Desert Spirituality: let’s get honest
Understatement: spirituality isn’t all chanting, and incense, and transcendent experiences. The truth is the spiritual journey is just that, which means there will be highs and lows. Sometimes the road is smooth, and sometimes it’s down right rough. Those rough patches are sometimes called desert spirituality because they leave us feeling spiritually dry. For every day when the world seems to be lit with golden sunlight and fairy dust, there are usually a hundred days of emptying the dishwasher and long commutes. These too can be desert spirituality.
Being spiritual is no protection against suffering, boredom, or struggle. There’s a reason that just about every religious tradition includes lots of stories of people out in the desert/wilderness/wilds. There is something in dry, desolate places that resonates with our spiritual walk, no matter who we are. But the spiritual life is a journey, and no desert lasts forever. You can get through it.
Have you ever had an experience like this: the prayer practice, or meditation you’ve always done is just boring. Or perhaps it feels like you’re talking to yourself when you pray. The feelings that used to encourage you on during these practices are gone. Your mind wanders. And if you’re like me eventually you completely forget to meditate/pray/practice for days at a time. And maybe you don’t even miss it.
Humans are spiritual beings, but that doesn’t mean that our spiritual life will be easy or simple. It is entirely possible to lead your whole life without once looking inward. Doing so tends to lead to all sorts of unhealthy behaviors to compensate; numbing with shopping, alcohol, gambling or drugs is just a start. But it can be done. For those who won’t want to go deeper, things get more complicated.
So let me start by assuring you, if you do not find your current spiritual practices are quenching your thirst, you are not alone. In fact, it is a normal and natural part of our spiritual lives. You probably don’t like the same foods you ate as a child. And it’s probable that as you’ve become a better hiker some old trails seem too crowded and boring now (or whatever new skill you have learned). So it goes with the life of the spirit as well. Our spiritual lives go through seasons, they wax and wane like the moon.
As I’ve talked about before learning from the seasons can save us a lot of anguish when it comes to our spiritual lives. But what about those seasons there you are spiritually dry, where you are lost in the spiritual desert without a single oasis in sight?
What is the Desert Spirituality?
There are many ways to look at this particular season in our spiritual lives. For some people it feels like a drought, as if nothing will satisfy you any more. Some will simply use the term “dry” as if their spiritual well has run dry. Others use words like empty, lost, or silence. The common factor is a feeling of frustration with where you are, a wish for things to be different, but no clear path from this moment back to the verdant jungles of the soul’s life.
In mythology wilderness and desert places are usually places, and times of transition. Think about the sacred stories you know or even great hero journeys, how many of them involve people who go through a major change, or have a revelation of the Divine while in a deserted place? The answer is a lot. From the whole people of Israel, to Jesus, to Mohamed and even Buddha the idea of going away into emptiness (or somewhere wild) is often a symbol of transformation.
The desert has been so important in spiritual communities that the first Christian monks and nuns (the desert mothers and desert fathers) set off into the desert to practice their life of prayer. It wasn’t just that the desert had fewer distractions than the city. The desert helped them distill their lives to the most essential components. (The monastic life in Christianity was born out of these experiences. In many other traditions monastic life also began in the wilderness.)
Spiritual Journey: From One Thing To Another
When we find ourselves in the midst of a dry season, of feeling that we’re wandering in some sort of spiritual wilderness, we are often deep in transition. You might not even know it, but it’s happening. It might be that you are leaving the tradition of your parents for something that is more authentic to your own experience. Or you may have had an incredible mountain top experience that changed everything and now here you are in the wilderness wondering if you imagined it all. Or you might have been supremely comfortable and suddenly nothing works. (Each of those examples comes from a spiritual leader of the past, can you guess which ones?)
So know that when you find yourself in the spiritual desert there is probably something new fermenting in your soul, there’s something better, mature, or deeper waiting for you on the far side.
Spiritual Tools for the Journey
Knowing that you are headed somewhere can help, but it isn’t enough to get your out of that spiritual desert. And just sitting there doing the same thing you’ve always done doesn’t make much sense either. After all, you’re in a time of transition (most likely) so it’s time to transform!
Here are some tools that can help you navigate your own spiritual deserts and come out the other side renewed, enriched, and refreshed.
I know, I know. It seems like the answer to everything these days is “journal” but there’s a reason for that. Journaling can help unlock and reveal things we aren’t consciously aware of. And that can be helpful when you’re in the midst of a spiritual desert. I would suggest especially art journaling, or journaling with art cards. I find card decks like the Mother Mary Oracle, or my Rumi Oracle to be especially helpful for these sorts of practices.
Try laying out a spread of cards (most decks will come with suggested spreads) or just pulling three cards out at random. Spend time meditating on them, see what themes emerge for you, what associations pop into your head. And then spend time free writing (stream of consciousness or uncovering your awareness) for a set period of time. If a particular card or image speaks deeply to you consider keeping it out where you can see it regularly until you feel you’ve heard everything it has to say.
(If that’s a little to “woo woo” for you think it about it as you subconscious speaking to you through the imagery of the card.)
For many of us our spiritual practices tend to be very head focused. We live in a culture that has split the body and soul almost in two and treats them as separate entities. But they’re really not. It can be extremely helpful to get your body involved if your spiritual practices have fallen flat. Listen to how your body feels, get out of your head for a few minutes and just be.
I find yoga to be particularly helpful for me as it focuses on breathing in the same way we do during meditation. The movements involved tend to shake loose all sorts of stuck and unexamined emotions. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself crying on your yoga mat, no one will judge, we’ve all been there.
Or practice walking meditation. It is perhaps the simplest meditation you can practice. Step by step, one foot in front of the other. And since we are all on a spiritual journey, how appropriate to let your feet take your on a journey while you practice being present and mindful right where you are. Pay attention to your neighborhood, your body, and look for the Divine in unexpected places. (Remember, Moses was on a walk when he found that burning bush.)
Grab a new book, no not something you’ve been “meaning to read” for the last ten years (maybe that’s just me) but something totally new. Even better if it’s completely outside your usual stuff. Get out of your comfort zone, try reading the experience of someone very different than where you currently might be.
Become a scholar of the human experience, an explorer of the spiritual world. If you were raised on Billy Graham read Thich Nhat Hanh. Read a book of wonder written by a super geeky excited scientists and revel in how little we truly know about the world.
Or read dreamy speculative fiction that leaves you curious and maybe a little confused. You’ll discover the universe is a big, diverse place and that can be quite freeing when your own little nook is no longer working.
Grab a Buddy
Do you have an anam cara? If you aren’t familiar with the term it’s Irish and means quite literally “soul friend.” An anam cara was generally an older, wiser person who you connected to at a soul level. They were your advisor, your support, and the one who helped your soul through the twists and turns of the spiritual life. In the modern sense this is the friend to whom you can pour out your soul and in return you are truly heard and can expect empathy and sound advice (when you ask for it). Finding your anam cara might not be easy, but it’s worth it.
Think about your current circle, is there someone who qualifies?
If you don’t have someone with whom you can explore the life of your soul you might think about finding a spiritual director. Spiritual Directors International has great resources on finding a spiritual director. Think of her as a therapist for your soul. There are spiritual directors of many different traditions, most charge for their services but often on a sliding scale. If you are part of a religious community you might check there as well for someone trained in your specific tradition.
Having an honest spiritual guide to walk with you through difficult times can be invaluable, and that outside advice and help from a trusted friend or spiritual director can make the difference between a long and frustrating wilderness experience and a fruitful one!
Take a Retreat
I know what you’re thinking, if you had time for a retreat you wouldn’t be in the bloody spiritual desert now would you? I wish we all had time to spend a week at least once a year off somewhere that deeply fed your soul doing nothing but things that feed your soul. But for most of us that’s maybe not entirely reasonable.
There are options that don’t involve a full on going away retreat. You might implement Sabbath as a way to set aside a day each week for the care of your whole self. But if you need more structure for your retreat consider signing up for my five day at home retreat which will guide you through the process of an at home retreat one email at a time!
Try Something New
You knew this was coming. Sometimes we have outgrown our old spiritual practices and it’s time to move on. Most children stop crawling (for the most part) once they start walking. It may simply be time to move on from your old practices to new ones.
Now is a good time to experiment, but don’t go for the quick fix. Spiritual practices are meant to form and shape us over the long haul, there are no quick fixes or easy solutions that will suddenly transform you into the perfect person. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. I have a comprehensive article on how to get started with a new spiritual practice that includes a lot of examples: from mindfulness meditation, journaling, to cooking with a partner.
Try Something Old
That’s right, maybe it isn’t time to move on. Often when we begin a spiritual practice we find it moves us deeply, we cry, or we have ecstatic moments of joy. In meditation we may feel ourselves falling into stillness, or have moments of bliss. When those stop we might feel we’ve failed, or that the practices no longer “work” for us. But the end goal isn’t in fact the feeling of euphoria while meditating, or the emotional reaction to prayer.
The goal of spiritual practices is to be shaped into a certain sort of person. Just because you no longer feel the same things during your practice doesn’t mean it isn’t working. So be careful dropping a practice because your experience of it has changed. Often we feel deeply at the beginning of practices, but after those feelings of newness have gone we are still being shaped and formed. Don’t confuse the short term side effects of meditation, prayer, or other practices with the long term goals.
Help Each Other
Finally? Get out of your own head, get out into the world, and do. Find ways to connect with your neighbors, to help those in need, to build community and relationship. That in itself is a spiritual practice, and an ancient one. Most ancient religions were not focused on the individual in the way we do today. They addressed the community as a whole. And there is deep wisdom in that. Human beings need one another, we are not whole by ourselves. Often what we most need is to connect, help, and raise up people around us and we will find our soul flowering in response.