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The Gift of Mid-Winter Silence

On January 20, the sun entered the astrological sign of Aquarius, marking our entrance here on Earth into the mid-winter season– the deepest and quietest part of the year. For many, it is also the most challenging.  In nature, things become still and hibernate. If we can hear ourselves beneath all of life’s distractions, we may notice that our energy has changed. The part of us which is still in tune with nature’s cycles is calling upon us to slow down, take more rest, quiet our minds, and be still.

Feeling this call,  a friend and I headed northeast toward the mountains to spend a few nights in a peaceful, secluded cottage practicing total silence– something neither of us had done with this intention before.

The logistics were easy enough. We shopped for food together and planned out our meals as soon as we arrived at the cottage, creating a schedule for cooking, eating, and cleaning. That night, we shared our personal intentions for our time and any personal rules or guidelines that we wanted to declare. No phones, no books, as little input as possible.

The next morning, we woke to silence. The usual pleasantries of “Good morning” and “How did you sleep?” were unnecessary, and soon we had both moved into our own internal spaces of quiet. We drank tea, sat by the fire, went for slow walks, practiced yoga, sat in meditation, and just sat. We did not speak. We ate our meals in a grateful silence, taking time to breathe between bites and appreciate the ritual of each meal. Sometimes we were together, sometimes apart.

Nights were the hardest for me, which I soon realized in that deepest part of winter are the majority of the day. During the day, it was easy to just look out the window and enjoy the view, or go outside and walk. At night, everything draws closer in. It’s too dark (and too cold) to walk outside in an unknown place. It’s too dark to see anything out the windows, except for the moon. The fire in the wood stove was a comforting companion, as was a cup of tea, but I wanted to be careful of reaching for anything out of boredom.

Having immense difficulties getting used to sleeping in a bed alone in addition to the vast silence of the dark and remote place where we were staying, on the second night I reached for the comfort of my phone– wanting to connect with the rest of the world. It was comforting only briefly, before I noticed it began to feel like more of a black hole, drawing more and more of my energy away from me, making me crave more and become fearful of putting it away. I could feel the presence of my own hungry ghost– the Buddhist term for a being with a hunger which can never be satisfied, or the un-checked ego.

By the last night, however, something had shifted. I was determined that I would not touch my phone. I downgraded my method of “cheating” to a book, bringing into the bedroom Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance”, which I’d found on the bookshelf. I thought at least that would be a healthier thing to feed myself if the ghost got hungry again. It didn’t. I didn’t touch the book or anything else, but lay in bed enveloped in a great Awareness– aware of my desires for distraction, aware of my sadness, aware of my fears. What did I do about these feelings? I breathed, I listened, and I watched. But most of all, I released their hold on me just enough to feel the part of me that is much bigger than all of them. My own ability to self-soothe and bring about peace in the midst of so much emotion is what put me to sleep that night.

I woke on the last day feeling refreshed. We had agreed that we would not break silence until late morning, just before check out. Wanting to be efficient with packing to leave plenty of time for our closing ceremony, I went outside to start packing the car. That’s when I realized the battery was dead. Really dead. A problematic fuse I’d forgotten to remove after the drive had been slowly draining the battery for more than 2 days. I watched my reaction from my place of expanded awareness.

I noticed the usual expletives roll silently by, the moments of blame and guilt, and the worry of what to do. But I breathed and I let them keep rolling. I felt calm and patient enough to deal with it, and felt extremely luck that our hosts lived on the property next door and they were home. I broke my silence an hour early by going and arranging for us to get a jump later that morning before we got on the road. It was easy. I felt calm. I walked back down the trail to our place, looking forward to the last 30 minutes of silence.

Oddly, it was when my friend noticed what had happened and tried to communicate with me about it that I felt those first emotions coming back. I had already dealt with the car, and had broken my silence so that she wouldn’t have to worry about it. After all, it was my car and my responsibility. I brushed it off, nodding to her that all was well, but inside I felt the rush of those feelings into a single point of concentrated emotion. I was upset about the car, sure, but what I realized was really making me waver was the fact that we were leaving that morning.

I felt like I was just settling into a healthy, loving relationship with my silence. I wanted to continue to expand this awareness and take my meditations deeper. I knew I could do all of that at home too, technically, but once we broke our silence here and left, it was unlikely that we’d have a chance to continue practicing like this again as soon as we arrived home.

That morning as we spoke for the first time, we both felt shy, and too loud in the little cottage. My friend was having the same feelings as I was. We both wanted to stay for another two days. Although we practiced for just over two the results were noticeable for both of us.

We did leave that day. It was a rather quiet car ride back to the city. Checking in over the next few days, we both reported a longing to go back immediately, a jarring experience of reentry, a vulnerability that had us both feeling tender and exposed. The first week back was difficult in these ways, but something had been discovered– re-discovered. We had both witnessed what we were capable of. We had both remembered that we are still wonderful and worthy beings without the crutches of small talk, pleasantries, or the illusion of personality. We were curious.

But why does silence feel so peaceful once we are in it? What happens when we become quiet? Silence is our natural state, and allowing ourselves to rest here– even for a few moments– can feel natural, peaceful, richer, simpler, and more meaningful. In the end, my friend and I did not rush back to the sanctuary of the cottage. We opted for the more practical and useful idea of incorporating more moments of silence into each day. After all, we are not hermits and we don’t live on a mountaintop with only the clouds as our company. Mindfulness practices are the most useful when they can be incorporated into our existing life, in all of it’s varied states and volumes.

This is a practice for every day, throughout the year. But each year in winter, we are supported in our desire to return to that place of quietude and rest. We have a unique opportunity to harness nature’s energies to support and guide us in this practice. We feel this energy deep inside, calling us to rest more, sleep more, do less. Yet on the surface of our lives, little seems to change. Work hours, computer and phone use, schedules and goals– they all seem to stay the same while we try endlessly to shove these square blocks into a suddenly round hole… over and over again. We may judge ourselves for our lack of momentum or motivation, feeling ashamed of it or simply giving into it in a way that does not allow us to enjoy its true benefits. Given the chance, our busy minds will ask for more of the coping devices that allow us to seemingly keep moving– more phone, more coffee, more computer, more TV. But we lose our opportunity to experience true healing rest and a return to knowing our true Self.

As we listen to our breath, we begin to hear our thoughts as passing– and allow them to pass more easily. We begin to hear the space between the thoughts and abide more and more in that space. We begin to realize our own vast awareness and nature, and to feel more peaceful, more connected, more empowered.

Be still.
What is it that is clawing to hold on to the rapidly departing train? Let it go. Another will come.

Be silent.
What is it that is aching to burst through the dam of the quivering tongue? Let it go. It is already known.

Be.
What is it that is clinging to the ever changing landscape of thought and emotion? Let it go. At the center of your being, you are luminous.

_________________________________________________________

Love,

Thanks for reading! Share your thoughts and replies in the comments below. – xo

*photos by H. <3

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Claire Mack
    February 2, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    Very nice account, Rachael. I’ve always thought a silent retreat would be wonderful and I hope to do one someday, aside from my mornings with cat on the couch 🙂

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