Silence: A Way to Wisdom

Silence: A Way to Wisdom

What happens in silence? Many argue that silence can invite reflection, contemplation, and discipline. In other words, silence  — along with inquiry — engages learning. It makes you wise. The significance of silence has been highlighted in practically all mystery traditions. Secrecy and silence play a big part in the masonic teaching. Pythagoras, one of the best known champions of silence, is thought to have said:

Silence is the first stone of the temple of wisdom. Listen and you will be wise; the beginning of wisdom is silence.

Silence is generally considered to mean quietness or not making any sound. And while this is indeed silence, I do not think it is everything silence is. It can also mean to preserve a secret, calm the emotions, or still the mind. There is no real silence when emotional tides are raging within us and when we find our monkey mind chattering to itself. 

Is cultivating silence a way to becoming wise?

I think it would be fair to say that for many Greek philosophers, the quest for wisdom was the be all and end all of philosophy. Basically, many of us want to be wise. To know the truth. To know thyself. To know others. To know our beliefs. To know answers Silence 2to questions. To know, know, know.

However, I am not sure we all want to know silence. Why?

The practice of silence invites us to not-know. Is there room in our seeking for not-knowing? Is there space in our pursuit for un-knowing? Listening? Unlearning? For dumping how we have come to cherish our beliefs? To dismiss the knowledge that we carry in our small boxes of understanding? To be open to a magnificent, wondrous world of undiscovered realities? To hold a mystery?

Can we embrace a secret? Can we live in the question?

The Pythagoreans were huge advocates of secrecy and silence. A wonderful little book called Divine Harmony describes the Pythagorean way of life as it is thought to have existed, although we know little for sure. To become a member, an Initiate took an oath of silence for two to five years. Novices were called “listeners” and were not permitted to partake in class discussions. The ancient brothers were quite serious about silence, believing it develops powers of attention and memory.

The school curriculum consisted of developing a host of virtues in the students. Silence 3Knowledge was transmitted symbolically, through cryptic statements and riddles.

The Pythagorean Y

One of the symbols studied was called the “Pythagorean Y.” Manly P. Hall explains:

The famous Pythagorean Y signified the power of choice and was used in the Mysteries as emblematic of the Forking of the Ways. The central step separated into two parts, one branching to the right and the other to the left. The branch to the right was called Divine Wisdom and the one to the left Earthly Wisdom.

This symbol reminds me of the fork in the road that Robert Frost talks about in his poem,  “The Road Not Taken.” Earthly wisdom or Divine Wisdom? Each path corresponds to a different direction his life may take. He must choose carefully. Left turn or right turn? Mundane or spiritual?

I look back on my own life, wondering how many times I have faced that fork (and still do). I do not always take the road “less traveled.” Sometimes it is just easier to be busy with the mindless daily grind. Wise people are people who make the hard choices, who know things – things that matter. They put that knowledge to good use in practice. I saw a saying the other day on someone’s T shirt that said:

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

Confucius, another wise person, once said that there were three ways to learn Wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and

Third by experience, which is the bitterest.

As we can see the ancient philosophers thought a lot about the nature of wisdom and silence. But what relevance does it have for our modern times?

Silence in a Modern World

First, it seems to me that silence is a very good thing. The powers of observation can lead to truth and wisdom. Moreover, seeking truth and finding wisdom both have Silence 4instrumental value to the modern world.

On the other hand, not all silences are created equal. Some silences don’t lead to truth. We could, I suppose, spend all our time in silence seeking to know every possible truth, but that does not seem like the path of wisdom. What we want to know are silences that matter, that lead to those truths that are relevant to our practical projects and society. Some truths are clearly more actionable than others.

I find encouragement in the exemplary lives of those who have practiced silence, people like Gandhi, the Indian civil rights leader. He is one of the wisest people I know that did great things while being dedicated to spending one day a week in silence. For him, it was a choice to continue to redeem the world and to save the world from our own selves. He knew that a person cannot be wise if he arrogantly over-estimates the power of his own beliefs and judgments. There needs to be humility: to listen and learn, and to give other voices their due.

Thomas Carlyle, philosopher and writer, speaks of a Ghandi type of silence in Sartor Resartus:

Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule.

The great things are not “over there” somewhere. They are all right here, where we are, waiting in silence, the element of not-knowing. Vast. Majestic. Subtle. No knowing them. No rushing them. No trapping them. Only accepting the silence for what it is. And what it will become.

 

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

“I am not the person I was.” We hear that a lot, especially when it comes to growing older and, one hopes, wiser. Indeed, we’re not the same person we were. Over the course of time, our cells die, regenerate, add, delete, change, morph, and eventually we have all new cells. But we retain our name, our memories, our lives. Are we not the same person?

One would argue that of course we are. Or are we? Really?

We cling to our identities like dryer sheets to hot cotton shirts. In our minds, we are who we always have been. We are that twelve-year-old child who swam in the lake as well as that adult who had their first job in fast food. We remember events, creations, or possessions and claim them to be ours.

Conversely, we claim our “self” to exist because of those things. We do not change, or if we do, it is at a glacial pace. We affix our identity in time and space, and like an astronaut, place a flag on it and proclaim it to be ours, to be “true” identity: knowing who we are.Theseus_Helene_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2309_n2

In a recent conversation with a fellow Mason, I was discussing the Ship of Theseus. The paradox is quickly explained in this video: The Paradox of the Ship of Theseus. In essence, the question is this: at what point does the ship cease to become Theseus’ ship and become something else?

If we take one plank from the ship and replace it, we generally can agree that the ship is still Theseus’ ship. At what point, however, do you fix enough broken pieces that the ship becomes something else? My colleague was convinced that the ship remained and always remained Theseus’ ship. For him, the idea of identity stays with the generally recognized “thing” even if the sum of its parts is not original.

Conversely, the argument is this: if I am a thief, and I slowly steal the pieces of Theseus’ ship, replace them with identical parts,  take the original parts, and put them together in my backyard, who has the ship of Theseus? The original owner, or me?

My friend said that the original owner did. I disagree. If I take a painting from the Louvre, and replace it with an identical painting, and everyone recognizes it as the “painting,” who has the “real” painting? In my colleague’s eyes, then, have I really stolen anything?

identityI contend that I have, if nothing else, I have stolen the certainty of the Ship of Theseus. I have stolen, or potentially stolen, the idea of the ship. But these painful musings do have a purpose: they help us work out our identity – the answers to the question of: Who am I?

A brilliant article on this is found on Brainpickings. I would encourage you to watch the other short videos on this site: not only is the one on Who Am I thought-provoking, but there are links to life’s other huge questions. How do I know I exist? What is the Nature of Reality? But, I digress.

The question is, at what point is our self no longer “us?” Is it when all the cells in our body have replaced themselves? What about new neural pathways or brain cells? If we replace a leg or arm or heart, are we the same person? 

Freemasons live by an adage of “Know Thyself,” which also adorned the Oracle of Delphi  at the Temple of Apollo. We must first understand what it is that makes up our “self” and when does that “self” become something else. I think this is a life long exploration and, since the self is constantly undergoing change, are we always who we were? Perhaps not.

But then, where did “we” go? Does our identity persist? If it does so, how? What makes us, us?fingerprint

I asked my fellow Mason about clones, which sent us down an entirely different path, discussing identical twins, and the like. Does time make a difference? If a plank is rotten on Theseus’ ship, and it is replaced, does that make identity linger, as opposed to replacing a “new” plank? If I change my mind about how I feel about something, am I still the same person? What if I create new habits? What then?

We are ever seeking to understand our true natures; yet, our true nature is ever-changing. Freemasonry teaches us about the cycles of life, death, rebirth, nature. and science. It teaches us all of Life’s Mysteries. If stagnation is death and change is life, how can we ever be the same person moment to moment? Perhaps that is the mystery that we must ever follow: a constant, persistent discovery of who we are, and what we are doing.