If there is one thing guaranteed to disrupt any hard-earned inner peace we may have obtained from following the spiritual path, it is the reckless use of words. Many of us have experienced this for ourselves at some point or another – when we have deeply regretted hurting someone with our thoughtless remarks or been terribly disrespectful by saying something that would have been better left unsaid. How often have we reprimanded ourselves for getting into embarrassing situations simply because we could not resist the impulse to say something, only to look back and exclaim in frustration, as a Persian poet once said:
What value is sense, if it does not come up to my rescue before I utter a word!
Sa’di, as quoted in The Sufi Message
It is interesting to note that in the teachings of Jainism, where the principle of harmlessness is strongly advocated, one of the things many followers do is tie a little piece of cloth over their lips as a reminder to talk as little as possible. It is their belief that the predominant cause of disharmony is excessive talk. Perhaps this is also why all spiritual Masters, since the beginning of time, have emphasized the virtue of silence as a cardinal rule in the spiritual life.
As spiritual beings, the words we speak have the power to both hurt and heal the human heart. So, when we do speak, the mystics advise us to thoughtfully consider every word and evaluate whatever we want to say by asking three important questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? And if one were to earnestly apply this filter, he will have taken leaps and bounds in his quest for quietude because one very quickly discovers that most of what is said in everyday life is actually unnecessary.
Out of a thousand words uttered there may be one, and one only, that need in truth be uttered. The rest but cloud the mind, and stuff the ear, and irk the tongue and blind the heart as well.
The Book of Mirdad
So what exactly is behind this inexplicable need and automatic impulse to talk? What can we do to subdue it?
The mystics explain that excessive speech is actually a symptom of the ego’s need to assert itself. It is a symptom of its desire for recognition and attention; an expression of self-importance. On the spiritual path, humility is the foundation upon which we must build the inner life. Therefore, restraining the ego by being quiet is an indispensable and valuable exercise. By practising this kind of silence, we achieve a certain kind of poise and balance. It prepares us for the practice of the real silence – a deeper quietening of the mind through simran.
Meaningless talk feeds the already hyperactive mind and clogs it up. When we speak less, we carry with us an atmosphere of quiet contemplation, which allows our sense of awareness and discrimination to grow. One is able to absorb and reflect upon the lessons of daily life, learn, and gradually evolve on the spiritual path.
There is so much activity going on in the world today not only on the outside, but on the inside too. The overactive mind has become so restless and overwhelmed by all the inner chatter that we find more and more people having nervous breakdowns and anxiety disorders. In the absence of silence, our connection to our interior energy is lost. And without this support, it becomes very difficult to cope.
The perfect Masters also explain that we expend a lot of energy by talking. Instead of exhausting our precious strength on useless chatter, when we conserve it and direct it inward, we calm the turbulent waves of the mind. We are then able to gather our attention and concentrate better at the eye centre. Excessive speech is, therefore, an extravagance that a serious spiritual aspirant cannot afford. If one is pleading for the grace of spiritual enlightenment, then one has to prepare himself to receive it.
Ultimately, the cure for the restless mind – the soothing balm of the Shabd – can only be heard in perfect silence. Just as troubled waters of a pool hinder us from seeing our own image reflected in the water, so too does the inner and outer chatter hinder us from hearing the voice of God. The whole point of our meditation practice is to become so united with this Sound in the silence that it can pull our soul up to higher levels of consciousness.
The Masters assure us we will get there eventually. The first step is to practise being quiet. The rest one develops as one matures on the spiritual path. Through the persistent practice of meditation, when we experience first-hand the Lord’s indescribable greatness; when we witness his immense grace and immeasurable kindness, we finally grasp our own insignificance. Thereafter, the intensity of love and gratitude surging from our humbled hearts automatically renders us speechless. From then on, nothing else matters. All we want is to savour every moment of that mystical silence, tune in to his celestial voice, and embrace eternal bliss.
The silence I would usher you into is that interminable expanse wherein non-being passes into being, and being into non-being. It is that awesome void where every sound is born and hushed and every form is shaped and crushed; where every self is writ and unwrit; where nothing is but It.
The Book of Mirdad