Gifts of Silence
The Triumphs and Traumas of Language: Part I
Last week I returned from a hallmark retreat. By a financial metric it was a great failure, the most money I've ever lost on a business venture. But when I place the money lost on one side and the healing and wisdom I gained on the other I can say with the utmost confidence that I would do it all exactly the same if given the chance.
Some of what I learned:
how it's possible to have a much more collaborative retreat experience, less stress and effort for me, and a more empowered and enlightening experience for the other participants
the purpose of pain in the journey of real learning and evolution
the truth that my traumas are valid (everyone’s traumas are valid!) and worthy of the space, time, attention and compassion required for healing them
common threads through all of my personal traumas
insights about what the hell went wrong with my marriage (and every previous relationship which caused me and the other partner suffering)
why every time I set an intention for one thing, the opposite thing seems to start happening
why my most troublesome and pervasive physical symptoms arise in particular places in my body: throat, jaw, mouth, chest and right shoulder
why sitting down to write this newsletter or create class content brings up such anxiety
how to better protect my business ventures to ensure that I don't lose so much money on future offerings
access to a whole new way of teaching, leading, space-holding, creating, communicating and living my daily life; one that releases attempts to control and surrenders to trust
I got back last Monday eve and started to write about these diverse but interconnected realizations, thinking that I would be able fit it all into a single blog post. But a week later new connections and expressions are still manifesting, and it’s clear that this inspired and sprawling writing spree is prelude to a much bigger project. Here is Part I of an exploration of my journey in thoughts and words.
Last winter I booked out my 2019 retreats, way later than I should have.
The storm of my divorce had been gathering force on the horizon and I felt it. A presence dark, explosive, growing too-quickly, promising to devastate the life that I had been trying to piece together so meticulously for years.
Eight years into our cohabitation, the natural effusiveness that gushed toward me in the first two years of our relationship had dried to an inconsistent trickle, transforming me into a desperate dowser for his affections. I dedicated huge efforts in attempts to determine what my husband admired most in me and in the performing of those qualities before his audience through calculated gestures and skillful deliverance of scripted words.
I wonder if the Amazon Alexa could provide a record of what he praised me for most. My guess is that, "You have a cute butt," would top the charts. He praised me for my handwriting and I proudly, artfully labeled his farm products until he replaced me with a P-Touch. He was vocally grateful whenever I cleaned the house and proclaimed that I was quite superior at blow jobs. When I point-blank asked him what he liked best about me, what made me stand out from other partners he might have chosen, he usually said something about how he liked hosting parties with me. And he did smile more, embrace me closer, when guests were impressed by the world he created, the food he cooked. I dressed his space well and served his food and drinks with smiles and smart conversation. But none of my truly unique gifts seemed to make the list and I knew that all the attributes he rewarded were not part of my essence, as replaceable as my labeling skills. Some part of my clever mind was working around the clock to determine why in fact he had promised to spend his life with me.
Once we "opened" the relationship my most praiseworthy aspect became my tolerance for him dating other women. In those last months before the divorce, when I was feeling the most fragile and fearful, I masochistically let the leash all the way out and said yes to every polyamorous request. He went on dates while I stayed home alone, distracting myself as best I knew, drinking and smoking and calling old friends and dancing to loud music and taking selfies with the dogs. When he chose to be in my company I amped up my awesomeness, demonstrating how sexy and smart and fun and even-keeled I could be.
But that approaching storm began rippling through my body like unbidden thunder and lightening. Confusion, grief, anger and fear fear fear rolled through with torrents of unscripted words and uncontrollable tears. My conscious mind could only play frozen witness as these violent inner storms exploded outwards into the quiet country space we shared. After such storms I would be exhausted, bewildered and ashamed and not at all relieved as a good emotional cleanse ought to leave one. Instead I felt more anxious, though granted at a low-level which I would manage for short shows of calm. For, while I was constantly searching and puzzling in order to figure out what drew Kyle toward me, I knew well what pushed him further away. Any expression of negative emotion, anything that felt like a conflict, any challenge that his reasoning mind could not neatly do away with. Any revelation of imperfection, anything that looked unstable or unsuitable in the eyes of an audience. At first he demonstrated his distaste silently but later there were urgings to "get your shit together," to stop scaring the dogs, to stop pushing him away, to stop making this home so uninhabitable. If I wanted to stay married I would have to put an end to these dramatic outbursts.
So, naturally, I plastered on the smiling mask of harmony and intelligence even more thickly. I cleaned the house especially well before he invited a girlfriend over, I gave ever more and more passionate blow jobs and broadcast more loudly all the qualities that he most esteemed. My body and my voice were employed 24-7 in a grand performance intended to remind my husband that, as exciting as his girlfriends were, I most certainly had some superior qualities. Besides, I was so devoted to him, we had come so far, we had been through so much as a pair. Aren’t all relationships tough? Hadn’t we built this one so firmly over the years? And, wow, look, haven’t we so many happy days ahead?
I realize now that the most delusional and unhealthy aspects of this phase were not the short but intense outbursts which turned my face red, my knuckles white, my voice animal. The real danger came from how willfully and skillfully I could apply an easy veneer over the uncomfortable real, how immediately and effectively I would repress my genuine emotional responses and label them wrong, how neatly and completely I painted every red flag green. All this while stealing quick glances over my shoulder, hoping to catch assurance that the cuteness of my butt was being adequately taken into account.
I rallied myself from the sludge of depression, the isolation of the Catskills winter, the chaos of my emotional thunderstorms, in order to make contracts on three retreat centers for the summer and fall.
In the past, my most successful offerings had been those which came from intuitive inspiration in combination with being in close touch with my student base. I usually had a talent for sensing into the sweet spot where their needs and my passions met, giving birth to juicy co-creations which were resonant, timely, and unique. But this was a period dry of inspiration and connection and I only felt the urge to be normal and useful and gainful again, plus the pressing necessity to counter Kyle's complaints about being the main bread winner with evidence that my business could in fact make money. If I wanted to stay married, I would have to contribute to the mortgage. And soon.
I chose to lead a chakra retreat for the first retreat, the early August one, because the chakra trainings had always been popular and I wasn’t feeling the capacity for birthing anything new.
Less than two weeks out from the retreat, way past the cancellation date clearly stated on the contract, with only 2 students registered, I had to confess to myself that I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off. Was it because the energy from which it was born was so dark and low? Was it because I had been so late in booking it? Was it because the critical weeks when I needed to be marketing were the weeks when the storm finally struck and spiraled me into a frenzy of life change: finding a new apartment, moving all my stuff, learning new life routines, sleeping poorly in a foreign space, spending hours on the phone with family and old friends? Was it because this retreat would require a huge output of energy, me presenting and guiding and explaining and blathering for hours and hours per day, and I just didn’t have the juice for that kind of thing?
I can’t know for sure why it didn’t work. But I know why I couldn’t admit it til it was too late to recoup my deposit. Because my skills at denying what’s true and projecting what’s false were exceptionally advanced.
While one part of me was devastated at the thought of losing all that money, another part of me felt relieved. I knew by then what exhausting work it was push against what was meant to be, and what peace could follow when I finally gave up the fight. It was a simile for the moment when I admitted that my marriage and my life in the Catskills was over. And, similarly, in the space of surrender, new information was able to reach my conscious mind: have your own retreat, honey. And invite other teachers and mature seekers into the space to help support your work and to recoup some of the costs.
I had been looking into renting out a different facility for my own solo silent meditation retreat. This has long been my favorite spiritual practice and now, more than ever I know why. It gave me a break from this perpetual urge to express and emote and promote my own ego, from this engrained habit of interpreting what everyone else wanted from me and delivering it to them tied up in bows with a curtsy. And here I was with a whole retreat center rented out, money already paid.
In just a week’s time, a motley little group miraculously cohered. At seven (the number of the chakras) this was still the smallest retreat group that I had ever facilitated and at first this embarrassed me. But it ended up being the perfect group of the perfect size. I was able to interact with less formality, to lead with a lighter touch and accept the collaborative nature of group healing work more fully. It also lent our stay in the grand retreat center a feeling of abundance, opulence even, bolstering this sense of me being deserving of the best of things and in bounty. It helped me honor my desire for fullness and my receptivity to a world which wanted to heap an experience of fullness upon me.
On Friday night, after sharing introductions and intentions, we dropped into 48 hours of silence. My only job as facilitator during that time was to show up for the itinerary I had created, the one I would have done on my own anyway. We circled up for four silent meditation sessions per day, and lined up side by side twice a day for something I named “Free Practice" sessions, each of us self-guiding through our own trusted repertoire of movement and energy practices.
The feeling of everyone being sincerely immersed in their own work was bolstering and inspiring. The structure helped us all stay on task and accountable. The vast and vaulted meditation hall, with its views of vibrant field and distant Catskills to the west, lent seriousness and majesty to our practices. The thoughtful design of the living and eating spaces of central campus held our simple routines and the surrounding 400+ acres of Hudson Valley wildness which surrounded it nourished what parts of us refused to fit complete in boxes or itineraries.
And the silence, oh the silence, finally brought into clear relief what being a thinking and speaking animal has cost me, and what it can afford. I see now that my greatest suffering has arisen via the medium of thoughts and words. And that everything I really want to achieve in this lifetime will only be accomplished if I can change my relationships to and through language.
The first step of meditation retreat is to feel inside for an authentic intention—to listen for what real need is asking to be met in the moment—and to express that need with sincerity to the Universe. Intention-setting throws a marker out into the distance, a vision of the place one wishes to arrive as a result of the retreat journey. If the more familiar paths and maps were able to take us there we would have already arrived at our destination. So after this internal listening and external expression, we take another step—one of surrender and receptivity. We let the retreat experience lead us to that marker, through whatever seemingly wacky directions and whatever seemingly wrong detours.
Surrendering to such guidance is not easy because it must lead us into contact to the very aspects of reality which we wish to “fix” through spiritual practice. A path to healing will show us our wounds. A path to freedom will show us what binds us. A path to empowerment will show us how we have abdicated our own authority. A path to love will show us where we are closed to receiving or giving care. A path to truth will show us the lies we have been living.
My two-part intention for this retreat arrived bright as a neon sign in my mind many days before I arrived at the retreat center: LETTING GO OF CONTROL and CALLING IN TRUST.
When I gave my inner guide the steering wheel, it took me straight to my un-metabolized traumas. Hours of silence were filled by re-living the most painful episodes of my personal history, starting with my last partnership. I saw him again erecting walls around himself, shutting me out from the reality of his inner world, deceiving me about his own wants and needs and secret behaviors. I felt again his disrespect of the boundaries I had erected in good faith. I heard again his hopeful promises, spoken in seeming sincerity but broken without accountability, the vows uttered in sacred contexts and to be blown off without ceremony. I felt the disempowerment of major choices about our home and our shared life being decided in his mind and manifested without seeking my counsel or consent.
These wounds were not physical, but wounds of thoughts and words, of obliterated boundaries and failed communications. I suffered from the compound trauma of repeatedly missing steps in the dance as equal and respectful partners in the collaborative manifestation of a shared life.
Next came waves of remembrances from adolescence and early childhood, showing me that these patterns ran through all my major relationships, preceding and predicting my more recent traumas. Wounds inflicted by my parents, my previous lovers and partners, my friends and colleagues, my extended family, my teachers, and by this less-than-enlightened society at large, via which we’ve all of us been disempowered and wounded in some way or another.
Sitting in a raw and extended solitude with this parade of painful past experiences was not pretty, it was not easy, and it was antithetical to this finish line I hoped to be lurching toward, one where I could trust the universe again. Naturally my conscious mind attempted to pluck me out of this ocean of feeling and set me back on some straight-lined road. It convinced me that I just needed to do a better job with my “meditation” techniques. Hearing my wounded self crying inside, I repeated my mantra more loudly in my mind. Feeling the toxic load in my nervous system, I tried to imprint an even clearer image of a healthy energy map onto my body. I tried to DO the meditation even harder as a means to CONTROL my inner experience.
When I kept up this rigorous approach I would begin nodding off on my cushion. In the past I interpreted sleepiness in meditation as a sign that I simply needed more rest, but after a long night’s sleep and three hard naps in a single day I had to admit that this was not the real issue. I began to loosen my grip on the meditation techniques and entrust myself to the reveries which were arising from the depths. I learned to be present with them without rejecting them on the one hand or coddling them on the other. I let them teach me.
I came to see that a back and forth was happening between my conscious mind and my unconscious mind. When the conscious mind tried to take over, tension, noise and eventually sleepiness resulted. But when I gave my unconscious mind space to do the work, clarity, presence and eventually a deep sense of love started to flood the system. I now interpret the sleepiness response as the unconscious saying to the conscious: “Ok, nice try honey, but you said you wanted to let go of control, and that won’t happen by flexing more and more will power. You said you wanted to trust but you can't even let yourself see your own past. You’re perpetuating the very patterns which got us into trouble. If we can’t do this together, I’ll just take over and put you to sleep. Total rest will take us to our goal more quickly than more of this bullshit, whether you call it meditation or not.”
I realized that the urge to control came from fear and that the fear came from my traumas with and through language. Until I acknowledged and made space for healing these traumas, I would continue to fall into fear and grasping after control every time a life experience touched those tender spots.
Until this retreat I had been telling myself that these traumas didn’t deserve my attention and compassion. Other people had much more terrible things happen to them. Couldn’t I just get over it? The persistence of this parade of painful memories was the answer: Nope. Not if you really want to reach your goal. I saw that until I gave space for my wounded parts to speak out, until I finally heeded their cries for time and attention and care, I would never learn what trust meant. I had to validate these parts by acknowledging that the traumas were reaI—real needs had been unmet at critical moments, people who I trusted deeply had crossed my boundaries and disempowered me, gifts that I had thrust forth into the world had not been recognized or received.
The traumas of language are what led me to grasp at control and, further, those grasps at control also happened through language. When one of these traumas was triggered my best instinct was to protect and defend myself with thoughts and words, to use my logical and storytelling capacity to re-build a world of safety and sanity. The will to control was actually a trauma response, a totally understandable attempt at enforcing my boundaries again, regaining a sense of power.
This illuminated the path ahead, the path I’m walking now: By healing the dance of authentic communication with the Universe, and the many other dancers who co-create it with me, I am learning to move from trust instead of fear. And through a trust in myself and others and, most of all, the dance itself, I am able to get my needs met without grasping for control.
When I let myself just be with this shadowy parade I dropped into an acceptance that these things had really happened to me, that they had truly scared me and confused me. I was experiencing waves of hurt, the discomfort of confusion, disconnection, grief, regret, shame, anger and blame. But as I stuck with it, a vaster emotional experience began to surround and soak through these more passing feelings: that of compassion. A new and more powerful image arose: that of a wise, loving 37-year old woman opening the door and welcoming all her wounded selves, holding them in a space of safety and care.
I held the newborn who got whisked off to the NICU on a metal cart, screaming for comfort in this foreign place without receiving a single touch or coo from her mom or dad. I held the little girl who unknowingly internalized the fears and conflicts of her family members and learned that her cleverness and eagerness to please could pacify them and bolster their wounded egos. I held the 8th grader who, in a single academic year, went from big sister to second parent to her brothers, from girl next door to girlfriend and sexual partner to the older boy she idolized, from child openly exploring her own path to precocious teen projecting a false maturity to everyone she met. I held the 17 year old whose first romantic relationship ended with a months-long silent treatment, the division of her small town friend group into those who spent time with the ex boyfriend and those who spent time with her. I held the 22-year old who could not finish her college thesis on--get this, the philosophy of language--and leaned into substance abuse to cope with the pressure and the failure. I held the 28 year old woman who spent countless hours giving free labor to her “guru” only to be belittled, verbally abused and accused of betraying her by studying with other teachers. I held the 30-year woman who desperately tried to get too many needs met from one person, increasingly disassociating from her inner world and isolating from her wider village. I held the 36-year old woman who got married in pursuit of an inauthentic story and the 37-year old woman who got divorced in a state of depressed defeat.
These wounded selves did not show up in the silence of retreat seeking judgements, more discipline or better control. They did not need to get their "shit together." They needed a safe space to fall completely apart so that they might have the opportunity to being gathered up again with care. They were seeking acknowledgement and acceptance and love.
“You are safe. You are whole." I told each one. "You are worthy of my time, my kindness, my purest love.”
This compassion for myself has meanwhile spread to those who seemed to hurt me. I'll write about more bout that piece in my next installment.
On the last day of retreat, after we had emerged from silence, we engaged in an exchange of offerings which became the highlight for us all. We took turns in the teacher seat and each shared a beloved spiritual practice with the group. Recognizing the teacher in another person as we walked, not ahead or behind but side by side on the path, opened us to an equally generous respect of self and other. This was an opportunity to develop deeper understanding of different traditions and methodologies, to engage in spiritual practice with less rigidity and more connection-making, and it opened us all up to the wonder and delight that is so often lost when we’re just going through the motions of our own work.
Kareth led us in a sensual, therapeutic yoga sequence with poetic language. Lev led us through a vocalized chakra tuning and, after all the silence, it was a thrill to triumphantly fill the vast Won Dharma Hall with our chorus. Sandy and Amos both come from the Kundalini tradition and conspired to give us a full kundalini experience between their two offerings. Sandy began by teaching us how to "tune-in," the respectful opening for any Kundalini experience, and then guided her favorite exercise, the Ego Eradicator, which challenged and stimulated and cleared the energy body in just 3-minutes. Amos led us in a simple seated dance of hands and arms that, when coordinated with the breath and the mantra "sat nam," cohered us all into a rhythm and launched us into a meditative state. With a simple song, he closed the Kundalini section of our time together and we all shared in respecting this tradition, so beloved by him and Sandy.
In anticipation of my own offering I had gone through my normal internal process before expressing myself. Can I get inside their minds and guess what they would want most? Based on everyone else's offerings what would be the most perfect? What is the thing that people have given me most praise for in the past? What will sear my excellence into their consciousness forever? But when I sat down in the front of the room I intentionally threw all that shit on the fire and started from scratch. I simply asked.
“What should I lead, guys?”
Sandy had been really curious about the qi gong practice she had seen me doing all weekend, particularly the part at the end where I hold horse stance with my arms out, encircling a tree. So I led us outside where we went through the organ cleansing sequence I learned from my teacher, Daisy Lee. I had never taught this before and it felt wonderful to share--quite different than trotting out the vinyasa flow sequences that I get paid for each week. Then I offered the simple steps for respectfully exchanging energy with a tree. Approach with kindness and humility, ask it for permission to practice together, listen as best you can for some kind of consent, present your own energy as an offering to the tree in gratitude, and stay in that quiet but present mode of sacred giving and receiving as long as you stand there. Unexpected tears came for a few participants. This is the essence of communication. The heart of collaboration.
Miriam, representing the artists’ branch of our group, led a paired movement improv exercise wherein one partner moved for 15 minutes with eyes closed, while the other served as trusted guardian, protecting the willingly blind partner from knocking into walls, objects and other movers. Potent teachings on trust, surrender of control came through for all of us. Afterwards Amos beautifully expressed the revelation that working with our sacred guides and guardians and gurus is a dance—to have guidance and support does not mean handing over total control to the protective, seeing other, but neither does it mean hoarding all the control for the moving, thrashing self.
Christine put the seal on our our exchange. Acknowledging that she is not a teacher of spiritual or artistic practices, she made an offering from her life of travel, translation, intellectual and linguistic passion. She taught us the Columbian colloquialism amañarse, which indicates the feeling of being accepted, held and at home in the presence of others. She emphasized that such a feeling can never be accurately related or explained via words. But when she looked at each one of us, mostly strangers a few days ago, and uttered in natural Spanish "gracias" and "amañarse", that sitting among us in this circle, she was overwhelmed by this feeling and its natural partner, gratitude, a wave of love and recognition moved through us all. A simple word, uttered with this sincerity, by this person, to this audience, in this particular place and time, held truth and transformative power.
This crew which felt so motley on Friday night had revealed itself as kaleidoscopic yet absolutely coherent. We all had different wounds and different gifts, different histories and different trainings and different ways of working, but this intention to heal and to spread healing, this spirit of mutual respect and inclusivity and care, this was common. Seemingly divided by our thoughts and words, here was language again to guide us back to the truth at the center. To remind us that, at heart, we were one.