Sunday, August 17, 2014

An Inward Desert

That man finds greater praise before God, for he takes all things as divine, and as greater than they are in themselves. Indeed, this requires zeal and love and a clear perception of the interior life, and a watchful, true, wise, and real knowledge of what the mind is occupied with among things and people. This cannot be learned by running away, by fleeing into the desert away from outward things; a man
must learn to acquire an inward desert, wherever and with whomever he is.

Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works, p. 492

When I hear the word desert, I usually think of a place that is barren. No people live there, there are no villages or towns, and plants do not grow there. No water can be found. Yet this is the place that is so often cited as a place to go in order to seek spiritual alignment.

The desert is often understood to symbolize a kind of asceticism, a willingness to abandon material things; yet Meister Eckhart maintains that nothing of the kind is the case. This outer abandonment, all of the outer symbols and forms, both the adoption of those symbols and forms or the abandonment of the symbols and forms, is useless. It reminds me of things that Jeanne de Salzmann says about seeing (See Seeing is an Act, from The Reality of Being, pages 205-206.)

 In pondering this question, I see that the desert does not mean asceticism. It does not mean barrenness, or even a lack of attachment or nonattachment. To me, contemplating this question this morning, it seems quite simple: the desert represents discipline.

And indeed, both Meister Eckhart and Jeanne de Salzmann emphasize a continuing and relentless need for discipline in inner work. Discipline is not a form; it is an obligation. Gurdjieff dismissed people who lack discipline, calling them tramps and lunatics. Neither one had any chance of becoming anything real within themselves. To go into the desert, to acquire an inward desert, is to acquire a place that has a great demand. There is nothing empty or unpopulated about it, nothing that is barren or lacking. On the contrary — as anyone who studies the desert carefully will know — it is a rich environment, but an incredibly demanding one. One has to have one's attention, ones wit, active and around one at all times to survive in these conditions.

I recently read an essay in which a very respectable gentlemen was maintaining that one need not commit to a particular spiritual discipline. He presented a dreamy, colorful image of flitting from religion to religion like a butterfly, sipping the nectar of each one in a rapture of joyful understanding. It all sounds very nice, but in my experience, absolutely nothing can come of such activity. It is like bacon and nuclear physics. Nuclear physicists eat breakfast:  They cook bacon and eggs, and so on.  If you go cook bacon and eggs with a nuclear physicist and have breakfast while he discusses physics, it doesn't mean you understand nuclear physics; or that you ever will. It takes many decades of discipline to understand nuclear physics and come to any real new understanding regarding the question.

Everyone in today's cultures wants to get things for free. Especially in the last 20 or 30 years, the idea has arisen that one can achieve spiritual depth by paddling about in shallow water. This is absolute nonsense, nothing more than the evil inner God of self calming. One has to be willing to pay with everything; and if this sounds severe, it is because it is. Soft peddling the situation so that people believe their comfort can serve their soul serves no one.


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