Lessons in the Silence

John R. Stowe

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Marble, Colorado. August, 1995.

Wow, the air's thin up here. What is it--8,000 feet? 10,000? I huff and puff behind my teacher across high, dry pastures and into the aspens that underline the naked red rocks of this mountain. I lug a small pack with clothing, a wool blanket, and some water to sustain me for the next three days. It's not heavy, yet already I'm sweating in the cool morning air. My heart pounds, and not only from the effort, when we stop halfway up the slope. My teacher says simply, "Here." Anticipation stabs my gut as I let the pack slide to the ground.


So this is it. After preparing for a year, I'm ready to embark on the fasting, prayer, and solitude of my first "vision quest." Nervous, I look around. Dense clusters of shrubs stand above a carpet of green grass. White-barked logs lie at random angles in the dappled shade. It's pretty. Still, I wonder, "Why here?" What makes this spot different from the rest of the mountain? I'd pictured someplace more dramatic--stark rocks, maybe, or awe-inspiring mountaintop vistas--to indicate how special my quest would be. This place is beautiful, but somehow just a little ordinary. I hope my disappointment doesn't show.

No time to think about it. Quickly and silently, using cornmeal, sage, and prayers, my teacher traces the circular boundaries that will mark my world here. Then, with a brisk nod of blessing, he turns and walks back down the mountain. I watch his back grow small and disappear. Somewhere, a great door slams shut with an almost deafening silence. My body shakes from the reverberations. Everything I've ever known lies on the other side. I'm here. Outside. Alone.

For a moment, I flirt with the urge to freak. What's so scary? I'm not seriously afraid of danger, at least not in the bright sunshine, nor am I all that far from civilization. I like hanging out with the trees, do it a lot actually. What's disturbing me, I realize, is the lack of structure. For once, I don't have a script. No schedule, no assignments, no deadlines. What's more, all my carefully constructed identities don't mean a thing out here. Gay? What's that mean here? It's just me, this spot, and Spirit--and Spirit seems pretty quiet right now. My mind cringes back from the emptiness.

Ever resourceful, we rally defenses. No structure? Make one. Here to pray? So pray. In a loud voice, I talk. I tell Spirit why I'm here. I organize my prayers in great detail, listing them one by one. Prayers for family. Prayers for the world. Prayers for myself. Underneath, Mind runs a litany of worry. What if I'm doing it wrong? What if the prayers aren't good enough? What if I get too hungry? How will I know if I get a real vision? I go on and on til my mouth is dry and the sun approaches midheaven. I never pause to wonder how Spirit could get a word in edgewise.

Finally, exhausted, I have to just shut up and sit. God, whose voice has been going on for so long? Quiet rolls back around me, a wave of relief. Right off, I notice that this place isn't really all that quiet. In the trees, jays squawk a briskly animated discussion. Crows call down below, perhaps commenting on the shrill skree of a hawk across the valley. Closer to home, a chipmunk scampers along one of the logs, pauses to look at me, then rushes away with a loud chirp. Between the mountains, the river drones a chant of water and rock. Breezes rustle through the aspens like whispers through a congregation. It seems that what I'd called "silence" was just an absence of human voices. Finally, I let myself relax into the soft, soothing web of it.

Human beings are social animals. We evolved in groups where security and survival were communal affairs. To be left alone, exiled from the protective embrace of family and tribe, could be a very real sentence of death. Maybe that's why we exhibit an almost instinctive fear of rejection and disapproval. We seem hard-wired to spend great amounts of energy finding and maintaining a place within the social structure. The threat of being pushed away--through ridicule, condemnation, excommunication, or even solitary confinement--still holds great power as an enforcer of group-sanctioned behavior.

The feelings from this morning on the mountain are familiar. They remind me of growing up different, feeling alone and rejected. Gay folks, and probably most everyone else, know the feeling well. It hurts. When it was over and I finally came out, I remember how desperately I tried to fit in, how I wore the cloned conformity of gay liberation like a proud badge of identity. I did anything to avoid being alone again. I took a long time to recognize that even the frantic embrace of this newfound community didn't make me all the way happy. Beneath the surface, parts of me that didn't fit the general mold still languished in the wilderness.

Yet there's something more persistent here than just personal history. When I look honestly into myself, I know a place deep inside where there's nothing of me. It's hard to describe, other than to call it "the Void." Some of my clients use different names --"the Abyss, the Hole, the Bottomless Pit." It's a place of spiritual emptiness, a territory related to our fear of dying, or not-being, or going forever unrecognized. As a society, we go to great lengths to avoid or deny this place. We develop addictions to everything from alcohol or drugs to work, from sex or religion to endless activity and ever-escalating consumption. We cram our days with email and cell phones and a ceaseless chatter of media. But in the end, nothing works. In fact, the more we try to fill it, the bigger the Void looms in our psyche. Whatever we call it, it's always there, scaring us back to shallow water.

How powerful, then, is the choice to face the fear and enter this place of silence with intention. The simple act of choosing solitude turns what could be punishment into an act of power. For the seeker, voluntary exile becomes a path of personal transformation, like the shaman's journey from mainstream conformity toward individuated consciousness. This path has a long and honorable history. Jesus, they say, wandered the wilderness for forty days. The Buddha sat beneath a tree until he reached enlightenment. Countless men and women may have sat in this very forest, following the traditional vision quest rituals of their own peoples. Spiritual retreat, fasting, and meditation are a core part of nearly all mystical traditions.

I know all this, yet as the shadows deepen into that first dark night, I'm not so sure. My city-bred senses are just too unaccustomed to the sounds of the woods. The hoot of an owl makes me shiver. In the distance, something calls and my over-wrought nerves hear the scream of a child. The hooves of the horses seem too close, too heavy. I know bears live in these mountains. When I hear leaves rustle, I'm sure one prowls just beyond my circle. In the dark, it's hard to shut up the mind. Get a grip! I force myself to follow my breath, repeat my prayers, trust in Spirit for protection. Even so, the night is long.

With morning, relief. The first calls of the jays are like hugs from long lost friends. Optimism rises with the light. Muscles in my back let go of cramps I'd not even noticed. The chipmunk makes the first of many dashes along the log, pretending we don't see each other. Alone? What was I thinking? Every part of this forest is alive. I see it in the eyes of the chipmunk, and those of a doe and her fawn as they hop through the brush a few yards upslope. The aspens face east, expecting sunrise. I try to decipher their hieroglyphic bark, their leafy murmurings. There's meaning here, just below the surface, but what? Wisdom? Gossip? Prayers?

The richness blows me away. I wonder if all our exile isn't self-imposed, the arrogant refusal of humans to recognize ourselves as one with the rest of Life. These animals, these trees, the spider resting in a web hung from the goldenrod by my feet, even the river and the sky--brothers and sisters, all. I remember the comfort I felt in the woods as a boy seeking refuge from the traumas of the playground. I remember, too, all the preachings about how humanity was kicked out of Eden. How stupid it seems now. The Garden's still here, all around us. We just forgot how to see it. How different the world would be if we remembered.

By mid-afternoon, the euphoria's gone. I'm hungry and impatient. Mind is back at full nag, running through all the problems back home and demanding quick answers. To top it off, the sun's stopped moving. That's dumb, I tell myself, the sun doesn't stop. Yet it has. Irritated, I look away, count to a hundred, then a thousand, repeat all the questions, then finally look back. It still hasn't budged, still hangs there stuck between two branches. Shit. I want to scream, explode, crawl out of my skin, climb up the tree and shake the damn thing loose. I feel so trapped!

How it gets through the ranting, I don't know, but suddenly my head is filled with a single image. Christopher Reeve. Superman. Trapped in that wheelchair, that look on his face, hour after hour, week after week. How can he bear it? It hits my heart like a rock. I have to pray, can't not pray. For him. For all the others who are stuck. Or sick. Or in jail. Or starving or confused or trapped in painful places they'd don't know how to leave. The prayers just come, for people I know and all the others. I remember how many support me in being here right now--my lover, my family, my friends and clients. I remember my teacher down by the fire and the women staying up to tend it night and day and night. How much I've taken them all for granted! The gratitude flows for a long, long time. When at last I remember the sun, it's already hidden behind the mountain.

How odd to come out here alone and find such deep connection. I recall the words of former astronauts quoted in a book called The Home Planet (Kevin W. Kelly, ed.). Having traveled thousands of miles from the Earth, they speak with awe of the incredible fragility, interconnection, and sacredness of life on this planet. One after another, they report a profound longing to nurture and protect that life at all cost. Here, in my ordinary place on the side of a mountain, I can start to understand.

The third afternoon, I'm pretty high. Maybe I could just stay here, never eat again, hang out forever with the chipmunk and spider and trees. The feeling doesn't fade, even as my senses come alert with the approach of night. What joins it, though, is a deepening sense of responsibility. In the morning, I'll return to the world. What will I take back? No journey is complete without the return home. I know deep down that what I've seen isn't just for me. We walk in the wilderness not only to strengthen ourselves, but to fortify the Whole. I want to share the wonder of this time with everyone I know. Yet how to translate? What to say?

If I could find the right words, I'd tell people not to be so afraid of solitude. I'd tell them not to run so hard from the Void inside, because it never works anyway. I'd say that maybe the Void is a part of everyone. Find a way to sit and listen. What looks like emptiness might really be the place where Mystery lives, where Spirit is able to touch us at last.

I'd tell Gay men, and everyone else who feels rejected, to turn the tables. I'd tell them not to compromise their truths just to please others. Learn what's to learn in the wilderness of your own life. Turn exile into empowerment by your choice to embrace it. Trust that every doorway has two sides. Connection lives in solitude just as surely as loneliness can exist in the middle of a crowd.

Finally, I'd tell people to open to the rest of the living world, not just in theory, but in real, everyday actions. We're in this together, humans and others alike, and the comfort that comes from opening our hearts goes far beyond any perceived differences.

That's what I'd say, if I had the words.

The last morning dawns cool again and the forest seems oddly silent as I bid good-bye. My shoes soak up dew as I descend through the pasture. I feel strange, unsure how to act back in the world. Then I hear a shout and suddenly my companions are all around me, beaming and hugging and congratulating and welcoming. Someone hands me a muffin, a cup of tea. My heart is full. It's good to be home.

John R. Stowe is the author of the Lammy-winning Gay Spirit Warrior: an empowerment workbook for men who love men. He lives in Decatur, GA and maintains a practice in body-centered therapy. Contact him at jrstowe@mindspring.com.

Last update Sept 21 2000