And then there was the desert. The desert is a mystical place, where things are put in context. It reminds me of reverb, delay pedals and “The End” by the Doors echoing into the big sky. The desert teaches you the value of water, about survival and surrender.
The Sun Hermit & I have spent many lifetimes together, and I still remember meeting him in the desert. He offered an invitation to me then that I turned down. The desert can be oppressive, overbearing. The desert can be bleak and unforgiving. But there are few things as sweet as a warm desert night as the setting sun paints the big sky red, orange, pink and violet.
I remember walking through the sand and feeling it between my toes, the intoxicating sense of nakedness and intimacy with nature, sun and silence throw you into an altered state where you experience yourself not so much as a person but more as a body–a sweaty, vulnerable body driven by a deep survival instinct that knows to just keep walking.
It’s liberating, for a while at least. Your ordinary cares seem less important when it’s just step, step, step, step. Or I’m reminded of that America song, “Horse With No Name.” The line, “In the desert, you can’t remember your name / cause there ain’t no-one for it to give you no pain.” Or is it shame? I like that sentiment. You lose your social identity, your handle that opens you to praise and blame. In Buddhism they call blame and praise two of the “worldly dharmas.” You practice to transcend them.
And now I feel called back to the desert. The Sun Hermit lived in a little adobe home, way out there on his own. He would sit out in the hot sun and drink tea and play his slide guitar. From lifetime to lifetime, some things do not change. There is always tea, music, and my guru. And my love. She’s always there too.
When I met the Sun Hermit in the desert I thought I might end up like him, content to my solitary existence, content to my smallness under the big sky, but with a mind as vast and open as any expanse I had ever known. There was an appeal to this lifestyle, but also a fear–what would I miss out on? And I think this fear always exists within the seeker, the fear of ending the quest and losing the seeker. The sage has found everything and has reached the end of the path. But I think sometimes that finality frightens us.
What is the greatest achievement of a lifetime? What is worth striving for, dying for? What vision does not end, leading us right back to where we started?
This great and terrible vision of the wheel of samsara sometimes comes to me. It is an image that was imprinted in my mind at a very early age. I sometimes feel that memories of past lives return to us in childhood through books, video games and movies. Well I can vividly remember walking through that deserted Tibetan monestary and studying the engraving of the “wheel of suffering” on the wall. It was mystifying, but I knew there was something terribly important about it.
And as I got older, I began to have these moments where it felt as though I was rising above the clouds of my life, seeing the big picture of life and all lives, interwoven in inextricable feedback loops. It was all a great circle. I could see my own life rising and falling on the tide of eternity. And I could feel all life breathing and experiencing as one vast organism, in awe of the tremendous fact of being alive. Of being life! Life as life as life, ever one, eternally here and now…
And I began to know, also, my own forgetfulness. How easy it was to slip back into living life as Tom and identifying with a limited perspective. What a strange, funny and tragic game! My own belief is that remembering is not about the desire and effort of the ego, but an impulse born in spirit to remember itself, which then moves through the ego… perhaps as sustained effort, perhaps as deepening effortlessness. This is how I have understood my own experience of attaining without effort, the strange dynamics of forgetting and remembering.
But that’s just how it is with exalted states. There is still a rise and fall. I do not feel that attaining is really about achieving some permanent cosmic state. Even in the simplest, most mundane activities, there is no self. Chop wood and carry water, as they say. There is no Tom when Tom is meditating and there is no Tom when Tom is filling out his taxes. There is no Tom in writing, no Tom in dreaming, no Tom in drinking tea. There is only the wind.
Like a cool breeze in the desert. Everything changes with that cool breeze.