Solitude has been my friend since childhood. Nothing soothed my soul more than escaping to the woods. There, life felt slower. A smell of earthiness filled my lungs with its richness. The thrill of jumping from rock to rock as I crossed to the other side of the brook- hopefully, but not always, without getting my feet wet. Darting water minnows, small crayfish and tadpoles in all stages of development held my attention for hours – without ever making a sound. It felt as if the babbling of the brook was intended for my ears only. The spotted salamander remained elusive despite my stealth and focused search. Lifting up rock after rock, I never knew what would appear – all kinds of worms and other “creepy crawlers.” This I did with caution, as snakes called the woods their home as well. The skunk cabbage was, well, smelly! But I loved the beautiful ferns and the soft green moss. Every step was an adventure. Following the path or not, I would make my way through this sanctuary. My busy brain was quiet; my heart opened by wonder and joy.
It seems so much harder today to escape the noisy world. What would happen if we just asked everyone to use their “inside voice”? Or better yet, use the acronym, W.A.I.T., “Why am I talking?”, to create space to be more discerning about when to speak and when to listen – with compassion and complete attention. Other times, we are called upon to speak, which can be exhilarating or exhausting – or both. I know I am not alone when, following teaching or speaking engagements, or even social events, I need complete retreat, quiet and stillness. Not for thinking or processing, but simply to recover my center.
Susan Cain, in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” reminds us that at least one-third of the people we know are introverts. Of particular interest to me is Cain’s discussion of how American society moved from a “Culture of Character” to a “Culture of Personality.” In a culture of character, the following characteristics were valued by society: citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners and integrity (p.23). Dale Carnegie, who played a major role in shifting cultural focus from character to personality through his lectures, trainings and writings, highlighted a completely different set of characteristics: magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful and energetic (pp. 23-24). This cultural shift impacted areas such as advertising, parenting, education, the workplace and social circles. It also “intensified … biases and applied them not only to political and religious leaders, but also to regular people” (p.30). “The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up” (p.31).
Whether you view yourself as an extrovert or an introvert, I highly recommend reading this book. Silence and solitude as regular mindful practices strengthen our character. Anais Nin wrote,”Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.”
Spring is a particularly good time to practice re-centering. Consider setting aside time daily quiet time to notice even the minutest changes as evidence of spring’s approach. Quiet your brain. Renew your sense of wonder. Consider reading the works of Emerson and Thoreau, Muir or David Suzuki, or the poems of Mary Oliver. Employ every sense in experiencing the miraculous renewal of life that occurs each and every day. At the very least, open your windows and let fresh air replace the stale.
Notice how you feel. Breathe deeply. Notice the wafts of fragrance. Take a walk through the woods even if the ground is muddy. Stand still and pay attention. Can you hear the songs of birds beginning to return home? Can you feel the energy of life renewing? Open your heart to life in all its glory. Offer words of gratitude for the simplest things you notice! Re-energize your spirit.
Whether or not you pray, the following phrase from the siddur, Jewish prayer book, reminds us that goodness itself each and every day is recreated.
“The Ever-Renewing Essence of Life renews the work of Creation each and every day as an act of goodness” – “Ha-mechadeish b’tuvo bechol yom tamid ma’asei vereishit”
Drink in the joy of being alive. Spread that joy to others through a smile, a kind act, a quiet moment shared over a cup of tea. Practice listening to yourself and to others with an open heart and mind. Try to be present, holding both humility and pride, making space for yourself and others. Focus on developing your character – one trait at a time. Shtika – silence, which may include solitude, is but one of many soul traits we spend a lifetime practicing.
Shabbat,with it’s focus on noticing the natural world as a remembrance of Creation itself, offers a perfect opportunity to begin exploring the virtue of shtika, silence. Listen to the “still, small voice”within calling to you to pay attention. And, this Shabbat people all over North America are joining in for “Shabbat Un-plugged.”Imagine, just setting aside all of your technologies and becoming present once again – for yourself your loved ones and friends. May your quiet journey replenish and renew your soul and fill your open heart with love.
Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
23 Adar 1 5776/ 3 March 2016