It’s a sad truth that people don’t know how to be with silence or how to speak. Too often people are silent when they need to speak out, and they talk when they have nothing to say. One of the big adjustments for many of you will be learning how to speak from the heart and to speak truth instead of covering up such things with nonsense and lies.

Yes, this is humbling. Many of us have said things that mean nothing for most of our lives. We talk about pop culture, politics, sports, and the weather to no real useful effect. Most of political dialogue isn’t about compassionately learning different viewpoints to better solve social problems (which is what it should be about). It’s about bludgeoning someone else’s opinion with your own to make yourself feel better, and often this is done in the guise of somehow championing children’s rights, better ecology for the planet, lower tax rates for small businesses, or something else. No. This is just another ego game, and it is often a distraction from saying the things that matter most in any given moment.

Noticing What You Are Not Saying

As always, bringing awareness to yourself is how this process starts. It’s a recurring theme on the spiritual path. It is also extremely easy to do. You stop and pay attention to yourself. Never mind the internal arguments that want to arise about if you are doing it right or if you have time to pay attention. Whatever happens is happening perfectly as it should. Trust that, and yes, make the time. If you don’t make the time to pay attention to you, no one else will. This is why I am always talking about the importance of meditation. Meditation isn’t taking you to enlightenment exactly. It’s giving you a chance to pay attention to what is going on inside. If you don’t like the stories that are there, that alone tells you something about yourself. It’s the very start of healing the mind, but at this moment in this post, it really is about just paying attention. Here are some starter questions:

  • What are the stories in your head?
  • What patterns do you see in your thoughts?
  • What are you feeling?
  • What do you need to say?

This isn’t the time to start blurting out everything in there that you’re upset about. The next step is going to the journal to really understand the stories and the patterns in your thinking. If you don’t, you will more than likely act out stuff instead of consciously acting and saying what you need to. If you are really upset at your mother, just yelling at your mother does nothing. It only continues the cycles of pain and suffering. Instead, you are looking to understand how you talk with your mother and why anything she says or does upsets you. That’s the start of making a conscious decision in how to use your voice.

Noticing What You Are Saying

So, what do you talk about? Are you speaking just to get attention from others? Are you trying to impress others and yourself with your ideas and thoughts? Are you just trying to fit in? So many of the things we often say really have no bearing on anything real. The weather will do what the weather will do. Sports athletes will do what sports athletes will do. Unless you are actually competing or part of a sports organization, most of the sports talk that goes on really is superfluous. Whatever the St. Louis Rams did on Sunday in the NFL really doesn’t influence most of you, but yet so many ego identities like to attach themselves to these external things. Noticing what you are talking about is part of a reflection of what your ego is invested in and who you think you are.

The same goes for many other subjects like celebrities, gossiping about the neighbors, gossiping about co-workers, and so forth. Start noticing what you are saying because then you begin to see yourself and to see the situations, conversations, and relationships you are co-creating by the words you are sharing with others.

The Bigger the Issue, the Heavier the Silence

Because many of us have had such little practice talking about real things, the more serious the issue someone has, the heavier the burden of silence weighs on them. We’re talking about really serious things and not just what so-and-so said about you at the last holiday party that wasn’t true (although it is important to address such things). I’m talking about abuse, rape, murder, bulimia, death, grief, anorexia, and other serious things that happen. Five hundred pounds of shame gets dropped onto some of these issues so that people–both victims and perpetrators–have no way to speak about what has happened and to learn how to heal.

I mentioned perpetrators because another aspect of our society is that we ignore people who have committed the harm. In so doing, they have no way of healing and learning a new behavior pattern. For most perpetrators, they abused someone or hurt someone because they were hurt or abused. Essentially, they were taught on some level that this is an “okay” way to interact with someone. I’m using “okay” loosely because clearly this is not a loving and kind way to act, yet in some twisted way, that person’s ego learned that this was a means of action they could use. Clearly, that’s not a healthy way to interact, but until someone can start to talk about it and how they got to that point where they did what they did, there are very few other avenues for the perpetrator to heal. And without that healing, they’ll do it again, or they’ll spend the rest of their life in prison.

And the prisons in the U.S. are already too full.

Shame is the silence that sticks in the throat and stifles the screams and cries for help. This is the silence that pushes down immense pain, and in so doing, it makes the person more likely to repeat abusive and painful cycles as either the victim or abuser. It isn’t enough to intellectually know you need to say something. You have to say something. Or else, the pain will continue.

The Power and Harm of Shame

I think there are some aspects of society that actually think shame is okay. It’s often around sexuality. Somehow, people think we should be ashamed of our bodies and our sexuality–that usually means not enjoying it or showing it in anyway. That shame is unhealthy. It gets worse when someone has sexual trauma. That sexual shame combines with the shame of being hurt or unable to protect yourself, and that weight weighs down the person–heart, body, mind, and soul. Nothing is left out. The whole person’s life is often dictated by a single event because they are always wanting to say something and start healing their sexual abuse, but they are also self-sabotaging themselves because the shame tells them not to speak out and find help.

According to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN), “every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.” That’s just the U.S. And that’s just from the reported numbers. RAINN also estimates that 54% of sexual assault is never reported to the police. These are humbling numbers. So now you’ve even got a statistic on one form of abuse: 54% of sexual assault victims are afraid to speak their voice to the police and get help from that avenue.

That’s the power and harm of shame, my friends.

Codes of Silence in the Family

One of the core places where silence is learned is in the family. That’s where most of us learned what we could or could not say. It’s incredibly unhealthy. Energetically, there are no secrets. On the energy level we know what has gone on–good, bad, or indifferent–in our families. Many of you who are integrating a spiritual awakening are healing out some very old, nasty family karma. You may not have ever been sexually abused, but if that pattern exists in your family energy and karma, it’s now in you. So you may find yourself in some dark places with sexuality that don’t even have to do with your current life experiences.

But for many others, the codes of silence will be enforced around things that happened during your lifetime. Breaking that code of silence will be jarring for your family. They will most likely not know what to do. I don’t generally advise my students to break that code of silence directly with family members until they’ve really worked through their inner code of silence in their journals and through talking with spiritual friends. It’s important to learn how to speak your truth to yourself before you can share it well with others. The family has so many triggers that it is hard to be clear and loving even when you are rooted in your truth. The big exception to this rule is if you are in a very abusive situation and need to get out and protect yourself. Then you need to speak your truth immediately and get help. There is no time to wait and to continue suffering, especially with physical abuse. This is often one of the most challenging steps any of us can take, but consequently, it can also be the most life-altering when you do it.

And you can do it.

And no one else can do it for you.

Taking It One Step At a Time

As I said, you want to start practicing. Start to meditate and notice what’s going on in your head about what you have to say. Then write it out. Then find a friend or group of friends with whom you can practice speaking your truth. It will very likely be uncomfortable if you have never really said how you feel and what you really think. If you’ve just gone along with the flow, you may need to find new friends. Exploring spiritual communities can be one place to potentially make new acquaintances to help you on your spiritual path, but I’ve found what matters most is that you just find more friends who really are loving and doing what they love in life. They may not even consider themselves to be spiritual, but living and doing what you love is the yoga love. That is what the spiritual path is about.

In developing these new relationships (and they can be online thanks to social networks and video chat tools), you are starting to break the culture of silence.

One Block Gets Taken Down from the Wall

Culturally speaking, we are each one block in the wall of the culture of silence. We can only ever take care of our one block, and we have to respect that others may choose differently. How we speak our voice and how we learn to authentically use silence are two key practices on the spiritual path. Because while we learn to speak out and to speak our truth, we are also learning when to be silent watchers to life. There are so many aspects of my life where my spiritual words are not invited, so I am often silent. Unless there is a clear and present danger of some kind, there is no reason to enforce my ideas on another. But I am always checking in with my inner knowing about what feels right to say and when I want to say it. I am very clear about when I need to speak my truth, and that is the benefit of a lot of my spiritual practice and caring for my needs.

This is not necessarily something you will get good at overnight. As I said, you have to start bringing awareness to yourself. Any part of you that you avoid looking at means that you have one more blindspot. You have to have the courage to look at all of you. In so doing, you begin to see more of the world you live in and that you have created. From that clear sight, you may begin to find your words–the real words, not just the ones you think will be socially accepted or that you are familiar with. And from there, you can break your own culture of silence with the hammer of truth.


I'm a spiritual teacher who helps people find freedom from suffering.


  1. it's so insidious, the way that abuse can weave it's way into everything, unacknowledged for years, it can infect your entire life. For my part it took me years to understand, to deal with, to accept at how all my relationships had been affected and infected … difficult to deal with, difficult to process..
    thank you for this article,
    warm regards

  2. Yes, it's absolutely true. Abuse creates an interwoven web of disease, and it can take a lot of love and nurturing to unwind it all. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment, dtbaggins.

  3. Thanks for this wisdom Jim, which seems also to apply to a lot of spiritual teachings I have been to. When you said:
    "Too often people are silent when they need to speak out, and they talk when they have nothing to say."
    There's the familiar scene where a spiritual teacher is carrying on an excited monologue, 50 people have parked their bodies in front of him/her, and nobody gets a chance to share, or if they do remain silent. I'm lucky to be part of a spiritual discussion group where everyone wants to share – its a rare thing. Thanks for bringing to attention that we need to participate, and open a space that encourages others to do the same.

  4. This is a wonderful point, Joel. Thank you for sharing. You're absolutely right. The teacher often becomes the focal point instead of a catalyst for spiritual discussion. This becomes another way that we disempower ourselves–we credit the teacher's words above our own. But the true teacher is always within, and that is where your truest words will always be found. I hope you continue to enjoy your spiritual discussion group–both in silence and in active verbal participation. Be well!

  5. I don't think 'right speech' should be too heavy a matter. Somehow it's a pleasure as well as a duty to search out the valuable thing to say at any given time. It's easy to feel that you're making a fool of yourself or being too serious. The lightness of being comes into play too.
    Thanks for the article.

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