There is only one journey: going inside yourself. Rainer Maria Rilke
Did your primary school teacher berate you, “Sit down, shut up, stop fidgeting!” That’s my memory. Maybe I was a wiggle-bottom but isn’t every child?! The wisdom traditions and mystical religions tell us that the way to go inside and find true happiness is through stillness, silence and solitude, yet many of us feel anxious when we begin a meditation practice. Perhaps it’s because our inner schoolchild remembers the feelings of restriction and separation. Our spiritual teachers may promise us that these states will become a sanctuary to sustain us through anything, but how do we get there, and why do we resist so much?
The Child Within
For our inner child, stillness can feel like a straight jacket. As a broken-legged girl in hospital, I remember this well. I wanted to move but was restrained. I wanted was to play outside with friends, but I was indoors, in bed, in traction. Silence can feel like the silent treatment when we are cut off from others and are yearning for spoken reassurances. Solitude brings up the fear of solitary confinement and the child within equates being alone to lonely isolation.
During lockdown, I came to realize that each state needs a companion, just as a child needs a friend. Stillness enjoys dancing with movement; silence is happily accompanied by sound; and solitude feels safest within community. Companions and allies walk beside us, not leading, not following. Once we get to our destination, we can wave them goodbye, but on the way, these companions provide incredible support. We go forward in our own direction, not knowing when our paths will cross again. We desperately need these companions when it comes to taking the journey within and healing our traumatic imprints.
Recently my body revealed this need for support. After a break in, even though I was not conscious of being afraid, the muscles around my hips cramped and my tailbone tucked under like a frightened dog. A cramp is an unconscious holding, so we can’t release it through a rational instruction. I can’t just tell my contracted psoas to let go, I must move it, through yoga and dance, or ask for chiropractic help. It is only then that I can wait for the easing to happen in its own time. Ancient communities knew this instinctively; they sang and danced through their trauma around the fire, in healing circles. The movement and sound allowed for a sense of attunement and harmony that created deeply embodied community cohesion. We have lost this in the modern turn towards an individualistic and sedentary life.
Over time, we get locked into certain habit patterns too, and don’t even realize. No wonder we can’t let them go. The mind, just like a muscle, doesn’t know how to relax when it has become habitually tight. We need to work skillfully with both body and mind, to return ourselves to our natural state of ease and flexibility.
Remember back to your first lost love? You were suffering terribly, thinking that you’d be alone forever, and clinging on to what no longer was. Maybe someone even said, “Let go, there are plenty more fish in the sea!” Did that ever help anyone? We would let go if we could, but we just don’t know how to. First, we need to realize how much suffering is created by holding on. We can only do that by feeling it fully; it’s then, we need support. If we see ourselves as individuals, separate from our community, then we suffer the grief of loss too acutely, and often shut down. Held by the companionship of others, our pain can release once we see that we have lost one person’s love but are still encircled by the care of many others.
When we know, in an embodied way, that we are interconnected with our human community, and with the ecosystem around and within us, how can we feel lonely? Our community may be our friends or family, our colleagues or posse, or our ancestors, both living and dead. When we know we are supported all around, and from below by the earth, then we can rest in solitude. Being alone does not mean being lonely. In fact, it can become a place of profound connection with all the beings that we share the world with. We are never alone; we cannot survive without others. This is the truth of interdependence.
Our ego only wants us to know what it knows, but our separation is an illusion. It mutters convincingly that we are not enough. We need our singing and dancing companions to take us over the threshold, to make us feel safe and held, so that we can drop into our natural state of vastness. This is so much more wonderful than we can ever imagine or describe. Perhaps we fear the enormity of what we can be and how much we can benefit the world once we commit to our own healing and authenticity.
These external companions of movement, sound and community soon become internal supports. We notice that we can be alone, but not lonely, silent but not silenced, still but still moved by breath, by life and by love. These are the gateways to stillness, silence and solitude; to contentment, safety and connection. We first need to hold hands with the opposite, then rise above and incorporate both. This is the dialectic that gives way to profound understanding. We find stillness in the midst of movement, silence from which sound emerges, and we sense into the web of life within our body. Our breath takes us back to the first peoples who walked this earth, and gifted life into each subsequent generation. We too will carry forward this breath of life, into our children, our creations, or our projects. When we sense the flow of life that moves through us, how can we ever feel alone?
Solitude turns into sanctuary, the place to free ourselves from role, responsibility, identity and effort. The place to settle back into our true nature, vast and open. Nothing can harm us in solitude once we have befriended our own mind. Silence is the fertile ground for sound which connects us through speech and soothes us through vibration. It arises and dissolves back into expansive silence. It is in stillness too that we can feel the impulse towards movement, a new idea arises from the space around and within, and we are called forward into skillful action.
In these seeming absences, the silence, the stillness and the solitude - we can touch into a deeper presence.
I'm happy to be leading a meditation retreat at Dharmagiri Sacred Mountain from May 11-14, where we will explore these companions, and how to work skilfully with them to regulate ourselves and others.