John the Solitary – the famous one – said that there are levels of silence. Our own daily practice of meditation will gradually reveal them. It doesn’t help to imagine or anticipate them but the small sketch that he gives can be useful and help us to persevere whenever we feel discouraged or that we have got stuck. It’s always good to be reminded that there is more to come.
The first kind of silence is that of the tongue. St James addresses this when he urges his early fellow-Christians to guard their speech. The tongue is a like a rudder, he says, very small but with a great influence on the direction we are going. It is obvious enough that we should control our speech when we feel like saying something violent, merely hurtful or spiteful whether it is direct or concealed in humour. It is hard then because we would like to get our angry feelings off our chest. But words spoken in anger and intended to hurt (because the other person deserves it) falls into the same trap as all violence. It never achieves what it promises and it always makes matter worse.
There is however another kind of restraint of speech. Most of our utterances are mindless, they don’t mean what they say, often their main meaning is to fill in the embarrassment of silence and are usually quite trivial. I don’t mean we should always be speaking about sublime realities; but we should always mean to communicate something helpful, meaningful or actual. Empty chatter is the verbal equivalent of promiscuity. Controlling the tongue, knowing when to start talking and when to stop is like being chaste.
When we sit to meditate the first and obvious step is to cease speaking, even not moving our lips or tongue as we say the mantra. With children we sometimes say the mantra aloud a few times with decreasing volume but they soon find they can go straight into reciting it interiorly and silently. This feels a great relief because we often don’t realise how undisciplined and superficial our manner of speaking can be, how often we slither into gossip or. Resting the tongue frees the mind to start moving heartwards.
But first we have to deal with what is disrupting the other level where silence has something more to teach us.