As another year draws to an end, many people are making resolutions for the new year, both for themselves and for the human race. Rather than adding to the weight of unfulfilled resolutions and vows, let me offer a few tips on what to do with silence. (I am assuming all readers of this blog have a refrigerator magnet that says “You have a right to remain silent” and that you exercise that right many times a week. If so, you may find some silences more awkward than others and therefore welcome a tip.)
One of the many kinds of contemplative exercise I have learned through Buddhist practice is one that I have recently read about in connection with Quaker practice. In both of these contemplative traditions there is an exercise that begins by sitting quietly and letting the mind settle as one concentrates on watching the breathing process. Once the mind has settled down from the relatively excited state it maintains during normal waking activity, turn your attention to the some place within the body, such as the region around the heart or in the pit of the stomach; it is best to pick a place in the body where one readily feels physical manifestations of emotional changes. People who are visually oriented may wish to imagine a light shining into that region of the body.
The next step can involved slowly and silently reciting a short list of ethical guidelines. I usually recite in my mind the ten precepts of Buddhism, but one just as easily use the Ten Commandments, or a list of virtues that Stoics recommend cultivating. The object of the exercise is to recite this ethical sayings while keeping attentive to your physical responses to them. If it helps, you can even recite the ethical guideline and then think “Where do I stand in observing this one?” Usually if one recognizes that one's behavior has fallen short of the ideal, there is a physical response that one identifies as a twinge of conscience. Sometimes, if one is paying close attention, one will notice an urge to move on quickly, to run away or to distract oneself. That should be seen as an invitation to stay and hold that feeling in the light, until it is clear where it is coming from. As the feeling is held in the light, it will usually become clear why the feeling of uneasiness has arisen. It will also become clear what one has to do to avoid that uneasiness arising in the future. Et voila! A resolution arises spontaneously.
Because my daily life involves quite a lot of speaking and writing, my practice is to reflect on where I stand with respect to following the guidelines on speech offered by the Buddha.
Before you speak, ask yourself about what you are about to say, Is it true? Is it beneficial to someone? Is there likely to be a receptive audience? If it is not certain that what one feels like saying is true, best not to say it. If it is not going to benefit anyone to hear the words, then why say them? Even if what one has to say is true and beneficial, there may not be anyone around who is likely to receive and welcome what one says. If there is not a receptive audience, then there is not much point is speaking. And even if what feels like saying is true, beneficial and has a receptive audience, this may not be the right time to say this particular thing.
Not infrequently, when I imagine shining a light within my body, I detect some uneasiness arising from a recent failure to heed those guidelines. I recall that I have said something without being fully confident of its accuracy. Often I realize I have recently spoken reactively or in irritation or in hopes of being seen as clever or witty or just to pass time, not to benefit anyone. Sometimes I realize that it should have been obvious that my words would fall on deaf ears. And many times I realize in retrospect that my timing was off. When any of these realizations arise, I hold them in the light. It almost always becomes clear what I should have done in the recent pass, and what I should resolve to do in the future.