Joan Halifax

Joan Halifax

Joan Halifax on solitude

If immaculate silence is a placenta that nourishes us, then solitude is a secret womb that wraps around us and holds us in our place. A psychic landscape of emptiness, it is a place where we are gestated, and from which we are born into the greater womb of creation. Alone in the wilderness, the fire of the sun can burn us; the rains can freeze us; the winds can blow our sense away; Earth can fill us with fear. We are initiated and purified by the elements, empty-handed and undefended. Fasting, our bellies hungry, we feel closer to the bone of life and under the skin of death. The poisons of our body and mind rise up from the depths. They are the stale bitter taste on the root of our tongue. This stuff of the past not worthily lived is also medicine.

Without food, we seek nourishment in the present and in silence; the sandy wash, the varnished stone, the dark hard lava, the small gray cloud, all are food for us. We also begin to derive nourishment from our ancestral past. In a Ute song, it is said, “In our bones is the rock itself; in our blood is the river; our skin contains the shadow of every living thing we ever came across. This is what we brought with us long ago.” We are the sum of our ancestors. Our roots stretch back to blue-green algae; they stretch to the stars. They ultimately reach the void. Between the great original emptiness, the ancestral void, and the body that reads these words, there stand numberless generations of inorganic and organic forms. As geological history is written on a canyon wall, this history is inscribed in our psyches. Silence and solitude enjoin us to remember our whole and great body.

To know this, the mountain and desert, forest and frozen lands are where shamans have sought vision and meditators and monks have sought to realize their genuine mind ground. The Eskimo shaman Igjugarjuk said, “When I was to be an anatkoq, I chose suffering through the two things that are most dangerous to us humans, suffering through hunger and suffering through cold. … True wisdom is only to be found far away from people, out in the great solitude, and it is not found in play but only through suffering. Solitude and suffering open the human mind, and therefore a shaman seeks his wisdom there.”

Don José [Ríos (Matsuwa)] told me years ago, “I have pursued my apprenticeship for sixty-four years. During these years, many, many times have I gone to the mountains alone. Yes, I have endured great suffering during my life. Yet to learn to see, to learn to hear, you must do this—go into the wilderness alone. For it is not I who can teach the ways of the gods. Such things are learned only in solitude.”

In the Essene Gospel of John, Jesus said:

Fast and pray fervently, seeking the power of the living God for your healing. While you fast, eschew the Sons of Men and seek our Earthly Mother’s angels, for he that seeks shall find. Seek the fresh air of the forest and of the fields, and there in the midst of them shall you find the angels of the air. Put off your shoes and your clothing and suffer the angel of air to embrace all your body. Then breathe long and deeply, that the angel of air…shall cast out of your body all uncleanesses which defiled it without and within.

Joan Halifax in The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom, (New York: Grove Press, 2004), p. 27. First published as The Fruitful Darkness: Reconnecting with the body of the earth, (San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).

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"If immaculate silence is a placenta"