Small, Still Voice

“Centering down” refers to the process of quieting the body and mind in order to attend to the small, still voice that resides within us. That voice is our conscience, our moral compass, that of God within us, Spirit expressed through us. Whatever identity we assign it, that voice is the conduit through which the divine is expressed in our common lives. I think of it as the voice of my true self. In Quaker meeting, centering down requires getting comfortable enough sitting quietly that the internal chatter of our daily lives is replaced by “expectant waiting” for expression of the Spirit. Truth be told, I find it really hard to center down through silence and stillness.

I can, however, find my small, still voice when I am in motion. I figured this out in high school while running long miles to “clear my head” on the weekends. After about 30 minutes of trotting down the road, I would pass a threshhold that I always thought of as the cotton candy line. With my mind enmeshed in soft, fluffy sweetness, my self-conscious deliberations of daily life dissolved and left open space for clearer and more creative exploration of problems and their solutions. In this open space, while still running, I could finish my homework, solve social problems and reflect on potential from a place that had clearly originated beyond my conscious thought. I always assumed this was a result of some hormonal or chemical response that opened neural pathways that would remain closed in the absence of focused exertion. I now realize that it was just my way of centering down. Since high school, I have channeled that compulsion for motion into running, walking, hiking, trailwork and gardening. I have conceived many written pages, designed and led youth programs and built my strongest and deepest relationships while moving. The motion has provided both the catalyst and the foundation for my life’s best work.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s daily constitutional is described as meditation in motion, a pathway for accessing the wisdom of the spirit that comes through the wisdom of the body. I think of this as a wisdom of the heart, and it sustains and informs me well beyond the exercise itself. If I jump right into the obligations of a day without taking time for my physically engaged version of centering down, I spend the day reacting to situations and information around me. I am anxious rather than accepting when I notice we will be late for an appointment. I feel anger and sadness when I hear accounts of hate and bigotry rather than feeling the potential for compassion that is the response more likely to actually transform the negative thoughts and energy. These days it feels ever more important to make sure that I am able to speak and act from the place of peace and compassion that can only come from within. My teenage boys are growing ever more engaged in the world outside of the bubble of our family and friends. They consume media reports of world events with the same zeal that they consume large quantities of food. They work to reconcile news headlines with their beliefs about the world and the people of the world. The violent and mean-spirited words and actions at play on the world stage are inconsistent with the acceptance, tolerance and awareness that they have practiced in their short lives. As I try to buffer their absorption of this ugliness in the world, my thoughts get tangled in disbelief and resentment. I shouldn’t have to try to explain intolerance, hatred, racism and bigotry. Further, these irrational behaviors and beliefs don’t hold up well to attempts at rational explanation. My mind can not make any meaning from this madness. I must rely on sharing the wisdom of my heart instead.

I have always ascribed more value to the wisdom of the heart than the efforts of the mind anyway. Lately, I start most days with a walk or a yoga practice in order to open the pathways to the thoughts and feelings that come from deep within. Beginning the day in motion, I have a chance to sink deeply into my own body, listening for the small still voice within me and setting my intentions for the day. From this place, I have the best chance of holding onto my authentic motivations as the external demands and inputs of contemporary life pull me into reflexive responses. Tapped into my own internal energy rather than swept into the frenetic energy of the world around me, I am more likely to be the person that I wish to be for my children and for the wider world. My still, small voice advocates clearly for love, compassion and acceptance. It doesn’t leave room for anything else. Still, I need to refresh my connection to it throughout the day — and that is done best outside. A few minutes walking along the trail, working in the garden, chopping wood, or shoveling snow clarifies my voice. Reconnecting, even briefly, with the rhythms of my body and the rhythms of the natural world refreshes my capacity to hear and abide by the rhythms and wisdom of my heart. The words and actions that come from that heart wisdom are amplified when I have spent even a few minutes in motion under a wide and welcoming sky or a protective canopy of trees.

The more wild the outdoor space and the more time I can spend there, the more profound the positive impact. It is joyful, inspiring and expanding to live and travel with the barest human essentials amidst the bounty and beauty of the earth. A trip deep into a natural place offers a depth of rejuvenation that clarifies and sustains our capacity to hear and act upon our heart’s wisdom. As John Muir invites, “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” At Renewal in the Wilderness, Genevieve recently described the strength that she draws from travelling in wild landscapes:: “When I’m in the real Wilderness (with trees and rivers or the vast landscapes of deserts), my heart quiets and my mind stops. I have space to listen. The proverbial Wilderness of the world doesn’t disappear, but somehow becomes more manageable.”

What makes the wilderness of the world more manageable for you? Where do you find space to listen? How do you best hear your small, still voice, that voice that speaks clearly and loudly on behalf of your heart’s wisdom?

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