There is certainly a reason why the desert plays a significant role in the history of faith. The desert experiences of John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, and of Hebrew prophets come to mind as well-known examples of the mystical power that these places hold. If you live in or near a desert area, you are fortunate to have access to a place of beauty and serenity, that brings with it opportunities for spiritual practice.
The seeming barrenness of the desert belies a delicate balance of life. As you walk attentively through the rugged landscape, little life forms show themselves to you. You notice that a bright little flower grows from among rust-colored rocks. Blue-throated lizards dart across the trail as you approach. A hawk hovers above, as Creosote bush all around release into the air a scent that reminds you of the rain. From afar, the place where you walk may look like a brownish wasteland. But as you approach, the beauty of its true reality is revealed. I like to think that the desert and its secret life reflects the reality of the spiritual path.
These little desert escapes are dear to my heart. Although I take refuge within the sun-warmed rocks for pleasure and exercise, that’s where I go for healing and restoration. When a dark storm approaches in my internal weather, I take to the desert to be reminded of the inner Sun that is always ablaze. I particularly remember one day almost a decade ago, after receiving disconcerting news that would affect the course of my life. I was filled with fear and dread, hit by uncertainty and loss of hope. Unsure of how to act, I found myself walking alone in a desert preserve near my house. The sun was high in the sky and the day was bright. The sand glistened and the dull grey-green of the shrubs was particularly vivid. It was a mild day, and the wind howled with strength, imparting a dynamic aliveness to the reddish brown landscape. My heart was heavy, my mind in panic.
As I climbed some rocks that led me to the top of a short mountain, I experienced my surroundings taking me in and responding to my heart. You don’t have to believe in anything supernatural to understand that the human mind creates a meaningful reality of its own based on what it encounters around it. So it was with my mind in that moment, as I surrendered to the desert elements and let them wash over me. I sat on the mountaintop and the wind came to my aid. It had come from afar, from way over the rust-colored mountains on the horizon; it had caused the bushes and short trees to dance to its rhythm; it had touched the warm sand and thrown it against the rocks, gently sculpting them into dramatic shapes and forms. Nothing there remained the same. The whole dry landscape was in constant motion. The wind had taken me by the head and opened my eyes to the only constant: change.
Immersed in the warm serenity of the place, I received peace for my troubled heart, and courage to carry on. Since then, I’ve made it a habit to return to nearby desert locations for recharging and inspiration. If there is desert near you, give this exercise in nature communion a try. Open your senses there, be mindful of the surroundings and let the elements speak to you in language you understand. I am sure you will not be disappointed. If you live in a green place instead, the same can be practiced in your local natural landscape. Whatever it is, make it something you can return to: your desert (or green) spiritual retreat.