why silence is golden

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GREAT SAGES FROM ALL AGES have been known for their silence. "He who knows does not speak," said Lao Tzu, "And he who speaks does not know."

Silence is golden. There might more wisdom in this saying than most people have guessed. In experiments, speaking raises blood pressure and listening lowers it. And it's not just because you're making sounds. Reading aloud alone does not raise blood pressure, but reading aloud to someone does.

Let's look at this for a minute. Let's say you were committed to becoming calmer and more serene. With that commitment, very soon you would realize that mostly listening in the presence of others would help you be more serene. You would notice that jumping in with your opinions definitely doesn't help create tranquillity in yourself or others. Arguing politics or religion can definitely destroy any calmness you may have achieved.

Nervous, pointless chitchat doesn't help create calmness, either, but sometimes small talk does. You'll have to pay attention to what's happening and most importantly, you'll need to keep the goal in mind (becoming more tranquil). What has been missing is the goal, not the ability. If you haven't been aiming for tranquillity — if you were aiming for persuasiveness or being right, or trying to prove how smart you are — you would never discover why silence is golden.

Spouting opinions, arguing, trying to make yourself right, reacting to things without having given it a lot of thought, spewing memes carelessly into the memosphere — these do not bring peace. They do not help you live in tranquillity.

I don't think once in 47 years I've ever caused myself trouble or hurt someone's feelings with silence, but I've done it with speaking hundreds or even thousands of times.

But there are several arguments one can make against this general policy. For example, you have a lot to teach which will be lost if you don't share it. Silence doesn't seem very golden from this perspective.

But if your teachings aren't thought out, even good information given in the wrong way or at the wrong time or to the wrong person can create unnecessary problems. The principle is not "never speak" but to be mostly silent. And besides, isn't example also a good way to teach? And if you are mostly silent, doesn't what you do say get more respect?

Another argument against being mostly silent is that you'll miss opportunities to straighten out people (especially your children or your employees) if you only speak when you've thought through what you want to say.

But after you've thought it out, your "straightening out" will be much more effective, and you can do it at the right time in the right way and while you're in the right state (calm and peaceful and kindly).

How many times have you regretted saying something without thinking first? Plenty. But can you think of a single instance where you regretted thinking about something first?

Another argument is that opinions should be changed if they're wrong.

Opinions are rarely changed by argument. Sometimes they are changed by one good question, timed right and delivered without self-righteousness. This requires time to think things through, and a great deal of silence and a general state of calmness. But for the most part, as much as we natural arguers try to fool ourselves, studies show that even making a good case for something almost never changes a person's mind if they already believe something else.

Another objection is, "Won't people think you're a dunce if you don't say much?"

Probably just the opposite. They're more likely to think you're wiser, and if you're a good listener, they'll think you must be very smart to listen to them with so much interest and attention.

What if you listened a lot and offered your opinion rarely? What would happen if you offered information or advice only when people asked you for it? What if you offered chitchat rarely, and did a lot of listening and observing and thinking about things? It would be easier to maintain a deep calm. And you'd grow wiser.

No, I say unto you the wise are eager to listen and think and hesitant to speak. Silence is golden. 

articles on buddhism for the 21st century

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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