- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
About four years ago, my wife and I moved out to the desert region of Southern California and the other day, a long-time friend asked how we were settling into our “desert life?” He especially wanted to know what we have learned over these past four years? His question really struck me because, living out here I have discovered that a desert is a bad place to learn anything.
I am reminded of something priest and author, Anthony DeMello, once said about the spiritual life:
Where spirituality is concerned,
learning is all about unlearning -
unlearning almost everything you’ve ever been taught.
It’s all about unlearning and listening.
In these later years of my life. I have begun the process of learning how to unlearn on my road to wisdom, and life in an empty wilderness has helped me to do this.
I remember something priest and author, Richard Rohr, once said when he talked about the two halves of life. The first half is characterized by building and acquiring, it’s a time for learning, a time to build a career, raise a family, go to school and acquire knowledge. The second half of life is a time for letting go of it all, a time for unlearning what you know, listening to the revelations of every present moment with an uncluttered mind and open heart. I am definitely in my second half of life.
When I think of the path of my spiritual journey, I realize that my younger years were devoted to acquiring my beliefs, weaving together a neatly constructed belief system and then spending lots of time reading books and studying theology, gathering evidence to confirm what I had come to believe. My ideas and beliefs about God, about the church, about myself and others gave me a sense of security, stability and control, but as I grew older I realized that this wasn’t enough and I now feel called to “go deeper,” and in order to “go deeper” on a spiritual path I have to learn how to “let go," I must learn how to unlearn.
Unlearning is not the same as doubting what you believe or denying what you have learned. Unlearning involves emptying your mind and letting go of the safe secure ideas you have been taught. Unlearning involves listening and making yourself available so that something new can happen in your life.
Many ancient mystics and teachers have wisely said: anything you think you know about God is not God. Indeed, in a very real sense “God” is unable to be "acquired," unable to be captured by language or ideas. “God” is a transcendent presence unable to be fathomed or explained by propositions in a belief system. When it comes to “God” we must all learn how to unlearn.
I have found the wilderness where we now live to be a supreme icon for this phase of my spiritual journey in my second half of life – the desert is wild and uncluttered, open and empty, an ideal place to learn how to unlearn.
When I walk out into the deep wilderness, the utter silence and the lack of any familiar landscape, the endless terrain with no clear paths to follow leaves me somewhat frightened, disoriented and out of control. I become fearful because I’m not exactly sure where I am or where I am going; but if I am able to calm my fears and instead of running away, surrender to the silence and the emptiness, I always experience something greater than myself - isn’t this exactly what a spiritual journey is all about?
The desert is a deeply spiritual place where you can “unlearn” a lot, but you don't have to live in a desert to learn how to unlearn.
Anthony DeMello also offers this wisdom:
On a spiritual path it’s not that we fear the unknown.
You cannot fear something that you do not know,
nobody is afraid of the unknown.
What you really fear is the loss of the known.