THE BLOG

Silence and the Soul

11/04/2013 12:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Today I was at a meeting where everyone checked their phones and emailed throughout. Grrr. I had lunch with a friend who talked to someone else on the phone when it rang in the midst of our conversation. Grrr. A recent movie premiere (Her) shows a man who falls in love with his cell phone's voice. I use email and my iPod too, but the distractibility of people seems constant. I wonder if we ever spend enough time being quiet and listening for the still, small voice of our souls.

Especially through the heavy stuff, such as losing a job and needing to support oneself, loving someone who doesn't love you, feeling uncertain about one's marriage and all its tangles, facing serious illness, like a cancer diagnosis. But also because life turns like the change of the seasons, the creative peaks when we have big visions and want to step out to the next level. Even then, do we ask what does my life want from me, what are my soul's imperatives? Or are we in danger of losing our soul?

I believe we understand ourselves best through depth psychology, in which honor is given to one's own feelings (no matter what they are), intuitions, and imagery in relation to daily events, conflicts, and unexpected happenings. Curiosities and confusions are given their due. Attention paid results in greater wisdom and change. But today the landscape is dominated by cognitive-behaviorism and neuroscience, which rarely inspire and do not give life personal meaning. They do not enable one to be strong as a firmly rooted tree when buffeted by high winds.

When we come to a crossroads or crisis, past traditions also may lose their power to guide us; then we must dig into the ground of our own being. At a crossroads we often feel anxiety, dread, or the numbness of denial. But if we don't push ahead, our lives will be limited; we will stay stuck. If we take time to go within and use tools, we come to a place that is beyond dread and diagnosis, an inner place that we reach by going down our "well" (of experiences, thoughts, emotions) to the rivers where flow images, insights, and a sense of unity with all life. A profound paradox is that the more we move inward into our privacy and individuality, the more we become connected to the wholeness and richness of the universe. It is the place of transcendence where, after a long inward journey, self-transformation and renewal begin.

Boredom or the fear that nothing is happening is just as much part of the journey as feelings of passion or centeredness. The path is not straight. It twists, curves, folds, and reaches dead ends that are likely to turn out beneficial at the end. Life is a weaving, made a stitch at a time; while one side of the design slowly builds, the other looks like a tangle of threads. You don't see the finished pattern until your life is done.

One can be silent while walking or meditating; these activities lead to ideas or centering but do not offer enough for working on the issues of one's life. I have found that when I want to dive into my scary problems, a journal works best. Like the cave of time immemorial -- a place of darkness and solitude -- this is (for me and others) where visions and rebirths take place. Nowadays modern seekers don't have to literally withdraw from the world for vision quests but I believe we need a practice. Decades ago I encountered the Intensive Journal method.

Picture me: married to the man I met in college. We have two young children, a girl and a boy, and live in Connecticut. I yearn to write and have little time or space to do so. I work part-time at home. In a feminist arts group I've become fascinated by an artist. She paints images based on the I Ching and introduces me to the diaries of Anais Nin. Meanwhile she leads me to my first Intensive Journal workshop led by its founder, Ira Progoff.

I join the large group at Wainwright House, a mansion given over to philosophical retreats and workshops. My head frets about the home front, my ambitions, and leadenness of a cold. I try to draw a zone of separation around me but oddly enough the collective silence seeps in and helps quiet my anxieties. People concentrate. Pens hover or move quickly over paper. At first I am hesitant and then I am surprised that I become more absorbed by the rich details of my life. When others share, I learn from their struggles.

The connections that emerge from writing so indirectly in a certain sequence amaze me. I'm hungry for more of whatever material this is within me. I feel much more secure. I realize how starved I've been for this nourishment, out of touch with my own soul.

I will take many workshops and even spend a week every summer at retreats, which I feel orient me for the year.

Ira Progoff was a psychotherapist, author of many books, and teacher of the lives of creative persons at Drew University. He designed the method as a non-judgmental, psychological, and spiritual tool that people could use on their own. Far more dynamic than ordinary diary keeping, Joseph Campbell called it "one of the unique inventions of our time." The "method" sets forth sequential exercises that relate to one's life history, relationships, health, work/projects, and experiences of deep meaning. Some of the titles are steppingstones, roads taken & not taken, inner dialogues with the personal aspects of our lives as well as inner wisdom figures (which can range from God, an animal, an artist, a scientist). No special writing ability is needed; one just needs to respect the contents of one's own life.

In my use of the method I have worked on a divorce, difficulties with my children, my writing projects, my jobs, various health matters, ongoing relationships with colleagues, and a major move -- from Connecticut to Bozeman, Montana, in which I wrenched myself from close friends, a beloved, a satisfying job. In doing so I soon got fresh ideas, solace, energy, enthusiasm, and confidence about moving forward. Later I wrote Your Soul at a Crossroads, With Steps You Can Take Not to Lose It to describe my use of the exercises with examples from my life and workshop participants. I also included chapters on connection to nature and rebirth symbols and sacred rites.

Nowadays I use the exercises when emotion propels me. I also get in bed periodically, propped up by pillows with my papers spread all around me. I must have a good pen. I like it when my cat lies next to me. I keep a pad handy for listing things to do that come up. I lose track of time as I explore. In this silence I unfurl.

Our world urgently needs more people comfortable with silence and periods of solitude, alert, and present to the moment, the Earth, and the process of their feelings. What if we turned off all devices for an hour a week and devoted several hours a month to silence, dialoguing with our inner selves instead of others for a change? I daresay we'd be better able to expand our abilities to find our way through life's thickets and emerge not only more creative, but also wiser.

Gandhi -- The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice within.