Alvin Ochanda – Kenya

[This article was a talk by Alvin Ochanda, at the Nairobi Lodge in Kenya, on July 24, 2013. Here it has been edited for style and coherence.]

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, [Keep silent for five minutes.]


That has been some silence. But have we really been silent? We were not talking, no one made a sound, and scientifically silence is the absence of sound, or relatively very low vibrations of sound. So, were we really silent? Superficially, yes, but when we look at that silence more closely, we realize that there was a lot going on in and outside us, so much so that what we have just experienced as silence was not silence in a deep sense. So what was going on? What is the purpose of noise on the outside?

Maybe, in our minds, we traveled home to attend to some chore, or maybe we even traveled great distances to the other side of this earth. Looking into someone’s eyes immediately starts a conversation, talking without making a sound. Is that what silence is?

Silence can at times be more disturbing than noise, probably even irritating or scary, because it reveals the complicated mechanisms of our thought patterns. Only through silence are we able to realize how our mind jumps from one thought to another, not being able to settle on one thought for a long period of time. That jumping about reveals the restlessness of the mind. It brings to surface our weakness in concentration. Therefore silence is a good thing because it is the great gate through which we are able to see our true behavior of mind, and thereby to hold the mind still so that it’s able to dwell on one thought for a longer while, whatever other thoughts may arise. Mental stillness gives us power because, when we are able to dwell on one thought for a long time, then we are able to understand completely the subject of that thought, thoroughly covering the subject of the thought and thereby mastering it. This is the quality of concentration.

Fear of silence results when the mind gives rise to fearful thoughts brought about by uncertainty or unfamiliarity with silence. Basically, that is fear of the unknown. But silence is the source from which everything springs forth, the beginning of existence and awareness.

Most people today suffer unconsciously from a fear of silence, common symptoms of which are the following: when someone enters a house, immediately switching on a TV or radio; humming or singing when alone; or if young people lose their ear phones, having a mild panic attack — so grave is this disorder that they will spend all the money they left to buy a new pair of earphones. Another symptom is feeling so uneasy in a crowd of people that you say something that embarrasses you. This phobia gives rise to many sorrows; to transcend this fear, we have to understand that there is no place in this world that is empty or silent or lonely. Presumably in a world of six billion people, it is very hard to find such a place. But in trying to find it, you just have to retreat back into yourself, into your thoughts.

Trying to evade the fear of silence only postpones the fear. You must face the silence head on and start being mindful and appreciative of the silence. Listen to the quiet, and grow accustomed to the silence, bit by bit. because silence is everywhere, in the spaces between the noises, before and after a piece of music. It is the canvas for the painting of life. Mindfulness (living in the present) tames the mind and makes it able to face the silence in peace and calm, without giving rise to doubt or to fearful and weird thoughts.

In 1951, a musical artist and composer, by the name of John Cage, wanted to experience complete silence. He feared for the future of music, thinking that with silence there would be an end to music. To experience complete silence, engineers created a room in which there was no sound, called an anechoic chamber (meaning without echo). An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling, and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. Such a chamber is also externally sound-proofed. So, Cage entered the chamber expecting to experience complete silence. But to his shock that was not what he experienced. He later wrote, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. Cage concluded: “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.”

Cage’s experience of the impossibility of silence led to his concluding that there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. Sounds occur whether intended or not. And so the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion is called music. The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.

We therefore realize that silence is hard to find, if you are searching or looking in the wrong places, especially with all the electronic devices and machines we have, roaring and making all forms of sounds. Have you ever heard a song that keeps ringing in your mind over and over again. Such noise occupies our minds and make silence hard to reach, But the silence is inherently always there. We have to search for silence in the right places and make time to enjoy it every day. Everyone instinctively knows that deep inside each one of us there is a beautiful realm that relaxes, revitalizes, and welcomes us with open arms to dwell in the peace within, untouchable. That is the place to search for the silence we so much long for.

As Mahatma Gandhi has rightly said, “In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.”

It is good to be silent. When we are at the feet of the master, we are advised to keep silent, we should have no desire to speak. And if we must speak, to speak little. It is best to say nothing, unless what is to be said is true, kind, and helpful. The qualifications for chelaship are said to be — to know, to dare, to will, and to be silent. To be silent is the hardest of them all. We should always think well before speaking. It is difficult to keep quiet, especially when we learn something new, or with great enthusiasm. Then words will vex us and will seem to want to leave our mouths. But practice and time give us strength to overcome that feeling. Silence will help to prevent us from displaying our stupidity in public. Others may even think we are wise, even though silence may not be a mark of wisdom. Silence is a giver, and noise is a taker. So always opt for silence. An old adage says, “Empty vessels make the most noise.”

The universal symbol for silence is placing the index finger in front of closed lips. This gesture can be used to demand silence without raising one’s voice. The rose, sometimes depicted clasped by or on top of closed lips, is another well-recognized symbol of silence.

We should strive for silence. No one will hand us silence on a silver platter. We must find our own silence and hold on to it, because silence is golden, and like all good things, it does not come easy. The sweetest and most nutritious fruits may come from thorny trees. So it is that silence may not look appealing at first. It is often associated with boredom, sleep, and loneliness. But after experiencing it, we will not be able to hold ourselves back from getting more and more of it. For example, we may decide to observe a silent fast. That is, we will fast from talking for a day or two or even a week, during which we may met with so much resistance or even hostility that we will be shocked at how so few people can stand silence. People will keep asking us, are you OK, is everything all right, are you sure you’re not sick, and so on and so forth. Some may even feel offended by our silence and may even press us to make us speak.

Silence is the great gateway to the self; through it one may be able to reach depths of intuition. And for such a great reward no one should abide any interruption in the process. Take silence seriously. A right to silence has been incorporated into the basic laws of almost all the countries in the world in order to protect us against a charge of perjury (lying under oath). But again this raises a question: Does being silent make you not a liar? Of course not, because when the truth is replaced by silence, then that silence is a lie. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it in Virginibus Puerisque, “The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” When a wrong is committed, it is wrong not to speak it out against it. In the “Golden Stairs” we are advised to make “a valiant defense of those who are unjustly attacked.”

Silence is a healer. It should be a hushed, peaceful silence. Let any depressing thoughts come to the surface and, after a thorough examination of the thoughts, let them go, knowing that through Mother Nature all will be well and that nothing is impossible.

Listening is also a kind of silence that will relieve the suffering of another person, also known as compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to let the other person pour out his or her heart. Even if they say things that are full of wrong perceptions or bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Such listening gives the other person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help the other person to correct their perception, you wait for another time. At that moment, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, the other person loses their chance. You just listen with compassion and help the other to suffer less. Time spent like this results in transformation and healing.

All the great teachers advocated silence: Orpheus, Pythagoras, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Apollonius of Tyana, Ammonius Saccas. The Pythagorean students who went to his school in Crotona were required to burn all their belongings and give away all their money. Then they stayed for three to five years in silence, immersed in deep study.

After a period of profound and sustained silence, people are able to break through in great ways. For example, Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in 1964, was able to experience prolonged silence until he was released in 1990. After his release, he plunged himself wholeheartedly into his life’s work, striving to attain the goals he had set out almost four decades earlier. He is an icon of Black history.

All the great teachers had their moments of silence. Gautama Buddha sat under the Bodhi or pipal (fig) tree, where he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth. Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness. Mother Teresa said, “In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”

Identifying the Silence: Most of us have not made any noise for a very long time, but now we are going to make noise, not really noise but a sound for two seconds. It does not have to be loud but at least make a sound, any sound of your choice that you feel most comfortable with will do, Make it as loud as you feel comfortable doing. If you want to shout, fine; you are allowed to do so. For example, I will make the sound WAAAA! So at the count of three, let us all make some such noise in unison. O.K., 1, 2, 3 ... WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

(After silence for a few seconds:) That was good. Let’s do it again. (Repeat the noise.) Right there is the silence we are looking for. You may have noticed immediately at the end of the noise, there was a silence. Just before the mind starts to churn out more thoughts, a profound silence lasted for almost a second. At that moment, you could not tell what was happening, because you were stuck in a kind of limbo, a silence that you temporarily got lost in. You could not measure the moment of that silence. You could not differentiate between yourself and the silence. You could not define your physical location. But you were powerful at that very moment. That is the silence we are looking for. We have just tasted what silence is.

There is a silence when you have been asked a question to which you have no answer. There is a silence when you are told something so honest that you need a few minutes to digest it. There is a silence after a door closes and you are all alone in a house. These are very small, temporary moments in which we are able to experience real silence. Sometimes we let the silence slip away, without noticing it, but we can capture such small exquisite moments if we pay a little more attention to their occurrences. Nature will give us a glimpse into the eternal by various hints. For example, when the last drop of water falls from a tap into a bucket, there is a silence. With practice we can pause and prolong that silence for a deep experience. Silence is not the absence of something; it is the presence of everything.

Now that we have a vague idea of the type of silence we are looking for, join me in a little exercise to try to experience the basic wholesome silence. (1) Sit comfortably in an upright position. (2) Gently close your eyes. (3) Observe the silence of your physical body. We are not talking and the body is not moving. (Spend 5 minutes doing this.) (4) As we observe the silence of the physical, we are not talking and the body is not moving; let us observe the silence of our emotions, feeling nothing. (Spend 5 minutes doing this.) (5) Let us observe the silence of the mind, placing our full attention on the breath, naturally going in and out. (Spend 5 minutes doing this.) Gradually return to your usual awareness of the world around you.

A few quotations on Being Silent

“Be silent or let thy words be worth more than silence.” ― Pythagoras

“My friend, I am not what I seem. Seeming is but a garment I wear — a care-woven garment that protects me from thy questionings and thee from my negligence. The “I” in me, my friend, dwells in the house of silence, and therein it shall remain forever more, unperceived, unapproachable.” ― Kahlil Gibran

“Make peace with silence, and remind yourself that it is in this space that you'll come to remember your spirit. When you’re able to transcend an aversion to silence, you’ll also transcend many other miseries. And it is in this silence that the remembrance of God will be activated.” ― Wayne W. Dyer

“And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand: Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” — Jesus in Matthew 15:10

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