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Lions Roar : November 2012
if only we could realize it, doing ourselves and those we care for a far graver injury in the long term. Society, we think, doesn’t have emer- gency rooms for the heart or ICUs for what earlier cultures might have called the soul. Or maybe it does. You step into a simple room that’s flooded with light, and the silence seems to vibrate inside you. Your cellphone, iPod, and laptop are all at home, which means you can fully sink into the moment and nothing will shake you out of it. You can read or walk or do nothing at all. You can hear yourself think, though soon you’ll be as free of your thoughts as of the appointment book, the itinerary, the road rage you took pains to leave in the car. There may be a teacher there, a friend, a wise soul who can talk you through things, but I have never found, as Tho- reau or Emerson might have said, the guide who can hold a candle to silence. A few times in my life very wise beings, older, more clear-sighted and discernibly more spacious and seasoned than I, have offered me advice. I’ve always taken it— and always found, as I told my friend, that ultimately it was the wrong advice. They were speaking sincerely and honestly from the heart, and from experience, but their heart wasn’t mine, nor their experience. A friend so often speaks from the per- sonal realm, as many a dispassionate advi- sor speaks for the impersonal, passing on proverbs and ancient wisdom as (certainly tonic and wonderful) aspirins. But with our inner hurts, maybe the best way is not to listen to any words or ideas at all. Sim- ply let the silence work on and through you, till you’re part of something larger. I go for a walk along the retreat-house road. The sea is stretched out beside me; the sun is sinking behind the ridge of brown hills. My mind, rarely free, scam- pers around like a dog off its leash (or, best of all, disappears around a curve to sniff at something and doesn’t come back for a long, long time). And then, without any movement or choice on my part, I know what to do: with Susan, and her difficult demands; and with Richard, who is so sick; and even with that most difficult of all partners, myself. I haven’t planned or thought any- thing through; I’ve just listened or opened myself to something that is beyond me or within me (it hardly matters which). I don’t even have to notice whether there’s a cross on the building above me, or tatami mats inside, or a statue of a many- armed god, or pure emptiness. Names and denominations are immaterial. Or so I told my friend, in urging her to give herself the chance to get away for a while. It was only by leaving her job, her friends, her self that she could find anything worthwhile to bring back to them, I thought. She took my advice, even though I’d told her that taking advice from anyone else was what always got me into trouble. I think she was really taking her own advice, listening, in advance, to something bigger and more grounded somewhere within. But a job came up, and she left a day and a half late; and she had to drive six and a half hours through the fog, along the narrow mountain road above the sea; and it was thick with impenetrable mist when she got to her cabin; and thirty-six hours later—she had another commit- ment—she had to make the whole trip again, back into her life, before she’d had a chance to sink into the silence. All of which, I thought, in a rare moment of clarity, was proof positive that she had to go on retreat (for longer, sometime soon). It was the only way she might be able to step beyond agitation. It was also the only way she could step into her agitation, in a safe and secluded place, and see what it meant to be stripped of so much by the sudden deci- sion of someone she loved. The fog was surely not just literal. A retreat house is an emergency room for the soul, I boringly repeated to her when she came back, and in its absence, it can be hard to go into the living room, the drawing room, let alone the bedroom of the self. These aren’t just casual words; they speak for urgency and that without which we cannot be ourselves. She knew, I’m sure, as I half did, that I was really talking to myself. ♦ SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2012 14