Look at how words shape our world. Look at television, look at the news. We seem to need that continuous sound of the human voice somewhere in the background. We are the Tower of Babel, especially now with the glut of information available to us. The value of words themselves is starting to diminish—a de-valuation of words and of their power.


Photo by Michael Kavanaugh


Look at how we use words, and what we’re creating with them. Look at the use of liturgy, of what we’re trying to do by coming together and very deliberately, repeatedly invoking—through words—a certain reality. Those aren’t idle words. They are broadcast on many wavelengths, perceptible to us but also possibly perceptible to those who are willing to tune into those frequencies.

Words can trivialize. Words can diminish an experience through the very effort it takes to translate that experience. Words can be simple chatter, but sometimes chatter can help somebody—words can welcome and make somebody who is anxious feel at ease. There is no fixed reality to the precept Manifest truth; do not to lie. What does it mean to engage these words so that they actually heal, reveal something and bring us ever closer to who we truly are?

We are creatures who communicate. What is the purpose of that communication? How much is necessary? Throughout our day, what are the moments when we choose to talk? What are we accomplishing? What is our purpose? What is being created? What is being concealed? How much silence is the right amount? How many words are the right amount? What kind of communication is needed? During sesshin, a weeklong silent retreat, we do not speak, except when speech is used deliberately as during liturgy, a dharma talk or face-to-face interview. Profound silence offers an opportunity to discover something about the nature of speech—within it, beneath it—and then what actually happens when speech occurs within that setting.

In a setting of committed silence, we can also see that not many words are actually needed to live harmoniously, creatively, sensibly, and sensitively. We can see how much more in tune we become with each other, and how our capacity to feel and remain aware is deepened when we handle words with care. Silence also reveals the interconnection between our speech and our thinking. Both can function within our lives as invisible forces, as we become more and more conditioned not to notice their source, context or effects. When we’re not aware, we think that we are using words and thought when in reality we are being used by our words and thoughts.