A few months ago, a yearning asserted itself into my consciousness. I think it had been there for a long time, just below the surface, but I had kept myself unaware. I think it’s because this desire wasn’t exactly welcome. In my experience, the most soulful yearnings are deeply uncomfortable. They appear black and sticky, and often have to do with a sense of worthiness. I may not understand how I can let them in, or why I should. I know from experience that the ask of the soul will change the shape of my life. That’s very frightening.
What if my life is fine the way it is?
What if it’s actually kind of good?
Why would I want to mess with what works?
It takes so much hard work to get to where things “work.”
This yearning showed me that I was missing something. Just like most of the people I know, I’ve been pushing my stress and sadness under to get through the difficult adjustments with the pandemic. Along with the sadness, I pushed down my desire. Nobody gets what they want right now, right? I covered it all over in work. I kept so busy that I could barely breathe.
I began to have trouble sleeping. I would wake at 2:00 or 3:00am and be forced to tangle with my thoughts. It was during those hours of sleeplessness that I realized the most spiritual part of me was asking for Silence.
Writing it there, it seems like such a simple thing – Silence. But it’s truly elusive for a working mother of two wildly creative young children, with a house full of animals and ongoing home improvement projects, and a brisk and lovely shop to keep. All of these things are welcome, and necessary, to my happiness and sense of purpose. But Silence has been missing, and now it is insistent. I had neglected it, had banished it from my life by bringing many other things into the space I used to keep for it.
The kind of Silence I am speaking of isn’t just the absence of sound. It is also what happens when Silence is allowed in. The shifts in the body, the unwinding and melting into oneself. When Silence is given time, something else enters. The still, small voice that instructs, helps, befriends, and guides begins to speak. This is Silence as a practice.
When I was a child, I loved fairy tales and myths. I had a lively imagination and I was very creative, like my children. I would play alone for hours and hours with a set of dolls from around the world that my mother had received from her traveling aunts. The fancy, colorful costumes they wore lent themselves well to many kinds of stories. The playing out of fantasy and the creation of small rituals, for young children, is a way of letting the soul speak and set life to order. I explored a range of feelings and questions through this play. It was, for me, a form of contemplation.
As a teenager and young adult, I spent most of my free hours in one of three ways – reading, writing in my journal, and walking, often in the woods, but also in cities and on paths. This was before the internet was in every household, and social media was in its infancy, in the form of slow chat rooms accessed through dial-up that lost connection when someone picked up the phone. It didn’t offer what it does now, so it wasn’t much of a thing for me. Books and writing and thinking were a thing for me, though. I discovered that walking and moving during menial tasks often produced dhyana, a flow state where ideas and images would drift in and out of my mind. Sometimes I had mystical experiences, visions, and sensed visitations. These experiences and this time spent in study and contemplation gave me access to my inner world, and Silence, where the soul speaks.
Children, higher education, partnership, and career advancement happened. I did all the things that adults are supposed to do. As a generalist, I had skills and abilities that were in demand. I was good at what I did. When asked to do it, I went all in and applied myself in totality. I said “yes” to everything. I didn’t understand that it was ok to say “No,” and I didn’t know how to. I thought that if I said “No” I would not be allowed to succeed.
Women are really not encouraged to speak the word “No,” and few of us were raised with models for guarding our privacy, our time, our silence. Maybe once I saw what I was capable of, I wanted to push that limit. Maybe because I saw that I was of value to others, I wanted to be all things to all people. Either way, I was people-pleasing virtually all of the time. This was a problem, and it depleted me quickly. With every role I played out to the hilt, I diminished my capacity to listen to my inner voice. The real inner voice, not the demeaning and critical inner voice that had gotten so loud by the time I was in my 20s.
After I had my third child, I was so busy, overworked, needed, and in-demand, that I couldn’t remember who I was. I had given myself over, and I did not feel very embodied. I felt like my body belonged to everyone but me, and I was somewhere else.
One night, the loudness, busyness, and brightness of the house sent me into overwhelm. I went outside, walking out under the stars, and looked up. I opened myself to the immensity of the sky, which spread over me like an ocean of light. I felt dizzy and in love with the stars. As though hit with a lightning flash, I had an instant awareness about myself.
From the Silence, I heard a voice say, “You have unique skills that are needed. You have to hone them now.”
I felt a deep sense of responsibility flood through me. Responsibility to my Self. I alone could recognize and develop my skills and awareness. This was my job now, and if I didn’t do it, I would be doing myself a great disservice. I might never know who I really am or what is possible for me. I had always been a seeker of deep truths, but I wasn’t finding out much this way. I decided I couldn’t live with the regret of an inner life un-lived.
I rededicated myself to my spiritual practices, joined a hermetic teaching order, and started to carve out time for more spiritual work and self examination in the following months. I entered into a period of immense personal and spiritual growth thereafter.
The Soul has a way of upping the ante when one dedicates oneself to the work of communicating with and embodying it. This is what I’ve been facing more recently, and it is not easy. This work, which the alchemists and Hermeticists called the Great Work, is a sort of purification process, through gradual awareness and change. Things may not stay the same, and sometimes harsh adjustments have to be made. Old sweetnesses die hard as one approaches the most delectable one, the wholeness of the Self. I like to think of this approach as a kind love affair, complete with swoons, insecurities, periods of miscommunication, and spontaneous, poetic declarations of love. This Divine love is the yearning for union with one’s Soul. As we draw closer to it, it allows us to channel something unique into expression and brings us a sense of wholeness, peace and enlightenment.
I am not there yet. In fact, I perpetually feel like I’ve only just begun, and I am very much a student! This work takes a lifetime. For now, I must make the adjustments required. My yearning for Silence has come after a period of intensity and overwork. It’s easy to let it slip, especially if you love your work. The pace of our modern lives in a capitalistic construct demands our attention away from essential silence and slowness. For a while, I forgot or was unable to make space for contemplative time in my life. Now the demand for Silence is loud.
I’ve heard that contemplative practices are drawing interest again. With the pandemic, more time at home, and increased stress, many have turned to meditation as a form of stress management. A contemplative practice is a little different though. It employs a seed idea, a bindu (symbol) or word (mantra) as a point of focus. It is relational. It is a sort of wordless prayer, and an exchange. It is like stepping through a door. Sometimes, it is an initiation. It is a way to get to know oneself, to understand the world, and the Divine.
For the modern Judeo-Christian contemplative, this might mean meditating on a specific name of G-d, saint, angel, or simply G-d’s grace and love. For the Tantric practitioner, it may be the personal mantra given to them by a guru, or the yantra of a particular deity. An occultist might call a contemplative practice “scrying,” and use the method to explore one of the aethyrs, or a Sephirah on the Qabalistic Tree of Life. A student of Tarot might meditate on one of the Tarot cards and consider their lived experience in relation to it.
In any case, a contemplative practice is employed in a way similar to what C.G. Jung called “active imagination.” It is the practice of relaxing and stilling the mind, then inviting one idea or image in as a focal point, and allowing that idea or image to develop freely, without judgment. This practice has been used by many mystics since the beginning of humanity. Contemplative mysticism has led to the creation of some of the most beautiful poems, music and spiritual texts throughout history. It has also led to revolutionary ideas that have changed culture.
Access to this state requires silence, and stillness, and the ability to slow down. Slow the heartbeat down. Release tension in the body. Slow the breath. Close the eyes. Release self-talk and criticism. Dedicate sacred space and time.
It came to my realization that I have had a deep longing to return to this sort of practice, but very little time or space to do it. I have a daily magical practice in place already. I also have a business to run, and a family to care for and support. I am coming to this realization already running at a deficit, already not feeling I am spending enough time with those who need my time. This is why the yearning was so unwelcome. It is difficult not to feel selfish for needing more time to myself, to think about or meditate on whatever calls me. Why should I have this luxury, and who will it harm or disappoint?
Me – it will harm me. It’s not a luxury. It is a necessity. I will continue to feel hungry for Silence, and shrunken if I don’t dedicate the time and space to it. Care of the spiritual self is essential, but it isn’t generally talked about or valued in our culture, our very noisy culture! To take the time for slowness and contemplation is quite against the grain and unusual, especially for a mother. But I believe it must be done, and I feel the harm when it is not.
Here are some suggestions for making time for Silence that have worked for me:
- Communicate the need, to partners and children, in the simplest and most understandable way that you need time to enjoy quiet alone.
- Create a space for Silence. A dedicated sacred space where you might get a little peace is the ideal, whether it be an office, a corner of the bedroom, a meditation cushion in a basement or attic, or any unused room in the house. Some mothers I know sit in their car to meditate, and keep their crystals in there too! I do not have a room or office of my own for this, so I go outside, weather permitting. Sometimes I will use the meditation space in the shop, after hours. As a last resort, at home I have a comfortable chair in a nook of the kitchen. I wake earlier than the rest of the house to sit in my chair and enjoy the peace. Claiming the space is important.
- Make the space comfortable, and conducive to relaxation. Soft fabric, supportive cushions and mats, a small rug, devotional art and objects, a candle, some incense. Make it your own, and let it be soft on the eyes, so that wherever you sit, you will see something lovely. The space itself will become a cue for your body and mind that it is time to relax or do your practice.
- Choose a time that works for your energy level and schedule. For me, that is early in the morning, before anyone else wakes up, or in the evening, before going home from work (using my workspace as a contemplative space). In the morning, I feel rested and open. In the evening, I feel ready to relax.
- Set and enforce boundaries around this time. My children are young, so it’s a bit futile to ask them to be quiet in the house for more than 5 minutes. But if children are older, they can be asked to respect the noise level in the home. Partners might need boundaries too. Communicate that you need space and time alone without interruptions to be healthy, and to meet the needs of others. No one in the household will benefit if you are burned out or fogged over.
- Start simple. Some suggested ways to begin: Read some short, inspiring literature and journal about it. Pull an oracle card, read the meaning, and sit with it. Work with a mantra or look deeply at an image for 15 minutes. Sit in asana, take some deep cleansing breaths, and contemplate a deep question or idea that has come up recently. This time doesn’t have to be structured. In fact, the lack of structure is what makes it better, in my experience.
I will be honest. I struggle continuously to feel that taking this time is ok. I am also very clear that if I don’t take it, I will suffer. So, to be completely transparent, I usually go with the feast or famine option. I allow myself to get very caught up in the doing of my life, and I don’t take the Silence until I am at or past the breaking point. Then I have to really take the time. I book a few days in a cabin or Airbnb, in a place where I don’t know anyone, and I go there alone. I bring a stack of books, art supplies, my magical tools, comfortable clothing, and my yoga mat. I spend the days eating a nourishing diet (no sugar, alcohol, etc…), napping whenever I want, meditating, studying, writing, and only taking care of myself. On these trips, I find that contemplative practice happens naturally, as part of the flow of my days. I always return with some incredible insights, and far less stressed.
I have just returned from such a trip, and the morning after I came home, my husband told me that I looked slimmer, and younger. He was being honest. That is what three days of Silence does for me.
It’s definitely better for me to weave it into my daily life. I have a much better balance in the spring and summer, when I can go outside and sit comfortably there, or get into some yard work and gardening. But if I can’t have that balance, the solo retreats really work for me.
Perhaps the most important axiom of hermeticism is to “know thyself.” Contemplative practice, sitting in silence, is a way of examining ourselves in relation to the Divine. Opening the spiritual world inside us gives as access to who we really are. All of my most important revelations about myself have come from such a practice.
If you are interested in creating a practice for yourself, but you don’t know how to begin, or how to make space for it in your life, get in touch. I would be happy to sit down with you and help you create some room for Silence.