Silence: A Common Theme Across All Religions

Friday November 25 was National Day of Listening, a day that invites us to pause and make an extra effort to do a little less talking and a little more listening.

In a world increasingly dominated by chatter and frenzied movement, silence and stillness have become rare luxuries. That space of pause which is so necessary for renewal is one of the most underrated features in our lives — like sleep. It is only in still waters that you can see the clarity of reflection as well as the truth of what lies beneath. Still waters run deep. The greatest creative insight emerges out of quiet stillness. All religions preach this, in one form or another.

On a cosmic scale, getting in touch with stillness can help us get closer to a sense of the ultimate reality, that infinite knowledge repository that lies within us all. Many religions suggest that stillness and emptiness are the qualities that underlie all existence. Apophatic language — demonstrating what something is like by describing what it is not — is a common practice in religious and theological writings. Because we cannot know God directly, we cannot use direct language to accurately think about or understand God. In silence and observation, we can see God in the world around us.

One of the goals of religious practice is the attainment of internal peace. Prophets, saints and sages have spent long stretches in mountains and forests, away from the civilized world, in silence. With silence emerges laser-sharp clarity. Just as those who are constantly speaking are never listening, we cannot listen to our deeper voice if the surface chatter doesn’t stop.

The famous author of the book Sapiens, Yuval Harari, annually goes for a Vipassana retreat which entails remaining totally silent for ten days at a time. Almost all those who complete the Vipassana meditation vouch for the effectiveness of meditation in calming their minds and reducing the chatter of the mind. This observation is supported by recent studies in neuroscience that suggest that observing silence is restorative for the nervous system and helps our minds to better adapt to the increasing complexity of our life situations. The recent research of Duke Medical School’s Imke Kirste indicates that silence is associated with the development of new cells in the hippocampus, the key brain region associated with learning and memory.

Another example that is perhaps a bit more relatable is music. The impact of music is not only because of the sounds, but also because of the silence interspersed between sounds: without the balance of sound and silence, there would be no music as we know it. This can be seen as a metaphor for life: we crave excitement and the highs of life, but without the more mundane moments of life, these exciting moments would not seem as special.


I have often repented of speech but hardly ever of silence.
C.S. Lewis, writer and Christian theologian

“When [Jesus] was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge — to the great amazement of the governor.”

— The New Testament (Matthew 27:12–13), Christian text


“Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.”

— Hebrew Bible (Proverbs 21:23), Jewish text

“R. Simeon ben Gamaliel said: I spent all my life among sages and found nothing better for a person than silence. He who talks too much brings on sin.”

— Sefer Ha-Aggadah, collection of Jewish writings


“Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent.”

— The Prophet Muhammad

“Wounds of knives can heal, but the wounds of the tongue can never heal.”

— Hadrat Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad

“Quietness is the surest sign that you’ve died. Your old life was frantic running from silence. The speechless full moon comes out now.”

— Rumi, A sufi poet


“Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate.”

— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader

“For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.”

— Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i prophet


For restraint in speech, he shall observe silence; for control over the body, he shall fast; for control over the mind, breath control (pranayama) is prescribed.”

— Sannyasa Upanishad, Hindu text


“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything.”

— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher

“Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity. Real calmness should be found in activity itself. We say, ‘It is easy to have calmness in inactivity, it is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness.’”

— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher

“There’s a radio playing in our head, Radio Station NST: Non-Stop Thinking. Our mind is filled with noise, and that’s why we can’t hear the call of life, the call of love. Our heart is calling us, but we don’t hear. We don’t have the time to listen to our heart.”

— Thích Nhất Hạnh, Buddhist monk


“Those who know don’t talk
Those who talk don’t know.”

— Tao Te Ching, Daoist text

“As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way;

As for names, the name that can be named is not the constant name.

The nameless is the beginning of the ten thousand things;

The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.”

— Tao Te Ching, Daoist text


“‘The gentleman is judged wise by a single word he utters; equally, he is judged foolish by a single word he utters. That is why one really must be careful of what one says.”

— The Analects (19:25), Confucian text

“The Master said, ‘I am thinking of

giving up speech.’ Tzu-kung said, ‘If you did not speak, what would there

be for us, your disciples, to transmit?’ The

Master said, ‘What does Heaven ever say? Yet

there are the four seasons going round and

there are the hundred things coming into

being. What does Heaven ever say?’”

— The Analects (17:19), Confucian text

Modern Philosophy and Theology

“The unsaid can be a powerful and paradoxical means of coming to voice.”
— Michelle Voss Roberts, scholar of theology



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