I tugged on the metal handle on the fireplace, and the door squeaked open. Inside its belly lay the scorched remnants of many healing fires. I could almost hear the hermits who had come before me join their voices in encouragement, but then my emotions intervened.
“What if you burn yourself? What if you start a forest fire?” Fear questioned.
“Only boys can light fires,” Shame opined.
“Why does no one teach these things in school!” hollered Anger.
“You’ve birthed babies. You can light a fire,” encouraged my soul.
I may not have known the proper steps for fire building, but I knew I had the power to light a match and spark my passion back to life. I struck a match several times with no success. Finally, the match ignited with a hiss….
— excerpt from Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness, available on Valentine’s Day
This scene from my new book was a simple one: I was on a solo healing retreat. I was attempting to start a fire in the outdoor sauna located on the grounds. I had no concrete or remembered instruction on how to do so. But eventually, I started the fire, closed the sauna door, and prepared to lie back on the bench and enjoy the fruits of my efforts.
From the outside looking in, it might’ve been a fairly benign scene, or at least a quiet one, set in the dark of evening and in the silence and solitude of a Minnesota winter in the woods. Perhaps a facial expression or muttered curse might’ve revealed my true inner fears and thoughts, but not much more than that.
And yet, on the inside, this scene was much, much noisier.
It is a truism that when our outer world gets quiet, our inner dialogue seems to grow louder. Suddenly, we hear a voice rise up from the past — a doting grandmother, a critical parent. Maybe we recite inner mottos to ourselves, maybe not helpful to the moment, but memorized since childhood or adolescence and still lingering, right alongside other old and painful beliefs.
It’s not actually because the outer world got quiet that our inner world seems so loud. It’s that when our outer world grows quiet, we can better hear the constant inner voices.
Often, these inner conversations take place unconsciously — not because they’re not valuable, but because the outside world demands all our attention. The less time we set aside in our lives to get quiet and listen in, the more likely it is that we will slowly forget, ignore or devalue our inner life.
For many of us, our daily self-talk is a mix of positive affirmations and private admonishments. Depending on if we’ve done some work on this, this ratio could greatly favor the negative. It is then, in our unawareness of our inner world, that we can find ourselves trapped in difficult and even dangerous situations. For when we’re not watching and learning from our inner world, we become less able to distinguish right from wrong, choice from obligation, and maybe even truth from falsehood.
Habits of thought and behavior are difficult to break, especially if they have hardened over the years. But we must start somewhere, and we can only do better if we know better. Awareness cultivates mindfulness.
Once we become more observant about how we talk to ourselves, we become mindful about how we choose to do so going forward. The more we practice, the more habitual it gets. Then, even when the outer volume turns up, we can trust that the dialogue and banter going on in our minds is healthy.
There is another reason we might want to start paying attention to our inner life: this is how we hear the voice of our soul.
In the quiet of the scene I shared, it is not only my emotions that come through loud and clear. It is the voice of my soul, who then guides me through the challenges of both building the fire and soothing my emotions. If I hadn’t established a practice of listening in, I might not ever have known all these inner thoughts and feelings. But I doubt I would ever have heard her, the voice of my soul, either.
In this issue of The Edge, people are writing about their predictions for the year. I’d like to open the new year with a suggestion: let us find more silence and solitude so we can listen in, learn and grow from the great wisdom available from a rich inner life.