The Signs of Silence

Indie Books Competition

February 2024

I was pottering in the garden when Digdeep, the driver of the ashram taxi service, would be arriving on time at the nearby airport to pick up a few people to go on retreat for some swirling dervishing and a week’s “community living”. He then drove two kilometres to where Samper and I lived in a quietish rural place near Kerikeri, far north of New Zealand. Samper was going with Digdeep to their beloved retreat away from the stresses of daily living, to continue on their spiritual paths and also do some dizzying dancing to get the brain cells twitching. I think they enjoyed falling over.

 Let me here explain Samper’s name and philosophise on odd names in general. It was adopted from the French, that’s “sympa” meaning nice – she would say amazing how spelling makes a difference. Other kindred spirits also adopted names, usually of Sanskrit origin, to bestow on themselves a richer aura, getting rid of plain old Bill, Jim, Jane, Margaret, Sue or Kevin rhyming with heaven! They also hoped they would become more than their birth names, and start to feel part of a greater universe. I often wondered what had happened to the beautiful female names made famous in great songs like Lucille, Michelle, Barbara Ann, Cecilia, Sweet Caroline, Proud Mary, Angie, Peggy Sue, Lola and Lucy … the one in the sky with diamonds, of course. 

I myself am simple old George, George by name, George by nature … making a personal statement about names. Samper used to be known as Bessy – she wanted a new sassier name. No problem for me, sometimes calling her Bee as in Bumble.

Fun for me though thinking what I’d call myself if I felt the unlikely need to change my 65-year-old George, but I couldn’t get past silly handles like Adolf, Aussie, Bimbo, Teehee and Tippler. There again it came to mind that there were times when I accepted name changing, such as when parents gave their favourite name to their kid, perhaps hoping that the urchin would live up to it, not thinking of the bother their witless moniker might be later. There are children called Elvis, especially after 1978, but there’s only one Elvis, so I wonder why, cringing at the thought of Elvis Smith or Elvis Brown. I’ve heard of Suzuki, Ford, Drac, Coca, Fire, Fairlane, Fairmont – these last two the names of cars – and Ohm, a good name for future spiritual trekkers but not great for kids lumbered with that label in a worldly life as a bricklayer or car mechanic, although Rolls or Aston would suit well there. So I’m in favour of changing a name if the parents’ brains were curdled at the time of dishing out Mafia or Napoleon. I met a Sunshine once. Fair dinkum! Fortunately, she looked great and had a sunny personality. How awful if she’d turned out dull! While I’m banging on here, there are other names I’ve heard of, in the name of spirituality, similar to Shudup, such as Barem Hisolle (You got it!), Avideo, Avinapoo (Oh dear!), Anur Soul (Oops!) and Come Softly (Eh?). 

Samper sometimes calls me “Stodge” … yeh, rhyming with George – I feel it’s a bit unfair in light of my caring for our house and garden. I also gently upbraid my dear wife when she explains her childlessness on the fear she had of sullying its fledgling spirit with her imperfections. I also consider the selfishness of spiritual seeking as an obstacle to giving life to another – only in a short story would I dare say that not wanting to pass on one’s weaknesses is a load of codswallop. If I’d had the libido or whatever, if Samper had had the desire, and we’d been blessed with progeny, possibly a boy, I would have liked Tom – I see Tom Thomson, something robust about the repetition there. The diminutive Tommy works well for me, too … a bit of a Who fan! I knew someone with that name in school days. It fairly trilled off the tongue.

Anyway, as far as the changing of names went, especially if they had an Indian flavour, I still regard most personal name alterations as trivial affectations, exercises in piddling pretentiousness – similar to what I encountered in a few minutes after Digdeep’s arrival.

Sorry about that lengthy digression! Glad you’re still with me – you will be rewarded! I had a chat to Digdeep who got out to help Samper load her luggage. He also needed to make use of the facilities after the long three-hour drive from the ashram to the airport. He had picked up the spiritual devotees, now sitting in the back of his van, saying hello through open windows, preferring not to get out, wedged in among luggage and keen to be on the road to the shelter of the spiritual community. In my usual bluff fashion, I said to them, “Gidday, how are ya?” 

Samper was checking all her stuff and went back into the house to farewell our two cats. She went up to Digdeep, now relieved, to chat for a few minutes, then she put her bags, bongo drum, boa feather scarf and other spiritual accoutrements in the back of the van before going round to the passenger’s seat to jump in. Opening the door she let out a shrill yelp. I thought she’d seen a mouse or a rat, or worse, perhaps tripped and fallen. I scurried round the back of the van to find her standing at the open door, her mouth wide open looking at the passenger. Hunched up and head down, another group member, Shudup was there. We had known him for years, had good discussions with him, now surprised that he had remained hidden in the vehicle instead of saying “gidday”. We had no idea he was there, the high backs of the van seats obscuring him. Our surprise turning to puzzlement that he should choose not to reveal himself. Samper was still taken aback but managed to blurt out, “Why didn’t you say you were there, give us a greeting? I got such a fright!” 

I turned to Digdeep, who rolled his eyes as he explained in hushed tones that Shudup was starting retreat stuff early by going into silence. How had he told him about that pose upon meeting at the airport? Perhaps emailed in advance? Digdeep laughed, saying no, nothing like that. So I pressed him by asking if he mimed the likes of, “Hello, how are you? Many thanks for picking me up. I’ve just got one bag to get. Oh, by the way, I’m not speaking, I want to have a week’s silence and I’m getting into the groove from the start.” 

Digdeep said that Shudup had shown him a small sign with “Gone into Silence” on it. A sparing use of words but I felt “Hello and thank you for picking me up” would have recognised Digdeep’s kindness.

Beg your pardon, but going back to names, I knew the origin of Shudup’s odd name. He was formerly Gavin, Gavin Goodfellow, and the story goes that he had grown tired of being told, “Give in, Gavin!” or being called “Gav”, not really suitable for a spiritual aspirant. He toyed with the word “chi” meaning energy, good if he called himself Cheeup. However, it reminded him of his odd past life, his horse-racing days, hearing “Gee up!”. He had always liked the idea of not speaking much, and soon came up with Shudup as a way of reminding himself. I thought it was all daft of course, several screws loose bouncing around. I also mused on why Digdeep hadn’t run with another of his choices, Geejaw – perhaps not to be trifled with. Spiritual names come in weird shapes. 

I thought I’d check on Shudup’s resolve and went to say hello to him. He was all rounded and curled up in himself, trying not to be there. He was a fair imitation of a baby in the womb, perhaps attempting to return to that perfection. I asked if he was all right, and was rewarded with a barely perceptible nod because his head was so far forward already. I’m an ordinary bloke and would not to be fobbed off by someone so blatantly pretending to be all spiritual in the wrong setting, indulging in such anti-social behaviour. Shudup’s arrival at the airport showing a hand-written sign to someone kind enough to pick him up, was beyond the pale of decency among friends. Such a petulant display of relying on others’ understanding would not be rewarded in heaven, but may receive some chiding here on earth, such as being treated like a child with, “There, there, you’ll be all right when you grow up.”

It’s all well and good being spiritual but trying to look spiritual is another beast – no mistake, going into silence out in the world is all about appearance. It’s similar to some actors thinking that it’s all right to wear make-up off stage or worse to go about in their stage costumes, looking total dicks, unable to consider what others might think. It’s the desire to impress but failing miserably. Shudup was committing the anti-social act of putting his spiritual desires before the world about him, as if he couldn’t wait another hour for the mantle of the ashram to enshroud his shoulders and being. 

I had to admit he was brave though, inviting scorn and scoffing. I wondered for a moment exactly what spiritual path Shudup was on with his hiding in silence in the front seat of a van. I knew of the way of the contemplative person who preferred to sit quietly soaking up the presence of a great one or becoming one with nature. I doubted if Shudup was on that path because I recalled he was a social chatty person, enjoying a joke and a laugh. He was going to join a group in which relationships and how people communicated were paramount and testing, generally people facing some emotional challenges, hoping that identifying the state of their ego would help. I wondered about the efficacy of practising silence in a group examining how one communicates in order to assess one’s ego – how could Shudup’s ego be analysed if he wasn’t speaking or relating? Maybe the retreat supplied whiteboards, paper and other writing instruments. Maybe the group guru could read Shudup’s mind! Some of the followers believed he could!

I decided that Shudup was a bit confused and would benefit from a question or two. Then the thought flashed across my mind that he was in grief, perhaps his wife had left him (she wasn’t with him this time); possibly one of his many pets had died (he had two dogs, three cats, several guinea pigs and a budgie), or maybe there were other things on his mind. Surely I should consider this kind of thing before doing my usual ribbing. So I paused for a few seconds then went round to the passenger’s door, opened it and quietly asked him if I could pose a couple of questions. Silence. I wanted to ask him about his leg, knowing that a year or so before he had fallen off a table while trying to reach a state of Nirvana, sitting in a special way with thumbs and index fingers touching. He had nodded off and tumbled floorwards. The result was a nasty haematoma of the thigh, putting him out of action for months, certainly stopping any further cross-legged activity.

The last time I saw Shudup was at a party at his place, with its huge garden beautifully tended by the man himself, a great gardener. That had been several years before, when he was the life and soul, greeting everyone, pouring drinks and playing party games. He had not been to our new house, and I felt it would have been good if he had alighted from Digdeep’s van to show some interest … albeit silently, of course. I continued by asking if he could answer a question in writing, perhaps he had a slate? That was met with a vigorous shaking of the head. I was pleased to have elicited a reaction. I offered to get him some writing materials whereupon Shudup reached for the door, causing me to step back to allow him to close it. I thought, “Oh well, different horses for different courses … spiritual ones!”

Shudup’s forced silence took me back to when my wife was playing a kind of card game for her spiritual support. This involved a special arty pack of cards with fancy designs depicting special challenges. They were called “stations” from which to travel on a spiritual train for a time, to live by the creator’s dictates under titles such as “Slippery Rock”, “High Street”, “Light Ray”, “Great Eternal”, “Abundance”, “Miser” and “Marble Temple” – one of them was “Silence”, involving all my strength, not engaging with Samper in conversation or asking her anything for fear of causing her to break her self-imposed silence.

She would often write her essential sharings in a notepad, an odd way to communicate when both parties are able to speak. I often wondered how she squared things in her conscience because, as an English language teacher, many of her classes necessitated a fair amount of speaking, a reasonable expectation of a native English speaker in Japan. 

Not surprisingly in this Shudup situation, I overheard Samper and Digdeep, her telling him about her stints in silence.

“I know George has a hard time with silence. He’s probably written about it somewhere how I used to throw dice to land on things to do in one’s daily life to advance one’s spiritual being. One of them was “Silence”, very taxing for George.

There was also “Aloneness”, really testing his candidacy for sainthood because he had to limit being in our tiny apartment for as much time during the day as possible.”

Digdeep’s jaw was dropping open, and he perspicaciously asked, “How on earth can one manage to feel alone in a city like Tokyo?”

Samper had to agree saying, “Extremely difficult, knowing there were 12 million people just outside our windows! Sometimes I really don’t know why I bothered.”

I knew very well why she did it, and all the other stuff. She simply couldn’t help it, something deep down needing attention. Personally, it was difficult when Samper’s spiritual station dictated a whole week – my heart would sink at the thought of the long-lasting demands. It was a long time ago but I still cringe. In hindsight, I was glad that I was able to accept the wishes of my partner with reasonable equanimity. I could see it as contributing to my own spiritual growth, not that I was much into that, but perhaps it was gently conferred on me unbeknownst. I liked the feeling of spiritual ease, not really having to do anything but still attaining some grace. Of course, I must confess there were times I felt some silence was a blessing, even the station of “Aloneness” (I didn’t have to force myself not to talk or be alone!) However, I was always thinking that perhaps this time will be the last, no need for more striving, no more wishin’ and hopin’, no more self-questioning, no more worrying about her existence … hoping the addiction was assuaged, suddenly less self-absorption and soul searching. I always hoped that there would be some calmness of mind and spirit, a state of grace or a level of samadhi attained, feeling some magic fulfillment, finding a lightness of just living, that there would be a final roll of the dice leading to more ordinary being. I wished for stations such as sharing, cooking, walking, joking, having a glass of wine, reading, writing, equanimity, even going for a cleansing swim. I wished fervently for enjoyment of everything. No more searching … no more searchin’ …

… find a place to hide

Searchin’, searchin’, she’ll be by my side

If we gotta keep on the run we’ll follow the sun.

I once had to make a trip to England, taking a week off work in Tokyo – I feared Samper was over-involved in a spiritual group with potent energies. Many years before, I had recorded in my diary that I disliked the arrogance of being spiritual, some “leader” and followers knowing it all, with loss of caring for everyday things. As a responsible spouse, I feel now I was no spiritual slug – I had long given up on leaving a slimey other-worldly track behind me. I had been around the devotional block several times and back again; I had done my share of soul searching … and searching for my soul! When I couldn’t find it, I simply made do with several of the above, such as walking, reading, writing, swimming and glasses of wine.

I hoped that Samper could see how much I had cared for her and helped in her times of dire need. 

At this moment I felt to engage with Shudup and his premature public spirituality. I thought it a good chance to examine my own thoughts and feelings about the annoying behaviour of someone else. Why was Shudup not able to accept life as it comes in all its beauty and hideousness? Even with the eccentric behaviour of someone believing he was more special than anything else? Well, it’s difficult, like the station of “Aloneness” in Tokyo. For me it’s to do with ostentatious proclaiming of someone’s private spiritual quest, foisting it on others as if to say, “You can help me” or “I am special and different”. I was reminded of people smartly dressed who visit to talk of their Lord, their Saviour or whoever; of meditators who have to sit quietly at all costs; of weirdly garbed cult members; of all the other fancy religious movements and New Agey folks.

There are things to share, times to do it, seeking help perhaps, no argument with that. But when someone starts not speaking in public, then it’s time to say unacceptable, hopefully jokily. I once told someone I’d rather go about with a ring through my nose and wearing a kilt, than change my name or proclaim my personal inner interests. Considering all that, I was more than happy to offer Shudup writing materials to facilitate some normal conversation.

Digdeep had been listening to me trying to “chat” with Shudup. I knew he was  wishing me luck after his airport encounter with him. Digdeep said to Samper, “He’ll be lucky getting anything normal out of him. I tried but gave up. It’s a bit of a pain when someone isn’t a communicative passenger, me coming all this way.” Samper nodded in understanding agreement.

I was a wise old sod, having experienced a few ups and downs in life, the latest downer being the near-death of the love of my life. In 2015, Samper suffered a brain haemorrhage from a congenital defect in a vessel at the back of her brain, taking nearly 60 years to strike. Her magnificent recovery occasioned me to say that it could happen to anyone anytime. However, I harboured a feeling that there may have been causes related to life and living: we had both travelled a lot, worked hard in other countries, experienced much change and stress associated with foreign cultures and languages; then there was Samper’s deep and constant spiritual questing, with me thinking that a bit less might be more spiritual and life-supporting. Naturally, Samper attributed her survival to her spirituality and the various gurus she had come into contact with. 

The hospital specialists told us otherwise, a great state of health helped with her recovery, adding of course that she’d be dead but for the speedy operations to drain the blood and staunch the flow. I myself have had my own health problems over the years, including an appendectomy, vertigo, broken bones, migraines, shingles, “glittery” eye, indigestion and bloody urine. I attributed my recoveries to modern medicine and the daily enjoyment of fine wine. I joked with my doctor that the blood episode had turned my urine the colour of a Pinot Noir rosé. He has a sense of humour and said that would be a personal wine. I quipped, “Probably not to everyone’s taste!”  

They say that we can easily recognise a free soul – perhaps partly we are all free – but I was shackled to antipathy towards another for not answering friendly questions. Someone said, probably a Vishnoo, a Swami or a Yogi, that if we could see another’s soul rather than their body, we would see beauty. Well, that’s fine but seeing spirit isn’t everyone’s bag, certainly not when its body is hunched and silent, trying not to be seen. If the eyes are the window of the soul, Shudup’s averted eyes didn’t allow seeing his. Sherlock Holmes famously said in one of Conan Doyle’s great stories that he loved Watson as a companion on account of his silence. People we can be quiet with are usually our best friends. However, that state takes time, work, practice and trust. It’s different telling others that you’re not going to speak to them. I often smiled quietly to myself thinking about some folks trying to be at peace within, but doing this at the expense of relationships, and giving up on ordinary things, reducing the time spent on togetherness in favour of oneself – me not us!

The problem in friendship or even acquaintanceship, the latter better describing Shudup and me, is boundaries can easily be crossed, thinking that others will accept a lack of good judgement, but depending on the depth of it, your actions will either be accepted with a wry smile or you’ll be told to jigger off. Flying in the face of custom you are open to some jokey repudiation. Hence my asking Shudup a question and suggesting a supply of writing materials. 

Off to the side, Digdeep and Samper were having a quiet chat, maybe not wanting to risk Shudup’s silence which may be sharpening his listening powers. I could overhear something like this:

“Well, Samper, some people could view keeping quiet as a blessing, silence is golden and all that.”

“It’s odd, you know, I’ve always found Shudup’s conversation worthwhile, never thought he’d feel to shut up.” 

“Yeh well, maybe his chatter was too much for himself, never mind others. I really like quieter people actually, no effort needed.”

Samper added, “Yes, but I’ve always appreciated the warmth of someone trying to be friendly.”  

I liked the words of one of my favourites – famous countryman, Robert Louis Stevenson on silence, saying that cruel lies are told in silence … unless you’re in a spiritual group, of course, or getting into the silent groove beforehand. A great ancient Greek said we should try to speak better, not cover up with silence. I knew some people who achieved that with a light touch, something kindly or funny, often simply asking a question, then listening carefully.

Perhaps for Shudup it was better to be quiet. There can be a holier-than-thou thing with people on the spiritual track, something they may not feel at all but the layman sees it like that, struggling along with his paucity of spirit, getting by with a joke or two, and gratitude for having a job and a soft place to lay his head at night. It’s not unlike the wealthy person talking about his flash house and other possessions, in the presence of the not-so-well-off. So maybe better for Shudup to be quiet to save ears and blushes … and his soul. Still, I imagined saying to him something like, “Howz the silent way, mate? Cat get your tongue last time? Silence takes a lot of practice … in the right circumstances.”

Wise Samper often told me thinking ill of others would rebound on me. I wondered how she could think that, both a criticism of free thinking and a dire warning for the future – I thought that spiritual people aspired to living in the present and having kind thoughts, but what did I know? My mother used to say live life to the full, it’s the only one you’ve got, a unique life, don’t waste it. I used to wonder why she had to say that to me. I knew she wanted the best for me, and that I could do more. She was right, of course. Our time here is finite, which makes everything precious, helps us to appreciate everything. If life went on for ever, there would be less need to try – it doesn’t last, we have to make the most of it. Being with others is a guidance through life. Maybe that’s why so many people have some family around them and some people have many children, a need for huge humanity.

I smiled when I recalled a previous chat between Samper and Digdeep, when she tried to be humorous.

“May I ask where you got your name from?”

“Well, it was orginally Sanskrit, simply Jigdeep, an easy move to my name now. I tried Jingo and Geejaw but my wife said she wouldn’t be able to say them.”

Samper said, “If ever you find what you’re looking for, maybe had enough of ashram, got over the soul fossicking … would you consider changing your name slightly again?

“You got something that would suit?”

“Yes, it would have to be Dugdeep.”

“Ah ha! As in short for Douglas?”

“No! No! Nothing could be further from my mind!”

Most people chasing spirit are older, having earned time off to pursue personal growth. I wondered though about the hard work to get there, that if things were organised differently, people could do more spiritual stuff earlier, having time to live the examined life. Endless economic growing by countries would have to be modified. Shudup was older, having worked hard, become successful with investments in fossil fuels, so he was able to do time on an ashram, going into silence at the sound of a gong, trekking to a deified destination, sitting at the feet of someone in robes ribbing him about his life.  

Problems arise when you take more than you give, when you do something outer hoping for inner, adopting an over-the-top practice which annoys others, and becomes similar to some people’s addictions such as collecting stuff, marathon running, drinking, eating, gambling, politics or all the other obsessions that grip and enrich people. Everyone is on a path, some having to travel rougher, others making a song and dance of it, a few folks just reaching quietly for peace. However, one person’s eccentricity can give another growth, insofaras they have to find the compassion to deal with another’s demands. I often thought it was funny how second-hand spiritual advancing could happen like that, the seeker trying so hard, the other not giving a toss but finding fulfillment by default, leaving the aspirant reaching for the stars.

I’ve always subscribed to letting it be, as The Beatles so wisely sang – inner peace is from here to here, from there to there. The biggest pain in the bum for me is other people telling me how to live my life, giving me advice, suggesting I should live more like them. Maybe I was doing that with Shudup! There again, ignoring my requests perhaps indicated that he had a pain in the posterior, too.

I saw Shudup about four months later on another ashram sojourn. He was totally different, leaping out of Digdeep’s van, shaking my hand vigorously, saying,  “Gidday, mate, how are ya? You’re looking a box of fluffies! Jeez the garden’s coming up great, you’ve been working hard, eh? Ya must be glad ya moved here. Great hedge there! I know it as Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow … also Kiss Me Quick … steady on, back off! Oops, I need to point percy at the porcelain, I’m bursting …the old bladder ain’t what it used to be. Where’s yer loo? Then we can have a yarn.” 

I was unresponsive and slowly produced a sign from behind my back, holding it up to Shudup. He looked quizzical then frowned as he read, “Gone into silence”. Feigning a trance-like state, I turned and walked off. If Shudup had recovered himself enough to go with me, he would have heard me chanting the old song by The Tremeloes, “Silence is golden, golden …”, just for myself quietly, a twinkle in the old eyes, my wrinkles crinkling with a smile.