Truth and silence

I undertake the training rule to refrain from false speech.

What does it mean to refrain from false speech? Some people will look at this guideline and take it as license to say whatever comes into their heads. We have to be humble enough to realize that what is going on in our heads is only our truth, not the truth. In order to speak truth, we have to be sure we actually know what we’re talking about, and that usually takes more time than we’re willing to invest. It sometimes requires verification by an outside source, especially if memory is involved.

If someone asks, “Did you break your leg?”, you can probably answer truthfully without any help. But if someone asks, “Why did s/he do that?”, odds are you really don’t know. Yet, we’re reluctant to say “I don’t know” when that is the case. It’s more fun to guess at a story, which then becomes your story, or at least a story that reveals how you feel about the person in question.

The Buddha talked about “noble silence”, or “ennobling silence” as a praiseworthy activity. What did he mean? I’m reasonably sure he was describing not simply refraining from talking out loud, but bringing to stillness the impulse to assert ourselves in speech. Beneath the quiet of not-talking, a deeper quiet is possible. We don’t think of ourselves as constantly in a state of agitation, but if we look deeply enough, we find that things are stirring. We feel we must DO something, move things along, make things happen. Perhaps we could try not-doing some of the time. In my experience, it is more often helpful to not-do, and to listen, than it is to do whatever first seems to be called for (unless there’s a fire or other emergency).

So, in my understanding, silence can bring with it an inner stillness. The more silence, the more stillness; and if we are with others, the more listening can happen. An awful lot of speaking goes essentially unheard, because most of us are more interested in talking than listening. But you might discover that listening has a power that talking may not. I find that if I really listen to someone with my full attention, not looking for an opening to offer my opinion or experience, the speaker gradually starts taking her own words more seriously. Try it and see what happens. Make a resolution for a day to intentionally listen as much as possible, and to refrain from speaking unnecessarily.

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