Silence is Not the Opposite of Speech

May 1, 2008
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Sheila Peltz Weinberg

When Sylvia Boorstein and I cooked up the idea to bring rabbis on retreat to learn meditation and have them be in silence for four days, people thought we were crazy. “Are you kidding?” they exclaimed, “You think you are going to get rabbis or any Jews for that matter to be quiet for that long? It’s not possible and anyway, it’s not Jewish!”

That was about thirteen years ago. I have since had the pleasure of sitting in silence with many Jews — rabbis, cantors, educators, lay leaders — who have expressed gratitude for the opportunity. What is this all about?

Most important, it is about choosing to be silent. This is completely different from using silence as an instrument of power or punishment, whether in a family or in society. It is not “being silenced” or retreating into silence out of fear, confusion, or weakness. When we choose silence we set an intention to limit distraction and stimulation for a period of time. We create an oasis in the midst of the constant barrage of input in our lives. We establish conditions that help us see more clearly the way our minds work, the truth of this moment of experience. Silence is a structure that helps us cultivate awareness of what is happening in the moment. Silence helps us slow down and simplify in order to observe what is often obscured from view.

When we turn our awareness toward our own experience, we have a front-row view of how we suffer and struggle, what causes pain and what leads to freedom. We are our own laboratory, our own wisdom teacher. We see our habitual reactions. We hear the stories we have been telling ourselves forever. We become intimate with the rising and passing of all phenomena, with what is within our control and what is not. We learn in this very body what anger and fear feel like. We sense the inner landscape of generosity and peace. This learning stays with us when we return to conversation, sound, and speed. Silence is not the opposite of speech. It is a way to find the truths that need to be spoken and a way of speaking them so that they can be heard. When we resume our lives, we have more tools to practice wise, true, and caring speech. As we learn to appreciate the gift of silence in our lives, however, we still violate an ethical boundary when we impose silence upon another without their consent.

There are multiplicities of techniques that help cultivate awareness, just like there are many machines in the gym to build up our muscles. All of these practices are supported by a reduction of external stimuli. Their intention is to help us grow in freedom, wisdom, and love.

There are times when we enter the silence within the silence. We may be sitting and paying attention to what is arising and passing moment to moment. Suddenly boundaries fall away and divisions disappear. This is what we listen for when we say Sh’ma Yisrael. We enter the presence of the infinite, the eternal, and the mysterious, the presence of the One.

When we call upon Yisrael to listen, we are calling ourselves to wake up and show up. We are calling ourselves to know how deeply we are connected to each other. We are calling ourselves to more wisdom, more love, and more peace. What could be a more Jewish practice?

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