Written 1998 or so…. That’s me in the lower left of the photo : )
Ask yourself if what you are about to say would be an improvement on silence.
– Baba Hari Dass
We emerge into the silence of awe, the stillness of the world holding its breath while new life is birthed. As babies we are steeped in the silence between the spiritual realm and the physical realm. We are open vessels, expressing our joys and pains without any static or interference from the mind. We do not question whether it is right or wrong to have a particular emotion; we simply are.
Gradually this open, clear channel fills with the noise of the outside world: other people’s expectations, fears, desires, and hopes, become our expectations, fears, desires, and hopes. As we mature, our once clear channel to Spirit is filled with structured static: false agreements of who we should be, who we could be, and who we believe we are or should be.
One year at Lent, I chose to undertake an extended silence as a means to reclaim this place of pure being. I sought to open myself fully to the music of the universe, and I sensed that the only way to truly do this was go deep into myself to clear out the old soundtracks within me that looped over and over again.
I began my journey on Ash Wednesday with a small whiteboard and blue erasable pen, a notepad, and a new message on my answering machine: “Hi, this is HeatherAsh. I’m in silence for the next forty days. Leave me a message and I’ll call you back after Easter.”
During my silence I lived alone in an isolated cabin with no electricity, two miles down a dirt logging road, 45 minutes out of town. Sometimes I would sit and imagine I was soaking the surrounding silence into my pores. Other times I would crave a simple phone conversation with a friend. At work I answered the phone, paying attention to my words, but I wrote plenty of notes to communicate with my boss.
In the world I carried my whiteboard everywhere. I spoke when I taught classes, but remained in silence with my friends and strangers. My close friendships deepened as I learned to listen with my full attention, and I spent many wonderful hours in silence simply enjoying a friend’s energy. The long periods during this time of isolation and silence strengthened my will, and helped wean me from my dependency on people for approval and acknowledgement.
As I relaxed into myself, I became more alive to the subtleties around me: the slick warmth of water caressing my skin as I took a shower, the softness of wind fanning the cedars and pines at dusk, the sharp smell of smoke as I kindled the wood stove each morning, shivering in the darkness of early morning spring. But before reaching this place of inner peace, I made a journey through my mind.
Stilling the Mind
True silence comes not simply from the act of not speaking, but from the mind becoming still as a mirror lake. During the first few weeks of not speaking, my isolation and silence did not bring me sudden inner quiet, but the exact opposite: I found myself embroiled in the middle of a painful churning of thoughts and desires. At first I wondered, “Where did all of this noise in my head come from?” I felt as if I had been invaded by an alien force. As I pierced more deeply into the static, I knew that the words which swirled in my head like a swollen river had always been with me.
My silence had simply quieted my outer reality enough to reveal the unconscious banter I constantly carried with me.
By the end of the first week of my word fast, the chaos of my mind had broken through any vestiges of control I had over my thoughts. The voices in my head seemed to explode full force on my drive to work: “Drive slower around the corners, you might go over the cliff!” a voice screamed, and I was living what would happen if I did go over the cliff, imagining being trapped in a car plummeting down a ravine into the river below. “You’re going to be late for work again” was followed by a review and berating of all the times I had been late for work, the judging words of my boss, images of being fired, and being destitute and without a job. “You are worthless,” my mind asserted as it picked through old dramas and painful situations in my life, judging me mercilessly for past mistakes and perceived character flaws.
These thoughts were like a river, raging and foaming through my consciousness. When I was able to maintain my distance from the flow, I perceived that the seed of these wild, uncontrolled emotional eddies came from deep within my unconscious self. These negative thoughts and emotions had always been with me, working beneath the surface, like underground streams. While I had often been completely unaware of them, I saw how most actions in my life were fed by these dirty waters.
The openness and lack of distraction that came from removing myself from the talking world allowed me to pierce the veils of my conscious and unconscious self. By using the energy I normally spent communicating with people, which I now saw as energy spent mostly defending my sense of self and my personality, I gained the ability to see deeper into my own nature.
Divining the Seed of Chaos
One night before bed I pulled a tarot card from The Motherpeace Tarot: the eight of cups. The picture shows an octopus holding eight cups, surrounded by dark blue, and speaks of deep emotional processing. That night I dreamed of a creature like an octopus that lived inside of my belly and produced a dark, gooey ink to keep itself hidden from sight.
When I awoke I knew that the ink was the drama I created in my life and the thoughts of doom and destruction that cycled in my mind. I had spent years cleaning up the ink in my life, and while for a short time I would feel clear, in reality I was getting nowhere because I hadn’t stopped the source of the contamination. The “octopus” had so successfully kept itself hidden that I didn’t even stop to think there might be a deeper source. The dark ink was an illusion — shadows and not reality. The cups in the tarot card represented my old agreements. At the core of the octopus was a seed that eternally polluted the water of my mind through these old agreements. The seed that grew the guardian octopus was fear. In the past this seed of fear would have constantly pushed me to communicate with symphonies of words and theaters of masks: “I am a good person, I am a good person, I am a good person,” because the fear fed the old agreements: “I am a bad person. I am not worthy. People will not like me.”
Sometimes the fear would slip all the way through, and I would find myself sabotaging relationships, friendships, and opportunities, simply to ensure that these unconscious agreements were upheld. By taking away a huge tool to making sure those agreements were upheld in the world — the spoken word — the agreements slowly crumbled. I saw how I lived in two realms. To the outside world I used words and masks to show I was a good person. On the inside I felt this was a charade, but I had to hide my inner judge, who condemned me as worthless to the world.
My silence gave me the vision to see to the core of the octopus, to turn over the cups of stale agreements, begin to make new agreements, and see that beneath the octopus of fear there was a vast place of pure love. I saw how this place of peace and love had always been inside of me, just like the chaos. When I found the courage to go beyond the veils of fear created by the octopus and then to even go past the octopus itself, there was a deep place of peace.
As my silence continued, by weeks three and four the words I used to communicate in my emails and on my whiteboard became sparser and more compact. I went to a meeting where normally I would have been one of the ones talking the most, contributing ideas and debating, and was quite happy to sit and listen to the process. My ego began to see that I didn’t need to make myself known in groups, I didn’t have to contribute words or ideas. In each encounter with groups of people, I became more and more relaxed and happy. There was nothing I needed to do or be or uphold. I didn’t need to defend or justify myself. I could simply rest in the vast sweet space beneath fear.
Connecting with Spirit
Malidoma Some speaks of his tribe, the Dagara of Africa, and their system of hierarchy: plants are the most revered, as they are completely silent, and therefore their connection to Spirit is the most pure. Animals come next in the hierarchy, since they make sounds to communicate. Last are humans, since we speak to communicate, which immediately takes us away from truth, from what it.
Our words are an impossible attempt to put structure on the vast formlessness of Spirit, of pure life. Sinking into silence gives us the chance to commune directly with magic. Since we don’t need to interpret or create a word-based structure for our experiences, we can know from the same energetic level as the rocks and plants. This deep knowing allows us to be present in each moment, without expectations or fear or doubt. Suddenly, everything around us becomes our friend, our lover, or our teacher. The trees, the cars, the buildings, the flowers sing their messages directly into our souls, and we wordlessly sing back. Spirit speaks to us through cats, through pebbles, through strangers. We can finally allow ourselves to hear and be open to the power of life dancing around and through us.
On my way home from work the Thursday before Easter I stopped to get groceries. At the check stand a man who had been talking with the cashier began to include me in the conversation. I realized I had left my voice — the whiteboard — in my car. I smiled and nodded politely. As I paid the bill the cashier said, “Hey, why don’t you help take her groceries to her car?” I was about to refuse when a voice inside of me said, “Let him do it.” I nodded in acceptance, and we walked to the car.
He continued to chat away, and as we put the groceries in the back seat I grabbed my whiteboard and wrote, “I’ve been in silence for forty days.” He froze, stared at me hard. I waited in this suspended moment, open to the universe. He finally spoke: “I don’t usually do this, but I believe you will understand.” He bowed to me; then kneeled down to place his forehead to my feet. “That is for the Divine Mother.” Another bow and he was gone.
I knew my time of silence was complete.