Maybe because I can talk up a storm, I love, even crave, silence. I feel safe in it. I know I won't blurt out something foolish or harmful, something I'll be sorry for. That's probably why if you ask spiritual teachers for advice on how to practice wise speech, they're likely to answer with one word: silence. Like the rain necessary for flowers to bloom, silence is essential for speaking with clarity.
A Buddhist adage, echoed in other cultures, reflects this relationship: If what you have to say is truthful, kind, and useful, then say it; if not, silence is best. My earliest lesson in the value of silence and the painful consequences of unkind words occurred when I was in elementary school. I don't recall what my mother did or didn't do one morning, but whatever it was upset me enough that I hurled enormous anger at her: "I hate you. I wish you were dead." As an adult, I learned it was not uncommon for children to express such heinous thoughts, but at the time I suffered dearly for not holding them back. My father gave me such a whopping and I cried so hard that I couldn't go to class that day.
Sages highlight the value of silence for more constructive reasons. They say it helps us use our personal resources judiciously. Talking expends energy and takes up time. I make a point of staying in close touch with friends, but I also know that hours can fly by in long talks on the phone. And although I love to go hiking with a friend and catch up on our lives, I notice a difference when I walk quietly with my dog. I feel refreshed from the exercise, and my energy is focused for the work I need to do.
Silence also helps me express what is important rather than any old thought that flits through my mind. Sometimes, in the middle of a disagreement with my husband or to avoid one, I'll call time out. If I don't pause long enough for a walk or a sitting meditation to reflect on what's really going on, I'm likely to keep blundering with hurtful speech. In silence I have a chance to cool down, assess the situation, examine my own motivations, and consider what words will help heal the rift between us.