Absence of Words, Silence of Noise

Today I’ll share with you a blog post in dialogue with myself. The first half was written after my first few hours in the midst of nearly 42 hours of silence during a silent meditation retreat in the presence of what used to be total strangers. The second half is my reaction and response now that I’ve survived the silent retreat and the insights taken from it.

The first half:

January 16, 2016 – Today I am thankful for the power and presence of words. I don’t know if it’s because of the last few hours of solitude and silence among the presence of 20 strangers, but I’m grateful for noise and I definitely miss it. This sense of isolation among a crowd of people takes me to a dark place – the dark place of my office for the better part of two years, the dark place of my old abusive relationships, the dark places of the unwanted and silenced little girl I used to be. It takes me to the place of unwantedness. To the place where I was told that no one would believe me or care to listen. To the times over the last few years when I’ve been told to just keep my mouth shut because I can’t possibly make a difference. Or because I’m just supposed to do what I’m told. To the desperately lonely times filled with no one to talk to. To the moments of feeling trapped – trapped by my head, trapped by my body, and sometimes literally trapped. I need to get out of it, I’m going for a walk.

Today:

When we first entered silence during the 4 day retreat last weekend, I completely panicked. I had signed up for the retreat on a whim. Well, perhaps not quite a whim but I definitely had no idea of what to expect. A Meditation retreat sounded benign enough, I thought. It could be an opportunity to clear some negative energy that’s accumulated, hit the refresh button for the new year, and restore myself to a state of calm after the life-crushing and hectic hustle bustle of the last two years. After all, as John Clease says in a really great video about the nature of creativity, creativity cannot occur in a closed place where humor is not allowed, where questions are stifled and unwelcome, and where stress and progress and getting menial tasks completed rule the day. No, creativity must occur in a state of openness and calm, in a state of acceptance and peace.

I had definitely lost my creativity over the past few years. Or well, not necessarily lost, but I buried it deep. I was just hoping the retreat would allow me to uncover the real me I’d shoveled a bunch of shit over and get back to my true nature of creativity, of calm focus, of positive possibilities.

But silence? No. Silence was not something I had bargained for. The first few hours I thought I was going to lose my mind. I was sick of keeping silence, of holding words and thoughts and desires and needs and even healthy boundaries close to my chest and not daring to express them for fear of a horrible backlash from the “powers that be.” It had been so long since silence had been a positive thing for me. I missed resting in silence, being at peace with silence, having the calmness of spirit to quietly listen to the raucous sounds of life around me. My triggers were definitely firing and my alarm bells were ringing.

A few hours later, I don’t know how I dragged myself through afternoon and evening practice. The silent hours were extended. Now, instead of just one afternoon of silence, we would have an entire additional day of silence. I thought I was going to cry. I did cry a little bit. How could I do this?!

It’s not like I hadn’t been silent before. During the days I traveled by myself, camped in the desert without a soul around, wandered from hostel to hostel and drove countless hours across the continent without uttering a single word, silence became my best friend. I welcomed it wholeheartedly as an opportunity to process, to integrate, to ponder life in all its infinite wonder. But over the past year, silence had warped. The more negative Nancies (and Johns, Jims, Sandeeps and a bunch of other pseudonyms for the people who pressured me to shush) had really gotten under my skin.

I don’t want to be quiet anymore! My soul screamed. I could feel the vibrations of all the words I hadn’t said quivering under the surface of my skin. Boiling, raging, flooding, beating at the dam, desperate to burst forth into a word vomit of epic proportions.

The search for peaceful quiet, could have been the name of my internal blog post for that silent weekend. The quiet scratched against my skin like sandpaper, clawed on my mind like scraggly fingernails on a ragged chalkboard. Grated on my heart like a cheese-grater, but without delicious parmesan to show for it. I went to bed with tears of frustration rolling down my face in the wooded mustiness of the log cabin dorm, where given my young age in comparison to the others around me, my tears could easily have been mistaken for a temper tantrum. I’m sorry, did I say mistaken? I was definitely throwing a temper tantrum. The only problem was, since it was silent, I was the only one who could hear my screams. But back to the story at hand. I went to bed with tears of frustration rolling down my face – dreading the next 24 hours filled with only the absence of words.

But somewhere in the night, the silence must have seasoned me. Settled in, wriggled its way into the jagged cracks of my heart and filled them with plaster. Repairing and even adding a fresh coat of paint and planting some flowers next to the newly made wall of my heart and mind. The day began with my silence as I filled the mug of tea with hot curling steams of water. I had found a new mug off the shelf.

“There are two ways to live your life,” the coffee mug said to me. “One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

I’m not sure when coffee mugs got to be so wise, but I suppose anything can seem that way if you put the words of Einstein on it. My temper tantrum of the night before felt forgotten. I knew which way I wanted to live my life, Mr.-slash-Mrs. Coffee Cup…so thank you very much.

From there, the day deepened with the warmth of the sun. Time stretched out into luxurious stretches of nothing. I had all sorts of brilliant plans before I started at the retreat. Plans to read and plans to write and plans to study and plans to emerge as someone completely different and yet ultimately more perfect than myself. But those plans disappeared into the chorus of bird calls, the peck peck pecking of the woodpeckers, hidden from sight, but otherwise completely noticeable. My plans disappeared somewhere along the game trails I followed into the woods. Disappeared into the tracks of the deer hidden from the wakefulness of the mid-day hours. Disappeared on the wings of the owl I accidentally startled into a mesmerizing flight of expansion and feathers. Information drained away, creating space for the information that’s always been written inside me. The information more real and deep and meaningful and beautiful than anything new I could type into my hard drive.

Something funny started to happen. In the places where the quiet seeped in and dripped down the walls of my heart like water through strands of moss on the edge of a cliffside, space started to grow. Small roots at first, barely visible amidst the noise of my mind, but then sprouting, rapidly, shooting outwards. Like vines enchanted by a wizard’s spell they wound and wrapped their way around the inside of me. Bursting out through my ears and eyes and into the air on the outside of my skin. The space grew faster, bigger, wider, taller, until I was completely enveloped by its soft warmth.

The space felt like down comforters and fluffy pillows, fresh from the hot dryer and smelling like my mom’s fabric softener mixed with soft, lavender rain.

The seeds had been planted and I was starting to grow again. Tiny sprout by tiny sprout, into the renewed trenches of my same old self – just with a fresh watering and a little bit of fertilizer to help me on my growth. The silence was suddenly transformed from an infinite expanse of oppression into the very pathway out of my misery and I heard the door click as something inside me was unlocked.

Click. Step outside, Lauren. You’re safe now.

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