron and then longer courses that led to deeper experiential immersion in regression and integration.

        These were always prefaced with a caution: always treat your interpretations of subjective experience as another layer of subjective experience. Don’t generalise from your own particular, even to your own experience. Adopt your notion of reality as an “as if reality” heuristic. As you suggest, John Heron may have departed from that. I also liked his “ka” concept. Some of his exercises helped me. I shall get round to reading your Integration of Desire book as soon as I can get one. I may take it on holiday.

        I’ll go back to the McGilchrist tome. It’s not exactly hard-going but it’s very long and thorough-going. I’ve found a lot of it illuminating and helpful in making a kind of sense of my younger son’s experience of schizophrenia. He watches two DVDs a lot – The Wizard of Oz, and Indiana Jones (Temple of Doom). These seem key to his making sense of the world, and finding solace. I need to understand them better, perhaps in terms of their archetypes?

        Thanks again, Robert.

        Posted by bagmanhattan | April 14, 2013, 1:45 pm

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