In relationships, the occasional misunderstanding, disagreement, or discord is perhaps unavoidable. While none of us look forward to these moments of tension and unrest, these moments, in my experience, can provide the perfect opportunity to observe our emotional reactions and refine our dhamma practice. While it may feel easy to abide in a calm, tranquil mental state and hold thoughts of loving-kindness toward everyone during our formal sitting meditation, how many of us can carry this wholesome mental state throughout all the stressors of our everyday lives? 

Imagine you bump into your harried spouse—who is late to meet you—while stepping out of the doctor’s clinic. They offer to hold your medical file, but you walk on without meeting their gaze. On the drive home, you refrain from answering their questions about the consultation or acknowledging their apology for missing your appointment. And rather than voicing the unrest in your mind and heart or hearing your spouse out, you choose to stay silent, avoiding them for the rest of the evening.

Would this silent reaction be in accordance with the dhamma? Since it takes a lot of discipline to remain silent under the sway of strong emotions, and nothing angry, harsh, false, or hurtful was spoken, could it be said this was an instance of maintaining “noble silence”?

The term “noble silence” is quite instructive in itself—signifying that not all silence is noble. Therefore, although staying silent in the face of provocation is certainly commendable, it may not be sufficient; silence needs to be tempered with wisdom. From the Dhammapada, 19: 268:

“Not by silence alone does one become a sage, if one is dull and ignorant. Like one holding a pair of scales, the wise one takes what is good and rejects what is evil.”

We need to investigate the nature or quality of silence in each specific situation, to ascertain whether it merits being called “noble” or virtuous. The determining factor is the quality of our personal motivation for disengaging and staying silent. Why are we choosing to withdraw and not interact further with the person with whom we are upset? Our reasons and deeper intentions, if we take the time to mindfully examine them, might often surprise us—they may not be quite as wholesome as we had assumed them to be. 

Most of us acquired unhealthy emotional habits in childhood that we unknowingly carry as adults. If our parents expressed their disapproval by ignoring us or withdrawing affection, we may have unconsciously learned to do the same when we are upset with someone. The underlying intention for staying silent in such situations is usually unwholesome. The focus is on influencing the behavior of the other person in a manner we personally desire—usually making them feel anxious or guilty in the process—without assuming any personal responsibility for our own emotional reaction. Our hope could be that they will realize “their mistake” and apologize.

In such situations, our silence would not be skillful or noble—we would really be practicing a passive-aggressive behavior called the silent treatment. Not communicating with our spouse after they missed the doctor’s appointment and ignoring their attempts to apologize or talk to us for the remainder of the evening is an instance of giving them the silent treatment. 

At such times, while we may not say anything, there is still nonverbal communication taking place—our body language, facial expressions, and overall energy may reflect any anger, resentment, or blame we are feeling toward our spouse, and they are likely to sense it, causing further ripples of disturbance. 

Your spouse could get angry, especially if they had tried their best to meet your needs. Now, instead of one person being upset, there are two, each indignant—“I am right, they are wrong”—waiting for the other to apologize. Or they could feel intensely anxious or guilty, craving to set things right with you just to end their emotional suffering. Either way, it is likely to undermine emotional safety and mutual trust that mistakes will be met with understanding and kindness—both of which are essential for a relationship to thrive.

The determining factor is the quality of our personal motivation for disengaging and staying silent.

This brings us to a practical quandary: Since unwholesome emotional reactions are bound to occur until we fully awaken and abstaining from speech does not guarantee right action, is there a skillful way to use silence wisely during the more trying moments in relationships? 

While attaining true noble silence—the naturally tranquil state of an awakened mind that is completely free of defilements, independent of external circumstances—may be a distant ideal for most of us, it can serve as the gold standard for our actual mental state at such times. 

The first step is to build right view—the clear understanding that the silent treatment is unwholesome, as it goes contrary to the cultivation of virtuous qualities like loving-kindness, compassion, forbearance, and forgiveness. This will motivate us to make the right intention—and to not give the silent treatment—by remaining vigilant of our habitual passive-aggressive tendencies.

When we start noticing our urge to withdraw and disengage, it is skillful to check: Am I feeling the need for a time-out to responsibly work out my strong emotions, so we can have a calm discussion later that will make both of us feel better? Or am I placing the responsibility to make things OK between us mainly on my partner since I believe it is their fault, and I want them to make me feel better?

During this process of self-reflection, external silence can serve as a lifeboat to protect us from wrongful conduct. However, if we passively wait for the other to make amends, without examining our attitude or taking responsibility for calming the agitation in our mind and heart, we may end up practicing the silent treatment. 

To avoid this, we need to apply right effort to steer the boat toward the safe shore of inner silence; the jostling mental currents that craving, aversion, and delusion set in motion have to be diligently investigated through the lens of the dhamma. In my experience, this kind of reflection usually bears fruit in the form of patience, equanimity, and the wisdom to deal with each situation in a skillful manner (right speech, right action).

For instance, our rising impatience as we yet again look at our watch, while awaiting our turn in the clinic, could be a useful signpost, reminding us to turn inward and take refuge in the dhamma. We could reflect on the teachings of loving-kindness, patience, and equanimity and offer compassion to those parts of us that are feeling anxious, angry, or hurt, encouraging ourselves to remain openhearted until we understand why our partner was late. 

Upon meeting them while exiting the clinic, we can practice mindful breathing to ensure we do not say anything harsh and silently accept their offer to hold the medical file. If we are sufficiently calm, it can be healthy to share our feelings with them in a nonblaming way, and to also listen to what they have to say in order to move past the incident together.

On the other hand, if we are still in the grip of intense emotions, it may be wiser not to speak until we have roused in our heart more loving-kindness toward our spouse. However, rather than maintaining an uncomfortably tense silence, we could tell our partner that we are feeling disturbed and need some time alone to process our feelings, reassuring them of our intention to communicate with them later.

Taking this kind of a time-out responsibly and communicating our need for the same with as much kindness as we can muster in the moment is a skillful way to use silence for the benefit of everyone involved—I like to think of it as nobleish silence.

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