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.
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)