You aren't listening! Don't interrupt me!
We have all been accused of not listening when someone is talking to us and, sadly, we are usually guilty as charged. We live in an age of distraction and focusing our attention is harder than ever. Not a day goes by when we are not told how important it is to really listen to others but we are seldom reminded how important it is to listen to ourselves as well.
Recently I arrived at a one-day retreat not realizing that most of our activities were going to be completed in silence. We were an eclectic group of 25 semi-spiritual women. Each of us had carved out the day for self-reflection and renewal. We had escaped our obligations and routines in order to take this day for ourselves. Equipped with journals and soggy vegetarian lunches stuffed into reusable containers, we arrived and settled into an old barn-like building, which would serve as our cozy respite for the day.
Our esteemed leader welcomed us and quietly asked us to respect the silence that would be offered all day. Our lack of engagement with each other was not to be mistaken for rudeness or disinterest, but rather an opportunity for looking inward and avoiding the distractions of small chatter and unnecessary conversations. I looked around the room watching the relief and calmness spread across the makeup-less aging faces. As I sat there taking it all in, I felt an old familiar feeling making it's way up to the surface. This feeling wasn't inner peace, nor was it gratitude as one might expect. Rather, this feeling was a 100% oh-my-what-am-I-doing-here freak out!
I wasn't freaking out because I had to look inside or keep silent for a while. I generally enjoy introspection of any kind. I was freaking out because I saw an inherent flaw in this plan. I was freaking out because I hadn't fully realized these parameters when I signed up for the day. I was freaking out because, unlike all the introverts surrounding me who were in heaven, I was an extrovert who thrived on connection and chatter and lots of conversation! "How on earth would I make it through a whole day without talking?" I wondered.
It's not that we extroverts need to talk all the time. In fact, we need a tremendous amount of alone time to recharge our batteries for the frequent socializing. It also takes a huge amount of energy to be so friendly, vivacious, and inquisitive. Personally, I am a mess without a great amount of alone time and I spend lots of time by myself thinking, exploring, meditating, and working. But here's the weird part for me. When I do all of these things alone, I AM ACTUALLY ALONE. I am not in a group setting with 25 other women.
I thought it was quite ironic that I had come to a gathering with 25 strangers with the sole purpose of keeping to myself. Not knowing that it was going to be silent, I was hoping for a "Let's build a Village" or "Welcome to my Red Tent" experience, but instead I was feeling so much lonelier than if I had been actually alone. It reminded me of that feeling when you sneeze on the subway and even though you are surrounded by people everywhere, no one says "Bless You". Although we had brief chats in between our activities, they were often a quick check-in report as opposed to the more involved "group shares" that I had come to expect in other emotionally mindful explorations.
My inner extrovert was very confused. Although I do love group meditation in silence, my idea of a joyous day of retreat lies within the talking, connecting, and sharing with other like-minded inspirationalists! I was feeling like a parrot trying to keep quiet in a public library as I reluctantly retreated to my cage.
In the afternoon we had a chance to go outside and take a solo meditative walk around the property. Thrilled to get outside and move my body, I started walking along the path, enjoying the sun warm up my cold, emotionless, hopefully not too crabby face. As I walked past the other participants I couldn't help but imagine they were happily ignoring me and continuing on their silent journeys relieved that they didn't need to engage with me or anyone else. As much as I knew intellectually that it wasn't true, each time they passed me, my inner extrovert felt a bit snubbed!
Suddenly, I was feeling another bubble brewing in my belly. It wasn't hunger, nor gas or indigestion. This bubble needed to speak. No, it didn't need to speak; it needed to scream! The bubble started screaming louder and louder and I wondered whether my non-comrades could hear it yell, "I need to talk to someone!!!! This sucks! I feel imprisoned!!" I let this inner voice shriek and yell and have its little hissy fit for what felt like hours but was probably only a few seconds. Eventually a different small voice emerged. In total kindness, with no judgment, the little voice asked me, "Lisa, what is it that you desperately need to say?"
I stopped in my tracks and thought very seriously about the answer to this question. What did I need to say to these silent women that I didn't even know? I couldn't come up with an immediate answer. I thought some more. Embarrassed to admit this even to myself, I realized that the answer was.... (drumroll please).... absolutely NOTHING! There was absolutely nothing that I needed to say to them or anyone else.
Thinking about it more, I realized that what I really was trying to do was to escape my loneliness. I was trying to fill that open space with chatter to distract me from an unpleasant feeling. Was I afraid? I didn't think so but I needed to think about it before answering myself. Was I doing this in other places in my life? I needed to think about that too. I wondered where else in my life was I was filling my open spaces with distraction chatter? Clearly Facebook, email, worries, and normal busy-brain activity were filling up lots of that space. In fact, with the exception of my 15 minute morning meditation, all day I was continually thinking about everything on my to do list, blog ideas, and random thoughts like: Am I out of walnuts? Why didn't she open my email? I really need a carpet cleaner. When will I have a chance to go to Asia?
I realized something very clear in that moment. Even though I love being alone, most of the time I am so busy thinking that I can't even hear my own inner guide.
I also realized that not only do I need to listen others with presence and full attention, but also I need to stop and listen to my own inner guide with the same attention. That little inner guide is so wise. She is the one that told me to go back to school to study nutrition. She is the one that told me that I need to start writing. She guides me like no other. But unless I stop the chatter, I can't hear her.
My inner extrovert was finally silenced. And, she was in good company.