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Step by Step with Silence by Diana Autumn

Step by Step with Silence by Diana Autumn

Looking back I can see that I had come to a significant point in my life, having listened to the yearning within to give a spiritual orientation to my life and having found the path that would guide me to do this. But at the time, even though I had taken these steps, I sometimes felt I was getting nowhere because I lacked the perspective of hindsight. I expected that by choosing the path, I had already reached the end. I soon discovered, however, that spiritual unfolding takes a continuous, sustained effort over a long period of time. It is something that is lived step by step. Being accustomed to instant gratification, this was a rude awakening for me. This realization reminded me of what I had learned during a trek in the Himalayas of Nepal: the value of taking one step after the other in order to reach my chosen goal. Please accompany me for a little while on that journey, so long ago.

Taking a bus from Katmandu, we got off at a place where a foot path would lead us many miles over mountain passes and deep into river valleys to the base camp of Mt. Everest. There was no road. Other than taking a small plane, the only way to get there at this time was to walk, step by step. The way was too rugged for even a mule to negotiate. So we started walking, step by step, day by day. We found that if we could keep up a steady pace we could cover about ten miles a day, and that would take us to a small village where we could get a meal and a roof to sleep under for the night. There were all kinds of people on the path: old women carrying firewood, young women porters carrying heavy loads, farmers carrying their crops to market, the Tibetan salt traders, and a shoe salesman. All of us were going our own way at our own pace, and all of us on foot. Along the way, there was awe-inspiring scenery as well as a diversity of humanity to look at and much to learn. We kept up a steady pace, moving in the right direction because it wasn't possible to stray too far off the path. It was the only way to go. We could only move forward, or stop; however, stopping would mean we were going nowhere.

Whenever I remember that unique period in my life journey, I realize that spiritual life is like a trek in the Himalayas of Nepal. It is a gradual and steady process; it is a process that invites us to keep on going, no matter how high the passes nor how deep the valleys, traversing the rugged terrain, slowly, but steadily. Sometimes I couldn't see any farther ahead than the next step, but I knew I had to keep walking. Sometimes, in my life today I feel the same way, but I know that the Road is to keep on walking, step by step.

Let me retrace for you some of the steps of this spiritual journey, and I think you will see how it mirrors my experience in Nepal. One of the first steps I took on my personal spiritual trek was to practice silence. This was a very different way of being from what I had been accustomed to in my earlier life, yet to my surprise, silence opened many new horizons for me, both in my interior frontier and my outer world. I still value it deeply, though it can be just as difficult as walking that small path in the Himalayas and, even after many years, it still takes continuous effort and remembering to keep on track.

In fact I have found it to be so important in my own journey that I would like to share with you some of my experience. To me, silence has both exterior and interior aspects. Exteriorly it teaches me to watch my words, to limit them. Practicing exterior silence helped me to see how I was sometimes driven by the impulse to say something just to fill the space, to express an opinion, to give a point of view whether asked for or not, or to express my discomfort or pleasure. It was sometimes just a way for me to proclaim: "I am here!" There were times when I spoke not in the context of relationship with anyone, but just out of my own need to say something.

But I had lived some moments of silence on my trek. I had an excellent opportunity then to practice silence, for few people spoke my language. We learned to understand each other with hand signals for "eat" and "sleep" and "how much?" We looked at each other's cultural strangeness and weren't sure what we were communicating to each other. Most Nepalese thought I was a man because I wore pants, but they were puzzled, because not all the evidence added up. Exteriorly, I was making a statement that they couldn't read or understand. This forced me to keep quiet. Besides, at that altitude and with the steady exertion of walking seldom on a level surface, I found that I had little energy to waste on useless talk. Since my needs were easily translated by universal hand signals, I began to think about what my real needs were: to eat and sleep and to agree upon a fair exchange for these necessities.

Recognizing my basic needs was not the only discovery I made. Not falling into thoughtless chatter helped me to realize the limits of my point of view. I usually had something to say about everything, no matter how little I knew about the subject. On the Himalayan trek, however, words seemed to restrict and unfairly judge the beauty that surrounded me. I also lacked adequate words for the cultural experience I was having.

One afternoon as I was descending into a valley, I was greeted by a landscape which was becoming familiar. The neatly-kept fields of barley were carved into the steep mountainside that appeared too steep for anyone except the most nimble farmer to cultivate. But on these precipitous fields women worked with hoes while carrying babies on their backs. It wasn't the sights, however, but the sounds that were so strange and alluring. A loud, rhythmic sound pulsated through the valley like the valley's heartbeat, pulsing life from the earth. Approaching the village, I found the source of this heartbeat: a circle of women with long sticks beating the barley's chaff from the grain. It was a communal effort essential for the entire village's well-being. I was silenced by a deep awe and respect. Any words that might spill from my mouth would pollute their effort, for what words could honor their backbreaking, but loving work? How many other times, I wondered, had I blocked out someone's effort by making a thoughtless comment? My habitual chatter was a way I used to enclose all that I experienced within the world as I already perceived it. Silence has opened many doors of insight for me.

As my exterior world was silenced by the rugged terrain and a foreign culture, I began to listen to the noise within. It was quite a racket! I found it helpful to expose this jumble of inner movements to the light of my silence. It was similar to what I did each morning to get rid of the bedbugs and fleas that liked to inhabit my sleeping bag and gave me no rest. Before packing up, I used to expose my sleeping bag to the light of day. The pests detested even the briefest exposure to sunlight and would move off to some other dark damp spot and leave me in peace. Similarly, I exposed my jumbled mind to the sunlight of silence. Then I could take a look at my countless ruminations and hopefully put them to flight. What I found each day was as amazing as the view around me, for silence allowed me to experience life in a less filtered way.

Even to this day, long after the Nepalese trek, I let the sunlight of silence penetrate the dark places of my interior because the practice of inner silence takes me to new depths of knowing myself and making room to love others. It sheds light on many things within that I don't like to look at, but that are there: the selfishness, the prejudices, the impulses, the narrow points of view. These things create the inner noise and distractions that I need to work on to transform myself into a more loving and open human being. I had lived with this noise for so long that I identified myself with it and even learned to like it. But with the help of inner silence and the strength I have gained from other spiritual practices, I can now know myself better. Growing in self-knowledge has helped me to continue the process of learning to silence these distractions that take me away from a deeper, more loving relationship with others.

Daily I must remind myself that silence will bring me closer to others. When someone else is sharing her experience, frustration, joy, or point of view, I feel now that I need to make room for that sharing within myself. Instead of rallying my thoughts of anything remotely related to what she is talking about, I make sure that this sharing falls on a clean, open space. To make this space I set aside my opinions, advice, experience and feelings so hers can enter and I can make acquaintance with them. Of course, if the person I am talking with is interested in my sharing, I am only too willing to engage in a true dialogue, taking myself off center stage and letting our heartfelt exchange become the center.

Finding the practice of watching my words difficult, I sometimes feel that it might be easier to just ignore what is going on around me. But I have discovered that true silence does not make me indifferent or self-absorbed; it leads me to care more. Exterior silence is a good place to start watching my words. It makes me aware when I am interrupting, giving advice or negating someone else's opinion. When my silence is deep and I am interested and paying attention, I am more connected with someone than when I am sharing a similar experience or giving advice.

Silence can be hard to practice when I feel misunderstood or not heard. I sometimes retaliate with thoughts proclaiming righteously: Look at the great me! Sometimes I complain of my apparent mistreatment. This can go on and on. Where does it take me? Nowhere! It simply distracts me and prevents me from getting closer to the person I am working with. This is the opposite of the kind of relationships I hope to create and nurture in my personal and professional worlds.

And so the work continues, silence being the step that I am concentrating on. The more I look the more I see. Usually it isn't what I expect or want, but if I can see it I can work with it. I know for sure that if these mental habits remain in the dark, they will continue to take my energy and direct my thoughts with unabated force. I am learning to accept how I really am and forgive myself for those moments when I am unable to fulfill the vision I would like to live and, above all, I am realizing that I am a soul in the process of becoming.

So many steps, so many lessons to learn! But shining the light of silence has helped me to know myself better and take steps toward a more expansive love. Silence is a step on the spiritual path that accompanies all the others, helping us to see the way. How has shining the light of silence helped you?

Other articles in the series "The Peace of a Meaningful Life" by Diana Autumn are My Wake-Up Call and Finding the Way.