“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”
Antoine de St- Exupery
The desert has long played an important role in religions traditions and individual awakenings. Much of the formative historical events in the Jewish tradition took place in or around deserts. A critical stage of Jesus’ spiritual development happened after he was baptized and retreated to the desert, where he faced and overcame temptations. Islam emerged in one of the hottest and driest places on earth; not coincidentally, it employs metaphors inspired by this geography.
The desert has been backdrop for these outward, historical events, but it is also a profound metaphor on the inner, individual level. Wandering in the desert is an effective image to convey when we feel lost, abandoned, confronted with overwhelming vastness, or cast away.
To reach the ‘promised land’- the source of bountiful life that we all have within us- everyone who seeks to walk the spiritual path (NB: path is also a metaphor!) must negotiate an arid, inner landscape of obstacles and mirages. The desert purifies us.
Recently, I began to look at the desert in a new way after traveling to a place I consider to be one of the most beautiful on earth: the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
In a broad mountain valley flanked by two mountain ranges, natural processes have worked for over 400,000 years to create a constantly shifting field of dunes, some of which reach heights of over 700 feet. The dunes are breathtaking, but the desert environment that created them is harsh: constant winds, high elevation, and less than 7 inches of precipitation annually create a desolate, inhospitable place.
Or so it would seem. Despite the unrelenting elements that could easily destroy it, life finds a way to survive and even thrive here. Dozens of flower and insect species, along with falcons, beetles, lizards, elk, and even pelicans make their homes on and around the dunes.
Isn’t it amazing how life is so powerful that it can find a way to thrive in the most inhospitable environments?!
I thought about this in a new way after visiting a Zen teacher friend of mine living just north of the dunes in Crestone (which has recently become a mecca for spiritual seekers from all traditions). There, while we spoke about the crucifixion and resurrection (ironically enough!), he joked about “symbol abusers”: people who literalize symbols and use them as tools of self-inflation instead of reflecting on the inner process they points to.
(Sidebar: I suggested we create a registry of convicted symbol abusers…we have the right to know if these dangerous people are living in our neighborhood!)
Symbol abusers would view Jesus’ death and resurrection as a literal reality whose truth only their particular ‘team’ possesses. Anyone who doesn’t share their particular interpretation is labeled as heretic, pagan, or infidel.
By contrast, if we really see those events symbolically, they could remind us that we are dying and being reborn in every moment. Or that there are periods of our life when we radically shift priorities and are resurrected as a new person. Or to remind us that suffering is part of this world, and that even God endures it.
Jesus’ life can been used to justify conquest, genocide, and torture. Or the very same events on a symbolic level can be used to lead us to greater Self-understanding, compassion, and enlightenment.
Even if the symbols lead a majority of people into greater bondage to themselves, there will always be individuals who use them as tools of liberation. It’s simply not possible for us to mess things up so badly that we destroy symbols’ transformative potential!
Symbols are not the problem; interpretation is!
Metaphors don’t kill people; bad interpretations of metaphors kill people!
In a similar way, perhaps, the desert environment is only harsh for those who have failed to adapt to it. For the animals and plants living there, there’s nothing wrong with the conditions- it’s their home. They have accepted and embraced the constraints the environment places on them, in the same way we must accept and embrace the boundaries of symbol interpretation (Hamlet simply cannot be considered a manual for bowling).
Similarly, spiritual practice helps us to understand and embrace our individual limitations. Problems come when we try to pretend we’re something other than what we are. Many people (myself included) have fruitlessly tried to perfect ourselves, thinking that perpetual bliss awaited just around the corner if we worked a little harder. I’ve found it much more effective to recognize and embrace all aspects of myself, including the little voice who always wants things to be different.
In the same way that the birds, insects, and mammals living on the dunes have learned to live with the limits that nature imposes on them, I’ve come to accept that I will always want to be more than I could ever possibly be.
And that’s ok. I don’t have to judge or criticize myself for not living up to who I think I should be. In fact, accepting that I am a simple human being, prone to judgment and mistakes like everyone, allows me to flourish and thrive.