“Silent Ways of Knowing,” by Maggie Ross

Introduction by George Amoss

“Silent Ways of Knowing” is the first essay to appear on The Postmodern Quaker that was not written by me. I think that its message is important for contemporary Quakers, and I am grateful to the author for permitting its republication here.

The essay was written as a keynote for a conference that, because of the pandemic, did not convene. Ross then published it, in four parts, on her blog, Voice in the Wilderness. As she noted there, it is something of a précis of the first volume of her profound and sometimes provocative work titled Silence: A User’s Guide. As longtime readers of The Postmodern Quaker will note, “Silent Ways of Knowing” discusses a number of themes that are explored on this site, including self-emptying (kenotic) and dis-enclosing silence, what Friends might call “continuing revelation,” and questions of mysticism and special experiences—topics that I think are crucial to the spiritual vitality of the Religious Society of Friends. 

“Maggie Ross” is the pen name of Martha Reeves. For over forty years, Martha Reeves has lived as a vowed Anglican solitary under episcopal guardianship, first that of Paul Moore and then, after Moore’s death, that of Rowan Williams. She has lived in Oxford and Alaska, alternating between them for years, and was co-founder of the Wildlife Preservation Trust. A number of excellent books have emerged from her erudition and deep silence, including the aforementioned two-volume work, Silence: A User’s Guide. Her books are widely available; see, for example, bookshop.org.

The essay as published at Voice in the Wilderness has no notes; I have added a few here in order to provide biblical and Quaker context that may be helpful to some readers. I have also placed some pull quotes.


Silent Ways of Knowing

by Maggie Ross

Part I

Graham Ward, who is the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and head of the theology faculty, is well known for saying that all theology must emerge from silence and result in silence. I think this is especially true of practical theology whose consequences and application otherwise can run the danger of being patronising, exploitive and narcissistic. The problem is that many people today, including theologians, are afraid of silence: they see entering into silence as a form of death and loss of control. So I want first of all to take a look at this fear in a Christian context, especially the understanding of God as silence, for we cannot talk about silent knowledge of God or anything else until we have some idea, however simple, of how the mind seeking silence works.

I have long felt that the two most important passages in the bible are the kenotic hymn of Phil. 2:5-111 and the statement about the fear of death in Heb 2:14-15. Let me quote the relevant bits:

Since therefore the children [that God has given to Christ] share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.2

To put this bluntly, fear of death is slavery. We dismiss the devil these days, but as Ernest Becker so trenchantly pointed out in his book The Denial of Death, all the negative things in life, small or great, result from the fear of death in one form or another. We are enslaved by what we fear, for as long as we are afraid, our actions and reactions will in part be determined by fear. Of course there are good things that can come from the fear of death too, but that is not my focus today.

Fear may have its roots in the unconscious, but we articulate it to ourselves through our self-consciousness, just as we articulate everything else to ourselves through our self-consciousness. To understand better what is going on here, we have to look at the work of Iain McGilchrist, who has distilled all the new research on brain hemispheres in his book The Master and his Emmisary.

The right hemisphere is the open receptor for new information, processes metaphor, is the source of perception and insight, thinks spatially or holographically, accesses all of the rest of the mind except self-consciousness, such as what we call the unconscious—but not limited to it—but itself is mute. It is the gateway to silence and is itself silent. We might call the mind that the right hemisphere accesses as the deep mind. The left hemisphere is entirely dependent on the right hemisphere, but thinks wrongly and vainly that it is the master. It is the seat of self-consciousness.

The left hemisphere thinks linearly. It gathers information from the right hemisphere and orders it, classifies it, ranks it and puts it into language—and we must remember that language is always self-reflexive—and it also tells lies and deceives. It takes what the right brain has—if it can be persuaded to listen—and fossilizes and kills it. Ideally the two hemispheres should work together with the right hemisphere slightly predominating, continually revising what the left brain organizes, but we live in an almost entirely left-brain world. The left brain doesn’t want to acknowledge the right brain at all, and thus is the source of repetitive patterns of thinking and behaviour. It is bound by time, whereas the right brain is not.

Self-consciousness needs to be relocated to the background. This cannot be done directly.

From this it can be seen that in order to access the infinite riches of the right hemisphere, self-consciousness and its endless repetitive circularity needs to be relocated from the foreground to the background. This is done in a number of ways but due to a process called the paradox of intention it cannot be done directly.

The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It is a book first published by Marvin Shaw in 1987 and reprinted by Oxford in 2008. Once you understand the paradox of intention, you will discover it everywhere. This paradox is absolutely fundamental to understanding the way the mind works so as to access silent knowing. The simplest example and the one he uses is the word on the tip of the tongue phenomenon. To have a chance of recalling the word on the tip of your tongue you have to doubly forget: you have to forget the ghost of the word you can’t remember and you have to forget that you are trying to remember the word in the first place. There is no guarantee that you will recall the word but by doing this, by forgetting, you give it a chance to emerge from the right hemisphere.

No doubt you will recognise that this is the way certain forms of meditation work, such as mantra meditation, the repetition of a prayer-word. However, occasionally the relocating, the elision of self-consciousness, can be spontaneous. A long time ago The New Yorker, of all journals, published a brief ‘Talk of the Town’ piece in which a man recounted an occasion when his self-consciousness spontaneously elided or relinquished completely. He was planting tomatoes and other vegetables in his garden when he heard his wife call him to lunch. The next thing he knew dusk was pooling shadows around his hands: the gardening was complete and perfectly accomplished, but, as he wrote with the deepest reverence and gratitude, time had dropped out of mind. It had dropped out of mind but whatever occurred during this right hemisphere domination left traces that his self-conscious mind could access and, with the help of the right hemisphere, turn into metaphorical speech. He hadn’t been unconscious, he hadn’t had a vacancy seizure, he had been functioning perfectly normally. In short, he had been so perfectly attentive to the present moment that time-bound self-consciousness couldn’t get a word in edgewise. As Simone Weil notes, prayer is perfect attention—not wordy petitions but silent attention.

In fact, this suspension of self-consciousness happens to us many times a day without our realising it—because the reflexive dimension of mind, our self-consciousness, has been superseded. This suspension is perfectly normal and we couldn’t function without it. It has been proved beyond a doubt that we can’t seat new learning in the mind unless we have a period of forgetting, as in sleep. Hence the phrase ‘sleep on it’, when you’re having trouble solving a problem.

Part II

In light of the paradox of intention we can see how certain passages of the bible make sense: for example, you lose your life to gain it. Without the input of the right hemisphere, the self-conscious mind is closed and a simulacrum, the pseudo-life that needs to be broken open. When we have seemingly ‘lost’ this artificial construct, the source of our real life can be accessed through the right hemisphere. I think the ancient and medieval worlds understood this paradox but didn’t have the psychological language. We have the psychological language, but have lost the insight about the paradox. In consequence, we have mis-translated and misinterpreted many ancient and medieval texts.

I want to make a slight digression here to suggest an analogy I have just begun to work on. The elements of a paradox, which is spatial, cannot be dismantled without destroying the meaning of a paradox. Paradoxes, far from being impasses, are descriptors, gateways, portals. When we come across them they momentarily silence the self-conscious mind because it can’t cope with something non-linear. It is possible to learn to use paradoxes as jumping off places into silence. But we can also think of paradoxes as being entangled in a way analogous to entangled particles. Even if entangled particles are situated at opposite ends of the universe, if you change the charge on one, the charge on the other will simultaneously change. On January 16, the BBC 4 broadcast an absolutely fascinating hour long programme called Einstein’s Quantum Riddle on how this theory of quantum entanglement was proved. One enterprising neuro-psychiatrist has already suggested that entanglement may eventually help us to explain the mind-brain mystery. I think when we are talking about silent knowing and silent relating we can see how important both the notions of entanglement and the paradox of intention are.

“All, absolutely ALL of what we call experience is self-conscious interpretation.”

Now in light of all this, I want to say a word about the very vexed subject of experience. Originally the word is French and it meant, and still means, to experiment;3 in our sense it should include discernment, but often doesn’t. The word only began to take on the self-reflexive, left brain character that it has now at the end of the 14th century. All, absolutely ALL of what we call experience is self-conscious interpretation. Before we interpret and name its contents, the world is an abstraction. For example, the light coming into our eyes has to be interpreted by the brain before we can say we have seen an image. First of all, the brain has to figure out which pattern is being seen—a dog or a cat, and second it has to turn it right side up, as the pattern comes in to the retina upside down.

At the end of the Divine Comedy, as Prue Shaw recounts in her marvellous book, Dante ‘… has an intuition, though he cannot remember it, of the … union of the divine and human natures in Christ. Then his imagination fails as his intellect and will rotate, turned by the love that moves the heavens.’ (Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, p. 254) Intuition lies somewhere on the border of the event horizon where the traces from the right hemisphere communicate themselves to self-consciousness. It is important to remember that these processes work at lightning speed beyond our ken, and that both hemispheres are needed for most actions, with one or the other predominating.

Even merely noticing that something has happened to us is already interpretation. From all of this it can be seen that the term ‘mystical experience’ is not a paradox but a contradiction. Wittgenstein notes that birth and death are not experiences at all because there is no self-consciousness. God may be in the experience, but the experience is not God, and we can never know for sure if the traces left in our imagination, communicated to our self-consciousness, which it then interprets, arise merely from our wishful thinking or are a gift of grace. We can only give thanks for what we are given and wait in hope and unknowing. As Meister Eckhart says, if it can be named, it is not God. (German Works, p. 204) Or, as he says in another place, if you’re doing something special it is not God.

“Hunting for so-called ‘religious experiences’ is not only futile, it is a form of hubris.”

Thus, the popularity today of hunting for so-called ‘religious experiences’ is not only futile, it is a form of hubris; it will only lock the hunter more tightly in the circularity of his or her own self-consciousness. This does not mean, of course, that we should not seek contexts that will help us be continually open to what God will give us. Certainly there are pre-verbal self-conscious events on the event horizon that we try to interpret to ourselves through language which we call ‘religious experience’, but the really significant events are those where self-consciousness is elided partially or completely, and the right hemisphere, which draws on far more than we have any idea, has a chance to leave new traces and insights, which we then may interpret as ‘experience’.

For example, Teresa of Avila often says something to the effect that she couldn’t possibly put into words what happened to her but then she comes up with an elaborate metaphor of seeing Christ magnificently dressed as the king of Spain. Or there is the famous mutual ecstasy of Augustine and Monica at Ostia (Conf. IX:10). Ecstasy means standing outside, that is, standing outside self-consciousness, in their case, a mutual total attention on God. The key here is that, first, Augustine tells us that ‘we were in the present’ as opposed to past and future, and second, the Latin in Augustine’s Confessions says that their souls were amplified and they had access to the wisdom of God. He also says that in their ascent they came to their minds and went beyond them. The amplification is a clue that they were no longer subject to the constraints of self-consciousness and were plunged into the ineffable, which then left traces. He says, Then with a sigh, leaving the first fruits of the Spirit bound to that ecstasy, we returned to the sounds of our own tongue. Again, the key is the first fruits (the traces) bound to ecstasy and returning to the sounds of speech.

Or, there is the 19th and 20th century Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, who wrote: ‘As long as we exercise extreme care, one of the benefits of silent prayer may be that we lose ourselves in spiritual contemplation of the Infinite Being.’ (Hans Boersma, Seeking God, p. 350)

Of course we will never know for sure what happens to anyone having such encounters, but it is very dangerous and genuinely misleading to apply words such as ‘experience’ to such occasions. This is one reason that the great spiritual guides of the past—and one or two in the present—say that if something like this happens to you, above all don’t talk about it. From what has been said above we can understand that anything we say will be reductive and scatter or freeze the energy, or grace bestowed by the event, and preclude insight that might come from it. Better, like Mary, to guard these things in our hearts and let them reveal their meaning, or lack of it, in their own good time.

“It is precisely through our darkness that salvation arises.”

I think we should get rid of the word ‘mystic’ and its cognates, which have caused so much harm. Nevertheless, if I were asked to define it, I would say that mysticism is ‘living the ordinary through transfigured perception’. Note that I don’t say ‘transformed perception.’ Transform is a very misleading word in Christianity as it means changing one thing into another. What happens rather is that God takes us exactly as we are and transfigures us into glory. This is also the reason that the use of ‘true self’ and false self’ is so destructive, because it implies that some of the self, the part we don’t like, is left behind. It is precisely through our darkness that salvation arises. As Julian of Norwich notes, our sins become our glory—indeed, they are precisely the way to glory. Sin is behoovely.4

Part III

Now that we understand a little about how silent knowing comes to be, let’s talk about being silent. It should be clear from what has been said that entering into silence and becoming silent involve both kenosis and death, and that is why it is so frightening for some people. The kenosis is effected in setting aside our normal preoccupations and seeking for perfect attention, or, as Julian of Norwich says, ‘Seek into the beholding,’ which I think is a much more accurate description because it references the incarnational exchange of being between human and divine that is taking place.

The death comes in that if we are doing this we are leaving our self-consciousness behind—and we wrongly think that our so-called ‘true self’ is our self-consciousness (the so-called ‘true self’/false self dichotomy is a static, destructive, and gnostic dualism, and we do not have the perspective to judge which is which; this is God’s business, not ours). Paradoxically, when self-consciousness is elided the dynamic and ever unfolding truth of the self shines forth. When we say to teenagers, ‘don’t be so self-conscious; be yourself’ this is what we mean.

“It is not too much to say that the goal of the spiritual life is to become more and more self-emptying.”

Moving into the spacious unknowing of God and allowing our self-consciousness to fall away into the background, we progressively move into the vastness of God’s idea of us, some of which will leave traces that will emerge in our experience. It is not too much to say that the goal of the spiritual life is to become more and more self-emptying, more and more willing to root ourselves in unknowing, or, better put, less and less self-conscious—which casts so-called spiritual direction as it is practiced today (which is not the way it was practiced in the ancient world) in an unfavourable light because it only makes people more self-conscious. Having read Ian Stirling’s thesis, this problem is very similar to that he has encountered in hospices. I am sure he will be telling us about this. This does not mean that we should not have companions on the way, but the relationship should be more like that of Augustine and Monica at Ostia than the professionalized and institutionalized process we have today.

Of course becoming silent is not always, or even frequently, a seamless process. The process of taming our attention may make us self-conscious for a brief time, but this is another paradox: we have to gain control to lose control, that is, to focus our self-consciousness so that it no longer constrains our deep mind. In this process, unwanted thoughts may intrude as we try to focus our attention, sometimes things we’re not ready to deal with. While eventually they will be, must be, ‘dealt with’ not through confrontation and struggle but through the repeated practice of letting go, there are a lot of ways to banish them during the practice of meditation that leads to silence. One is to let them go with the exhalations you are counting for your meditation (up to ten and then repeat). Another, as Evagrius tells us, is to push one thought away with another. A third, Buddhist method, is simply to stare neutrally at the thought until it dissolves. A fourth is simply to return to the mantra or prayer-word as soon as you realise you’ve been distracted, if you’re doing that sort of meditation. Another is to ask yourself, ‘why am I clinging to this thought?’ and nine times out of ten it will vanish.

It often feels that absolutely nothing at all is happening in meditation, but don’t be fooled: the breath-counting, or mantra, the repetition of a prayer word, or object you are meditating on is tying up the focus of your self-consciousness, giving it just enough to chew on, so its interference is out of the way and the right hemisphere can get to work out of your sight. Walking in nature is also a good way to set aside self-consciousness and allow insight to flow. In walking you don’t have to do anything but walk: the self-conscious mind will blur in and out. Gradually those who practice silence realise that profound changes are occurring out of sight, and that the most important work is, figuratively speaking, to keep your hands off and stick to the meditation. Occasionally in meditation time will spontaneously ‘drop out of mind’, which we can recognise only after the fact, but such events cannot be forced and cannot be sought, because—the paradox of intention again—the more you pursue the suspension of self-consciousness, the farther away it recedes and the more one is locked into his or her self-consciousness.

There is another practice of silence I want to mention, perhaps one of the most important, and that is learning to sit perfectly still for half an hour, perfectly relaxed mentally and physically, not meditating or doing anything with the mind except allowing the silence to seek it. This can be done, like learning to meditate, in increments. Even if you only manage to do this once for half an hour it is life-changing. It gives you a resource you can draw on at any time, especially when things are fraught.

“Gradually, … silence will seat itself in you.”

Gradually, over time, again without your knowing why or how, silence will seat itself in you, in your core, and you can access it with increasing fluidity. In fact, eventually you will be living from the wellspring of silence instead of having silence as something you seek. It will come to live in your core.

Silence is ecological, our natural habitat, not the world of noise that surrounds and stresses us. It’s no wonder that so many people are subject to mental illness. When humans first emerged on the savannah they learned to communicate, yes, but if they were not to get eaten, silence had to predominate. Let me illustrate what I mean. I have spent a lot of time in Alaska, out in the wilderness alone, traveling by kayak. You have to save your VHS radio for emergencies, so you count on your skin’s sensitivity to humidity and barometric pressure to let you know when a storm is coming. Or, in a not so isolated situation, once, not far from the Arctic Circle, I was picking blueberries from a group of tall bushes at the top of a hill. Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and I got out of there, fast.

When I reached the bottom of the hill my friends were hugely relieved because a very large grizzly bear had also started picking berries on the other side of the bush where I couldn’t see, hear or smell it. But clearly my body had picked up his presence. Perhaps another example of the entanglement that reveals itself in silence? I would not be here talking to you if I hadn’t been picking berries in silence.

The same is true of fishing. Some young people take radios out on their boats when they are fishing, but they aren’t the people who catch the fish. Those are the old timers who will tell you, ‘I don’t know what I mean but the only way I can say it is that I listen for the fish.’ These are very practical silent ways of knowing that we have forgotten to our detriment and that of the planet. But all is not lost: it is possible to take the most die-hard city slicker out into the wilderness of a place like Alaska and these subtle senses that are out of sight of our self-conscious minds will come alive. But you don’t have to go all the way to Alaska to practice silence. It can be done any time, any where, even in the noisiest contexts. I knew one novice-mistress who used to take her novices to the airport and the subway to teach them this.

Part IV

Some people complain that silence is elitist, that it is isolationist and ignores the problems of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Silence is eucharistic, returning and offering our life’s God-given energy back into the vast beholding of God for God to use where it is needed. We are never less alone than when we are alone and, as Antony of the Desert wrote, ‘Whether alone or with the elders, your life and your death is with your neighbour.’ Communities are only as healthy as the solitudes that make them up, so that it is incumbent upon each of us to do the transfiguring work of silence.

I started this talk by quoting Graham Ward, and would like to end in the same way. It is a poem, and reading poetry requires that we use both hemispheres in optimal harmony:

Silent Knowing

Silence tenderizes, senses constellate,
Edges angulate, fuse and melt. I tend
To the gold circlet bounding the black eye
Of a blue-jay, scratching through the dead leaves
On a spring morning. I tend to the bold
White bells of the snowdrops poised between proud
Beauty and heads humbled by its presence.
Silence tenders the vivid, the vital,
Scintillas of sense, attentive delights:
Diamond frosted spiders’ webs, white carved swans
Paddling the infinite waves of quietness.
I contend that all things portend their glory
When we can see – receive – when we can care.



NOTES (added by G. Amoss)

[1] Kenosis refers to self-emptying, as attributed to Christ in Philippians 2:5-11. That passage, which is mentioned but not quoted in the text above, is rendered as follows in the Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha (RSVA): “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (George Fox would have insisted on translating the Greek en as “in,” as does the King James Version: “Let this mind be in [en] you, which was also in [en] Christ Jesus ….”)

[2] Hebrews 2:14-15, RSVA.

[3] George Fox, when describing what appears to have been his “day of visitation” or convincement, said, “And this I knew experimentally.” I have discussed his use of “experimentally” in Questioning Quakerism as Mysticism. A fuller discussion awaits publication of an in-progress essay called “’This I Knew Experimentally’: An Analysis of George Fox’s Convincement Narrative.”

[4] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Ch. 27): “mourning and sorrow I made therefore, without reason and discretion; but Jesu, that in this vision informed me of all that me needed, answered by this word, and said, Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “behovely” to mean “of use; useful; profitable; needful, necessary.”


3 thoughts on ““Silent Ways of Knowing,” by Maggie Ross

  1. Pingback: “Silent Ways of Knowing,” by Maggie Ross — The Postmodern Quaker | Ecumenics without churchs by www.quaccheri.it

  2. Silence is a key to new insights but the journey is hardly taken unless one or group is face with critical moment of life and death.
    Quakers in Kenya have no room for silence in our worship but use it during our day to day activities.
    Or maybe no adequate teaching on this important topic.thus arrangements should be made to introduce/actualize it.

  3. Pingback: “Silent Ways of Knowing,” by Maggie Ross | Ecumenics without churchs by www.quaccheri.it

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