I have grown to love silence; I used to fear it.
I used to be afraid of myself. I was afraid to look in the mirror, to really look myself in the eye. I was afraid of what I would see there, some craziness, some demon, some terrible, awful, unbearable truth about the evil inside of me. As a young girl, I was obsessed with the movie The Bad Seed. And so when I walked past mirrors or ran a quick brush through my wavy, dirty blond hair, I would do it without really seeing. Without really looking. Because if I did, the bad seed in me would show itself and take possession of the good girl, carefully layered and lacquered against my outside.
Before my first silent retreat five years ago, I was grown, an adult, but still afraid. I was afraid that I could not face myself in silence for five days. What might arise if I was not busy, was not doing, was not filling my day with plans and lists? What if there were no loved ones, no children, no friends, no routines, no habitual ways to keep the underworld at bay? What I find in a world without telephones, emails, to-do lists, roles and responsibilities? Who would I be when all the trappings were taken away? When each identity—mother, daughter, partner, teacher, author, friend, doer–were taken away? Would there be a raving madwoman inside? A web of anxiety that I could not escape? Despair so deep and vast that I would never return?
I was afraid of silence. Afraid of five days of wordless time. Afraid of who I, the ultimate wordsmith, would be without words. Without words to define me, defend me, protect me, promote me? What if I went somewhere very far away from who I thought I was, and who I had constructed myself to be, so far away that I never came back?
But isn’t that why I was going in the first place? Because I remembered that taste of surrender I’d known bowing down on an orange shag carpet at 15, dedicating my life to Satguru Maharaj Ji and the pursuit of perfect Knowledge. For decades since I left his ashram at 21, I thought of my years there as nothing more than a cult, and later, as a safe harbor for a confused young girl who needed to leave home, but wasn’t ready to manage on my own.
But there was more to those years of satsang, service and meditation than a handy escape into a monolithic world of spiritual clarity. There was a seed of real longing to know a place beyond the rational, the external, the vast, zooming, demanding world of time. I was a seeker of truth. I had a real spiritual hunger. And that part of me, the seeker or Truth was waking up after decades of slumber. I didn’t want the trappings. I didn’t want the rules. I didn’t want dogma or religion. I wanted the pure experience. I wanted the direct knowledge of what many call God.
So I signed up for the retreat, and even though I was afraid of the silence and afraid I would fail, I went.
I survived that first retreat. I reconnected with that 15-year-old seeker who was hungry to know the divine and I welcomed her back into my heart. I reawakened my practice. I struggled with it day to day while I managed kids, a career, a busy life. And periodically, for a refresher, I signed up for another retreat…and another…and another.
There is beauty in silence for me now. When I am stripped bare of all my accessories and all my words, I stop running away. I stop running away from painful emotions, difficult questions I don’t want to answer or face, aspects of myself I’d rather not acknowledge: my own human weaknesses, failings, or tilting toward grandiosity.
In silence, I am stripped down to humanness, nothing more. In silence, I peel back the layers of habit, conditioning, assumptions, identity. It is not that the silence is blissful. At times in every retreat, it is painful, at times excruciating to sit with my shame, my judgments, my planning mind, my grief or self-involvement or self-judgment. But I also get to sit with awe, love, compassion, fullness, connection, reality, and wonder. They are all part of being human and none of them are to be feared. Each is an old friend—oh, there you are again—my critic. There you are again—my judge. There you are again—envy, jealousy, longing, selfishness, uncertainty. There you are again—sincerity. There you are again—devotion, love, beauty, peace. Coming. Going. Ever-changing. They arise, they pass away. Like the weather. And who am I, watching the endless parade? With each retreat, with each entry into deep silence, I open to that mystery a little more.
The last morning of the retreat, as I ate my final bowl of whole grain oatmeal with raisins and sunflower seeds, ground flax and almond butter, I reflected on the freedom I would have, and the energy that would be released if I no longer had to run away from anything. If I no longer had to distract myself from the parts of life I find unpleasant. What if I wasn’t continually pushing away the experiences I don’t want to have and just as constantly manipulating my world to have more of the experiences I want to have? What if my life, as it is, as it comes, was really and truly okay with me? What would my life be like then?