Friday, March 7, 2014

The Discipline of Unlearning

"Untamed Wilderness"

I recently spoke with someone who told me he was going to come out and spend a few days in the desert because he wanted to "learn a little something more about himself and maybe learn something more about God." 

I've been thinking about that statement. The fact is that if your goal is to learn a little something more about yourself (or about "God"), it would be far better to read a book or attend a class of some sort, but don't come out to the desert because the desert is a place of unlearning.

In the Gospel stories, Jesus goes out into the wilderness where he spends 40 days and 40 nights before embarking on his mission in life. I sometimes imagine Jesus going out to spend some time in the wilderness, perhaps thinking he might learn a little something more about himself or about God in a quiet serene retreat.  I wonder if his desert excursion was aimed at developing or maybe even finalizing  some last minute plans for what he was going to do next in life.

But when he gets out into the wilderness for all those days, everything changes for him because the desert is not a quiet place to do some thinking. The desert is an uncharted, wild and fierce place of emptiness and abandonment.

I've been thinking about Jesus in that desert before his ministry begins.  It seems to me that the one thing he learned was to unlearn everything he had learned up until that point. Perhaps he came to the desert with a sense of self-importance. He had to unlearn that -abandon that idea.  The desert is a place where the individual ego seems very tiny indeed- the ego doesn't thrive very well in the massive untamed wilderness.

When I think about Jesus in the desert during all those days, I imagine him unlearning all the values that had been taught to him by his culture and society - values about the rich and the powerful controlling the world by stepping on the weak and marginal.

When I think about Jesus in the wilderness, I image him unlearning everything he had learned about "God"  -a God, distant, aloof, judgmental, demanding, a "God" who only favored those who kept all the laws. He had to unlearn all this.

He came to the desert and the one thing he had to learn was to unlearn it all; and when he did that for forty days and forty nights in that uncharted territory of a fierce wilderness, he became enlightened- in the deepest place of his being he experienced an awesome, untamed power of love. He came face to face with the Holy Abiding Presence flowing in and through it all -  The One in all and All in the One.  Then he was ready for his mission.

Interestingly enough, while the Buddha didn't go out into a physical desert before he began his mission, he did indeed go out into a wilderness place where he also had to unlearn everything he had learned up until that point in his life.

Siddhartha Gautama left behind his life as a prince and camped out under a Bodhi tree for forty days and forty nights.  There he also unlearned his sense of self- importance. He unlearned cultural values of division and oppression.  He had to unlearn everything he once believed about the spiritual path he was on up until that point.

Siddhartha surrendered it all and just sat under that wilderness tree in uncharted territory, alert and awake for 40 days and 40 nights, and he became enlightened. At the deepest level of his being, he came to experience that there is no such thing as an individual, separated, ego-self - everything and every one is a dynamic relationship, interconnected and interdependent. In the wilderness under a Bodhi tree, Siddhartha Gautama became a Buddha.

I live out in the middle of a desert. I arrived here with plenty of baggage - my mind so filled up with everything that I had learned all my life about "me," and "God" and the "world." And every day the desert speaks to me in its wilderness language, and every day it teaches me the same wisdom:

Unlearn it all

Out here in the wilderness, I have learned that the only thing I need to learn is to unlearn. 

The discipline of the desert is a "discipline of unlearning."   

When I am strong enough and courageous enough to give my "self" away I really do find my "self." 

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