Reading & Silence

“Today words no longer arise out of silence, through a creative act of the spirit which gives meaning to language and to the silence, but from other words, from the noise of other words. Neither do they return to the silence but into the noise of other words, to become immersed therein.”1

Those of us who still read in pursuit of meaning are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, many contemporary writers of so-called wisdom literature today have little understanding of the relationship of language to silence, and so are little able to awaken the silence in us. On the other hand, most of us as readers have little direct experience of the “substance of silence” in ourselves, and so the words we read fall only on other words and simply increase our own internal noise.

If reading is to be more than a diversion or exercise for the mind, we must find a new way of reading, a way which helps us experience the origins of language and thought both in the writer and in ourselves. For as Picard makes clear (page 6): “In every moment of time, man through silence can be with the origin of all things.” Allied with silence, man participates “not only in the original substance of silence but in the original substance of all things.”

At its best, reading helps us to participate in a primal process of creation and discovery. In reading the great wisdom literature, the words or works of Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus, Milarepa, Socrates, Plato, and so on, one can hear, if one knows how to listen, an underlying call to return to this original substance of silence where deep contemplation and participation can arise. But most of us most of the time are unable to hear this call. We have little practice in listening within as we read. And so we read only words, and the words bounce off of one another and our memories and associations and seldom reveal their inherent power to awaken us to new levels of ourselves.

One might wish to undertake an experiment here, an exercise, to help us listen, and, of course, there are many useful exercises one can try. But the problem with such exercises is that we most often read and hear them in much the same way we read our books—mechanically, with little real presence.

What is presence? What would it mean to be present to ourselves not only as we read but as we do everything else that we do? There is a mystery here, another paradox. To be present, to consciously participate in the creative flow of life, I must return to the original substance of myself and all things; I must return to the unknown, to the “uncarved block,” to the vast underlying silence of myself.

How will I undertake this return? Where will I turn? Am I really interested? Perhaps these questions will take on new significance as I learn to read with presence in my pursuit of meaning.

1 Max Picard, “The World of Silence,” (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952), p. 168.

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