Silence and the Limitations of Language

Silence and the Limitations of Language March 12, 2013

Silence has been on my mind the past couple of weeks.

“To Keep Silence” is one of the Four Powers of the Sphinx, which was explained in detail in Thorn Coyle’s new book Make Magic of Your Life. This is the need to allow time for gestation and the workings of Mystery. Silence allows magic to manifest in ways we could never imagine if we insist on controlling everything.

Last week I attended a lecture by Dr. Paul Clark, Steward of the Fraternity of the Hidden Light. In speaking of keeping silence, Dr. Clark said “when you talk about your magical goals, you’re saying you already have what you want – that what you really wanted was to talk about it, not to have it.” I’m not sure I totally agree with that, but he’s absolutely right that talking about magic is a sure way to derail it.

On a different note, in response to his ritual experience of Morrigan at Pantheacon, Teo Bishop asked How Do We Talk About the Workings of a Goddess? Teo says that while he can talk about the transformation Morrigan is working in him, he cannot talk about Her. And what he describes may be expressed in words but it is clearly a non-verbal experience:

This theism, this religiosity, is motivated by the visceral feeling of this skin, this flesh, these parts that are filled with the blood we all share. In this blood is iron – iron!!

Our religious and magical experiences of silence can be strong. But because we are verbal creatures, eventually we process and interpret those experiences using language – we put them into words even if we don’t speak those words aloud.

And that has long led me to speculate about the religious experiences of our distant ancestors who did not have language. Were their experiences incomplete or somehow less than ours because they did not have the tool of language for interpretation? Or were they more complete because they were experienced with their whole beings and not forced into the constructs and limitations of language?

There are two main theories as to when humans developed the capacity for language and speech. One theory says it occurred about 200,000 years ago – that language is part of what makes us Homo sapiens sapiens. The second theory says we developed it later, about 50,000 years ago when the human population exploded and began the second major migration out of Africa. We will likely never know which theory is correct: “language leaves no fossils.”

But regardless of when language evolved, it clearly came after the beginnings of religion – or at least, after the beginnings of religious experience and behavior. We have found burials with grave goods among the species that preceded Homo sapiens. And in the animal world, we see the beginnings of social and moral behavior, as well as responses to death (grieving, consoling, even burials).

What did our non-verbal ancestors experience when they saw a sunrise, or the sea shore, or a birth, or a death? How did they interpret dreams – particularly dreams of the recent dead – without language? How did they contemplate their own pending deaths? They were far more like us than not, but without language, they were different. How different?

The gods, spirits, and natural phenomena that communicated with them “spoke” in images and feelings, not in words. What communications are we missing because we are listening only for words? What meaning and wisdom are we missing because we attempt to force all experiences into the wide but limited model of language? Is it any wonder some of our most profound religious experiences are ecstatic, when we are not silent but are incapable of words?

How can we adjust our daily practices and personal devotions to be more receptive to non-verbal communication? How can we adjust our group rituals to be less about the words we speak and more about the things we do? How can we adjust our expectations to accept that some things cannot be explained because they are not just non-verbal, they are pre-verbal?

I like writing and speaking. Some of my best ritual work has been in composing moving liturgies. But for all its tremendous usefulness, language has limits. The practice of silence supports our magical work and our spiritual growth, and it prepares us for religious experiences that transcend language. Let us not fear to venture where words cannot follow.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kimberly Kirner

    As an anthropologist (and one that does not specialize in early humans), I hesitate to provide a guess about what our distant ancestors experienced spiritually. However, as a mystic, horsewoman, and a visual (as opposed to verbal) thinker, I can offer some thoughts based on my own experience. An increasing number of horse behaviorists now think that horses think and communicate in images, and observe that horse training is improved through communicating visual thoughts to horses. Horses will respond almost instantaneously to a rider’s thoughts, if these thoughts are visual rather than verbal. The scientific explanation is that the visual thought in the rider causes minor adjustments to the rider’s posture that would communicate the desired response in the horse, but I’m not sure I buy this based on what I’ve observed. The thing is, the horse doesn’t have to have a rider. It might be ground work, even on a long lead. Horses respond to the collective thoughts of people as well, and some trainers who work in front of a crowd will ask the entire crowd to think a certain visual thought to help the horse know what to do. I’ve seen it work enough times with horses with behavioral problems to believe there is some alternate form of communication that most other intelligent, social animals probably use and that humans are capable of but have largely forgotten — and that this form of communication seems to be visual. I can’t say I have ever received distinctly “religious” messages from my horses, but I have had visual messages “break in” the way that they do in my mystical life from the gods, elementals, and other such other-than-human beings. And these messages have all been accurate (as to the horse’s history as I’ve later confirmed it) and visual. That is, horses never tell you, they show you. In my practice as a Druid, I have also had experiences of communication with trees, bodies of water, stars, rocks, and the earth as a whole. Invariably, these forms of communication are visual, tactile, and experiential. They are ways of knowing that I may translate into language (imperfectly, to lesser or greater degree) but that do not come to me in the medium of language.

    As a lifelong mystic (I was raised as such), I have had experiences and visual “messages” from what I consider to be the Divine long before I have had words to express their truths, and in many cases, I will never have the words to express them adequately or even in approximations. I distinctly remember being a small child when I had a visionary dream in which I experienced being surrounded by a great white conscious light that went on forever. It wasn’t until I was older that I had words like “eternity” and “infinity” to describe the sense of endless expansion that I saw and felt. I have had many experiences like this, and words really do not accurately describe either the experience or the message that comes through it. When I try to offer to others what it is like to feel the entire universe, including oneself, as sounds — how can I really capture what this tremendous and life-altering experience is in mere words? How can I describe the feeling of non-being? How can I explain what it is like to see the Otherworld overlaid on this one — one a world devoid of words but filled with abstract art, and the other a world full of things for which I have words? I can’t. A single visual symbol will be unpacked in 20 or 30 pages of typewritten text and still fail to really grasp its transformative and instantaneous truth.

    I cannot say whether I experience my spirituality as visual, tactile, and … I do not even have a word for it — I want to say energy or a sort of total gestalt of experience that transcends the senses… because I am a visual thinker (my logical, analytical thoughts also come to me as a webs, patterns, and graphics that must be unpacked into words) OR because the spiritual experience is itself one that is limited or shaped by language for many humans, but isn’t inherently so. I can hear the voices of my advisors in anthropology, who long insisted when I would pose these questions that “humans think in language, so how can religion be otherwise?” and “what can we really know, beyond how we shape with words what we come to know?” And yet, my entire life’s worth of experience as a mystic gestures very insistently that this is not so, at least not for all of us. And so, even as I am in a profession that relies on language, my spiritual journals are filled with sketches and attempts to describe a reality for which I have no words. I write poetry and then try to incorporate its imperfect metaphors into suggestive shapes and colors, trying to pull my oh-so-human limitations of language closer to the stark beauty of the pre-verbal spirit within me. Perhaps this is part of the spiritual lesson for humanity as a whole — to dive into the ego, the separation, the boundedness of our categorized and described lives — and then to emerge again and gulp deeply of that which unites all Being and which cannot be named.

    • Thanks, Kim – I appreciate your perspective. I know anthropologists are reluctant to speculate in the absence of hard evidence. Your perspective as a mystic is just as valuable.

  • John Adams

    An interesting topic. I believe that in some ways our efforts to describe certain experiences with words are like a contest to see how many cats you can stuff into a pillowcase. Interesting to be sure, but not always useful. For me, the trap has always been to regard personal or group silence as some sort of null state where nothing is happening, which is of course not true. Nature is never silent. The fact that we can only hear in a very limited spectrum does not mean the proverbial tree is not falling in the forest. I had a pretty severe hearing loss some years ago which proved instructive to me in a number of ways. Among these was the fact that the world is a very rich texture of sound and is largely indifferent to the sounds we make as individuals. When you lose the ability to hear some of that texture, you begin to realize the matrix of sound we take for granted is extremely complex, and being unable to discern part of that matrix can be very unsettling.

    With regard to using language (or more generally sound) to describe the workings of the subtle planes, I think that many of us still fall into the trap of modern western thought which is that describing something is the same as understanding it, without awareness that naming can be very limiting. On a personal level I find that I want to use sound (generally words in my case) to communicate my experiences both to seek validation from the larger group and to share my personal experiences with others.

    I try to watch the sun rise most mornings, because it makes me feel better about myself and the world. There is no way I would attempt to convey the complexities involved for me in that simple act, except to recommend it as a practice which might be valuable.

    • “many of us still fall into the trap of modern western thought which is that describing something is the same as understanding it”

      I frequently qualify as one of those many. Thanks, John – that’s something I need to be mindful of.

  • Preach it. I think a great deal about how to teach silence as a religious practice, because unfortunately it’s gotten caught up with power-over models of secrecy (though I don’t think “secrecy” per se has to work that way). Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Thanks, Christine. As you said, one side of Paganism seems to think of silence as secrecy, while another side seems to think of it as Buddhist-like emptiness. This silence is neither. Perhaps we need another term?

  • Maggie Beaumont

    Experience teaches that there is more going on than language, even when we in conversation want to insist on the primacy of the words. Body language: facial expression, gesture, leaning in or away, blushing or going pale, the widening of the iris of the eye all give even language users plenty of visual cues not contained in the words. Pheromones convey more – the smell of fear, or the aroma of desire, just to name two that can be detected by many city-dwelling humans. Nowadays I’m doing chaplaincy work in a hospital, and finding over and over that patients (and presumably all of us) are storing emotions in the body – as a pain in the neck, as something the person can’t stomach, as a broken heart. I’m betting this is what our pre-linguistic ancestors were doing. I’m also betting that they were much more astute observers than we are, especially now that so much of our communication takes place on line where there is nearly nothing but the words. Anyone who has lived with dogs, cats, birds, horses, or a host of other animal companions can attest that the animals know things we may not think we have told them. My experience with cats is that they can ‘read’ the pictures in my mind very clearly. There is so much to learn in the silence.