“In silence one can contemplate the greatness of God and bind oneself to God more than one can bind oneself through speech.” – The Baal Shem Tov

There is a spiritual path of silence. It is a path that has tremendous power. Silence leads us to God consciousness.

Silence is central to meditation. It is only by learning to quiet the mind and discover the place of inner silence that our meditation will become potent and alive.

Words also have great spiritual potency. The Baal Shem teaches that when we speak words for the sake of Heaven, we arouse the “Divine utterances” by which the world was created and cause them to emanate of their spiritual livingness to the lower worlds.

The path of silence and the path of words both have many different dimensions. In exploring these two paths, we will discover how each can bring us closer to God, closer to each other, and closer to ourselves.

Words bridge the gap between people, enabling them to understand and communicate with each other. They allow our thoughts to become externalized and concretized so that others can hear, absorb and analyze them.

Silence is a means of direct soul-to-soul contact that transcends the misunderstandings and arguments that arise out of verbal communication. As Sri Ramana Maharshi explains: “From silence came thought, from thought the ego, and from ego speech. So, if speech is effective, how much more so must be its source?”[1]

Speech turns us outward and pours all our energies into our words. Speech focuses our mind on the person we are talking to, so much so that we can lose all sense of our surroundings and ourselves.

Silence turns us inward. In silence, we remain in intimate contact with our surroundings and ourselves. We rest in a state of inner clarity, an alert witness to the actions and feelings of everyone and everything around us.

The path of words uses the mind and intellect to achieve understanding. Through the interaction of minds and the stimulation of the intellect new insight is gained. This is why Talmudic learning is traditionally done in pairs, because the rabbis understood the power of two minds to inspire each other – to push each individual to new levels of insight and understanding.

Learning through silence is the path of the intuition, learning to hear the inner voice. One could say that silence is in fact another form of language; it is the language of pure consciousness. Sri Ramana Maharshi elucidates:

“Silence is never-ending speech… For vocal speech, organs of speech are necessary and they precede speech. But the other speech lies even beyond thought. It is in short transcendent speech or unspoken words.” [2]

Speech and silence then, are two methods of transmitting spiritual instruction.

Through speech and words we are able to access the world of ideas. Through listening to the words of great teachers and reading spiritual books, we expand our consciousness and gain new ways of perceiving and experiencing reality.

In silence, we touch the source of ideas – the supernal essence of Divine thought. The Baal Shem interprets the Rabbinic saying “a fence for wisdom is silence” to mean that when a person is silent, he can reach beyond the world of speech and thought and join himself to the world of wisdom from which all thought originates. Through silence we know a thing, not by analysis or formulation, but by a direct contact with its essence in the Mind of God.

Sri Ramana Maharshi asserts:

“Silence is the true spiritual instruction. It is the perfect spiritual instruction. It is suited only for the most advanced seeker. The others are unable to draw full inspiration from it. Therefore they require words to explain the Truth. But Truth is beyond words. It does not admit of explanation. All that is possible to do is only to indicate it. How is that to be done?” [3]

Speech uses the path of potent sound in prayer and ritual to approach God. Through the repetition of traditional formulations, we draw mind, heart and soul together and create a bond between spirit and matter. Through aspiration and positive thought, we align ourselves with our soul and establish an attuned resonance between our soul and personality.

The path of silence is about creating a space where God can enter. We remove the lower self and make place for the higher Self. We empty ourselves of all speech, thought and feeling and find God in the stillness that remains.

The medieval Christian saint, Saint John of the Cross, writes:

“It is better to learn to silence and quiet the faculties so that God may speak. For in this state…the natural operations must fade from sight. This is realized when the soul arrives at solitude in these faculties, and God speaks to its heart, as the prophet [Hosea 2:14] asserts:  ‘Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.’” [4]

It is when the “normal faculties” have been quieted that this heart to heart talk can take place. Words or feelings only get in the way of the communication. They build a barrier between God and us. In silence, we go straight back to the source of our being and meet the living God that is there.

The Baal Shem saw the process of prayer as a progression from the path of words into the path of silence: words leading to sound leading to thought leading to Nothingness:

” In prayer you must put all your strength into the [pronunciation] of the words. And you shall go from letter to letter until you forget your physicality. And you think that the letters are combining and joining one to the other, and this is a great joy. If also in the material this is a joy, how much more so in the spirit. And this is the World of Formation. And afterwards you will come to the letters of thought and you will not hear what you are saying, and this is because you have come to the World of Creation. And then you come to the attribute of Nothingness – Ayin, that all your physical powers [senses] are annihilated, and this is the World of Emanation, the attribute of wisdom.”

In Jewish tradition speech is the creative force. As Genesis 1: 3 states: “And God said: let there be light, and there was light”, and as Psalm 33:6 proclaims: “By the word of the Lord were the Heavens made.”

Silence too is a powerful spiritual force. Once a devotee asked Sri Ramana Maharshi why he did not go about and preach the Truth to the people at large?

The Maharshi replied:

“How do you know that that I am not doing it? Does preaching consist in mounting a platform and haranguing to the people around? Preaching is simple communication of knowledge. It may be done in Silence too.

“What do you think of a man listening to a harangue for an hour and going away without being impressed by it so as to change his life? Compare him with another who sits in a holy presence and leaves after some time with his outlook on life totally changed. Which is better: To preach loudly without effect or to sit silently sending forth intuitive forces to play on others?”[5]

Though both the path of words and the path of silence will take us towards God, ultimately, God is only heard in the stillness of interior silence. All the words of all the books and teachings of the world’s religions cannot reveal the Lord to us. As Thayumanavar, a famous Indian saint once said: “Silence is the ocean in which all the rivers of all the religions discharge themselves.” [6]

Or as the prophet Elijah discovered: God was not in the fire, nor the wind, nor in the earthquake but in the “still, small voice.”

Copyright ã 2009, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Gems from Bhagavan, complied by Devaraja Mudaliar
  2. Munagala S. Venkataramiah, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi
  3. Venkataramiah, Talks
  4. Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D.
  5. Venkataramiah, Talks
  6. Thayumanavar, Tamil poet and mystic