The Art of Going into the Wilderness
In my college sorority room, back in the “olden” days, the telephone was attached to the wall. This meant that while I was on the phone getting berated by my parents about being placed on academic probation and my continuing lack of a major, my roommate Janet, a computer science student, was on her side of the room drawing with fine tip markers on computer paper. And smirking.
Janet had a life plan. I, on the other hand, had no major and no direction in life. I had been drifting in the college wilderness for almost three years lost in a sea of alcohol, drugs, sex, and self-hatred. That's over 1,000 days or half the time that the Buddha wandered around northern India eating only a grain of rice each day. I had definitely been eating much more than rice, yet still I was lost.
To get off the depressing phone call, I made a quick decision. I told my parents, "I have major. It's computer science.” I looked at Janet to gauge her reaction. She knew that I had never had a computer science class, and, as this was 1981, I wasn't even sure what a computer was. The darkness of my wandering had given way to clarity — a decision which guided me from academic probation to finishing both a B.S. and an M.S. in Computer Science over the next three years.
Following graduate school, I got a job at IBM. After a year there and a few more at Oracle, I could no longer pretend I was interested in database software. So, I found myself back in the wilderness, wondering what my next calling would be. I had the fortune of being married to someone with a promising future in art law who kept our children fed and clothed while my job went from full-time to part-time to no-time.
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” –Wendell Berry
As our children grew and became more self-sufficient, I was again searching and wondering if I had a purpose in life and what it might be. During this next wilderness period, I used a lot of wine to numb my feelings of unworthiness. Some part of me didn’t think being a mother of four was enough of a reason to exist. It was during this period of sadness and self-disdain that I found the teachings of mindfulness and the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. In 1999, he gave me a dharma name which defined my deep intention to find meaning: Joyful Purpose of the Heart.
Thich Nhat Hanh shared the teachings of the Buddha in a way that helped me understand the value of the wilderness experience. He wrote that without mud, there can be no lotus. Without suffering, there could be no joy. He also emphasized the Buddhist teachings of emptiness and impermanence which led to realizing that, in the ultimate dimension, we really have nowhere to go, and nothing to do — meaning that we act, but without attachment to a particular outcome.
In a book by Buddhist teacher and Episcopal priest Alan Watts, I came upon a passage explaining Apranhita, aka Goallessness or Aimlessness. It helped me to understand how life could be purposeful, even when I wasn’t “getting anywhere”:
“At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere. You go round and round, but not under the illusion that you are pursuing something, or feeling from the jaws of hell… the meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music, also, it is filled in each moment of its course.”
Inspired by these spiritual teachings, I surprised myself by enrolling at Howard Divinity School and taking classes in Old and New Testament, Church History and Womanist studies. While I didn’t end up resonating with a ministerial vocation, I left with an understanding of Christian liberation theology and how spirituality can be the foundation of social justice. And, as the result of attending a Historically Black University, I began the lifelong process of seeing and transforming my racist conditioning. Two very important steps along my path.
Then, in 2001, we had the tragic events of September 11. This was another moment when I was pulled out of the wilderness. I realized that I had to learn to soothe my self-doubt and step up and do something, right now. Armed with my budding mindfulness, yoga, and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) practices, I started teaching conflict resolution to kids in the public schools. Like that college phone call with my parents, the heartbreak of September 11 provided the mud I needed to begin growing a lotus. The work I began in the schools at that time was the seed that grew into opening a yoga studio, founding a mindfulness community, and influenced all of the work I am still doing today.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple teaching of No Mud, No Lotus is real. Mud, like a challenging period of life, is invaluable. These moments of not knowing create the space for spiritual transformation and for finding out what the world needs us to be doing. While going through wilderness periods of intense mental health challenges within my family, I learned humility and patience. When dealing with a chronic autoimmune disease that left me with daily fatigue, I learned self-care and empathy for people living with chronic illness. All lessons I couldn’t have learned without feeling lost. Such experiences can give us the focus and clarity we need to be kinder, more open, generous, and compassionate human beings.
“The dark will be your home tonight. The night will give you a horizon further than you can see.” — David Whyte, Sweet Darkness
Let me be clear, my wilderness experiences haven’t involved life threatening trauma or the kind of daily oppression that many others struggle with. I had the time and material resources to deal with my depression and confusion without digging myself into huge debt or dire physical illness. I recognize that this isn’t the case for many other people who have no choice but to keep focused, even when time in the wilderness is what they need.
My wilderness experiences were those periods in life when I felt spiritually or emotionally lost. I’ve had a few more wilderness periods since the ones I describe here and I suspect there are more in my future. I’m guessing you have had these periods in your life, too. Times when you didn’t really know why you were on this planet and what you were meant to be doing here.
Each time that a new path has been illuminated for me, it feels like that moment when you first see land after flying over the ocean on a dark night. I feel relieved and expect that this is the final landing. This is it, I’ve found My Life's Purpose. Those moments are so sweet… and also very fleeting. It’s never the final landing. And that’s probably best, because when the final landing comes, my travels will be over.
No one enjoys being exiled into the unknown lonely desert. It’s uncomfortable to have no idea where to go from here. Our fears of leaving the familiar and knowable to move out into the vast unknown may cause us to stay in jobs we hate, fail to end relationships that are long past over, and accept habitual ways of living that sap the energy out of us. Over time, our conditioning to staying in the known strengthens, making it harder to open to what Buddhists call our beginners mind. Like the man who asked for tea when his cup was already full, there’s no room for anything new when we are full up on what we already know.
When you find yourself in your version of the wilderness, consider opening to the uncomfortable feeling of beginners mind and allowing yourself to sink into the mud. Expect to get muddy. Choosing to accept not knowing, we risk losing our self-image, our comfort and our righteousness. But, it’s only from this dark and messy place that we can find the next clear step in our evolution, guiding us into the more authentic and purposeful life we are longing for.