Deserts, Loneliness and the Happy Night


The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.

~~Norma Cousins

Happy Saturday! 🙂

This morning I’m thinking of deserts, demons and coming home to the self, about all of the folks out there plagued or harassed by some sort of sickness or inner demon….  These things are on my mind for lots of reasons, but primarily because  I just spent the last week literally sicker than I have ever been.  Because my core spiritual training is native with some Buddhist and Christian thrown in for seasoning, my assumption is that I just had the  equivalent of a flu shot; that my immunity and understanding of what to do with this bug will be useful in the coming fall and winter as I work with clients who will come in with a similar illness.   I think of it as on the job training… I know what worked and what didn’t,  what to give clients who come seeking healing with that particular funk.

I used the week as a time of rest, prayer and for sitting with some of  the feelings that came up as I was so sick, unable to do much but lay around and sweat out a high fever.  Even though friends came and fed me and brought essentials like panang curry and chocolate ice cream (strictly for medicinal purposes of course),  a time still came when the stir crazy loneliness hit, when I had to sit and look at some of the demons that come up in times of physical exhaustion or weakness.  It was a good week for that, for sitting with what can come in a time like this if I let it.  It was a week of meditation, contemplation, acupuncture and herbs, homeopathics and people coming and going to love me up.  For this I am extremely grateful–I am a blessed, abundant woman indeed.

I am a big believer that if we allow ourselves balance, rest and a gentle lifestyle, we will be healthier in general, in every sense of what health can mean.   I also know  matter has limitation,  so sometimes bodies get sick or tired.  The kindest thing we can do for ourselves in those times is to be tender with that direct experience as well, touching it lightly and finding the gifts in it, inviting it in like a wise teacher.  No need for judgment or harshness, just gently being with it as I would a sick child.  Such was this week for me. The few times this week I was able to string a few thoughts together, I thought about deserts, demons and how many people out there face sickness and a soul-sucking loneliness every single day.  All we can do in those times is touch that knowing lightly as well, perhaps engage in a metta practice and offer loving-kindness to all the others having such a personal yet universal experience.

The word “lonely” traces back its original meaning to the word “desolate,” which traces back to the 14th century word meaning “the desert.”  The word “desert” literally means “to abandon,” and is also the root of the word “hermit.”  In ancient times the desert was seen as the place demons inhabited, the place where one would face uncertainty, a place we would certainly face life and death.  All of the religions of the book show prophets, teachers, healers and later seekers of every tradition entering the desert to seek God.  In ancient times it was understood that demons were not evil spirits existing outside of us, but rather our inner demons, our inner struggles, our attachments, addictions and fears.  A true seeker entered the desert to face his own demons and in doing so would find God there, dwelling within and among him.

There are currently about seven billion people on the planet. We are wired 24/7 and would be hard pressed to find many places on earth that are totally inaccessible or uninhabited.  Backpacker magazine recently reported that even in what is now generously termed  “the back country,” one can still hear the drone of a plane or the hum of a car, can use a cell phone or GPS and can generally reach some form of civilization within about 20 miles.  There is a certain paradox in knowing we are around more people than ever, are wired and talking to someone nearly constantly,  yet are seemingly less connected in our hearts and souls.   Many people describe feeling a sense of isolation, speak of the dryness of a desert within and ache with a deep sense of separation.  If we can feel lonely in a crowd—in fact feel more lonely in a crowd, there must be more to this sense of inner desolation than just the presence or absence of other humans.

We are born into families, into communities, into social groups and as adults still crave this connection.   While I believe it is meaningful connection we seek, even in the most dysfunctional of families it is painful to force a separation from them.  Being somehow bonded to a group is programmed into us as part of an enduring survival instinct and we yearn for it from cradle to grave.  We are communal creatures and for centuries we lived as members of tribes, as beings in cultures and in clusters that provided identity, protection and provision.  The Industrial Revolution changed all of that and we are no longer an agriculturally based society  which requires us to stay in one place with the same group of people to survive.  Some suggest this has created a sense of ecological grief, a sense of separateness from the earth, from our community and from ourselves.  Families are scattered and most of us now belong to a tribe we create, rather than the one into which we are born.  There is a certain starkness in acknowledging it might be somehow easier to talk to someone in Australia via email or chat than to walk across the street to speak to a neighbor. It seems the more connected we are electronically the less connected we feel personally.

Babies who are not touched or held, nurtured or cared for emotionally will shrivel up and die.  Adults who experience this sense of loneliness or desolation often label it “depression” and seek out better living through chemistry.  According to a recent government study, which can be found on the CDC website,

Antidepressants have become the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. They’re prescribed more than drugs to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, or headaches. Adult use of antidepressants almost tripled between the periods 1988-1994 and 1999-2000. Between 1995 and 2002 the use of these drugs rose 48 percent.

This staggering stat makes me curious about a few things.  First, is some of what we now label “depression” actually a deeper spiritual or existential pain?  Is it the ache of loneliness that comes from lack of meaningful relationships and understanding?  I also wonder, of those who truly are clinical depressed, if this sense of loneliness or lack of meaningful connection leads to depression, which leads to more loneliness and so on.  It also appears as though there is more to depression and loneliness than just being “alone.”  Tillich said that we use the world “solitude” to express the joy of being alone, and “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone.  Yet there is something underneath all of this, a fundamental need for connection to others, but to ourselves as well.

I believe the sense of desolation most people describe as loneliness is deeply primal and spiritual in nature.  If the mere presence of other human beings was enough to cure loneliness and depression we would all be happy, joyous and skipping through the day, eternally fulfilled and content.  Yet there is something more, a deeper need we have for connection, an existential pain that cannot be cured solely through interaction with others.  In fact, feeling a lack of understanding from others and a sense of separation from God can be one of the most painful forms of loneliness.  Even Jesus cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” when he experienced feeling abandoned by God. The deep experience of loneliness that comes from a feeling of spiritual separation is what John of the Cross termed the Dark Night of the Soul.

John describes the spiritual quest and a constant unfolding and surrendering to a radical leap of faith, totally abandoning oneself to the process. I have found this same template in every tradition and religion, almost like an initiation into deeper spiritual realms.  John says the first stages of the spiritual journey are often marked by a sense of excitement, enjoyment and childlike contentment, an inner realization of our built in connection to God.  The path appears to be straight and clear and allows one’s faith practice to deepen.   Over time the sense of connection and joy that come from spiritual practice begins to dry up and we enter a spiritual desert.  As the soul begins to feel the dryness, the previous experiences of God seem as intangible as vapor evaporating and the soul begins to doubt.  John says this is when God begins the purification process for even greater love and Union, in which the deepest longings of the soul are fulfilled.  This time is what the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes as “a crisis moment in the life of prayer,” and says that if we give into the doubt or stop our spiritual practice (whatever it may be), the desolation will seem permanent.  We are encouraged to keep going, even in the dryness.  The way out is through.  Keep showing up at the well of the Spirit, even if it seems as though rain will never come again.

The deepest and most profound loneliness I have ever experienced is in this sense of separation from the God.  Sometimes I think the Dark Night of the Soul sounds a bit melodramatic, but at the very least it feels like a Cloudy Morning of the Soul.  It is a God-shaped hole, a feeling of desolation and loneliness so deep, so acute and so raw it takes my breath away.  John also helpfully points out that there is no earthly pleasure to take its place, only a restless, consuming, longing ache for the Divine.   The things in which one used to find pleasure just seem empty, tasteless and arid.  The heart and soul ache for God again, long for the Beloved,  miss the sense of Oneness like the desert misses rain.  Everything within the soul is in agony,  the created longing for the Creator.   It feels like going from nights of ecstasy and ardor to being frozen by the winter of the soul, like being burned alive and frozen to death at the same time.  There is no language to explain the experience, no words to describe the indescribable  loneliness that is simply excruciating.  This experience is not clinical depression, but a purification of the soul.  God is still there, coaxing, loving, drawing the soul out the way a loving adult coaxes a trusting toddler to take first steps.

All of the spiritual traditions and religions of the book describe these experiences.   They describe a deep understanding that the Divine wishes a relationship and communion with us, as much as our souls long for communion with God.  The Koran, the Torah, the Psalms and parables of Jesus describe many of these experiences of coming and going, of longing and pain, of union and separation, of things being lost and found.  These were desert people and understood the life and death nature of the dryness of the desert,  so God is often described as a form of “water,” as a lover wanting to seek relationship, of enduring friendship and provision.  And while the desert may be the image of separation from God, it is also where one goes to seek God.  If  you trace the words Heaven or Paradise back to their original meaning, they  literally translate as “a garden.”

Every tradition tries to convey an understanding of the reciprocal need and nature of this connection to the Divine, of this deeper understanding that we are not isolated and forgotten.  Genesis says we “should not be alone.”   Jesus wanted his friends with him and was forever going off in boats to fish and hang out with them.  The Torah and Old Testament are full of stories of God continually reaching out to the chosen people.   The Hindus speak of the Atman, the “Eternal Self,” and of ashrams, teachers and methods for spiritual union.   The Buddhists speak of your Buddha Nature and of opening one’s heart to hold all sentient beings, being as gentle and consistent in your kindness as a loving mother is to her only child.  Kabir described it as “the breath inside the breath.”  One of my favorites, from the sayings of Mohammed, says

The One to whom you pray is closer to you than the neck of your camel…

For centuries we have needed, craved and sought these connections.  If we seek to fill the God-shaped hole with just anything or anyone we will still feel lonely because it is not a hole that can be filled with a substance or even a human lover.  Much of our economy runs on and is based on the belief that something outside of us will make us happy.  The ads tell us that if we have the right car, the right mate, drink the right beer, are the right size/shape/color, have more/less hair, the right phone, have the right clothes, work harder/smarter/faster, then you can rest, then you can be happy.  Yet we are a nation of people longing for more connection, aching inside with a cavernous emptiness, eating antidepressants and antacids, stuffing our grief and loneliness with work, retail therapy or countless other addictions, smiling through the pain and existing or surviving instead of really living.

I am not suggesting that if you just do more therapy, pray harder, go to more yoga classes, eat raw or think happy thoughts all of these things will resolve overnight.  In fact, just the opposite. It is important to discern if the sense of loneliness, isolation and lack of pleasure is truly depression,  or if it is a deeper existential pain no pill can cure.  A true Dark Night will leave you functioning fully and will at some point resolve as mysteriously as it appeared.  You will find that you suddenly feel God again and the sense of peace, joy and connection to the Divine is even stronger than it was before.

It does appear as though there is an ancient, universal need for connection and the path is similar in each tradition and culture.  While in the moment it can feel exceedingly uncomfortable or even grievous, the path appears to open only as much as we can or will give ourselves to it.  This path inevitably involves forgiveness, seeing things in a new way, letting go of resentments and finding a loving face of the Divine.  For those who do not feel comfortable with a concept of a deity, there is still a need for gentleness and compassion toward self and others, what the Buddhists might call metta.  All of these things lead to a deeper sense of connection to the Self, to God, to community, and the loneliness becomes less and less, while the peace and joy become more and more.  I can personally  attest that the experience of the pain and loneliness does in fact hollow out a space for better things to come and has the potential to be filled with bliss and equanimity.

The key to cracking the lock that houses loneliness is taking the time to get to know yourself,  to really prioritize what is most important to you. Meaningful connection with others is important and encouraged, as is living congruently with your values, hopes and dreams.  But until you make the time and commit to sitting with yourself, to entering into the desert to face your demons, they will always plague you.  Carl Jung said  if you don’t do this deeper work these things in your unconscious will “rise up to you as your life and you will call it your fate.”   Even though I have found it painful at times, I have truly come to believe that healing comes most easily through the door of an open heart, especially in these times when we are so tired and weakened by pain or sickness.

There is a piece of Buddhist wisdom which says,

Death is certain.  The time of death is uncertain.  Knowing this, what is the most important thing?

For many of us, finding a sense of peace and joy again is the most important thing; truly living life to the fullest and being connected to family and friends is the most important thing.  The key  is to do less and be more.  The key is to slow down enough to hear the inner Voice of Love, to get in touch with the places inside of  you that already hold all you need.  The key is to be indiscriminately loving and gentle with yourself;  to explore what the still, small voice may be saying to you.  The key is to allow yourself to be plunged into the darkness to find the Light, to know on the other side you once again melt into God, or the Atman, or your Buddha Nature…whatever you call it, you can again return to your true home.

John of the Cross ends his explanation this way,

Although as it journeys it is supported by no particular interior light of understanding, nor by any exterior guide, that it may receive satisfaction there from on this lofty road—it is completely deprived of all this by this thick darkness—yet its love alone, which burns at this time, and makes its heart to long for the Beloved, is that which now moves and guides it, and makes it to soar upward to its God along the road of solitude, without its knowing how or in what manner.

There follows this line:

In the happy night.

Wishing everyone happy days and nights, a great weekend and the wisdom of a few dark times as well…

Peace and blessings,

T 🙂

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