INTO THE WILDERNESS
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 practice. If sitting for a silent meditation has been deeply uncomfortable in the past, this is an excellent place to start. (Incidentally, it can also be 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 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 every day, 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 looked 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 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 entered the chapel that I burst into ecstatic tears the minute I walked through the doors. 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 every day 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. (If you've never had any sort of STILL practice, you might consider beginning with the exercises HERE. If you want to jump right in, the Guidelines are HERE.) 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. Keep coming back.
Take in the books and poems that pierce your heart. (They will again - be patient!)
Take in with you, also, absolute accountability.
And love. Take love.
Don't worry if those last two prescripts don't make sense to you now. They will in time.
Above photo: Ladder Canyon Ranch, CO
Below: Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Montgomery Bell State Park, TN