Is It Better to Meditate in Silence?

By Jenn Sturiale

The Rumor: You can only really meditate in complete silence

As if it isn’t difficult enough to find the time to meditate, some styles of meditation prescribe complete silence as their way of getting into the zone. Confusingly, other schools advocate the use of mantras or chants to go deeper. Then there's guided meditations. Is one method really better than the others?

The Verdict: There's value in both silent and vocal meditation techniques, so experiment and choose the style you prefer

Asking if silent meditation is better than vocal meditation is like wondering if chunky peanut butter is better than smooth. You and I may have our own preferences, but neither is inherently better than the other.

Many people find the use of mantras (repeated words or phrases) to be a great benefit, and there are well-established schools promoting this system. Chas DiCapua, a resident teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., says, "If the intention is to make the mind very steady and concentrated, then using something like a mantra or chanting meditation can be helpful as a means to that end." Transcendental Meditation (TM) is the most widely known. Every TM student is given a specific mantra to use for the entirety of their practice. Over the years, TM has become quite visible in the mainstream media due to such notable and devoted practitioners as David Lynch, Paul McCartney and Jerry Seinfeld.

At the opposite end of the meditative rainbow are the schools teaching silent meditation, the rules of which can range from silence during meditation sessions with discussion allowed afterwards, to absolute quiet for the duration of one-, 10-, 20- and 45-day retreats. Some have gone on multi-month or even multi-year silent retreats.

Crazy as it may seem, one of the things I most look forward to during Vipassana retreats is the 10 days of "noble silence" (silence of body, speech and mind) agreed to by all participants. Many friends who haven’t experienced this seem horrified by the rule -- "I could never not talk for 10 days!" -- but being required to let go of small talk and eye contact fills me with a sense of relief and gratitude. Our society places a high value on politeness, and not saying "thank you" to someone who holds the door open can, at first, be quite a shock to the system. When I let go of the banter, however, I notice the incessant stream of chatter inside my head. Noticing it means I can work with it. By quieting externally, I gain the space to begin quieting internally.

DiCapua agrees. "If the intention is to cultivate a mindfulness to notice things just as they are (which is the path of Vipassana meditation that the Buddha taught)," he said, "then anything we add to the experience, like chanting or saying a mantra, is viewed as 'extra.'" So what does that mean, exactly? "With this type of [mindfulness] meditation, the practitioner simply pays attention to whatever is spontaneously arising in each moment. Anything added is superfluous and veils the bare suchness of how life is unfolding."

Some people may have difficulty sitting with silence while others have trouble sitting with sound. Learning which style you prefer can be an invaluable step for building a solid and successful mediation practice for years to come.

In the end, it makes no difference whether you like smooth or chunky peanut butter, silent or mantra mediation. The textures may be different, but the work is the same: We sit down -- today, tomorrow and the next day -- and we meditate.