Out of Silence

Over the Labor Day weekend and into the following week I was on silent retreat in the woods. Although I shared the retreat with over forty meditators, the solitude I found in silence was, as always, a revelation. Companionship and solitude–such a gift. It was dfficult at first, as it always is. The opening of John O’Donohue’s beautiful book Anam Cara comes to mind: “It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world. Through the opening of the mouth, we bring out sounds from the mountain beneath the soul. These sounds are words. The world is full of words. There are so many talking all the time, loudly, quietly, in rooms, on streets…. The noise of words keeps what we call the world there for us.” But we need silence to connect with the world within–at least I do.

I certainly did not plan for this blog to be silent so long! My excuse is that I came home brimming with ideas, and I’ve been busily playing with them. Though I intended to set work aside while in the woods, some ideas I’d been toying with before leaving grew impatient, and on the last two days characters followed me on my walks through the woods, boisterous, insistent that I listen to their stories. Of course I wrote down what they told me. Surreptitiously. Never in the meditation hall.

But back to silence. Such a powerful practice.

“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”–Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

I’ve shared here before the tug of war that occurs while sitting in meditation between my intention to let the thoughts float by like clouds and the impulse to jot down the ideas that arise. They arise because I’m quiet. I’ve stepped out of my way. On a retreat, once I’ve sat with and fully seen all the unresolved, undigested experiences and emotions that arise in the first several days, my mind begins to reach out to the characters populating it. Perhaps in relief–enough angst already, how about this for a perfect murder? Or have you considered this about that character who’s stumping you? C’mon, this is more fun!

Or are they fictional characters? John O’Donohue again: “Often it seems as if there is a crowd within the individual heart. The Greeks believed that when you dreamed at night, the figures of your dreams were characters who left your body, went out into the world, and undertook their own adventures; they then returned before you awoke. At the deepest level of the human heart, there is no simple, singular self. Deep within, there is a gallery of different selves.” Am I using the silence to connect with the selves within? That’s a chilling thought considering some of the characters I’ve conjured over the years.

For now I choose to let that remain a mystery. I’m simply grateful that the insights that arise during my meditation or on retreat are so rich and deep, far more so than what comes up while I’m staring at the screen and willing inspiration to arise. That insight alone is such a gift.


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