"...if you are to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart, and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words ... it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God's spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit." -- Thomas Merton *
Every time I read the teachings of a mystic, I feel a kinship on many levels, but I also run up against a wall. The kinship comes from the fact that mystics experience the presence of God in their lives. The wall comes from the fact that the mystical experience is so often described as a union with God: "God and I are one." I don't think that way. To me, God is God, and I am me. I can't imagine ever saying that God and I are one. However, recent reflections have allowed me to understand a little better what all these mystics, like Merton, are talking about.
I have increasingly become aware that there are two very different voices in my head. Now don't worry about my sanity, just yet. When I say voices, I mean more like kinds of thought. But these different kinds of thought are so very distinct from each other that I will call them voices. One is very quiet -- almost too quiet. It is easily disregarded because it is so quiet. I'm not even really sure you can call it a voice or a thought; if it's even heard, it's more like an idea that pops into your head. It says things like: Go this way; Do that; Take that with you; etc. It gives simple directions in the present moment. The second voice, in contrast, is very loud, and sometimes, is all I can hear. It says things like: I can't do that; That was mean; She is an exceptional woman; That will become a problem some day; I did that really well; I've made so many mistakes; etc. This voice judges, makes comparisons, thinks about the future and the past, and is always accompanied by a positive or negative feeling. There is another voice, with a volume level closer to the quiet one, in me as well: it's the one I'm using now, the one that asks questions, wonders about life, reasons through problems unemotionally, and says Yes or No to the thoughts that come to mind. There may also be other voices, but I'd like to focus this blog posting on the first two.
What I've noticed lately, is that when I listen to that quiet voice and do what it tells me right away, my life is simpler, runs eminently smoother, and I am happier. But when I say "No" to that voice, or I say "Later," my life gets complicated and unhappy. When I listen to it, I feel grateful; when I don't, I feel regret. The opposite happens when I listen to the loud voice and assent to what it says: my life becomes complicated, unhappy, and full of regrets; and when I don't listen to it, I am relieved and grateful.
I have written before about not trusting my first inclinations. But that's because my first, and most natural, inclination is to deny the quiet voice (to say "No" and "Later") and listen to the loud one. I am, unfortunately, a very slow learner, but lately I've made some progress. I think that's because I've realized its connection to my happiness. I'd like to get better at listening to that quiet voice.
Where does it come from?
Sigmund Freud described three kinds of personality, at varying levels of consciousness, familiarly labeled the ego, id, and superego, which are driven by what he called The Pleasure Principle. But that's not exactly what I'm describing. While Freud's "ego" is somewhat like that third voice I described above -- the voice of reason -- his "id" and "superego" are both found in that loud voice which desires and judges with great emotional attachment. So were does that leave the quiet voice?
As I've said, I've only recently become aware of it, begun to "hear" it, but I think it's been there for a very long time. The first time I had the barest inkling of being guided, I thought it must be what artists experience when they are listening to their muse. Writers say that they sometimes do not know where their characters came from, they just appeared. All they had to do was be attuned to their muse to create wonderful art. That's what I experienced that first time. But I only realized it after the fact, after all of the connecting pieces fell into place, so to speak. And that is primarily how I've noticed this guidance since then: after the connections to my own private thoughts have become apparent.
This guidance has always felt entirely external to me. Events happen, people say something to me, and books have a way of jumping out at me, that unexpectedly address my most private concerns. Since I don't believe that I have the ability to subconsciously create the world around me (make these events, people, and books appear in front of me), I attribute this guidance to God. Only God can bring these things into my life just when I need them. All I have to do is listen and accept them.
However, that act of listening to and accepting what comes into my life is very similar to the act of listening and assenting to the quiet voice within me. Only the content is different. What I generally recognize as God's Holy Spirit speaking to me through the words of other people is, not surprisingly, more wordy than what I hear in that quiet inner voice. Those words are also more like observations than directions. But then again, the guidance that comes from external happenings is also different. Then there are no words, only events, which I must then interpret. So I wonder... Could this quiet, almost unconscious, inner voice also come from God? Is this the "God in us" spoken of by the mystics?
It's possible. One test for whether something comes from God is whether it bears good fruit, and this quiet inner voice certainly bears very good fruit.
So, is there anything I can do to become more attuned to it?
Many people of faith talk or write about practicing the presence of God. I've done this as well -- most recently in my last posting regarding journaling -- but from personal experience, I know that I cannot make this guidance appear at will. No amount of active searching on my part will yield what I'm looking for when it comes to God's guidance. In fact, doing that may lead me down the wrong path. God's guidance comes unexpectedly, in God's own way and God's own time, according to God's own will. It is pure gift. All I can do is be open to whatever comes.
However, learning to shush that loud, judging, comparing, worrying voice is a step in the right direction, I think. For, in the peace and quiet that remains, it is much easier to hear my Muse.
May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you always,
* from "Merton's Place of Nowhere," by James Finley, pg. 109