Wisdom’s Cry #4: Getting to Silence

This one might be a bit overwritten, but it still holds true–maybe even truer than ever in our internet, smart phone, and 24-hour-news world:

Getting to Silence

(August 1992)

For a day, maybe two, at the end of my summer tours — three-week marathons of exposure to and care for other people — I feel a sense of panic, as though the earth has been pulled out from beneath my feet and I am suddenly falling down to the depths of an unvoiced despair — without support, without recourse, without even a self to rely upon.

For a day, maybe two, I want nothing but to be back with the people I so recently wanted to leave behind, the people who have surrounded me night and day for three weeks, who have worn me down with their needs, their wants, their insistent demands.  I feel a need for them, a desperate need, as though I will expire if I’m not wrapped in their cares, their words, their presence.

For a day, maybe two, there is one person with whom I don’t want to be left alone, one person who makes me feel as though I’m nothing despite the favorable evaluations, the thank-yous, the words of praise.  He says nothing but he is there, waiting–in my room, on the street, in the little cafe where I go for a rest and a cafe au lait.  He promises nothing, threatens nothing, asks for nothing but my presence alone with him.  Yet I am filled with fear of him, with fear of the unknown, for he is myself.

On the third or fourth day, if I have resisted the panic-driven urge to surround myself with other people, my fear recedes.  If I have kept to myself, weathered the fear, the feeling of uselessness, the lack of hope, on the third or maybe the fourth day I rise again from the grave of despair and I am a changed man.  I have entered a new reality, a new world, a world in which my self comes to me as the perfect companion — both pupil and teacher, playmate and partner, parent and child.

There is a still, small voice in each of us that fills us with more fear than the winds and storm with which we surround ourselves.  We want more of ‘life’ — whatever ‘life’ might be — and so we try to reach out farther, to push ourselves faster, to consume more and more, all the time trying to silence this voice inside that is telling us we are lost int he void of the universe.  It whispers so softly that we think we can ignore it and the import of its words but they echo loudly through the empty spaces of our souls, reverberating through the chambers of our hearts, telling us over and over again that in our search for something more we have found less, we have stretched ourselves so fine that we are about to break, spread ourselves so wide that there is no center left.  No center, just a still, small voice of which we are afraid.

Then something happens.  We have an accident that keeps us from working.  Or we hear that a relative or good friend has died.  Or one day our mind or heart gives out and we enter a period in which nothing matters at all.  And because we no longer desire those things we desired, wee no longer fear those things we feared — including the still, small voice.  And yet we go on ignoring it until every other voice has been stripped away, until we are left alone with hits whispers, its echoes, its words.  The panic comes anew.  Our impulse is to run and find someone, anyone, to be with, but we are tired of the world, tired of its ways and everyone who goes about them.  So we sit with the voice, like two people who suddenly find themselves alone together on a park bench.  The voice asks a question and despite ourselves we answer.  The question is about us and in the timbre of the voice we sense a sincere desire to know, a desire we suddenly realize has been missing from every other voice we’ve heard for…how long?

The voice both probes and reassures; it lets us know how little we really know ourselves and at the same time makes us believe that we can know ourselves, that there is still time.  It begins to pull out of us thoughts and feelings and dreams that amaze us for we never realized they were there.  We are frightened of them at first — they seem unreal, like phantoms that have risen from the murky earth to mock us — but the voice assures us that they are real and comely and speak the truth.  They want us to know them because they are part of us, they are us, and we see for the first time that we have always thought that the thoughts we were thinking and the feelings we were feeling — thoughts and feelings given to us by others — were ours.  And dreams — why, we didn’t even realize that we had dreams.  And suddenly we feel a wriggle of excitement, a sense that we have at last found a clue to what ‘life’ is all about.  The solitude we once feared we now crave.  We seek silence, for only when the noisy ways of the world have been filtered out can we hear what the voice is telling us.

Life presents a dilemma then, for we must work to make a living and yet we no longer have the same desires, the same wants and needs of those around us.  In fact, when we re-enter their world it all seems a bit silly and wrong-headed.  We crave silence, but after a few weeks away from it we find that we fear it again, too.  We must pull away and live with the fear of ourselves again for a day, maybe two.  We must die again tot he world, knowing that on the third day, or maybe the fourth, we will rise to a new reality, a new world — the world of our true thoughts and feelings and dreams.  The world of that still, small voice that tells us who we really are and what ‘life’ — our life — is all about.

© Michael N. McGregor 1992

The Hermit and the Mystic: Wisdom from the Woods

A friend sent me a link to a GQ article about a man who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years.  The only thing he said to anyone in all those years was the single word “Hi” to a hiker he passed one day.  Although the article is titled “The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit” and the author, Michael Finkel, refers to the man, Christopher Knight, repeatedly as a hermit, when asked if he was one, Knight said:

“When I came out of the woods they applied the label hermit to me. Strange idea to me. I had never thought of myself as a hermit. Then I got worried. For I knew with the label hermit comes the idea of crazy.”

Knight had been nicknamed the North Pond Hermit by people who owned the summer cabins from which he stole food and propane and other needs without being seen.  According to my dictionary’s definition—“a person who lives alone in a lonely or secluded spot, often from religious motives; recluse”—Knight certainly was a hermit.  He lived alone in a tent surrounded by boulders and a thicket of brush and trees it was hard to see through.  But he denied having religious motives, or any religious feelings at all.  And he made it clear to Finkel that he never felt lonely.

I’ve been thinking about the label “hermit” over the past few years because some have called the man I wrote my book about, Robert Lax, a hermit.  I’ve never been comfortable with this label for Lax because he didn’t retreat to a “lonely or secluded spot” or separate himself from people, except to contemplate and write.  I’ve come to realize, though, that when people use the word “hermit” they often mean “mystic”: a hermit, to their mind, being someone who retreats from the world to meditate or pray and reach a higher consciousness.

I’m more comfortable calling Lax a mystic because there’s no question he attained “intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths through meditation” (the dictionary again).  And, despite Knight’s rejection of religion, despite the thievery that kept him alive, I think he became a bit of a mystic, too.

The only time he prayed, Knight said, was when the temperature went below negative twenty degrees. (“That’s when you do have religion,” he said.  “You do pray. You pray for warmth.”) But he meditated from time to time, especially when he feared death, and his quotes in the GQ article suggest he came to understandings of life that usually come only to mystics.  Here are a couple of the more intriguing ones:

“‘What I miss most [Knight said] is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.’ He said he’d watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp.”  (An ability to be completely still and completely in the moment, attuned to the natural world.)

“Solitude did increase my perception [Knight said]. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”  (The disappearance of the ego and a resulting freedom from the self.)

While waiting in jail for the court’s decision on his theft charges, Knight said:

“I am retreating into silence as a defensive move…I am surprised by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable.”


“Sitting here in jail, I don’t like what I see in the society I’m about to enter. I don’t think I’m going to fit in. It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”

The article ends with Knight being released from jail to live with his mother but wishing he could simply return to the woods. I’m reminded of the custom among some Native American tribes to have their young retreat to secluded places on their own to find themselves in some way.  What if we had this kind of custom in America, or at least allowed people like Knight to live in nature undisturbed?  What insights might we obtain that we as a society desperately need–especially in this time of superficiality, noise, violence and greed?

Note: One of my new projects is a book about a year my wife and I spent in a small cabin in the woods in the San Juan Islands: what that time and way of living showed me.

The Company We Keep

One of the things virtually every American author does, it seems, is check the sales ranking on his Amazon page.  The part of the page I find most interesting, though, is the section just above the editorial reviews where other books bought by those who’ve bought my book are listed.  If, as people say, we’re known by the company we keep, this is where the true value of a book is revealed.  I have to say I’ve felt humbled and quite pleased by the books that appear there.

Among the authors represented are: Pope Francis, James Joyce, Meister Eckhart, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Vincent Van Gogh, Thich Nhat Hanh, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Louis Bouyer, Daniel Berrigan, Jane Hirshfield, Richard Rohr, James Martin, Matthew Fox, Ilia Delio, Rowan Williams, Jim Forest, John Dear, Christopher Pramuk, Michael W. Higgins and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Impressive as that list is, it’s the book titles I enjoy most.  Taken together, they become a poem:

The Springs of Contemplation/Making All Things New/In the School of the Prophets/At Play in Creation/We Are Already One

What the Mystics Know/Waking, Dreaming, Being/The Divine Within/The Ground of Love and Truth/All Is Grace

Between the Dark and the Daylight/A Sunlit Absence/Striving Towards Being/Praying the Psalms/Eager to Love

The Taste of Silence/The Submerged Reality/This Present Moment/Crowded by Beauty/Fully Alive