Monday, March 23, 2015

Nothing to Offer

"The Deep Wilderness" 
- Outside the Desert Retreat House-

I was browsing through a magazine yesterday that included a rather substantial section of classified ads - several pages advertising various retreat centers across the country, promotions for places to which you might think of going, as a group or individually, for spiritual renewal and soul regeneration. 

One retreat center was located on majestic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and according to the ad, the place offered "spectacular ocean views, tranquil sunsets, spa quality food and daily massages -what better way to renew your spirit."

I think, though, that my favorite was an advertisement for a retreat center high up in the Adirondack mountains of New York State nestled deep within rolling forests of sweet-smelling pine - "a region dotted with pristine mountain lakes and a natural waterfall that greets you on your daily hikes." The ad claimed that this was "the most spiritual place on earth." 

As I read through the descriptions of these various places and all they had to offer people seeking spiritual renewal, I sort of smiled to myself. I wondered what I might say about why someone might find spiritual renewal by coming out to the desert wilderness where I live:  "Come to the desert, it's a place that has nothing to offer you - just rocks, sand and stones and endless wilderness." 

I vividly remember the very first time I went out into the wilderness of a desert several years ago on a pilgrimage I made to the Holy Land. We were driven out onto the deepest part of the Judean desert just outside Jerusalem (a region that looks remarkably similar to the wilderness near my current home),  and there in that deep wilderness each us in our pilgrimage group was left to stay there all alone with the instructions: "We will come back to get you in a few hours, just sit quietly and go with the experience"  

I'm not very prone to panic attacks but after our guide pulled away, sitting there in the midst of absolute nothingness such as I had never before experienced, I was scared to death. The silence was just too much to bear, the miles of sand and stone with no roads or landmarks in sight were too overwhelming.  I worried: "Would they remember to come back and get me? Would they even be able to find me out here?" 

But then I settled down, took some deep breaths and simply "let go." My experience of that place that had absolutely nothing to offer was one of the most profound spiritual experiences I have ever had in my life. It became immediately clear to me why Moses and Jesus and the prophet Muhammad all went out into that deep wilderness to hear the "voice of God." 

Now that I actually live in a desert region, I have had several experiences of fulness in the emptiness the desert has to offer. The trails just outside my house are relatively tame and well-marked but the deeper you go into the wilderness, the scarier it gets. Everything always seems so out of control, no comfortable landmarks in view, no refreshing waterfalls or lush pine forests, no relaxing massages, nothing to offer but emptiness and thundering silence.

Whenever I am out in the deep wilderness, initial panic is still my first response (just like it was back in the hills outside Jerusalem) but then if I go with it, my emptiness is always filled up and I am inevitably pulled out into something ("someone") far greater than me.

The Taoist, Lau Tzu, once taught:

Become totally empty.
Quiet the restlessness of the mind,
only then will you witness everything unfolding from the emptiness.

Of course you don't have to physically come out to a desert in order to enter the wilderness.  A backyard chair or a corner of an apartment can turn into the desert when you are willing to sit there with an uncluttered mind, present in the moment, waiting to see what bubbles up. It's amazing what fullness can emerge from the emptiness.

Lent is coming to an end on the Christian calendar. Before it does, take some time to come out into the desert - it's the most spiritual place on earth. 

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

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