The cold wind howled, viciously rattling the windows every now and then, like a specter in chains. In the dim starlight, the rugged Himalayan peaks rose like the gnarly spiked back of some prehistoric behemoth. The residents in the small mountain village of Gulmarg were all sheltered safely indoors. From my bedroom in the attic, I could hear faint laughter from the living room as my parents and their friends drank pints of ale and feasted on legs of curried mutton.
I turned off the oil lamp next to my bed and stared up at the sloped ceiling. In the corner of the room, the Bukhari, a traditional Kashmiri wood-burning stove, crackled and spat giving off a warm enveloping heat that made my eyelids droop. Still, I fought off the sleep because I hadn’t yet performed my nightly ritual.
The “ritual” was a game of dare that I would play with “the silence”. Every night as I lay in bed, I’d allow the quietness of the room to become the focus of my attention. At first, it would be barely noticeable. But as I would continue to focus on it, the silence would grow in “sound” moving from a whisper, to a clear hum and finally to a deafening roar of static in my ears. And inevitably there would come a point when the silence would feel so overwhelming and so menacing that I would become scared and shift my attention to something else. And in that moment the silence would subside. Each night I would push the envelope just a bit further.
But beyond just the experience of being with the silence, there was something else that was very apparent to my six year old self. And that was that the silence was not some inanimate thing. It was not merely some sensory experience. Whether the result of a vivid child’s imagination or the perception of something beyond what we as adults can see: the silence felt like a living entity to me. In fact, I perceived it as a being something like a god, although I didn’t think of it as that at the time. “God” was this pantheon of deities with multiple arms, multiple superpowers and multiple support animals not unlike the Justice League. God was something you made stories about.
Yet, the silence was something real, something living. And it knew me in a way that I didn’t know myself. Which is why it was always present, always watching, always lurking, waiting for a moment when I might drop my guard and then it would show itself. I was both terrified and mystified by it. And when it appeared, I would experience this inner push-pull sensation with one part of me wanting to move towards it and another to get the hell away from it.
I didn’t believe it was evil, nor did I believe it was good. What I did feel, however, was that it was something ancient, infinitely older than the Himalayas themselves. And there was something in me that suspected I already knew the silence but simply couldn’t remember. Perhaps, I had come from it, this pulsing living womb of creation. And if I had been created from it, then that is where I would be destroyed. That is why I feared it. I suspected, deep down, that to fully embrace it would mean to be annihilated by it.
Though I performed the ritual over many nights, I never went all the way in. Eventually, I just stopped playing. And after a while, the silence simply stopped visiting.
Fifteen years later, I found myself seated at the edge of a pier along the coast of Lake Ontario. This version of me was someone different entirely. The six year old had been a child of great energy, enthusiasm, courage and excitement for life, yet, the ensuing decade and a half would wither his spirit, hollow out his heart and turn his mind into a dungeon of deranged voices. More than anything I wanted release from the torment that had become my life. Yet, even the courage I had once possessed had evaporated. I was a coward, I felt pathetic and unable to muster up enough energy to even put an end to myself.
My family felt helpless to address the circumstance. I was put on anti-depressants but only ever took one dose and refused to take them ever again. I isolated myself and sank deep into a depression that lasted for years and deepened further day by day.
The day on the pier, I had been practically dragged out of the house by my father and sister for a ferry ride to one of Toronto’s islands. Having arrived there however, I wanted nothing to do with the “fun activities” the two of them had planned so I left them and sauntered off on my own. When I arrived at the pier there was something metaphorical about it. It seemed like the final stop. The end of the road before solid ground gave way to the vast blue nothing that stretched all the way to the horizon. Perhaps, it was this symbolism that drew me onto that pier and all the way towards its edge.
I sat down on a bench and gazed out at the lake – blue, empty, perfectly still. I felt utterly spent. And knew that this was my final resting place. After this I wouldn’t have the energy to do one more thing. Looking out over the water, at first I heard it almost inaudibly. Some dusty corner of my memory stirred in recognition as my attention focused in on it. Then came the familiar whisper, the gentle hum of static. It was like meeting an old forgotten friend – the silence came visiting again.
This time there wasn’t any fear or resistance within me. All of that had been spent. There wasn’t an ounce of courage left within me to fight or pull back. I didn’t even have the energy to feel terrified. I was numb, dead already. A corpse in living flesh. And so when the silence came, it came unimpeded. I watched helplessly as my being was drawn past its event horizon, before it enveloped me and then infiltrated me: my body, my mind. In some bizarre process of spiritual transfusion every ounce of what I considered to be “me” was replaced with silence.
Over the next four months, I would walk around in a waking daze. My mind, my thoughts, my self-identity had been hijacked and replaced with the “silent perspective”. I was now seeing through ITS eyes. Seeing the world the way IT saw. I was no longer myself. I was the silence.
And the world it revealed was something entirely different: vibrant, alive, intricately connected, inseparably one. It took over my consciousness by shutting off my parasitic mind. And in the process, my hollowed heart began to heal again and my withered spirit began to resuscitate.
Then one day, the silence started to fade. It moved out slowly. Over a period of weeks. And as it did, several systems in my brain began coming back online. Thoughts began operating more fluidly again. My familiar sense of self began to return. And as this happened, I held on to the silence for dear life.
I didn’t want to go back to being me! I wanted the silence to stay for good. And yet, it faded but always remained in the background as a barely audible hum, available for me to reach anytime I felt the urge.
The mind I was left with was similar in many ways to the one I’d had: my personality had been left intact, yet many aspects of my thinking had been rewired. I found I was unable to feel such intense amounts of misery or self-loathing again. I was unable to have suicidal thoughts again. I was unable to sink into that depth of depression again.
Still, there were several things that hadn’t changed. None of my dilemmas, my existential confusions, my sense of purpose or lack thereof had been solved for me. None of my past traumas had been resolved. That work, the silence had left unfinished. All the silence had done for me was revitalize my spirit, my resolve and my love for life by showing me what reality looked like from its perspective.
Another seven years on from there, I found myself in a place of great confusion precipitated by the end of a relationship that I had poured my heart and soul into. Abruptly abandoned and left out on a limb, I felt lost, listless and terribly alone. And the gnawing void I’d always carried inside me, which I had attempted to fill with friends, spirituality, work and relationships, now became an inescapable reality of my day to day experience. My break up sealed that fate and everything I had in my life suddenly lost meaning.
And so I decided that, since the void was unavoidable, I would have to face it. The hole in myself, which I had walked around with for my entire life, was something that I couldn’t turn away from anymore or attempt to fill up with some relationship or career pursuit. If it was a part of me then I wanted to get to know it.
Previously, I’d always lived with roommates. Instead, I found an apartment and furnished it minimally: nothing more than a sofa, a bed and a dresser for my clothes. I didn’t have a TV, a computer, an internet connection, I didn’t listen to music or even read any books. I turned my phone off when I entered the apartment and only turned it back on when I left for work in the mornings. Any object that could be used to “fill up time” I avoided. Every evening after returning from work, I’d sit on my balcony and gaze at the tops of trees and buildings across the city. Watching the trees sway in the breeze was the extent of entertainment I allowed myself.
Sitting there, I wasn’t meditating in any formal way. There was no real intention to my being there. I just sat with the hole – that void inside me. And I would listen to the silence. It was always there. Sitting right beside me. Wordlessly encouraging me on.
Those hours spent on the balcony with that feeling of emptiness inside me were excruciating. At first it was terrifying, then miserable, then incredibly frustrating until eventually it just became dead boring. The only comfort I had through it all, was the silence. And knowing it was with me no matter what.
Eventually, the dynamic changed. I don’t remember when it happened. But I began to look forward to coming home and sitting with the “hole”. Except it didn’t feel like a hole anymore. It felt more like a “whole”. Without any real intellectual understanding or rationalizing. Just on a real visceral level.
And the silence was no longer beside me. It was within me now. It had seeped in noiselessly, undetected by me and had filled that entire void. Yet, this time “I” was still present. My mind, my thoughts, my reason, my personality hadn’t been overridden or replaced.
And for the first time I understood what the “silence” was, what the “void” was, what this “journey” had been.
The silence was a deep and original aspect of myself that had been cut out of me long before I can remember. And the empty space that had been left behind was that hole, the void, I had always carried around.
The “journey” had been one of reunion of self with self. It had been the integration of all that had been “silenced” and shadowed: both dark and divine, back into my identity.
A lot of spiritual literature references silence as a path of spiritual practice. And we tend to think of silence as this experience or process by which our minds learn to become quiet and calm. Yet, in my experience it has been so much more than that. It is an aspect of who I am, of my identity, just as much as my own name, my own mind or personality. In fact, whereas in its absence, my mind and personality grew unchecked and haywire, now there is a balance between the form and formless within me. My mind is tempered by it and thus able to flourish in an organic fashion.
And my identity has evolved from merely being the form in which I appear: as my person, my thoughts, my emotions and my personality. Now, I am equally that formless silence and the vibrant space it occupies.