I just spoke to a friend of mine who lives on one of the Gulf Islands on the west coast with her husband and two young daughters. Her husband had gone on a silent 10 day retreat which had inspired many-a-comment from people to the point that one of the little girls had to ask: ‘What is the big deal? Why is it so hard to be silent for a long time?’ The parents explained that spending time being quiet meant that a person was forced to look at their self: the good, the bad and the ugly. When left alone with their thoughts too long, many are not comfortable facing what they find.
The little girl promptly explained what she heard back to her parents like this: ‘You mean, if I was a witch and I looked at myself in a mirror, at first I would be scared of what I saw and then I would realize it’s just a mirror.” Right then. That’s exactly right. The job is to sit long enough through the discomfort until you can see past the scary and into the core of who you are. You seek out the part of you that is untouched by perceptions, including your own.
I belong to a study group of parents led by my Pastor. This week we touched on the idea of noise and silence and how we so readily surround ourselves with the din of the world and find it so difficult to be in silence or to listen. My Pastor had just returned from a silent retreat as well that seemed to refresh and renew her. I was brought back to the few times in my life where I had to sit with the monster inside of myself in that kind of forced silence (forced because there is no way I could do this without external pressure to do so). I recall the one person in my group (and I think it may have actually have been my mother) who kept talking through the entire allotted time we were to be silent. For this person, it was literally impossible to not fill the space with chatter. The void was too vast, too unknown and potentially too dark.
When I was in grade school, I was always the one who giggled through the moment of silence on Remembrance Day ceremonies. I would giggle at funeral services. I giggled with great vigour the first time my Buddhist roomie tried to teach me how to meditate in university. I even have to admit to recently stifling a giggle through quiet prayer during church service. Here I will remind you that I am 40 and not 4.
The giggle isn’t because I find anything funny. It is because the silence makes me fraught with nerves. I might better enjoy being tied up and tickled than sitting silently in a room with other beings. At least the giggling would be far more appropriate.
I don’t have a single problem with spending a day alone or not seeing people for long stretches of time. I quite prefer this actually. One of the trials of being a parent is the complete lack of privacy and I am constantly yearning for alone time. Yet, in the company of other adults, silence is just torture for me.
So we become afraid of what we will see when we are left alone with ourselves. Yet the reflection is only ever a product of our imagination (as explained by the 4 year old so well). If only we could convince ourselves that there is nothing to be afraid of on the other side.
In the middle of writing this post tonight, I had to take my flashlight through the woods and across the pitch black pasture of our neighbour’s fields to bring our cows back home. Last spring they discovered that the lawn around the abandoned house grows lusher than anywhere on our own land and they continually take down the fence to return to this spot throughout the winter waiting for the green grass to grow. The walk through the forest in the shadows reminded me of scenes from the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, The Blair Witch Project. The deciduous trees poked and prodded me as I followed the well-worn path through the snow. Suddenly, I could hear 3000 pounds of cattle coming towards me (in 3 separate bodies) from a distance, breaking branches just as the Blair Witch had. It might have been frightening but I know these girls. They know me. We don’t surprise each other anymore. Even when one of them bumped me into a tree with her head out of affection (or a desire for the bucket of grain I used to lure them home), I was not afraid.
Perhaps silence is just the ticket for recognizing what’s left standing true when the storm of the day blows us away. It is the vehicle that takes you past the distortion that is the witch, past the darkness, and back home again. Perhaps there’s even something worth laughing for real in it all. And though the grass may or may not be greener on the other side, the journey home is always well worth the effort.