It happened suddenly. He was alone in his car, heading home to nothing in particular. He thought he might watch a little television or listen to some music. He knew he would eat leftovers. Cooking was not on the agenda. He wasn’t thinking about anything, wasn’t feeling any particular thing, when all of a sudden, BAM! it came upon him. He found himself immersed in an experience of confusion, fear and loneliness. He felt lost, hopeless and helpless. He put the radio on to occupy himself. It didn’t work. The music was annoying. He drove faster believing if he could just get home, what he was feeling would go away. When he did, it did not. The experience grew deeper and darker. Men are not supposed to feel like this but, he was a man who was feeling it. When I got the call, ten days later, he was desperate.
My friend had been on his spiritual journey, a quest to know himself and the Creator for many years. Like many, he has been working to “get himself right.” He had read the books; studied the philosophies; taken the classes; participated in the workshops; attended the seminars. Still, he believed, he had a lot of work to do to get his life on the right track; whatever that track was to be. He had embraced both polarities of the, “get yourself together” spectrum. He once thought if he could be really good, there would be rewards. In short order he discovered being good was both difficult and boring. He had discovered that all of the should’s and should-nots makes one neurotic. Like a good spiritual student who becomes aware of what does or does not work, he shifted to embrace the concepts of sacrifice and denial. Denying everything earthly or material thing, living in scarcity, believing whatever he gave up for God, would be replaced by something divine. Four months of sleeping on a friend’s sofa and walking dogs to earn enough to buy Oodles of Noodles led him to another awareness; Life does not have to be hard! He then settled into a place of being himself, accepting people as he found them, knowing life happens moment by moment, loving himself regardless of his station and forgiving all past regrets and disappointments. It felt good. It seemed right. Now this!
On the other end of the telephone, I detected shallow breathing. I sensed the fear and panic. As I listened, I was struck by the holding back of the tears. Taking in each of his questions, I realized there was only one that needed to be addressed. “What did I do wrong?” After ten minutes or so, I offered him what I needed to hear – – take a breath!
Take a long deep breath. Reflecting on the many times I had been in the midst of the same experience I said: “Beloved, you are in the wilderness of your soul. This is un-carpeted territory where you are alone with yourself. There is nothing, absolutely no-thing wrong. You are being lead and guided into a deeper, more profound awareness of exactly who you are and who you are not.” I could hear him suck the air out of the room. My offering, “Keep breathing!”
Spiritual wilderness is not the place for spiritual punks, wussies or wimps. In fact, those who are not seriously committed to their spiritual well-being will never be invited into the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of deflation that only masters are taken. They are invited into the experience to strengthen and refine themselves in preparation for something exquisitely divine. Moses was invited into the wilderness, even though he never made it to the “promised land.” So was Christ.
The wilderness is a place of spiritual dryness and desolation where we find ourselves tempted to believe in thirst and helplessness. We feel lost, alone and doomed for destruction. We cannot see our way out of the moment, hour or the day. The sands of past regrets and future fears whip around so violently, we are tempted to shield our eyes and bury our heads. The structures of our beliefs, habits and creature comforts stand like trees, blocking the path. In the wilderness, all tress look alike, making it difficult to determine one from another. In the wilderness, it is difficult to find the one thing that marks the way to a clearing.
In the wilderness we run hot and cold. We are scorched by the internal heat of self-denial, self-debasement and self-loathing. And, we are over-whelmed by the coldness of our beliefs related to self-righteousness, self-importance and self-reliance.
In the wilderness, there is no shelter from either discomfort. The unfortunate part is that we have no idea how we got to this place of feeling so bad, alone and helpless. This, by the way, is also the most fortunate aspect of the wilderness. Since we have no idea how we got to where we are and even fewer ideas about how to get out, we must become totally dependent on something within in order to get out.
In the wilderness, we become frogs, Fully Reliant On God, Spirit, our Highest, Most Holy Self for nourishment and guidance. Whether the wilderness experience lasts a day, week, several months or years, we eventually come to the profound awareness, “I am not alone and I cannot do this alone.” This is often very challenging for a man to accept and navigate. It is quite common for men to fail their wilderness training because they use an inappropriate methodology; they attempt to fix themselves by themselves. Any attempt to move through the wilderness without intimate connection, communication and dependence on the great Spirit within will leave you panting in the scorching heat and dryness of deflated self-importance. Any resistance to acknowledging that you are vulnerable and, that you need help will only intensify the sense of suffering. Spiritual wilderness is a time to recognize that something bigger than you is at hand.
Rest assured, the wilderness is not an indication that you have done anything wrong or, that you need to do something right. Nor is it something you can avoid. In fact, falling face first into spiritual wilderness is something you must expect to encounter when you are giving your spiritual identity the deepest attention you can muster.
The wilderness is the quest of many, the privilege of few. It is a time, place and experience that will take you out of your little self and all of its trappings, into your authentic Self and all of its power. Because the wilderness is different for everyone, there is no way to explain it. It just happens when we are ready, aligned and most unsuspecting.
Explaining this to my friend seemed to give him some comfort. Of course he had questions but, I had no answers. No two wilderness experiences are the same – – thank goodness! I am sure if they were, someone would create a preparation workshop or write a book about it. The wilderness is a divine experience for which preparation is impossible and failure is not an option. Self-mastery and self-knowledge are not the results of the wilderness experience. They are the invitations into it. My suggestion for anyone who finds themselves in a wilderness experience is, “Keep breathing!” Breathe deeply, even if you have sand in your nose.