It may only be at the personal level that we can make sense of reality. There are traditions and guides, of course, libraries, universities, cathedrals, civilizations through the eons, and still the human miracle -- we can know truth directly ourselves.
Some call this inner knowing the still small voice. It is a beautiful phrase describing a beautiful experience, one we recognize in rare moments when the mind is not chattering, or the chattering stops to receive something larger. This small voice is a paradox: so large the insight quiets everything yet small enough to issue from our heart.
But let's not court the abstract, here. Let's explore two instances of hearing an internal voice, one pure, the other treacherous. Because of course the ego wants in on the action. And ego can speak quietly, too.
I once saw a man loading trees onto a flatbed truck at work. A concentrated voice in me said: "I want this man." I had been directing my landscape crew to place the enormous burlapped root balls of two specimen sumac trees as far forward in the truck bed as they could go. This would allow the wind to move along the trunks and branches as we drove, and would keep the root balls from sliding if the truck needed to brake quickly.
Being rushed, the crew ignored me, strapping the balls at the tail end and lashing the limbs down forward. Seeing my distress, a new employee hopped onto the flatbed and with short sentences and a few gestures, made my crew reposition the trees for stress-free transport. Stress-free for the sumac trees and for the project manager.
Gratitude opened my heart -- I love trees and these were beauties. Here was a man who did things right, who led others to do right, who took the time to be professional. "I want this man" seemed a natural response, honoring what I saw. I know now that first impressions are only that, and lust can speak as quietly as it pleases.
We do have one sure measure of our actions, and that is their results. I pursued this man based on my "still small voice." What followed? Conflict, anguish and obstacles crashed down on me like a sea storm. I am lucky I washed up alive four months later. That small encouraging voice I heard had nothing to do with insight or grace. How could I have known this in the moment? Let's examine still small voice, example No. 2.
Last October, my novel "Guest House" had no cover, and I was given full artistic control by my creative team, with a publication date in early spring. Choosing a cover was a daunting task! Night after night I combed the Internet searching for the right image. The team yawned, and said NO, and wavered at WELL, MAYBE with all of my first attempts. They loved the novel and wanted it to find the proper face.
I searched harder, choosing an expensive shot of a haunted scrawny apple tree in a field of grass. No one liked it but me. My team wanted to see the human connection that a novel called "Guest House" deserved. I started sulking and a quiet inner voice said, "Wait." I am not known for waiting. I am lovingly called "Speedball" by at least one former boyfriend.
But finding the right cover for the novel was so important, and the word "wait" so contradictory and calming, I did. I thrashed around a little, to be honest, because the deadline was looming. And then out of the blue, from 30 years past, my college boyfriend said hello on Facebook. He told me he was a graphic designer. Jeff saw my scrawny apple tree and said,"?Here, how about this?" sending a glorious cover design.
Once I'd cried for three days at the beauty and richness of the heart-red farmhouse with apples on old lichen-covered branches, all obstacles melted away. I thanked him and said Yes. My creative team loved it. The way was cleared. I released the novel into the hands of the world. And Jeff and I started dating.
How then do we tell -- not months later but right in the moment -- if the voice we hear is the voice of inner knowing or the quiet voice of ego? The school of hard knocks tells me that inner knowing opens us and the ego's voice directs us. Ego always has an agenda and that agenda feels like the aiming and firing of a gun, even if it's a gun with a silencer.
The still small voice brings no conflict. It feels complete. Passions are calmed and obstacles melt. A way is simply cleared.
Barbara K. Richardson has practiced Buddhism and the even more humbling discipline of writing novels most of her adult life. Her novel "Guest House," released in March, tells the story of Melba Burns, a midlife go-getter who abandons the rat race only to find that the unexpected guests arriving at her farmhouse change her world even more profoundly. See the video trailer on Barbara's Web site.