Friday, January 16, 2015


"Vast Spaces and Empty Places"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I attended a seminar the other day conducted by someone who lives in New York City. In my conversation with him he asked me if it takes a while to get used to living in a desert? He went on to say, "I'm a city type of guy and to be honest, the desert scares me - so much emptiness, nothing but shades of brown, miles and miles of sand and rocks and mountains."

I immediately empathized with what this New Yorker was saying. In fact the first time I ever drove into this desert topography I also found it quite stark and kind of scary. I remember the first time I walked out into the wilderness - the vastness of the space was overwhelming, the silence so thundering.  I wondered why on earth anyone would actually want to live out here, but now that I actually do live here I have come to understand that the desert is an icon of the spiritual journey and an ideal place for soul-searching. 

"Emptiness" is at the heart of any spiritual quest.

I am reminded of an often-quoted Zen koan about the university professor who visits the Zen master seeking to learn the way of wisdom. The wise old master serves tea to his guest, pouring the tea into the professor's cup until the cup overflows and the tea pours onto the floor, prompting the professor to rebuke his host: "Can't you see that my cup is overfull and no more will go in?"

"Just so" said the master, "like this cup you are also full of your own ideas, opinions, judgment and speculations. How can I point you to the way of greater wisdom unless you first empty your cup?"

The word "empty" often carries a rather negative connotation in popular culture.  On the spiritual journey "emptiness" is a necessary virtue to be prized and cherished. 

The desert is an empty place- an ideal place to be entered with an empty cup- an empty mind,  an empty spirit, willing, open, awake and available in order to be filled up.  

Back in the 14th century an "anonymous" English mystic wrote his now-famous work, The Cloud of Unknowing.  He suggested that any attempt to know "God" is automatically doomed to failure because "God" can never be understood, categorized analyzed or defined.  The road toward knowing "God" is through unknowing:

God is a desert to be entered and loved, never an object to be grasped or understood.
In the end we are no more able to possess God than we are able to possess ourselves. 

Many people come out to the desert to do some soul-searching, to find God in their lives, to get in touch with their true self. They sometimes come armed with books and journal articles, filled with ideas, bogged down with their theologies and psychologies, their opinions and their speculations about the meaning of life and the nature of God.  They bring along with them books filled with prayers. But the lesson of the desert is to empty it all out. When you come into the desert you must be as empty as the wilderness, no roads, no maps, just vast spaces and empty places and a thundering silence. 

I'm still scared of the desert. It's always kind of frightening to be out in the wilderness -a feeling of being out of control.  But of course you need to give up control if you ever hope to experience a connection to a transcendence beyond the self-centered ego.

The wisdom of the desert insists on simply being present in a silence that goes beyond words, and in the emptiness the cup of life is filled. 

Of course, you don't have to actually live in a desert to approach life with an empty cup.  

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