How Silence Leads Us to Awe

A Buddhist lama and an ex-priest discuss the benefits of turning off the noise in our daily lives.
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“I think all awe renders us silent, and therefore all experiences of awe are this quick trip back to no sound, no word, to nothingness.”

Photo by Yuga Kurita/Getty Images

The Reverend Matthew Fox is a former Dominican priest in the Catholic Church. In 1993, he was expelled by the Vatican for espousing feminism and other progressive ideas in his Institute for Creation Spirituality. Lama Tsomo is an American-born secular Jew who embraced Tibetan Buddhism as a young person. After a career in psychology, she studied Buddhism at home and abroad and was ordained a lama in the Namchak lineage in 2005.

Fox and Tsomo’s new book, The Lotus & the Rose, features a series of conversations in which the friends explore the essential principles shared by Buddhism and Christianity, as well as the differences that distinguish them. 

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Matthew Fox: I think all creativity comes out of an encounter with silence. And when you think about what is an experience of awe, for example, it shuts you up.

There’s a great story of Job. Job had all these troubles, you know. He’s arguing with everybody and, then finally, God reveals himself to Job. And God says, “Were you there when I formed the world? Were you there when the lion was born?” and so forth. And then it says that Job put his hand over his mouth and he shut up. He learned some silence. But with hand over your mouth is a sense of awe. I think all awe renders us silent, and therefore all experiences of awe are this quick trip back to no sound, no word, to nothingness.

And that’s why they’re so valuable, and we have to build our lives, our culture, our education, our spiritual lives, on those profound experiences that take us beyond. For one thing, if you look at it physiologically, it’s beyond our left brain. It’s our left brain that wants to talk. The right brain is happy to be silent or make music or try another language. That takes you closer to carrying on the journey of awe. I like to see art as humanity’s capacity to increase awe in the universe. So, everything we do that’s beautiful brings more awe, and therefore more silence.

Lama Tsomo: And purifies vision.

Matt: Purifies vision. And purifies the visionary—that is, the artist gets purified in the work.

Tsomo: There’s a corollary to the Buddha: The students asked him to describe pure truth, what he saw. And he fell silent. So it’s a famous moment in Buddhism, as well. Nevertheless, maybe we can sneak a peek at it by saying what it’s not. Because one thing it’s not is a vacuum, an unknowing vacuum. There’s a cognizance about it. There’s awareness about it.

Matt: John of the Cross calls it silent music.

Tsomo: Actually, in music, between the notes there’s silence. You can’t have music without silence.

Matt: It’s allowing the between the notes into us. Whereas our culture, especially now, is so busy with all notes, and no silence.

Tsomo: Yeah, that’s right. I talked with this Tibetan doctor, about space being the fifth element; they have the four elements, the fifth being space. And I asked, “So how does that work on a psychological level?” And he said, “If there’s no space between thoughts, that is the definition of insanity.” And haven’t we been coming closer and closer to that? … Now that we count in nanoseconds, between thought events, I think we’re approaching that.

Matt: So honoring space, honoring emptiness, and, of course, in our own lives, finding room and space, creating solitude—even if it means structuring time during the day, or a corner of our room, or a room in the house, or a walk in the woods, whatever it takes. I think a lot of men who are not rewarded for displaying their contemplative side, cover it up by going fishing and calling it, “Oh, we’re going fishing.” Or going hunting in the woods. I mean, 95 percent of a hunting trip or a fishing trip is doing nothing. [Laughs] Waiting.

That’s something the masculine energy of our culture not only does not reward, it tends to ridicule. A lot of what we call men’s sport is really a subtle quest for meditation, and for honoring this need we have for space. And even a lot of conflict between men and women, husbands and wives, is over silence. I think as a gender, women tend to be more extroverted—that is, to talk their issues out in circles of other women, for example, and then also at home, with their husbands. Whereas many men are more introverted by nature, and we have to process it silently. So there’s often this conflict between talking out issues, and kind of processing them.

Tsomo: Processing them verbally versus inside?

Matt: Yes, exactly. And men have no one to process them with in a way unless they have a very special relationship with women or other men in their lives. But our culture, Western culture, leaves us with very few practices to honor this intrinsic, natural need we have for silence and honoring the nothingness and the emptiness. So I think this is one more place where Buddhist practices can really bring some balance back to Western culture.

Tsomo: You spoke of extrovert and introvert, regarding men and women, and I would have to say that as far as processing verbally, that may be the case, but then there are other ways in which women tend toward introverted and focused.

Matt: And other ways men tend to extrovert themselves: “Hey, let’s make a war! How ’bout a good war?”

Tsomo: Or by accomplishing things in the world. A woman can accomplish quite a bit just by gestating a baby, creating milk for them, for example. I’m just taking the biological differences. And men’s work is more extroverted in that regard. And men do often take their self-worth from their outer career, as opposed to who they are.

Matt: And men who have chosen a more artistic profession entertain their powers of silence and inner solitude, artists who have their own studio out of the house, the back room or something. And writers demand their silence, and so forth.

So I think many men do come to this, but it’s more in terms of their vocation, if you will, their work, than necessarily seeing it as spiritual practice, or religion, or anything like that.

Excerpt from The Lotus & the Rose by Reverend Matthew Fox and Lama Tsomo, published by permission of the authors and Namchak Publishing Company LLC. Copyright 2018, Lotus & Rose LLC.  YES! Media receives philanthropic support from Lama Tsomo through her foundation.