Truth Arrives in Silence

Note: This post continues my reflections on “truth”, my word for 2016.

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“We can’t rob our gifts of their mystery. We can only rob ourselves of our gifts.”

– Ken Page

The temperature dropped to 19 below that first night. I huddled in my plywood cabin under several blankets, completely surrounded by the silence of the snowy woods. Except for the loud cracks of trees popping in the cold, the silence outdoors was vast. Inside, the sounds of some small animal skittering behind the wall or the heater whooshing to life were intermittent, startling me every time.

With none of the usual noise-makers present (no phone service, no television, no computer) I was thrown upon my own inner resources for mental occupation. Of course, I was staying at a retreat center so that was the point: remove the noise and distractions of daily life and allow your inner self to come out.

The first thing that happened was that I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for almost 10 hours. Considering my recent 4-6 hours per night, often punctuated by periods of wakefulness, that long sleep verged on the miraculous.

The next thing I noticed was that the anxiety that had been my near-constant companion for months, let go of its stranglehold on my throat and lifted itself up off of my chest. I didn’t really care where it had gone, I was just so grateful that it had! I didn’t mind that the day’s temps had never rallied above zero. I bundled up and grabbed a walking stick and headed out to hike in the woods, following trail markings to make my way.

Into my silent mind paraded all the things – you know the ones: the things I hadn’t done, the things I had failed at, the things I never quite managed to get a handle on; the things I should have, ought to have, and meant to do or become. Usually, these things make me feel so awful, so down on myself, that I quickly find something to do to get out of the silence that invites them in. Instead, I kept walking.

The path through the snow and ice covered woods was rough and uneven. I was grateful for the walking stick that allowed me to keep moving, for the boots that kept my toes warm, for the scarf that filtered the freezing air as it entered my body.

Next to arrive in the mental parade: all of the beauty surrounding me, outside of me. I noticed ice crystals on the frozen creek, forming dramatic and intricate patterns; the bare trees reaching in stark loveliness toward the blue sky; the turkey tracks forming their own path in virgin snow just off the walking trail. I felt a surge of positive energy rising from my feet on the ground up through the top of my head. I looked around me in wonder.

Last to arrive, buoyed up by the surge of gladness in my heart and shyly tip-toeing into the silence, came my deepest gifts – the beauty that resides deep inside me. Psychologist Ken Page calls them Core Gifts, saying:

“…They are simply the places where we feel the most deeply, where we most ache to express our authentic self…we spend large parts of our lives fleeing their call… Yet, as safe as we may feel by avoiding our core gifts, there is a grave cost to this avoidance…We create a vacuum where our self should be, and our nature abhors that vacuum.”

Nature abhors that vacuum. So we fill it with noise and busyness and the consuming of stuff. We adventure and we schedule and we work. Anything to avoid the silence. A friend recently told me that she can’t have silence, because if she is surrounded by silence for too long, “…bad things happen. No, I can’t do silence.” But the bad things come first because they’re closest to the surface. We’re aware of them on a daily basis even if we don’t look at them straight-on. Deeper, beneath that layer of mental and emotional filth, the good stuff is hiding. If we never allow silence, we rarely break through to the gifts.

Deep inside, hidden in the silence, is the mystery of my best self. I put it there to keep it safe from the inevitable hurts, shame, embarrassment that it felt when I was a child and others glimpsed it. Vulnerable as it felt in the open, it turns out that a locked box isn’t the optimum place to keep my best self. If I never make room for silence, I never make space for my best self to emerge in daily life. I only leave space for what is always lurking just below the surface; I only allow room for anxiety and fear and loneliness.

I’m not claiming that two days at a retreat center allowed me to retrieve my best self for good. But I am suggesting that real, substantive, silence is a good thing. We feel uncomfortable at first. We immediately access the crappy stuff. But if we stick with it, eventually our inner butterfly emerges from the crysalis we’ve hidden in our hearts. Our best self unfolds its gorgeous wings, and we become aware that, perhaps, the thing we’ve been fearing and avoiding is the core of who we are. And it glistens like a diamond – or like glittery snow on a brightly cold day in the silent north woods.

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And we’re walking…

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. -Steven Wright

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In late summer I hurt my knee in what some might call a misguided attempt to take up running. They might call it that because I have made such attempts before, always ending in injury to one knee or the other.

I experienced pain and difficulty walking for weeks, though bike riding seemed to help and didn’t exacerbate the injury. But I reached a point at which my knee wasn’t improving and it was hampering my mobility to a degree that I found frustrating. And, truth be told, I still harbor a desire to take up running – perhaps not marathoning, but I’d love to be able, one day, to say I’ve run a 5k. So, I decided that cycling needed to share time with weight-bearing exercise, and I started walking. On my first walk (around Lake Calhoun, a perfect 3.1 mile – or 5k – circuit) I clocked in at around 1.5 hours and could barely self-ambulate to my bike, much less pedal, for the ride home.

I’m not going to lie: after a summer of cycling, walking seemed tedious. Plus, let’s face it, “I went for a walk” doesn’t have the same cachet as “I just got back from a run”. At first, I stuck with walking because it was the only thing I could think to do that would, eventually, lead to normal functioning AND the opportunity to try running again (after all, my friend and award-winning running coach Ryan Scheckel has assured me that running is, in fact, possible for me).

But a funny thing happened as I committed to walking daily. I discovered that the act of walking opened me up in ways I never anticipated.

First, it opened my eyes. I began to understand the layout of the city, especially my neighborhood (Whittier) and those surrounding it. The pieces of this urban puzzle began to come together for me. Then, I found myself noticing details I had missed in riding or driving through the neighborhoods. Occasionally, I would take a picture with my phone and show it to Mike. He’d say, “Where is that? How come I’ve never seen it?!” This led to the Instagram project in which I post a daily photo of Minneapolis. While it may seem like a silly thing, the daily photo project has been a way of connecting, albeit tenuously, with like-minded people in this vast city. And the sheer fun of discovering new things each day has added to the measure of joy in my life. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors… disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” This is especially true for city dwellers, and I love occupying these “in-between” spaces.

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A second thing that walking daily has done is opened my heart to the strangers around me. It isn’t unusual to have short, pleasant and quite interesting interactions and conversations with people on the street – when I stop to take a photo or we’re waiting at the crosswalk. On the next block is a center for the blind, and I often meet folks coming or going on the sidewalk, using their walking sticks expertly. We exchange greetings and shy smiles. As I walk, I try not to avert my eyes from signs of suffering, or to look past the individuals who ask me for a handout. I agreed to buy breakfast for one young man, who then surprised me by asking the server what the least expensive item on the menu was, and ordering that. I saw a woman walking down the sidewalk crying and in obvious misery. We made eye contact, and she shook her head slightly as she passed, as if to say, “No, you can’t help this.” I like to think she knew I wanted to. As in any city, the mix of affluence and poverty, of hope and despair, of insiders and outsiders is apparent daily. As I walk, my heart tries to embrace them all.

Perhaps the most important kind of opening walking has brought to my days is a spiritual one. It doesn’t matter how worried or anxious I am when I step out the door, walking brings me calm. With that calmness comes the ability to to relax into a prayerful state that I find difficult to achieve in other circumstances. Praise, gratitude, supplication, even a kind of meditative trance all flow with ease. “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility”, says the poet Gary Snyder. Finding the balance between spirit and humility is, I find, a necessary prerequisite for open communication with God. It is too often the case that my daily worries loom overly large in my mind. There is no perspective available when your sense of self is overinflated to the point of panic – instead of communion, what occurs is melodramatic monologue. And really, who among us wouldn’t benefit from a reduction in that?!

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. -Soren Kierkegaard

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Invitations

It had been gray and raining for days, so sunshine on Monday was a welcome sight. Rather than wait and walk later in the evening, after dark (as you will know from last week’s post is my latest habit), I was determined to get outside and walking while the sun was still shining. I took off in the slightly sketchier direction – the one I wouldn’t head in if it were dark and I was by myself – so cheerful there was an actual bounce in my step.

The neighborhood was alive with people: a couple of punk teens with bad-ass hair on banged-up mountain bikes, a young mother trying to wrangle three toddlers out of a leaf pile and into the house, two girls walking slowly down the sidewalk in stocking feet. About two blocks from home, I noticed side-by-side yards. One yard had been meticulously raked of leaves, while the yard next to it was a matted carpet of orange and yellow. The boundary between the two lawns was clearly, meticulously, demarcated.

As I approached, I noticed an older woman raking in the side yard of the well-manicured lawn. She looked at me and broke into a lovely grin.

“Beautiful evening for a walk,” she said.

“Sure is. Looks like you’ve had quite the job keeping up with those leaves,” I replied.

“Right! There’s another rake if you want to join me,” the woman said with a mischievous smile. (I believe her eyes literally twinkled as she said it.)

We both laughed, and I continued on my genuinely merry way. About a block later, I stopped to photograph some graffiti which ordered me to:

but rather than consider the definition of art, as directed, I found myself contemplating an entirely different question. Why didn’t I take the proffered rake and help that woman finish cleaning up her yard? 

In the moment of our brief conversation, I had assumed that the woman and I were engaging in noncommittal stranger interaction. Just a friendly passing of a few congenial seconds. It had not occurred to me to take her seriously and join her at her labor. But as soon as the question came to my mind, I knew I had blown an opportunity. I had declined an invitation.

Lately, I have complained about being at a…pause point…in my life. Near the end of one road but not yet able to set foot on the next. I have been chafing at this, contemplating ways that I can experience forward movement or at least some kind of engagement in the NOW, so I don’t revert to old (nearly lifelong) habits of living in and for the future. I know from bitter experience that when I exist in a future context, I have a tendency to allow inertia to lull me into inaction. Suddenly, I have lost focus and months have passed without movement in any direction (except, perhaps, upward on my bathroom scales).

I have been contemplating different tactics, from purposely stepping outside my comfort zone in some way (um, do I really want to hang out at the biker bar by myself and see how that goes?) to setting up some kind of social experiment (eat for a week on the same amount of money a food stamp recipient receives) to see how resourceful and creative I can be as well as to understand how difficult it might be to live within externally-set limits. Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of activities are not necessarily bad. However, for me right now these ideas are inauthentic. Contrived. Right now, I need grounded and authentic.

In Hymns to an Unknown God, Sam Keen says, “Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” In other words, expect invitations to enter into the lives of others, to engage with yourself and those around you in different ways. Invitations to journey in new directions and to try new things.

I believe these invitations (opportunities, clandestine messages) occur in each of our lives on a daily basis. But I also know I am often so caught up in my own scripts, my own daily agendas, that I easily miss them. I don’t realize something important or meaningful has just been offered. What if I had accepted the invitation to rake with that woman? At the very least, I would have taken a little time out of my day to help a neighbor. At the very most…well, who can say what might have been created in that space?! Either way, I would have been richer for it.

Sometimes, these invitations lead to life-changing encounters. The kind of encounters (with others or with ourselves) that give us pause, offer us insight, allow us to connect the dots from where we are to where we want/need to go. As Gregg Levoy says in Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “In whatever form these signal events come to us, they seem to indicate…a way in which events on the outside and the inside work together and match each other. The event and our state of mind become like the two eyepieces of a binocular microscope, they are both looking at the same subject, the same truth.” When this happens, the invitation extended to us is, in fact, a call to become our most authentic selves.

I am grateful for the reminder that I need to be on the lookout for these invitations, these messages intended for me personally. Though they might show up at odd or unexpected moments, it is vital to keep the following in mind : once I’ve received the invitation, the whole point is to accept it. To show up at the party (or conversation, lecture, volunteer site, relationship) – without attachment to preconceived outcomes – and see what there is to learn or to give.

Walking in the Dark

Almost the first thing I notice: nothing looks the same. Though, normally, I have a strong internal compass, suddenly I lose my bearings easily and often. Shadows and pools of light transform even the most familiar streets into alien territory. At corners, I move up close to the street signs, shining my little key-fob light at the words, verifying that I’m someplace familiar, in spite of appearances.

Walking in my neighborhood at night, I notice little things like the discarded banana peel I almost stepped on (imagine what a story that would have made!), or that a surprising number of motion-activated flood lights pick up movement in the street. And I notice big things: the dearth of sidewalks; streetlights shining up into the orange leaves of the sugar maples. I notice clouds scuttling across the bright white harvest moon, blown by the freshening winds of autumn.

Recently, I have been grappling with issues and transitions in my life. Mostly, I have been unable to share them in this blog for two reasons. First, some stories are not mine alone to tell. Second, there are practical considerations which prevent me talking about some of these processes for now. But this blog has become my way of inviting others to share my journey, and your companionship on the road has truly motivated and inspired me to keep moving forward. To be bound to silence for the time being – this has truly been difficult.

Add to that the discomfort we all feel at the thresholds of new places, when we know we want to enter but are unsure of what awaits us – and I am all verklempt. Inside, I roil. Emotion threatens to overwhelm me. An impetus to speak, to act, to move pushes outward from my core – yet I am in a moment of stasis before the rapid acceleration I am certain is to come.

When I must do something, I head out into the night to walk. Up and down streets I’ve taken for granted for years. Past houses full of neighbors I’ve never met, past dogs in yards begging for attention, past fallen leaves and trash cans set out for the morning collection.

As I walk, I talk to myself. Admonitions. To-do lists. Corrections to my faulty thinking. Snippets of poetry. Half conversations – some real, some my lines in imaginary dialogues. Occasionally, I check that this running-at-the-mouth is truly internal, that I haven’t started actually speaking out loud like the mentally-ill homeless woman who alternately breaks my heart and frightens me.

The parallels between the metaphorical road I am walking in my life and these actual night walks are not lost on me. In both cases, I am treading familiar/not familiar territory. Change is surrounding me, from the physical changes of autumn to the emotional and psychological changes required by liminal moments. I have to move forward, with determination and without fear (hello, since when have I not been afraid of the dark?). Focus is required to avoid tripping and to keep from psyching myself out. I am treading both paths alone.

I walk until my shoulders start to ache, usually the first sign of fatigue, which slows the mental synapses and causes my internal voice to grow quiet. My mind is finally free to notice the big and little things I mentioned earlier. I begin to hear the sounds occurring outside my own head: the scuttle of a squirrel chase, the frantic tinkle of windchimes, a distant siren’s wail. I lean into the wind and breathe deeply. Finally…finally…I relax. Finally, I can stop trying to force things. I can let go of the need for specific outcomes, and just lean into the now. Lean into the perfect red-orange of a fallen leaf on the black asphalt at my feet.