I had lain in bed at dawn, savoring the taste of silence, appreciating the moment of dark quiet with Widget snuggled against my side and Phoenix curled at my feet. This was a moment of sweet peace, relaxing, breathing in the silence that would sustain me during the rest of the day. A short while later, when I took the dogs outside and we stepped into the dove-gray softness of liminal light, a small bat was flitting back and forth above my head quite near but silent. Gaia’s Grace was tangible.
There is a line that I love in A Book of Silence: “the thinness of my sense of self” (p.17). When I read this, I felt I became intimate with the book’s author, Sara Maitland. I’ve never met her and probably never will, but with this comment, I felt we were kindred spirits. She is writing of how difficult it is for her to sit in silent meditation with others because she is so aware of them it intrudes upon her own sense of silence.
I nearly squealed in recognition of this sensation of “thinness of self” because I experience this when even one other person is in the house with me. I usually considered this due to my personal insecurity, or perhaps embarrassment or discomfiture that I was somehow being “judged” and could feel the judgment oozing through even a closed door. However, I also usually experienced this at Kripalu — though to a milder degree — in group meditation, where it was highly unlikely that others were judging me since they, too, were meditators. Nevertheless, I was often feeling a disturbance of energy in the room rather than my own peaceful silence or the group silence. I simply am not at ease in group meditation. And this went against (which added to my feeling of being an “outsider”) the teachings of all the benefits of meditating in groups to assist with maintaining and encouraging spiritual focus and energy. Occasionally, the meditation was long enough I could reach my own silent center and personal sacred space of nothingness, my core of being. But not often.
When I think it is my insecurity creating this inability to feel the silence in a group, I feel negative overtones. But what if this is a “thinness of self” that is naturally spiritual? What if it is the natural thinness that comes directly from one’s soul? Sara Maitland seems to worry, as do I, that this is some kind of “fault” in our character. But is it? Why would it necessarily be so? Why would we assume it is? Is it not simply a trait that is natural? Perhaps our discomfort or inability to rest in group silence is a judgment of our society, even a spiritual one like at Kripalu or a retreat center? A judgment that is more comfortable grouping everyone together and not comfortable with those who are solitaries in their silence? The only advantage I personally could see to a group meditation was that it provided a structure for the ritual, something that says it is to be done now, not put off, not shortened or skipped — group practice can create a sort of discipline if one has a hard time doing this alone. And yet, even if that aspect is helpful in the beginning, it is still adherence to someone else’s control of our path. At some point, will our spiritual path be important enough that we are disciplined by self?
Is it possible that this “thinness” of self goes further than imagined? That it is a gift allowing a permeability of spirit to more easily flow in and out of soul, and that solitude is needed for some of us to lower the barriers we maintain in any group? Is it this “thinness” that can sometimes be perceived by others as a “madness” or a form of dysfunction because it doesn’t adhere to the group mind? Or is it a source of creativity in some sense? At least for some of us? Clearly not for all of us because many people go deeply into meditation in groups or create marvelous works of art in the company of like-minded individuals or even strangers. But, for some of us, why do we automatically assume that this thinness is a fault, a flaw in our constitutional construction?
Some contrasts I feel here with Maitland are, for instance, that I’ve avoided groups my entire life; preferring one or two people at a time to crowds; even being uncomfortable at my own family’s dinner table at times. Whereas Maitland speaks of her joy in the bantering noise of discussions in family and other groups … that she didn’t begin to yearn for silence and/or solitude until later in life. Which shows her to be following a somewhat normal basic inclination — a healthy one — as described by Ayurveda, i.e., the Vata phase of life. Further, Maitland divorced — she began her journey into seeking silence while on her own, without a life-partner to consider, and this allowed her more freedom to fully engage with the Call of Spirit, to deepen her relationship with silence and solitude. I, however, have a beloved husband. Yet we, in our partnership, continue creating ways for my “thinness of self” to be nourished and encouraged.
Our partnership has been built, in part, upon early recognition of my need for solitude and silence. We didn’t call it “thinness of sense of self” though; an easier and more common term, though one just as socially unacceptable, is introversion. Confessedly, moving to Arizona has been a trial in this area, due to some confusion, loss, misunderstanding, and stumbling.
However, come winter and cooler weather, I will be able to drive fifteen minutes into the desert, walk a short distance, and experience vast silence and that will, hopefully, induce a greater sense of solitude … one where my thinness can breathe more easily — if I can release my fear of the desert. As Maitland puts it, “the silence of the desert has a horror to it, as well as, born of the horror, a deep and joyful beauty. The desert is vast, cruel and very silent” (p. 128). Perhaps there is a way for me to replace my fear of the desert with love for the opportunity it provides in its unique manifestation of silence and solitude? To balance the environmental overwhelm I feel in this harsh landscape with a freedom of expansive space once the extreme heat recedes for the winter? In that silence, what will happen out of the thinness that is my self and the prominent desert elements of fire and air?
I seek a greater spiritual appreciation of the desert. I seek this so that even though my preference is cave and forest, where I feel safe (and, interestingly, another contrast is that Maitland does not feel safe in the forest), I can move into a state of gratitude for this opportunity of spiritual exploration through desert presence. After all, Maitland who lives in the United Kingdom had to travel to the Sinai Desert whereas my desert is all around me. Maybe my “thinness of self” will facilitate my becoming one with the desert silence, and, through that grace, find a deeper peace here?
May Bast guide our journeys to self through silence and solitude.