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SILENCE

Silence was a rare commodity when I was growing up.

Being born the sixth of ten children meant there was never a dull moment and almost never a moment of silence unless you count the times we were asked to play “who can be the quietest, the longest?” which never lasted more than a minute.

The only way for me to escape the noise was to hide out in my bedroom closet, or even better, in the woods alone if I wanted to find any peace.

So it’s not surprising to me that I still crave silence like an addict craves a fix.

This craving is what led me to attend my first ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat where I learned, among other things, how to pay attention to my breath as a way to shut off or at least turn down the volume on the incessant noise running through my brain. For as often as I loved to walk in the woods alone in silence, my thoughts kept pace with my every step and I was growing weary of it.

Being silent for ten days came easily for me. I did not miss making small talk with strangers in the slightest, nor did I miss the intrusion of the outside world into every waking moment of my day.

I had already been instructed not to bring along any outside reading or writing material and was asked to surrender my cell phone upon arrival which I happily did. But when it came time to unpack my bag and settle into my room, I was glad we hadn’t officially begun noble silent yet since I burst out laughing when I saw what my daughter had snuck into my bag.

Her funny, thoughtful gesture would end up serving as an important reminder for me to be kind to myself throughout the process. She was still quite young at the time but already wise enough to understand that what I was doing was not going to be easy and that keeping my sense of humor about it all would be key for me to see it through to the end and she was right. Even though I only played with it that first day when I found it, I was grateful for the reminder to keep things in perspective.

Ten hours of meditating a day for ten days straight was a challenge unlike anything else I had ever undertaken. The first and by far the biggest distraction was the pain. By the end of the first full day, I was ready to throw in the towel. I tried countless different positions in an effort to make myself comfortable while remaining perfectly still, but because I had suffered multiple traumas to my back over the years – two bad car accidents and being thrown from my horse – I could not manage what others around me made look so easy.

By the end of that first day, I decided to put my pride aside and break my silence to ask for a chair.

With the pain no longer a distraction, I was able to settle into the silence, and by the end of my time there I felt profoundly grateful for the rare chance to get to know myself on a soul level and paradoxically come to know that there is no “self.” I don’t know that I can explain it in ways that can be understood easily. It’s one of those things that needs to be experienced I think.

“Out of the quiet emerges the sheer incarnational presence of the world, a presence that seems to demand a moving internal symmetry in the one breathing and listening equal to its own breathing, listening elemental powers.” – David Whyte Consolations

This comes close. At a certain point (I don’t remember what day it was or how far along in my journey I was) but there was a moment when I experienced this emergence he is referring to. There came a time when I was no longer the one doing the breathing; I was being breathed through by something much larger than myself.

I felt like a delicate glass-blown vessel being breathed through and shaped by some greater elemental force outside myself.

It’s the one sensation that has stayed with me all these many years later. While I no longer practice as faithfully as I once did, I did set up a meditation space inside my bedroom closet (go figure) and when I’m feeling overwhelmed by life and set aside some time to meditate, it doesn’t take long for me to once again experience the sensation of being breathed through. It’s quite extraordinary in my otherwise ordinary life.

But for all my meditating at retreats (I’ve been back twice since then) as well as inside my closet over the years, the goal of achieving true silence still eluded me. I used to think this was because I was doing something wrong or I wasn’t trying hard enough until I allowed for the possibility that it may be because the complete absence of sound doesn’t exist, at least not in a waking state.

Silence has a voice that at times can be deafening.

I could be all alone in a root cellar buried underground in a state of deep meditation where all thoughts are banished and still hear the ringing, buzzing, or humming my brain generates when my auditory nerves stop working.

Knowing this took the pressure off finding perfection as a place to begin and made me question why I set perfection as a goal in the first place.

Now I understand that being immersed in silence isn’t always absolutely necessary. I can begin wherever I am, in a crowd of people or alone in the woods, and be grateful for whatever clarity I can discern. However imperfect a circumstance I may find myself in, my own silence helps me to understand who I am, which is never one thing but everything.

In order for me to hear what my heart was saying I had to develop a relationship with silence. I had to stop all other conversations whether real or imagined and only then did I discover what supports me when I can no longer support myself.

“As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.” – David Whyte Consolations

Whenever I enter the woods, I exit as a different person.

What I always thought of as walking in silence is anything but. The rustling of the leaves as the wind plays with them, the sudden slap of a beaver’s tail sending ripples out across the pond, the distant call of an owl, the rush of the nearby river, the low rumble of a storm moving in, the sound of my breath as it escapes my body while exerting my energy in an uphill climb, all compete for my attention even as I’m being drawn deeper into silence.

Spending so much time in nature in my own unique silence also taught me that while I may be able to escape the rest of the world for an hour or so, I still need to keep showing up in all other areas of my life. I can’t sit back and just complain about things, or worse, refuse to participate. Nothing else in nature is as reluctant to be itself as I am. I may not want to be stuck in the situation I find myself in, but if I’m willing to embody my reluctance to it, I can at least allow for an opening for things to change. It’s an invitation to see things differently and live my life not in the past or in the future but exactly where I am in the present.

At least half of everything that is about to happen in my life is unknown and unknowable which I believe is how it’s meant to be. When I rid myself of expectations and allow the world to find me just as I am, I allow it to change me. I have no choice in the matter, that’s its job. And yes, at times I will have my heart broken. We all will; it’s something we can all count on. But that doesn’t mean I can’t ask what can be done about it. Even if I do nothing, just my asking might call forth a beautiful answer I hadn’t thought of. And in my experience, there’s no better place to ask these kinds of big questions then when in the “silence” of nature where I can hear what my heart is trying to tell me.

“To become deeply silent is not to become still, but to become tidal and seasonal, a coming and going that has its own imitable, essential character, a story not fully told, like the background of the sea, or the rain falling on the river going on, out of sight, out of our lives.” – David Whyte Consolations

Last week I wrote a story about shyness, about how terrified I was standing on a stage to give a speech when I was a painfully shy thirteen years old girl. I persevered because I wanted to win believing in my heart that I deserved to.

“…I didn’t realize until that moment that I wanted to win. I needed to pretend to be someone else to do it, but I didn’t care, in fact, I relished the thought of being someone else if only for a few minutes.”

I was attempting to tie in David Whyte’s words, “Shyness is the exquisite and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve.” based on the story I was trying to tell as if that was the only instance I could equate those feelings to.

It wasn’t until days later when I was walking alone in the woods in silence that the truth of his words cut me to my core.

It wasn’t just that one story. It was every story.

I was painfully shy throughout my entire childhood because I lacked an ounce of self-confidence.

My awkward silence was due to my shyness because I fundamentally believed myself unworthy and undeserving of any positive thing I thought possible.

But I see now that I can no longer let that old story confine me or define me. By deciding to write this blog I am deciding to let the painful versions of my story go so that a new version can take their place, one that might allow my future happiness.

I will always be a story not fully told.

 

NEXT WEEK: SOLACE

About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

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