Each year I go into the desert usually someplace in Death Valley or the Inyo Mountain Range, to spend four days and nights alone, without food or shelter, and to engage in what many call a “vision fast”. This has been my practice for the last ten years, and although it has become quite ordinary for me, each year carries its own surprises, trials, joys, and thrills. The four days feel somewhat like an extended “active imagination” (to use a Jungian term) in which the ego begins to soften, allowing unconscious material to reveal itself in the surrounding rocks, trees, flowers, bugs, clouds, and critters. Like living inside a crazy dream, I never know what to expect. Tears flow, unexpected sorrows crop up, laughter and song take on a will of their own. Each thing reveals its own unique essence.
In previous fasts, I have endeavored to find some new guidance for my life. What tidbit of insight will I find that will serve as a compass for my upcoming year? What new revelation will I bring back with me? But, my goals and intentions are beginning to lose their potency. I don’t want to expect anything anymore and my inner process is beginning to sound like blather. Rather, I simply want to go into the desert, in solitude, and be present to any phenomenon that enters into my perceptual field.
In many respects, the desert is a goalless terrain; there are no destination points, no lakes to camp by, no shorelines to walk. It is no surprise that in this landscape of endless no-things, one is compelled to create tangible images: False gods and idols, a Golden Calf, a stone to hold on to, anything to scratch a mark on eternity. But eventually, even stones turn back into sand. “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). And, as the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes, “No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea.”
Still, we are told, “Seek and ye shall find”. Find what? What exactly are we looking for out here? When one enters the desert there is nothing to find but more desert. The boundlessness of the desert unhinges the stasis of the fixed mind; exposing the ego, bringing in a rush of terror and a fear of annihilation. Surely, deeply embedded in the collective unconscious the desert archetype knows that what is being sought is more than an object of fixation.
Perhaps what we find in the desert is freedom. Paradoxically, we gain freedom from ourselves so that that we can find ourselves. As Thomas Merton says of the desert fathers, they did not seek spiritual enlightenment, or to escape from the hassles of everyday life, or even God. Rather…
the simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world.