The wilderness plays an important role in the Judeo-Christian story. The Israelites traveled through the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land, it was in the wilderness that Elijah heard the “still, small voice” of God, and Jesus was called into the wilderness to be tested before beginning his ministry, to name a few examples. For the past several months I have been reflecting on the meaning of wilderness and why the spiritual journey must include wilderness experiences.
The word “wild” is associated with unpredictability, danger, and confusion; circumstances which naturally evoke feelings of fear, insecurity, and vulnerability. The Bible stories often speak of the physical wilderness of the desert, but the wilderness experiences we most often face today are those times of loss, weakness, and uncertainty. Those times when our strategies fail us, and our deepest fears and temptations begin to rise to the surface. We have a biological instinct to avoid vulnerability and to be fearful of anything that might threaten our security. So, many of us go through life doing everything we can to avoid the wilderness and conceal our vulnerabilities. Instead, striving to present images of self-sufficient and “in-control” people.
Continuously avoiding vulnerability, though, has a counter-productive effect in our journey toward healing and wholeness. Although we long to heal, move beyond, or just “let go” of our most traumatic and hurtful experiences, there is a part of our psyche that is compelled to remember and even relive those hurtful experiences. If we cease to recall our traumas, we fear we will be ill-prepared to defend ourselves against potential future scenarios. This leads to a cycle of reliving the experience and then repressing the hurt, over and over. Deepening the wound rather than processing the experience and healing the pain. The psychologist and social worker, Ralph De La Rosa, calls this a “wrinkle in our psychological evolution” (The Monkey is the Messenger 137).
Conversely, when we allow ourselves to experience our vulnerability fully, a truth is revealed to us about our deeper nature. In the midst of vulnerability, the illusion of self-sufficiency is penetrated and we recognize our need for one another, our need for community, and our need for God. The recently deceased theologian and spiritual teacher, Jean Vanier, has said “If God is Love then God must be terribly vulnerable.”
I interact with children on nearly a daily basis, both in my role with the Southeast Keizer Community Center and in my role as an educational assistant to children with disabilities, and I have come to understand childhood as a wilderness experience. It is a time of radical vulnerability and powerlessness. In over a decade of working with especially vulnerable children I have seen children react to their wilderness experiences in a variety of ways, ranging from joyful imaginative play to deep anger and rage. The vulnerability of children often results in behaviors that challenge us adults to think about the world in new ways, or that challenge our sense of control and power in a situation. Children, through play or misbehavior, can invite us (or trigger us, however you want to look at it) to be vulnerable ourselves. To lose, for a moment, our illusions of control and self-sufficiency and to meet them in their experience. If we allow ourselves to experience our own vulnerability and practice compassion toward the children in our lives, we can learn something more about what it means to be human. We can learn to walk compassionately with each other through the wildernesses we experience, rather than seeking to control one another. I am convinced that when Jesus said we must become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven he was calling us to embrace vulnerability.
In the classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryu Suzuki writes “It is necessary for us to keep the constant way. Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine” (57). The important lesson to glean from this teaching is that the spiritual life is not about feeling good all the time. In our spiritual journey it is important to cultivate a way of life that is sustainable and authentic. What I mean by sustainable and authentic is the ability to embrace the reality of each moment and continue through each moment regardless of external circumstances. If we are keeping a spiritual practice with the hope of receiving something such as excitement, superficial happiness, or respect from others we will eventually lose motivation because these feelings are temporary and dependent on certain circumstances. Or if we judge certain experiences as good and others as bad, for example if we think of excitement and joy as good experiences and sadness and anger as bad experiences, we may begin to suppress those experiences we dislike in order to maintain an experience that we do like. This is also not helpful on the spiritual journey because it is inauthentic. Life goes up and down. When things go the way we want we feel good, but when things go other ways and we experience loss, then it hurts. The point of the spiritual journey is not to learn how to deny certain emotions while fostering others, it is to be fully present to the experience of being human.
So, then we may ask, if we will still feel sadness and anger then what’s the point of keeping a spiritual discipline? My response is that there is a difference between experiencing an emotion and being controlled by an emotion. When we keep a spiritual discipline such as meditation or prayer we begin to recognize the ephemeral nature of thoughts and emotions and we are not carried away by them. We are rooted in the ever-changing now and we develop the discipline necessary to always act from our deepest and most authentic Self. Suzuki described it by writing “if your mind is calm and constant, you can keep yourself away from the noisy world even though you are in the midst of it” (58). Along the spiritual journey the external circumstances of our lives may get better, get worse, or stay the same. I cannot promise anyone that they will get that job promotion, be healed of their illness, or meet the woman or man of their dreams. However, I do feel confident in saying that if you are true to your spiritual path you will grow in inner peace, freedom, and clarity so that you can recognize all that comes your way, good or bad, as an act of grace. And this is the purpose of life: to simply live it with gratitude instead of fear.
I am an artist, writer, spiritual director, and educator living in Salem, Oregon. I am fascinated by the intersections of art and spirituality and believe that art can be a powerful tool in leading us deeper into the experience of being human.