“Silence is a Fence For Wisdom”
In this month of Adar, we study the middah of Shtikah–Shmirat HaLashon—Silence and Mindful Speech. Rabbi Akiva, a great sage, praised silence, saying, “Silence is a fence for wisdom. (Pirkei Avot 3:13)
As some of you know, I am currently learning a model of group process from the Matrix Leadership Institute (Matrix) http://matrixleadership.org/. Matrix’s mission is building resilient, collaborative and sustainable groups, whether it be families, schools, communities, workplaces, or governments. The heartbeat of the Matrix model is the person to person (one to one) connection between two members. We learn communication practices to enhance that connection, culminating in a time each day when we sit and talk, as a group, facing each other, and in a circle.
The phrase “silence is a fence for wisdom” brings to mind that group conversation. In the conventional group setting (corporate or social), one person typically makes his/her comment to the group as a whole, on the assumption that this is most inclusive. In the Matrix model, “person A” selects another person, “person B”, to direct his/her comment. Person A may choose B for a specific reason (e.g., in response to something B said earlier), B’s role (e.g., in the company), or simply to include B. B listens to A, and then chooses how to respond—length, depth, by way of an autobiographical or informational content, or simply by thanking A for sharing his/her thoughts.
The rest of the members of the group listen in silence, like witnesses* to a private conversation, as A and B complete the arc of their communication. In my position as a witness to the conversation, I find myself feeling free to be fully present to the interaction between A and B. I am NOT preoccupied with what I might add to the conversation. This silence of the other group members assures A and B that each will be heard— neither interrupted, spoken over, nor left unacknowledged.
This process allows A and B a more expansive space in which to converse. In my silence as witness, I find myself grateful for this opportunity to observe, hear and feel. My silence honors their interaction; their connection takes on a quality of sanctity. We “witnesses” form what feels like the “fence of silence” referenced by Rabbi Akiva.
What “wisdom” is now free to arise?
It is tempting to answer this question based on content—the exchange of ideas, opinions and resolutions. However, I believe that the silence around the connection between A and B allows for greater emotional (and possibly spiritual) connection or understanding. I have observed increased respect for and between speakers despite critical differences—differences that might otherwise result in judgment, reaction, and polarization. In addition, as a silent witness, I feel greater freedom to be curious about what may arise for me as a result of the interaction between A and B.
What I find most salient about the structure of this practice is that it encourages the kind of mindfulness that we are practicing in the Tikkun Middot project.**
* it is more accurate to say we are “silent” participants than “witnesses”;
* **I have to admit that “fence” has a harsh connotation to my 20th century ears (Rabbi Akiva lived circa 40 to 170 C.E.)— I am able to reconcile the concept of a “fence” as a protective screen or immaterial boundary.