Into the wilderness
a 12 month guide
Clearing the way for a STILL/WILD practice
~ Sara Sharpe
1. A month of ORIENTING YOURSELF IN THE WILDERNESS
2. A month of SETTING ASIDE DISTRACTIONS/ADDICTIONS
3. A month of ENTERING THE WILDERNESS WHEN YOU’RE IN PAIN
4. A month of ACCEPTANCE
5. A month of CREATIVITY & PLAY
6. A month of SURVIVING THE DESERT
7. A month of AUTHENTICITY
8. A month of WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
9. A month of ACKNOWLEDGING TRAUMA
10. A month of FORGIVENESS
11. A month of ARETE (or, Living Up to One's Own Potential)
12. A month of GIVING BACK
Quick note: This is a raw, unedited version of these first four chapters. Apologies in advance for typos and worse.
Recently, a friend asked me how it was that I managed to spend a certain amount of time each week observing silence. “Silence makes me crazy,” she declared. “But I love the silence! Silence is sexy,” I blurted. In thinking about my instinctive answer, I've decided that sexy is as good a description as any—in addition to boundless; transformative.
Through silence--in stillness--we enter the figurative Wilderness. Once there, we are still and silent long enough to discern and address those parts of ourselves that are "shrouded in darkness," as Sarah Parsons would say (A Clearing Season). We "pay attention to the parts of ourselves that do not flourish," she writes, and then we "clear and cultivate a part of that wilderness, to create an open space in it." A Wilderness practice is for you, even if you are currently suffering, whether from everyday stress or the deleterious effects of trauma.
Even though we are well aware of the purported benefits of contemplative prayer or a meditation practice, most of us have instead become increasingly adept at distracting ourselves from any sort of deep introspection. Silence makes us crazy, because when we set aside our distractions/addictions, we are invited to sit with and forced to deal with our "wild selves." Almost always, in the STILL/WILD universe, WILD is a good thing. And though they are not a bad thing in this instance, in terms of our "wild selves," we are referring to those parts of ourselves over which we have little or no control, and which take the form of unwelcome thoughts, disturbing emotions, incessant worry, long-held resentment, physical discomfort, stress, confusion, lack, and the nagging sense that something—though we’re not exactly sure what—is missing in our lives. WHO WANTS TO SIT WITH ALL THAT?! It's uncomfortable stuff. So to keep the discomfort at bay, we find countless ways of distracting ourselves. We shop. We binge on Netflix and smart phones. We drink too much, eat too much, work too much. At the extreme end of distraction we develop drug, alcohol and/or sexual addictions.
The bad news is that your wild selves have much more influence in your life than you might imagine. They affect the decisions you make, the relationships you choose, your moods. The good news is that you can deal with them. In the Stillness, we sit with our wild selves and we listen—long enough to calm and, finally, to tame them...
Friend, hear me. You no longer have to distract yourself from your own life—from your deepest self. I am aware that stepping out into the Wilderness, where the silence can be deafening if not downright terrifying, is not something most of us do willingly, even with the promise that life is radically different on the other side of such an experience. I went kicking and screaming, but I went, and now I want you to come with me. The Wilderness experience is the portal through which we find the ability to be both profoundly Still and Wild. It is in the Wilderness that we also find Peace. Joy. Answers. Atonement. Depth. And the Divine, if you happen to be looking for her (and, I would argue, even if you aren’t).
Life doesn't have to be an endless struggle, even if - and I say this gently, carefully - even if you feel irreparably and relentlessly broken by your work, your relationships, your traumatic experience, your profound loss and inescapable confusion. You don't have to figure out what to do with your life or how to walk away from any one person or thing, for instance. When you're ready - when you are tired enough the internal dissonance, on whatever level - you will step into the Wilderness and make time to let the light in.
When it comes to the Wilderness, you don’t have to want to go, you just have to go. Be brave. Allow yourself to let go, just a little. Set aside your distractions slowly, gently. Step out into the STILL/WILD Wilderness, which has always called you and always will.
I'll come with.
These days, I inhabit the Wilderness because I crave the prayer of Union, as St. Teresa would describe it. In the beginning, however, I went into the Wilderness only because I was too broken to do anything else. I was so sick and sad and tired I could hardly function. I didn't know what to do when I got there, but I was desperate enough to go anyway, and willful enough not to leave until I found some relief.
What do we mean by the Wilderness? We can think of the Wilderness as the place in which we find all of the obstructions between ourselves and the ability to be profoundly still; between ourselves and lives that are rich, (relatively) peaceful, fully realized. More importantly, we can think of the Wilderness as the place where the light breaks through. We go into the Wilderness, then, to clear and cultivate it - to identify the unhelpful habits and patterns that keep us from moving forward, and to bring those habits and patterns out of the shadows and into the light where they will be transformed. A Wilderness practice means making a little time each day, or as often as possible, to set aside your distractions and to engage in a period of deep introspection. Consider this Wilderness practice a prerequisite to STILL/WILD, or a more traditional meditation or contemplative one. If sitting for a silent meditation has been deeply uncomfortable in the past, this is an excellent place to start. (Incidentally, it can also an excellent way to deepen your practice, if you already have one.)
When I first went into the Wilderness, meditation in its purest form was impossible for me. The thoughts in my head were so toxic and heavy that I was crumbling beneath the weight of them. I was crippled by huge amounts of guilt and shame. Additionally, I was poor and lonely, and I had a series of projects that hadn't gone anywhere - heaps and heaps of empirical proof, in other words, that I was failing in every conceivable way. As time went on, I got sicker and sicker. There were days (a lot of days) when I couldn't get out of bed.
And then one day I went to the little Stone chapel at Montgomery Bell State Park in Tennessee, very near where I lived at the time. I still have no memory of how I ended up there in the first place. I sat for hours. I sat there, in all my brokenness, until I felt a shift within. When I walked into the chapel I don't think I noticed anything around me. It's doubtful I heard a single bird sing. But when I left that day, I looked up and saw the sky and the trees and the immense beauty around me for the first time in a long time. I can't begin to tell you how relieved I was to see and feel such beauty again, though I hadn't been aware I'd been missing it. Predictably, I suppose, by the time I went to bed that night, I felt dark and miserable again.
So I went back the next day. And the next. I brought the books that spoke to me and I prayed, because I happen to be a person who prays. I talked to my broken, wild selves, strange as that sounds. (You'll learn more about that soon.) Sometimes so much pain surfaced that I cried and cried. Sometimes - often in the beginning - I was too sick and tired to sit up, so I slept in the church pews. At other times, I allowed myself to imagine a better life, and sometimes I just sat and enjoyed the profound quietude. One way or another, I sat there everyday, tenaciously, until I felt a shift within. I refused to leave the little chapel until it happened - until the light broke through - and it almost always did, eventually. When it did, it wasn't subtle. It was sudden, palpable, and always a tremendous relief. It did indeed feel like light piercing my heart, and once it happened, the world looks like a very, very different place.
In those early days, the internal change lasted for only a few hours at best. I couldn't sustain it. So, sometimes, I went to the little chapel twice a day. Some days, though not many, I couldn't get to a better place no matter how hard I tried, and I surrendered to feeling terrible all day. (This still happens occasionally of course - that's life. But it didn't and doesn't happen very often.)
Like anything else, my practice got easier. Each day I would enter the chapel, sit in my spot (third Pew back, right side, close to the isle) and let whatever pain I was feeling bubble to the surface. I went to the heart of whatever darkness I was feeling, and I learned to let the light in. I developed a practice that worked for me. In addition to silent meditation, I developed ways of dealing, systematically, with my wild selves. After a few months, my internal state seem to change automatically as soon as I got to the chapel. I often felt such a surge of joy and gratitude when I walk through the doors that I burst into ecstatic tears the minute I walked through them. And I can tell you this, in no uncertain terms: that sort of deep, deep Joy? Nothing - no worldly experience - can compare. (It was around this time that a dear friend introduced me to the Sufi poet Hafiz, which meant that I had company in that exalted place!)
And now? The shift in me seems quite permanent - which is not to say that I feel great everyday or that I don't still struggle - I do. But not, very often, in a way that threatens to throw me seriously off course.
If you have tried to meditate before and found the practice impossible, either because it was impossibly boring, unbearably torturous, or somewhere in between, consider starting with this Wilderness practice. Being still gets easier with time.
For now, you just have to find your way in. Some suggestions:
Find your chapel which, of course, doesn't have to be an actual chapel. Find or create a space that feels somehow sacred to you.
Be tenacious. Establish a daily practice and stick to it. On days when you have time, don't leave your sacred space until you feel an internal shift. It will take a while to figure out how to bring (or allow) such a shift. It will get easier with time.
Take in the books and poems that pierce your heart. (They will again - be patient!)
Take with you also, absolute accountability
Don't worry if those last two prescripts don't make sense to you now. They will in time.
Not everyone enters the Wilderness out of desperation. We all come for different reasons. Some of you will come because you seek clarity. Some of you come to take an honest assessment of where you are, and to compare that assessment with where you'd like to be. Others of you will come because you are sick and sad and have run out of options, or because you feel a transient happiness as opposed to deep joy (happiness being a fleeting emotion, joy being an internal state that is in no way dependent on externals). Still others of you enter the Wilderness because you have committed a grievous offense of some sort, and wonder if there is a place in the world for you to be free of guilt and shame. Whatever your reason for coming, the promise of the Wilderness is that it holds the answers and the healing you seek and that, with enough patience, you will get what you came for (if not always in the ways you might expect).
The unalienable Truth I found in the Wilderness is that if we are Still enough, for long enough, all hidden motives - fear, guilt, and shame among them – are brought into the Light and transformed, emerging right on time and in ways that seem to border on the miraculous. Please, I beg you, don’t let this be a deterrent. It sounds like a wretched process, but it’s not. The real wretchedness lies in leaving these heavily encrypted motives (the very ones which dictate your choices in the world) in control. If it helps, remember that as your inner experience changes, so does your outer experience. Changing from the inside out, as it were, is infinitely more effective than applying pressure externally.
While the rewards of entering the Wilderness are great, discipline is required in the beginning. Also, it’s helpful to know what you’ll need before you go in, and what you’ll encounter when you get there. I can’t tell you exactly, but I can give you a good, general idea. This guide is intended to serve as a road map of sorts. To that end, here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Be ready and willing to observe a period of silence every day, or at least several times a week
There is only one way into the Wilderness and that is through silence. The silence can be disorienting at first, but this guide will help you. Trust that you will orient yourself quickly and that there is no faster way to move forward—out of old patterns that keep you stuck, and into a life that is meaningful, joyous, successful, and deeply aligned with your values.
Find and claim your sacred space
Not only is it important to carve out time enough to enter the Wilderness, it’s important to carve out some physical space. If at all possible, I recommend finding a place in the great outdoors, even if you can only get there weekly or monthly. If that were the case, your practice would be at home during the week and in the real, tangible wilderness as often as possible.
Be prepared to meet your Wild Selves
In the Wilderness you will encounter your wild selves, which are much like wild beasts, and which represent those parts of yourself over which you presently have little or no control. Your wild selves take the form of thoughts and emotions; negative and/or repetitive thoughts about yourself and others, and negative emotions like anger, grief, guilt, boredom, and fear (of abandonment, failure etc.). Our wild selves have much more power over us than we realize, and they talk to us incessantly. They often torment us, in fact, and so to drown out the noise they make we busy ourselves at best, engage in addictive behavior at worst. (That is in no way a judgment, by the way. I’m a veritable expert on addictive behavior as a way of fending off my own wild selves.) The good and bad news is this: We can only run from our wild selves for so long before we exhaust ourselves utterly and completely, become ill, lose something dear to us, or end up in legal trouble (depending on the nature of your beasts). In the Wilderness we learn that, in fact, our wild selves mean to protect us. In the Wilderness, we listen to them, which calms them down instantly. Eventually, we tame them.
Identify and set aside your distractions
Immediately upon entering the Wilderness, we are called to pay attention to the million and one ways in which we distract ourselves. Maybe you watch too much TV or spend too much time on your computer. Maybe you shop too much, or eat too much, or drink too much. Perhaps you spend way (waaaaay) too much time on your smart phone, or are involved in ill advised relationships in hopes that someone else might convince you of your own worth. Slowly, gently, bring some awareness to your own brand of addictive behavior and gently challenge yourself to turn the TV off or to forego tonight’s after dinner drink. (And for the love of God, set your smart phone down and look up at the sky now and again.) But mostly, go into the Wilderness and do the exercises laid out in this guide The more time you spend there—getting comfortable with increasing amounts of stillness and confronting your own wild selves—the less time you’ll have to spend drowning out negative, repetitive thoughts and unpleasant emotions.
Look for your companions
Not only will you encounter your wild selves in the Wilderness, you’ll also meet your companions. Be on the lookout for them. Not long after I’d ventured into the Wilderness, a dear friend gave me a collection of poems by Hafiz (The Gift, translations by Daniel Ladinsky). I am never without it/him.
Accept now that you will always live with some degree of uncertainty, and that clarity comes when it comes—and not a moment before
Don’t make the mistake of going into the Wilderness expecting immediate answers to all of your questions and a clearly defined life plan with bona fide guarantees. The Wilderness contains certain qualities; spend enough time there and you come to embody those qualities, which include patience and acceptance. In the Wilderness, acceptance is key. In my experience, things start falling into place the minute one enters the Wilderness—but that is different than clarity. Clarity comes, but not often immediately. In the Wilderness, we learn to sit with the unknowing.
Accept also that entering the Wilderness requires sitting in the midst of (sometimes acute) discomfort, especially in the beginning
You’ll be surprised by how quickly you move through this initial discomfort, but you’ll also be surprised at how difficult it is to sit with, initially. You must come to understand this now. I have a friend who just ended a relationship. It was the right thing to do, but she still feels the familiar “burning” sensation that comes with such loss. (Depending on the degree of dependency, the burning sensation that comes with walking away from certain relationships can, at times, feel like flesh-eating acid.) When one experiences this degree of pain, one has two choices; sit with or run from it. I can’t emphasize enough the great value in refusing to numb such pain and discomfort, as often as you reasonably can. In refusing to numb your pain you instead bring it fully into your awareness—you bring your pain out of the shadows and into the Light and it is, you are, transformed.)
Most importantly, know that the Light comes
The prospect of turning toward the shadows and confronting your wild selves and/or your pain is, in the beginning, scary if not terrifying. But it is also indescribably powerful. In the Wilderness we are, in effect, entering the shadows and letting in the Light, and the transmutation is very tangible and absolutely life altering. Enter the Wilderness, with the intention of casting Light in dark corners, and watch what happens. As you do the work, you become infused with Light, and that changes everything. Everything. The experience isn’t subtle and feels, at times, a lot like overwhelming bliss; bliss that isn’t dependent on anything or anyone outside of you and your inner experience, though it affects your outer experience in every conceivable way.
The 12 MONTH WILDERNESS GUIDE is entirely flexible. There are 12 sections, and you can do them one at a time, over 12 months, or you can do several at once in more or less time (in any order you choose). Some sections seem a bit arduous; others are a lot of fun; some of them have two Wilderness Exercises; some of them have one. All of them are as short as possible. My aim is to gently point you in the right direction, not to overload you with instructions. One way or another, look through the table of contents and see what calls to you. That will be the place to start. Everyone’s experience is different, and in the Wilderness there is only one hard and fast rule: GET THERE. You must be disciplined enough to get to the Wilderness regularly. Once there, you must be open and flexible and spontaneous enough to go where you feel led. (One caveat: It is important to start with “A month of ORIENTING YOURSELF IN THE WILDERNESS.”)
Try hard not to go into the Wilderness with a hard-and-fast agenda. Your main task, which will get easier with time, is to listen and to pay attention to what surfaces. The very things that need healing and/or clearing will surface effortlessly, if you let them. In my experience, they surface in the perfect order, at the perfect time, and in the perfect way. Welcome what surfaces.
Say, for instance, that you settle in for your Wilderness practice and immediately start obsessing about your ex. Great! Instead of feeling frustrated about your obsessive thoughts, get curious about them. Recognize that they reveal something important. This guide offers several techniques with which to acknowledge and move through such things so that they no longer role around endlessly in your psychic space, affecting everything from your mood to the choices you make on any given day.
All of the Wilderness work I suggest is designed to help you become a curious and compassionate observer of your own life. It is my firmly held belief that our life experiences are designed to help us in every way, at every turn. Every “good” experience serves your growth, as does every “bad” experience, which sheds Light on, and brings to the surface, those parts of you that still need to be brought lovingly and gently into the Light.
Your watch words in the Wilderness are Awareness, Acceptance, and Love. Always, Love.
And so we begin.
A month of ORIENTING YOURSELF IN THE WILDERNESS
You can move through the following twelve sections in whatever order you choose, with the exception of this one. It’s important to begin here. First you’ll find a meaningful place in which to practice, and then you’ll learn some foundational exercises to help you on your way.
Find and Claim your Sacred Space
Though I’m speaking metaphorically when I talk about going into the Wilderness, it is necessary to find a place or space in which to establish your practice. Obviously your practice isn’t dependant on a singular place, and eventually the work you do in the Wilderness will become so deeply ingrained that where you practice won’t matter nearly so much as it does in the beginning.
But for now, it’s very helpful to have a place that you return to again and again, even if it’s a corner of your living room. Whatever place you choose becomes your portal to the Wilderness. You’ll need a place in which you won’t be disturbed, and where you can safely and comfortably sit with your eyes closed. This place could be anywhere, though I strongly suggest getting out into the great outdoors when you can. There is something to be said about being surrounded by the wild beauty, profound quietude, and massive strength of nature, all of which you will inevitably absorb if you spend time in the literal wilderness.
My own practice started at Montgomery Bell State Park near my home in Tennessee. In addition to lovely trails and streams, there is a little stone chapel in the park, in which I have spent countless hours these past few years.
If you don’t live within driving distance of a state park or some such, perhaps there’s a park near your home, or a body of water, or a corner of your yard. If going outside isn’t possible for whatever reason, you might consider building a small and personal alter in your bedroom, on which you place things that make you feel alive, hopeful, comforted, connected. Look for, or create, a place that feels as if it holds some sort of magic for you.
Find your place (or let it find you) and make it your own. It’s not mandatory, but it can be very helpful to choose somewhere you can revisit again and again, as your relationship with this place will deepen over time.
I wont be teaching you to practice a traditional form of meditation or centering prayer, per se, even though you’ll look like you’re meditating when doing the Wilderness exercises. Instead, I’ll be teaching you techniques that are a prelude to a more formal Still practice (for which there is no substitute, incidentally). While I urge you to incorporate meditation into your practice as soon as you can, it may be that you have to practice the Wilderness Exercises for a few weeks before you’re able to even contemplate a silent meditation, in which your goal will be to quiet the mind. In my experience, the exercises very naturally turn into a purer form of meditation.
In the early days of my Wilderness experience, I often engaged in both a silent meditation (or centering prayer) and the exercises. I generally had the little stone chapel at Montgomery Bell State Park to myself and, for my traditional meditation practice, I sat on one side of the chapel. When I switched over to the Wilderness exercises, I moved to the other side of the chapel. This worked for me, and you’ll find what works for you.
These two exercises are foundational. The first exercise allows you to check in with yourself in a deep way—something we don’t do often enough. The second exercise introduces you to your wild selves. Be not afraid, and remember that you don’t have to change or fix them; you just have to listen to them and hear what they have to say. Remember also your watch words: Awareness, Acceptance, Love.
Wilderness Exercise #1: Scanning the Physical, Emotional, and Mental Bodies
Sit quietly and close your eyes. Do a quick body scan. Pay attention to your body, from your toes to the top of your head. Are you hurting anywhere? Tense? Tingling with energy? Take time to check in with yourself. If you find pockets of physical pain or tension, breathe into those places and consciously try to relax them. In the beginning, you might find that your body is really, really tired. Even though we’re quite good at outrunning our exhaustion (for a while), it’s never, ever a good idea to do so. If you can’t stay awake long enough to make it through the exercises, carve out time in your busy schedule for rest and relaxation, and give your body the rest it needs. Then come back to the exercises as soon as you can. If you’re this tired, recognize the fact that you’re pushing too hard, there is a health issue you need to see to, or there are people or situations in your life that are draining you. It is vitally important to identify and modify/eliminate your energy drains.
Next, scan your emotional body. (This is when things start to get interesting.) Name your emotional state(s). You might find that you feel sad. Or excited. Or angry, ashamed, frightened, excited, nervous. Don’t rush—in the beginning especially, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact emotion(s) you’re feeling. Set the intention and wait, listen. Always, in the Wilderness, the less you think the better. Ask, and practice emptying your mind. You might be surprised by what emerges. At this point, you don’t have to understand why you feel the way you do, you just have to identify the feelings. Be patient. In no time at all, this part of your practice becomes second nature.
Finally, check in with your mental body. For every emotional state you experience, there is a thought looping in your mind. So, for every emotional state you identify, it’s important to identify its corresponding thought pattern. For instance, if you get quiet and discover that you feel a sense of shame, listen closely for the thought you’re having that animates that emotion. “I made a fool of myself when I spoke up at today’s meeting,” for instance.
After you’ve completed this initial exercise, it’s time to introduce yourself to your wild selves.
Wilderness Exercise #2: Meet and Tame Your Wild Selves
Long before I went into the Wilderness, I used to joke about my alter ego, whom I called “Fea.” I blamed Fea for all of my irrational, fear based behavior. When I went into the Wilderness, it became very apparent that Fea was much more real than I had imagined, in that she represented a very real, and completely out of control aspect of myself—one who had immense influence in my life. I was shocked by how destructive and, most of all, how utterly terrified she was. Recently, I wrote this about my initial few weeks in the Wilderness:
In the beginning I did my work this way: I would close my eyes and imagine the different aspects of myself sitting across from me at a table: I would talk to Fea who, in the beginning, was usually curled up in the fetal position sobbing. I also would talk to my dependent, child-like self, who was afraid to strike out on her own, convinced, as she was, that she needed other people on whom to depend in order to be safe in the world. I would ask them questions and hear what they had to say. Sometimes the work was a part of a silent meditation, and sometimes I wrote down questions and answers. After a few weeks of that, they all calmed down. Mostly, they needed to be heard, and I needed to be aware of how powerfully they influenced my everyday life so that I could mitigate their influence. Now when I close my eyes, they are all quiet, healthy and relaxed. They used to be in control, but now I am–not because I whipped them into submission, but because I listened, deeply, and brought all that fear to the Light. This might sound whacky, but it is this sustained practice that has changed everything for me. And, I promise I’m not schizophrenic! I just think in terms of archetypes.
This, then, is what I urge you to do: Close your eyes and imagine sitting at a round table, surrounded by these various aspects of yourself (many of whom might be very agitated in the beginning). If you’re struggling with something in particular, ask to be introduced to the self that has the most influence in that area of your life.
Let’s say that in doing the first Wilderness exercise (scanning the emotional body) you discover deep pockets of shame around something that happened recently at work. Sitting at the table you’ve conjured up in your mind’s eye, ask to speak to the part of yourself that is obsessing about the experience. When she appears, look closely at her body language. Is she slumped over? Tearful? You can tell a lot by how she presents. In other words, you can quickly get a sense of how much shame you’re carrying around by noticing how weighted or defeated or even paralyzed this aspect of yourself appears. Ask her how she’s feeling and what she’s afraid of, and then listen. This might seem clunky and unnatural at first, but try it anyway, and then try it again. You’ll be surprised by what you learn, and by how much power these parts of you wield. They can shut you down, rile you up, or paralyze you, depending.
Now let’s say you did a quick scan and uncovered some anger. Close your eyes, take a seat at your round table, and look across at the aspect of your self that needs your attention. Perhaps this wild self is far too agitated to sit down (because sometimes they are.) Perhaps he’s angry that you’ve ignored him for so long. Perhaps he’s still carrying around inordinate amounts of rage concerning a past injustice. Perhaps it becomes clear that he’s not going to leave you alone until you deal with him. Maybe he needs to scream and rage and cry. He might even smash your table to bits. Let him. Listen to him, cry for him, give him a voice. Once you’re sure he’s said all he needs to say, you can speak to him reassuringly, but not before.
What all of these various aspects of yourself need most is to be heard. Every time you take the time to listen to them and, eventually, to reassure them, you let more Light in. As you do, they release their stranglehold on you.
The “wild selves” exercise is extraordinarily useful in terms of identifying the negative and/or repetitive thoughts that run like looping tapes in your mind. It’s also useful for identifying the disempowering emotions (anger, grief, guilt, boredom, fear etc.) that create your feeling tone minute-by-minute, day-by-day. Remember, your thoughts create your general feeling tone, which determines the quality of your life. Pay attention, listen, let in the Light.
Work with these exercises all month, or move on to whatever section calls to you next. Wherever you go from here, take these exercises with you.
A month of SETTING ASIDE YOUR DISTRACTIONS & ADDICTIONS
dis·trac·tion noun \di-ˈstrak-shən\ something that amuses or entertains
you so that you do not think about problems, work, etc.
ad·dic·tion noun \ə-ˈdik-shən, a-\ a strong and harmful need to regularly have
something (such as a drug) or do something (such as shop)
I keep talking about setting aside your distractions and addictions as if it’s an easy thing to do. Of course it’s not. But it is absolutely necessary, as you go into the Wilderness, to be aware of them and to do whatever it takes to mitigate the hold they have on you. (Incidentally, recovering from a serious addiction goes beyond the scope of this guide; if you’re struggling with such, I trust that you have gotten or will get the help you need.)
Human beings are hardwired to seek pleasure and to avoid pain, which is where your addictions and distractions come into play. You employ them to protect yourself, on some level, from your wild selves; from your fear, self-doubt, anger and pain.
Just last night I was watching an episode of The West Wing when my computer froze. Based on my immediate reaction, you would have thought someone had cut off my food supply. When my TV went off, I felt immediately uncomfortable and agitated, and it took me a second to realize that I was using the TV to distract myself from my discomfort. But realize it I did, and instead of turning the TV back on right away, I sat down, closed my eyes, and checked in with my wild selves—a few of whom wasted no time in hurling all manner of doubt and fear my way. I listened. As soon as I acknowledged them they quieted down. I heard them out, and only then did I turn the T.V back on. I finished watching the episode, and then went peacefully to bed.
This is what we learn to do in the Wilderness. Instead of perpetually ignoring our discomfort, we acknowledge and move through it. That said, it can take a while to recognize the pattern and to then interrupt it. If you’ve relied on your distractions and addictions for a long time, setting them aside can be much, much harder than you think, even with the best of intentions. If you’re not sure that this is true, try refusing to pick up your smart phone all day, unless you need to make a telephone call. We have grown so unused to sitting with our own thoughts that even this small adjustment can be radically uncomfortable. As part of your Wilderness practice, instead of grabbing your phone to relieve the discomfort, you might choose instead to explore it. Take a minute to hear what thoughts are looping in your mind. These are the very thoughts you’re distracting yourself from.
Wilderness Exercise #1: Become aware of your distractions/addictions and set them aside when possible
This month, become aware of the very many ways in which you distract yourself—with the news, a favorite T.V. show, your best friend’s drama, etc. As well, be aware of your addictions—to your computer, your cell phone, online shopping, whatever. When you can, set them aside for as long as you can and pay attention to what happens. What thoughts surface? What emotions arise? How do you feel physically? Bring awareness to what surfaces and be willing to sit with whatever you find. Often, simply acknowledging your thoughts and feelings is all it takes to clear them.
Wilderness Exercise #2: Set aside one distraction/addiction for the entire month
Choose one distraction/addiction and set it aside, totally, for the month. Maybe it’s the nightly news or the TV. Maybe it’s sugar, or alcohol or shopping. It may help to find a friend who will agree to do this exercise with you.
Whether you do the first or second exercise—whether you set aside your distractions and addictions slowly and incrementally, or take the plunge and set aside one major distraction/addiction for the entire month—know that these exercises will inevitably shake things up in your life. Take what surfaces to the Wilderness. Look through the various sections in this guide to see if any of them speak to your condition. It may be that you have forgiveness work to do, or that you have a particularly disempowering inner narrative. If so, work through the appropriate sections (“A month of FORGIVING YOURSELF & FORGIVING OTHERS” pg. or “A month of WHAT’S YOUR STORY?” pg. ). As always, be sure to dialogue with your wild selves. People spend lifetimes running from the repetitive, negative thoughts in their heads, but you don’t have to do that anymore. Acknowledge and clear them using the exercise in this guide. You deserve to be comforted as opposed to tormented by what goes on in your head all day, every day.
A month of ENTERING THE WILDERNESS WHEN YOU’RE IN PAIN
Entering the Wilderness is always daunting in the beginning. But if you’re in a great deal of emotional pain—if you carry around considerable amounts of fear, grief, guilt or shame, for instance—it can be downright terrifying; because in the Wilderness, there are no distractions. There is nothing, in other words, to numb the pain. In the Wilderness you will come face to face with every aspect of yourself, and you will finally feel the deep pain that you have been seeking to avoid for all of these years.
But here’s the good news, friend: You’ve been working so hard to keep the pain at bay that you have also managed, very effectively, to keep the Light at bay as well. So while you will indeed come face to face with your pain, you will also come face to face with the Light—and it’s the Light we’re after. When you enter the Wilderness, you bravely and willingly set aside your distractions and bring awareness to your pain, which is tantamount to shining a Light on it. This may not make much sense to you now; I ask you to trust me. You have been suffering as a result of your deep seated pain for a long time now. Take it to the Wilderness and work through the exercises in this guide. You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Note: I will say this at least one other time in this guide—the Wilderness is in no way a substitute for therapy. If you need professional help to work through your pain, please don’t hesitate to get it.
If you think in traditional, religious terms, the Light I keep referring to is God. If you don’t, that’s perfectly fine. If it helps, think in terms of the Light as being synonymous with healing, or increased awareness. One way or another, I think you’ll find that the Light one experiences in the Wilderness is more than an intellectual construct. Beyond that, I’ve no interest, personally, in defining it.
In the Wilderness, the depth of your pain eventually becomes the depth and breadth of your transformation. This transformation is what the Wilderness is all about. You need not be afraid of you pain there, where there is no judgment, and where there is an inexhaustible supply of patience and compassion and love. Always, Love.
I’m going out of my way to convince you to step out into the Wilderness, pain notwithstanding. Be brave. You can do it. You can.
Which is not to say that it will be easy.
In the beginning, facing my pain with no distractions was so painful for me that it sometimes felt as if my skin was on fire. But the experience burns for a reason; it’s like going through the refiner’s fire while fully conscious. Relief is not always instantaneous. This is when you must dig deeper. This is when you get quiet and sit in the midst of the pain, because your days of trying to outrun it are over. It is brutally hard at first, and lonely. And still you wait. And still you dig deeper. And you listen and you Love and you bring your fear or guilt or shame or sadness into the Light, slowly but surely. The darker your fear and pain, the more Light comes streaming through, and the more Light you will eventually bring into the world.
We all, at our core, have an innate desire to shine, to thrive—to get and stay on the fast track to success. When we close our eyes, we imagine our best selves: whole, joyous, safe, liberated, fully awake, deeply engaged, glowing with energy and enthusiasm, and experiencing the freedom and abundance to do, be, and have, everything we envision. We long to succeed, and we are right to.
The problem is that we too narrowly define success. In our limited view, success doesn’t allow for trauma or illness or loss or grave mistakes. If we experience such—if we are victimized; if we lose someone dear to us; if we are diagnosed with a serious illness, we see ourselves as suddenly off track. Life was good, but now it’s not. Life had promise, but now it doesn’t.
I submit, however, that successful, fully actualized lives include and celebrate the full range of the human experience.
So if you’re starting with this section—if you’re entering the Wilderness in great pain, don’t feel as if it’s a handicap. If anything, you have an advantage, for reasons that will become clearer as you work through the program. Within this program, you have all the tools you need to gently and lovingly bring your fear, guilt, shame, or sadness into the Light so that you can move through and release it. Be patient with yourself, and take all the time you need here. This is important—imagining that you can force yourself to “get over it” is an illusion. You can’t get over it (whatever “it” is) but you can get through it—but only by actually going through it. This can take time.
In the Wilderness, you’re not going to wallow in pain, you’re just going to give it space. I recognize that distracting yourself, in a way that’s healthy, is good and necessary some of the time. But the more often you allow yourself to feel what pains you, fully and deeply, the more quickly you can move through it. This is not easy, and unhealthy distractions abound.
Once, in the midst of an acutely painful time, I received an invitation to meet up with an ex. It would have been a terrible idea, but it was tempting because the coming together would have brought me some temporary relief—and I was desperate for relief. Somehow, however, for the first time in my life, I had the good sense to refuse the quick fix. I remember turning down the invitation and literally clutching the arms of my chair as if to hold something solid in order to keep my center. It was hard at the time, but it was also one of the most important moments of my life. I was still in excruciating emotional pain, but in refusing to numb it, I signaled to myself that I was strong enough to handle it. I was strong enough. I was strong. I was enough. There is gold in such a discovery.
The exercises this month have to do with sitting with your pain as opposed to running or distracting yourself from it. (See a pattern here?)
Wilderness Exercise # 1: Go right to the heart of your pain
Living with acute emotional pain is heavy, exhausting, and torturous. The tendency is to run from it. In this exercise, we do the opposite; instead of running from our pain; we go right to the heart of it.
Sit with your eyes closed. Use descriptive words to describe the physical manifestation of your emotional pain. Burning. Heavy. Nauseating. Where do you feel it most acutely? In your back, shoulders, or neck? What emotions are you feeling? Anger? Betrayal? Regret? Some small amount of relief? Don’t judge or minimize your feelings. Just identify and sit with them. If you are accostomed to constantly trying to outrun your pain, this might be a very foreign experience. The good news is, running from pain tends to intensify it, while sitting smack dab in the middle of it tends to minimize it the tiniest bit. Go slowly here, a little goes a long way. Come back to sit with your pain when you can and, slowly but surely, it will release it's hold on you.
Wilderness Exercise #2 Refuse to numb your pain with unhealthy distractions
At least one time this month, refuse to numb your pain in a way that is even mildly destructive. Turn down the destructive temptation, even in the midst of your misery. You will survive, friend—you will. And you will grow exponentially stronger every time you make such an empowered choice.
A month of ACCEPTANCE
Without realizing it, most of us meet every, single day with staggering amounts of resistance. Until I stumbled into the Wilderness and set up camp there, I didn’t realize how much resistance I brought to nearly every aspect of my life. I resisted my living situation, the state of my health, my financial reality, my thoughts and feelings, etc. Every day was an internal battle, and I was losing in no uncertain terms.
I threw up heaps of resistance because I thought I was supposed to, on the one hand. I was tired, poor, hopelessly co-dependent, and utterly confused about what I was supposed to be doing and why. All of those things were unacceptable to me, and so I fought back. (In retrospect, I’m not sure who I thought I was fighting.) I thought that in refusing to accept my current reality, I was standing up for myself—holding myself to a higher standard and demanding something better. The reality was that I fought myself until I was bloodied and bruised and broken. Not surprisingly, things got worse instead of better.
In the Wilderness, resistance melted away. I had no idea that this would happen, and it took me completely by surprise. It happened partially as a result of my extreme brokenness that, frankly, I have come to see as a huge advantage. I didn’t have the strength to keep fighting and so finally surrendered, utterly and completely. For the record, I had tried to surrender before, on several occasions. I can’t tell you how many times I prayed thus: “God, I surrender. My will is mine to make it Thine.” But still I kept fighting—believing, as I did, that to fight for my life was to hold up my end of the bargain.
To co-create the lives we envision calls for action born of surrender. This is possible when we balance Time for Doing (TFD) with Time for Being (TFB). We strike this balance by going into the Wilderness regularly.
Many of us want to surrender but don’t know how. The first step is to practice acceptance on all fronts. To be clear, acceptance doesn’t mean that you resign yourself to anything less than the life you envision. Acceptance means recognizing that it’s okay to be where you are right now, and that fighting against your current reality keeps you mired in it.
For instance, by the time I went into the Wilderness, I was suffering from chronic fatigue to such a degree that I could hardly function. I was terrified of this condition, and fought it with every fiber of my being. I read everything I could get my hands on, took every recommended supplement, and practiced myriad health modalities in an effort to get better. I meditated, prayed, I ate a clean diet.
Nothing seemed to work.
Stepping into the Wilderness (even as I worked through my initial pain and fear) was something akin to breathing a huge, cosmic sigh of relief. I was finally too tired to do anything other than accept my condition, and so I did. I didn’t say, “I am too sick to function and I accept this as my fate.” Instead I said, “I accept the fact that I am too sick to function, and so I’m going to take three naps a day, if necessary.” I just stopped fighting. I didn’t think that I would suffer chronic fatigue for the rest of my life, but I accepted the fact that I didn’t know for sure. And mostly, if I was tired, I rested.
The Wilderness is a place of profound love and acceptance. If you spend enough time there, that same loving acceptance, along with a total lack of judgment, begins to permeate every aspect of your life. Before long, instead of beating myself up for needing a nap, I chose to relish the experience. I spoiled myself rotten. I began to view my daily naps (plural) as well deserved luxuries as opposed to evidences of failure.
Keep in mind that while this was going on, I was too broke to pay attention, as they say. I had no idea where my next pay check was coming from. Had I not gone into the Wilderness, I would have been far, far too stressed out to luxuriate in those unavoidable naps when there was work to scramble for. In the Wilderness, one stops scrambling.
In the end? Lo and behold, work came, even though I was no longer scrambling for it. This was a revelation for me. I paid my bills (just barely, but I paid them), I kept my home, and finally—slowly but surely—I regained my strength. Since that time, things have gotten steadily better and better.
This month, practice acceptance. Again and again and again.
Wilderness Exercise: Practice Acceptance
This month, practice saying, “…I accept that” as often and in as many different situations as you can. “I am tired and I accept that.” “I feel angry and I accept that.” “My mother is complaining incessantly and I accept that.” “It’s possible that I will run out of money and lose my house and I accept that.” (Yes. Even that.)
Acceptance, of course, doesn’t mean that you don’t take action—perhaps you need to take a nap, express your anger, set boundaries where your mother is concerned, or look for additional work. But accepting people and situations as they are frees up a tremendous amount of psychic and emotional space from which to take effective action.