As I write, I’m sitting in the bedroom of a beautiful house in central Texas, right on the Balcones Fault. We’re in the rolling hills that begin their gentle crescendo into the spectacular Texas hill country to the west. There is a beautiful patch of bluebonnets that can be seen from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room. Yesterday, I followed the bluebonnets down a dirt road that led to a quietly flowing green river. Small, delicate wildflowers were beginning to bloom their soft shades of lavender and white and the huge oaks flanking the river and the path I was taking were bursting out in leaves that were every shade of green. It’s glorious here.
I’m on a spiritual retreat called Inviting Silence, led by a dear friend of mine. My bedroom window is open and all I can hear at the moment is the breeze blowing through these Technicolor trees. Since lunch and until dinner, we have all entered into silence. It is heavenly to be in the quiet space of this room and hear absolutely no voices at all. The silence grounds me and pulls me into my center unlike anything else. I had completely forgotten about the healing power of it.
I really needed this retreat. I needed it more than I knew, actually. This is the first time in a long time that I’m on retreat and not teaching in some capacity. For the past couple of months, from January through late March, I had been in what is often called a dark night of the soul, a spiritual depression, of sorts. On January 8 we had to put our almost 16-year old dachshund, Daisy, down. It was a hard time. I was grieving, it was winter, and the days were so cold and dark. I’ve experienced these so-called dark nights of the soul before. For me, they always come before big moments of spiritual growth. But this one was the longest – two months. I felt like I was in a spiritual desert. I couldn’t hear God or feel God like I usually do. None of my spiritual practices were doing anything to restore the feeling of Source flowing through me and I was completely out of touch with divine guidance; the very cornerstone of everything I practice and teach and live. My faith was waning and my trust felt like it was evaporating. And yet, I knew that this was about learning how to increase my faith, to stretch outside of my comfort zone, rest in the uncertainty of not knowing, and to trust The Divine even more than ever before. I was in the middle of a spiritual wasteland and the only person who could get me out of it was me.
My friend told me about this retreat and I signed up to go. I needed a change in scenery, I needed to be in nature, and I needed to not be teaching. I needed to rekindle my devotional heart, re-ignite my inner mysticism that feeds on experiencing The Divine instead of intellectualizing it from the head only. Basically, I needed the time and space to just shut the eff up.
“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?”
~Angeles Arrien, author of The Four-Fold Way & Signs of Life, from the foreword of the book Maps to Ecstasy by Gabrielle Roth
For nearly 10 years now, I have been sharing this quote in my classes. Heart and feeling is at the center of my teaching, which is highly creative and infused with elements of bhakti (BOCK-tee). Bhakti is the yoga of the heart, the yoga of devotion, and encompasses art, music, dance, poetry. We use the heart’s longing for divine connection as the very pathway for connection. We welcome and feel “all the feels.” And being creative in this experience means we open to infinite possibilities in all we do (on the mat and in life), which means resting in not-knowing, letting go of advanced planning, being present and open to Divine Flow…however that looks and sounds. Movement begins to become more dance-like, a fluid and flowing morph of inner guidance made manifest. What we say becomes more song-like as our voices open to speak our truth with a newfound clarity and resonance. Courage and self-trust wells up in us and empowers us to tell our own unique stories, letting ourselves be seen, as we listen to others’ stories and see them, too.
And, last but not least, there’s the silence. Ahhh…resting in the moments of silent pause, the space between movement, between words, between thoughts. It’s primal, the silence. As they say, “in the beginning was the Word,” or “in the beginning was Om,” but before that there was a pause, a breath in, a moment of formless silence before the word was spoken into existence.
I hadn’t realized until this weekend that I had been neglecting silence in my life. My soul needed a pause. Not just the pauses throughout my day, not just the pauses in my daily practices, not just sitting on the deck with a cool drink. This heavy dark night of the soul required a long, deep pause. It required silence. This neglect is interesting to me because I am so comfortable with silence. My soul craves it, just like dance, song, and story; yet, I had slowly let it move to the back burner and eventually, off the stove altogether. Silence is not a part of our society. It constantly beckons us with a momentary gift of stopping to be present, yet we refuse it, replacing the sacred space with more talking, more sounds – a conditioned state of absence that feels normal. We’re uncomfortable with silence. I had grown mindlessly unintentional about keeping it. It’s only in the silence will I be completely present with myself and it’s only then will I hear, feel, and see God. Somehow, I had totally forgotten about the sweet territory of silence.
This is my first time to be on a silent retreat. We will break silence at dinner, but for now, I am savoring this delicious and exquisite silence. For the first hour, I went out for a walk in the solitude. I knew how badly I needed this silence immersion when it took almost that whole hour for me to shut up inside. When I got back to the house and my room here, the words had all cleared from inside my head. The house is silent. There are no voices outside my door. No one is dominating conversations, no one is speaking loudly, nobody is finishing other’s thoughts for them or interrupting or talking over anyone else. This is the way conversations often go without the honoring of the space between words. Without the intention of sacred space, we are busy formulating our responses and comments while another is talking. No real listening is happening. It’s the same with spiritual communication. It’s no wonder I couldn’t hear a thing.
After dinner we broke the silence, but I really needed more. The next morning, I ate my breakfast outside instead of joining the group at the table. There was too much talking and I had to be back in that sweet silence all by myself. The dam had broken open, the flow was coming in, and I felt the pull of God – that magnetic pull to “follow me” that had been absent for months – beckoning me back to the river. As I got up and walked down the road, following that grateful pull, I asked the awakened masters, my guides, my angels to walk with me; something I hadn’t done in months. I felt them all with me. All the questions of “What’s wrong with me?” “Why haven’t I been able to hear you or feel you?” flooding out of my mouth. I walked way down the road and then suddenly stopped in the middle of it, turned around, and sat down. “Can you please show yourself to me?” I asked. It felt so good to be back in this sort of dialog, this communication and presence that I had longed to drop back into. There was no one in any direction I looked; it was just me and Spirit. And then in the quietness of my being I heard, “I am right here. All you have to do is look around.”
So, I laid down in the middle of the quiet road, on my back in the cosmic grounded shape, with my knees bent, feet flat, and palm open to the cosmos. And my whole visual field shifted. I saw God in the unending shades of green, sprinkled all around me. I saw God in the way these giant oak trees could hold themselves up, leaning their branches way out over me. “This is in you,” I silently heard from within my depths. The shapes of the branches and leaves were the same as the bronchial tree in my lungs. The path I was lying on was an artery in my body. The wind, my breath. Then my vision telescoped outward into the cosmos. The tiny spaces between the leaves where the silver overcast sky was showing through became stars in the night sky. The flood gate was open and I could feel an energy like I have never felt before pouring into me and filling me up. It felt like Heaven. Maybe it was.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, but I knew this was the reason for my being here. After a while, I sat up and everything around me seemed to be glowing. Colors were brighter, sounds were sharper, and I felt the Oneness that I had been craving for these months I was in the drought. As I slowly walked back toward the house, I heard something rustling on the embankment to the left. I looked down, thinking there was a little animal on the ground, and suddenly two huge black birds appeared, sitting at eye level in a tree. One flew right across my path to a tree on the right side. I couldn’t believe it. (If you come to Montana with me this summer, I will tell you the incredible raven story that happened to me when I was at Feathered Pipe in 2017. It involved two huge ravens.) As I did in Montana, I asked these two, “What do you want to tell me?” And the other one took off and flew several big circles above me and then flew off. “Let my gifts take flight,” I thought.
Smiling in awe, I headed back to the house. This spiritual infusion I just received was bringing every part of me back to life, like the way a desert plant blooms when it rains. My understanding of silence has changed. My soul needs solitude and quiet. It needs nature. It needs a long, deep drink of pause in addition to the short sips that I take throughout each day in my practices. I plan to be more intentional about taking these deep drinks and building more silence into my day and into my classes. It feels so wonderful to be out of the desert and back on the bank of the river. But I know that, at some point, it’s pretty likely that I will forget my current state of remembrance and find myself back in the desert. When that happens, silence, solitude, and nature will be the first thing I do when I feel the beginnings of forgetfulness creeping back in.