On the Ethics of Silence

“The Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao”

“He who knows does not speak; He who speaks does not know.”

I speak now, because I do not know. I’m wondering aloud.

The Taoist philosophy outlines various principles which seem to intermingle and relate intimately to one another. An attitude of humility, for instance, allows one to live a life of simplicity. Humility, combined with acceptance, allows for one to live a life of simplicity with contentment. Acceptance, as a form of trust in the Tao, allows one to observe the phenomenon of wu wei and te – the effortless action which is born by the very virtue of a thing’s natural being. Compassion, which arises out of letting go of one’s expectations of others so that one is no longer ‘disappointed’ and one can simply take them as they are, arises from acceptance, humility, and contentment. But in compassion, humility, and acceptance, there is a profound sense of… how can I put it? My tongue wants to use various words, but each time I select one I’m about to use, my mind points out how much of a ‘negative’ connotation that word has to Western minds. Take for instance ‘powerlessness’ – yes, but not that you’re defenseless or helpless – just that in accepting things as they are, as they arise and pass before you, you accept the inevitability (again another ‘negatively charged’ word!) of things. Deeper still, you feel a sense of absurdity (gah!) of it all – or maybe ‘unfathomability’ of it all. The Tao happens, and the unsettled mind will feel the need to choose whether to like it or not, whereas if you are ‘with the Tao’ – if you happen with it – then the thought of ‘liking’ or not doesn’t even occur.

This leads me to the heart of my post today: silence. Given that you finally ‘know’ this profound inevitability of things, that you ‘know’ that you are exactly the way you are (in the sense that you’re exactly the way you’re supposed to be), then is there really a need to speak? You can be joyously ‘in the zone’, day-in, day-out. You’ll be so ‘in the moment’, and this, moment-to-moment, that you’ll ‘handle’ whatever comes your way in the most appropriate way for that instant. Walking down a busy street, there would be no need to shout “get out of my way” to someone, because you would see them coming, you would naturally ‘flow’ around them – or you could experience that beautifully ‘human’ moment where you both share a ‘who goes left or right’ dance, then catch yourselves in each other’s eyes, laugh together, and go your own ways. But not a word is necessary!

So this morning I mused on this further still: imagine a whole society of people ‘in the know’ (‘in the now’/’in the Tao’). Imagine the normal daily interactions of a couple at home. Without words, the waking kiss is shared. Without words, breakfast is prepared. But does each make their own breakfast? Who’s turn is it this morning? Does it matter? You bump into each other at the fridge maybe, or at the kitchen sink – each is in the other’s way. In that instant, spontaneously, and selflessly, a mutual decision is made.

See, another principle of Taoism is attention/attentiveness – this isn’t a ‘requirement’, but rather ‘arises naturally from’ someone who has let go of themselves. Without the self, there is no need for ‘other’ – it just is. So you behave in the interest of all – and without noticing it. So with this attentiveness-without-notice the subtle cues of body language no longer whisper – they are decisive.

Coming back to the breakfast: who wants what? Both are content with whatever’s at hand. But the Tao invites, in its ‘absurdity’, creativity and fun. So maybe today breakfast is scrambled-eggs, but you’ve got left-over salmon – so you throw it all together and it’s delicious! And those sprigs of mint that are looking a bit withered: drop them in the pot of black tea, the mint doesn’t have to look pretty, hidden at the bottom of a teapot – but Oh! how refreshing it is on the tongue! But I digress…

I wanted to push this notion of silence further. I wanted to figure out how it could possibly work. It’s not unheard-of (pardon me!) that groups of people cohabit in silence – there are monastic orders who’ve managed just fine. To them, silence is solemn. But to Taoists, silence is born out of futility, of harmony, of a kind of symbiosis that borders on telepathy. And joyfully, to Taoists, if you do happen to speak – you aren’t punished for it! Instead, speech, and vocal sound returns to a primary purpose – to make a sound when it is needed. A cat meows for attention. Dogs bark to warn, or many other reasons. Birds sing to alarm also or to attract a mate or to find each other over distances – or just because it bloody-well feels like it!
In silence, sound gains authenticity.

On that note, what about lies? Would lying be even possible without speaking? I suppose so. If I’ve noticed that you’re looking for the salt, for example, and I have it; I could very-well hide it from your sight. And more: rudeness is possible without words. I could push you out of the way to get to somewhere first. But, to continue this Taoist experiment, then you’d be ‘pushed’ to react – in outrage, as would only be ‘natural’ given my rudeness. So my behaviour might earn me all kinds of hell to pay later. You could give me the silent ‘silent treatment’ – where you bodily ‘ignore’ me. You could walk away every time I got near or entered the room. Oh, that’d be awful…

But that makes me think of animals in their natural habitat – say the lion cub who’s gone a bit overboard in its playfulness and has irritated an adult: that would earn the cub a swift bat of the paw – maybe even a toothy snarl. But the reprimand serves not to control the cub, but to ‘inform’ it of the adult’s limits and boundaries. So it is as minimal as it needs to be. The cub isn’t verbally scolded for hours – while it loses its attention and gets bored – or forcefully ‘educated’ on how, in general, most adult lions have only so much patience. No, instead the cub is left to discover in its own time, in its own terms, where the boundaries lie, and which lion(esse) it should give a wider berth to… education and social harmony can be achieved without words. But it works through the ‘absurdity’ of the Tao: there is no ‘need’ for trust, because there’s no dishonesty or mistrust – in turn because there is no ‘expectation’. There is no ‘need’ for compassion, because there is no cruelty – because there is ‘simplicity’, ‘humility’, and ‘disinterest’. Through the the simplicity of so many things, many others become ‘irrelevant’.

Yes, I think that if one were to fully ‘let go’ – to properly ‘know’ the Eternal Tao, one might, spontaneously fall into silence more than have recourse to useless noise-making…

I don’t know, but I’m intrigued by the nature and purpose of sound and speech now… 🙂

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “On the Ethics of Silence

    1. Aw, thanks.

      Why do you say (gah!) after absurdity?

      The communication of internal states is beautiful because it allows animals to know more of reality. But it becomes more powerful when we focus for a while on interacting silently.

      You might be interested in Donna Williams’ memoir of autism (and being nonverbal), Nobody Nowhere.

      1. Thanks for the recommendation! I will look into it.

        I said “Gah!” in the sense of “Drat! There’s another negatively-charged word! I can’t get away from them!” 😉

  1. This is a profoundly beautiful observation: “you behave in the interest of all – and without noticing it.”

    I was once talking to the abbot of a monastery and quite out of the blue, he asked me “what do you think is the highest?” I stared into mid-space for perhaps one or two seconds, no more, before replying “harmlessness”. I didn’t know where the thought came from, or how I’d arrived at it, and I wasn’t at all sure it made sense to myself or to the abbot. The abbot just smiled a knowing smile at the time. About twenty years later, I realised that that answer was the perfect one, and also that its arrival had nothing to do with me in its appearing then as it did – you understand? So, your quote above very much reminded me of this, Thomas, in that harmlessness, which is another name for behaving in the interest of all, has to flow unnoticed, meaning in an uncontrived manner. Thankyou, this is a really very lovely essay, and I leave you in gratitude and respect, Hariod.

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