The place we end up going on vacation is a tiny island called Gili Meno, located off the coast of Lombok, which is the next stop east of Bali in the great, sprawling Indonesian archipelago. I'd been to Gili Meno before, and I wanted to show it to Felipe, who had never been there.
The island of Gili Meno is one of the most important places in the world to me. I came here by myself two years ago when I was in Bali for the first time. I was on that magazine assignment, writing about Yoga vacations, and I'd just finished two weeks of mightily restorative Yoga classes. But I had decided to extend my stay in Indonesia after the assignment was up, since I was already all the way over here in Asia. What I wanted to do, actually, was to find someplace very remote and give myself a ten-day retreat of absolute solitude and absolute silence.
When I look back at the four years that elapsed between my marriage starting to fall apart and the day I was finally divorced and free, I see a detailed chronicle of total pain. And the moment when I came to this tiny island all by myself was the very worst of that entire dark journey. The bottom of the pain and the middle of it. My unhappy mind was a battlefield of conflicted demons. As I made my decision to spend ten days alone and in silence in the middle of exactly nowhere, I told all my warring and confused parts the same thing: "We're all here together now, guys, all alone. And we're going to have to work out some kind of deal for how to get along, or else everybody is going to die together, sooner or later."
Which may sound firm and confident, but I must admit this, as well--that sailing over to that quiet island all alone, I was never more terrified in my life. I hadn't even brought any books to read, nothing to distract me. Just me and my mind, about to face each other on an empty field. I remember that my legs were visibly shaking with fear. Then I quoted to myself one of my favorite lines ever from my Guru: "Fear--who cares?" and I disembarked alone.
I rented myself a little cabin on the beach for a few dollars a day and I shut my mouth and vowed not to open it again until something inside me had changed. Gili Meno Island was my ultimate truth and reconciliation hearing. I had chosen the right place to do this-- that much was clear. The island itself is tiny, pristine, sandy, blue water, palm trees. It's a perfect circle with a single path that goes around it, and you can walk the whole circumference in about an hour. It's located almost exactly on the equator, and so there's a changelessness about its daily cycles. The sun comes up on one side of the island at about 6:30 in the morning and goes down on the other side at around 6:30 PM, every day of the year. The place is inhabited by a small handful of Muslim fishermen and their families. There is no spot on this island from which you cannot hear the ocean. There are no motorized vehicles here. Electricity comes from a generator, and for only a few hours in the evenings. It's the quietest place I've ever been.
Every morning I walked the circumference of the island at sunrise, and walked it again at sunset. The rest of the time, I just sat and watched. Watched my thoughts, watched my emotions, watched the fishermen. The Yogic sages say that all the pain of a human life is caused by words, as is all the joy. We create words to define our experience and those words bring attendant emotions that jerk us around like dogs on a leash. We get seduced by our own mantras (I'm a failure . . . I'm lonely . . . I'm a failure . . . I'm lonely . . .) and we become monuments to them. To stop talking for a while, then, is to attempt to strip away the power of words, to stop choking ourselves with words, to liberate ourselves from our suffocating mantras.
It took me a while to drop into true silence. Even after I'd stopped talking, I found that I was still humming with language. My organs and muscles of speech--brain, throat, chest, back of the neck--vibrated with the residual effects of talking long after I'd stopped making sounds. My head shimmied in a reverb of words, the way an indoor swimming pool seems to echo interminably with sounds and shouts, even after the kindergartners have left for the day. It took a surprisingly long time for all this pulsation of speech to fall away, for the whirling noises to settle. Maybe it took about three days.
Then everything started coming up. In that state of silence, there was room now for everything hateful, everything fearful, to run across my empty mind. I felt like a junkie in detox, convulsing with the poison of what emerged. I cried a lot. I prayed a lot. It was difficult and it was terrifying, but this much I knew--I never didn't want to be there, and I never wished that anyone were there with me. I knew that I needed to do this and that I needed to do it alone.
The only other tourists on the island were a handful of couples having romantic vacations. (Gili Meno is far too pretty and far too remote a place for anyone but a crazy person to come visit solo.) I watched these couples and felt some envy for their romances, but knew, "This is not your time for companionship, Liz. You have a different task here." I kept away from everyone. People on the island left me alone. I think I threw off a spooky vibe. I had not been well all year. You can't lose that much sleep and that much weight and cry so hard for so long without starting to look like a psychotic. So nobody talked to me.
Actually, that's not true. One person talked to me, every day. It was this little kid, one of a gang of kids who run up and down the beaches trying to sell fresh fruit to the tourists. This boy was maybe nine years old, and seemed to be the ringleader. He was tough, scrappy and I would have called him street-smart if his island actually had any streets.
He was beach-smart, I suppose. Somehow he'd learned great English, probably from harassing sunbathing Westerners. And he was on to me, this kid. Nobody else asked me who I was, nobody else bothered me, but this relentless child would come and sit next to me on the beach at some point every day and demand, "Why don't you ever talk? Why are you strange like this? Don't pretend you can't hear me--I know you can hear me. Why are you always alone? Why don't you ever go swimming? Where is your boyfriend? Why don't you have a husband? What's wrong with you?"
I was like, Back off, kid! What are you--a transcript of my most evil thoughts?
Every day I would try to smile at him kindly and send him away with a polite gesture, but he wouldn't quit until he got a rise out me. And inevitably, he always got a rise out of me. I remember bursting out at him once, "I'm not talking because I'm on a friggin' spiritual journey, you nasty little punk--now go AWAY!"
He ran away laughing. Every day, after he'd gotten me to respond, he would always run away laughing. I'd usually end up laughing, too, once he was out of sight. I dreaded this pesky kid and looked forward to him in equal measure. He was my only comedic break during a really tough ride. Saint Anthony once wrote about having gone into the desert on silent retreat and being assaulted by all manner of visions--devils and angels, both. He said, in his solitude, he sometimes encountered devils who looked like angels, and other times he found angels who looked like devils. When asked how he could tell the difference, the saint said that you can only tell which is which by the way you feel after the creature has left your company. If you are appalled, he said, then it was a devil who had visited you. If you feel lightened, it was an angel.
I think I know what that little punk was, who always got a laugh out of me.
On my ninth day of silence, I went into meditation one evening on the beach as the sun was going down and I didn't stand up again until after midnight. I remember thinking, "This is it, Liz." I said to my mind, "This is your chance. Show me everything that is causing you sorrow. Let me see all of it. Don't hold anything back." One by one, the thoughts and memories of sadness raised their hands, stood up to identify themselves. I
looked at each thought, at each unit of sorrow, and I acknowledged its existence and felt (without trying to protect myself from it) its horrible pain. And then I would tell that sorrow, "It's OK. I love you. I accept you. Come into my heart now. It's over." I would actually feel the sorrow (as if it were a living thing) enter my heart (as if it were an actual room). Then I would say, "Next?" and the next bit of grief would surface. I would regard it, experience it, bless it, and invite it into my heart, too. I did this with every sorrowful thought I'd ever had--reaching back into years of memory--until nothing was left.
Then I said to my mind, "Show me your anger now." One by one, my life's every incident of anger rose and made itself known. Every injustice, every betrayal, every loss, every rage. I saw them all, one by one, and I acknowledged their existence. I felt each piece of anger completely, as if it were happening for the first time, and then I would say, "Come into my heart now. You can rest there. It's safe now. It's over. I love you." This went on for hours, and I swung between these mighty poles of opposite feelings--experiencing the anger thoroughly for one bone-rattling moment, and then experiencing a total coolness, as the anger entered my heart as if through a door, laid itself down, curled up against its brothers and gave up fighting.
Then came the most difficult part. "Show me your shame," I asked my mind. Dear God, the horrors that I saw then. A pitiful parade of all my failings, my lies, my selfishness, jealousy, arrogance. I didn't blink from any of it, though. "Show me your worst," I said. When I tried to invite these units of shame into my heart, they each hesitated at the door, saying, "No--you don't want me in there . . . don't you know what I did?" and I would say, "I do want you. Even you. I do. Even you are welcome here. It's OK. You are forgiven. You are part of me. You can rest now. It's over."
When all this was finished, I was empty. Nothing was fighting in my mind anymore. I looked into my heart, at my own goodness, and I saw its capacity. I saw that my heart was not even nearly full, not even after having taken in and tended to all those calamitous urchins of sorrow and anger and shame; my heart could easily have received and forgiven even more. Its love was infinite.
I knew then that this is how God loves us all and receives us all, and that there is no such thing in this universe as hell, except maybe in our own terrified minds. Because if even one broken and limited human being could experience even one such episode of absolute forgiveness and acceptance of her own self, then imagine--just imagine!--what God, in all His eternal compassion, can forgive and accept.
I also knew somehow that this respite of peace would be temporary. I knew that I was not yet finished for good, that my anger, my sadness and my shame would all creep back eventually, escaping my heart, and occupying my head once more. I knew that I would have to keep dealing with these thoughts again and again until I slowly and determinedly changed my whole life. And that this would be difficult and exhausting to do. But my heart said to my mind in the dark silence of that beach: "I love you, I will never leave you, I will always take care of you." That promise floated up out of my heart and I caught it in my mouth and held it there, tasting it as I left the beach and walked back to the little shack where I was staying. I found an empty notebook, opened it up to the first page--and only then did I open my mouth and speak those words into the air, letting them free. I let those words break my silence and then I allowed my pencil to document their colossal statement onto the page: "I love you, I will never leave you, I will always take care of you."
Those were the first words I ever wrote in that private notebook of mine, which I would carry with me from that moment forth, turning back to it many times over the next two years, always asking for help--and always finding it, even when I was most deadly sad or afraid. And that notebook, steeped through with that promise of love, was quite simply the only reason I survived the next years of my life.