The desert as a place of lifelessness or absolute desolation is a common cultural trope. We are often presented with the image of the desert–in film, literature, and art–as a place of profound emptiness. But it is not empty, at least not in the cases of the deserts to which I have traveled. We see the representation of a cultural idea, but we are insulated or removed from its actuality. What is absent is the manifestation of expected forms.
A Weight in Trade
Water is present, but its form and abundance are different by necessity. Life exists; communities of deeply interconnected plants and animals thrive. But in order to see these things, you have to shed your expectations about what you ought to be seeing. While its true that there are plenty of desert places hostile to the unwary human, I find that the dangers are no more or less than any other place–city, managed wilderness, or spaces truly unvisited by humans. They’re simply different in nature.
When we accept life within the relative security of a successful human community, we trade one set for another, and it’s anyone’s guess as to which is preferable. That is for the individual to decide. The nature of life anywhere and under any circumstances is rooted in the acceptance of risk. When we go out into the desert, especially alone, we are actively trading one suite of risks–being hit by a bus, losing our livelihood, having our heart broken–for another.
But the former set of accepted risks is no greater than the one we take on in a desert place. One may argue that knowledge, awareness of what is, and basic preparedness serve as our only security in any risk-based situation. But how do many of us obtain the knowledge of both risk and mitigation in any environment? How often do we feel as if we’ve been shoved into a circumstance without the benefit of warning or instruction? In my experience, the desert is a far friendlier place than most other places I’ve lived. It offers a relatively limited scope of risk that tends to fall into a few main categories.
- Being Stupid. This category covers things like not watching where you’re walking or trying to reason with rattle snakes. At first, you’ll feel like the list of things that could go wrong is longer than both your arms, but after a while, you begin to understand that many of those situations can be avoided by not being thoughtless or attempting to force your understanding of the world on a place that has nothing to do with you.
- Thinking You Matter. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings with this one, but it’s actually true. We walk around in our accustomed environment with this idea that we somehow matter. That our worthiness, our education or our talents somehow render us immune from the rules of risk and consequence. This is privilege in its purest sense, and the desert (any deserts, all deserts) have a knack for completely stripping our egos in short order. I think, of any place I’ve ever been, my brief, unaccompanied spells beyond Albuquerque showed this to me with painful clarity. It’s bringing that desert education back into the human community that’s difficult.
- Insisting. Gentle or harsh, I think the “universe” or whatever you want to call it has a way of consistently showing us that how we thought something was supposed to work isn’t actually how it does. If you spend any time in a desert place, you’ll probably experience both methods of correction. If you fail to observe your teacher, the world around you, please refer to category one.
Getting Beyond Yourself
Maybe this is why we form communities in the first place, and why we are such socially-driven primates. It’s built into us, right down to the fact that we developed language in order to better communicate abstract concepts like time or unseen location. While I’m sure this was not on the brains of our distant ancestors, language and many of the trappings of human culture tend to obscure some things I feel are important to think about.
Speech, thought, communication–they’re positive things. But I think they also have unintended consequences. For one, there’s an awful lot of ugly things we can do to those around us using these features of our humanness. For two, it’s terribly noisy when you have no time alone. It almost goes without saying that the act of being alone has been demonized by our current culture. We are told never to desire isolation and silence. We are shamed if we openly admit that we do. This isn’t new. To be ostracized has always been a terrible punishment. It is a death sentence in several ways. First, there is the social death of being ignored. Then, there is the physical death that may or may not hold hands with the emotional state resulting from the first. Either way, depending on how well you learned, you were expected to be toast, sooner or later.
But when you visit places where no one else is, you’re freed from that expectation to desire constant companionship. Some things you felt were terribly important seem to disappear. Other thoughts or feelings you never noticed rise to the surface, flash their beautiful, secret colors at you through the film of water that is our awareness of of our own thoughts. But if you can hold onto these thoughts when you return to your human community, you’re a better person than I.
The Idea of God Is Our Need to Share
So, we’ve talked about desert places and the distillation of our existence while there and the factors that represent an exchange of risks. We’ve spoken about the lessons you learn, one way or another, and briefly about the human need for isolation from the herd. But I think one aspect of our ability to communicate is the desire to do so. Everyone experiences this desire to share with others, at some point and to one degree or another. We are a sharing sort of animal.
Over the course of my education, I’ve read countless explorations of the mystical experience. One thing they almost always involve–especially for individuals who are considered more magical or in touch with a realm beyond the comprehension of the rest of a social group–is voluntary isolation. In some cases, there are accounts of mystical experience resulting from exile or unintentional isolation, but it’s typically seen as part of the process to engage with that which is not human–the supernatural.
Being an atheist, I see all stories about gods as existing on the same plane. They are worthy of equal weight, as a system by which humans can make sense of their lived experience. I also feel that our experience of any numinous presence, which is usually part of being deeply alone, is an echo of our own consciousness. So what do I think really happens when we go on a ‘vision quest’ or a ‘hajj’ a ‘pilgrimage’ or a ‘walkabout’?
At some point during these devoted journeys, we may enter a state similar to that of meditation. All meditation is, really, is the conscientious stilling of thought, coupled with an awareness of the physical processes of the body. It is not, in and of itself, exclusive to any religious system, even though we tend to associate it with Eastern philosophical practices. Any human can do it.
I think isolation is essential to this experience, because, again, we’re a chatty bunch of animals. We like to communicate our thoughts and feelings, but when there is no one else, where do these impressions go? I think they are deepened by the fact that there’s no one to tell. They represent a cache of memory and sensory impressions entirely undiluted by the presence of other humans. But we still ache to tell someone, and so we tell our Self.
Perhaps the divine is our only way to accept that we can learn from mistakes and balance new bundles of risk, that we can survive the realization that we are not special, and that we feel overwhelming senses of wonder that must, as a cup filled past the brink, overflow from us. For much of our history, although perhaps not all, we have been a species marked by a need for a destination or direction for our conscious thoughts. We develop systems of belief, deity, and even muse on what happens to our Us-ness once we die.
It comforts us, and provides a somewhat less frightening framework for the world than that of the dispassionate hyper-rationality associated with many forms of atheism. I’d like to think that I hold to a softer sort of disbelief in the supernatural. I understand why people need it–to feel loved, accepted, to have knowable boundaries placed upon their existence about what is or is not good, bad, acceptable or a sin. But I have looked into the void of my own isolation, and what answered me, stare for stare, was no deity. It was me. Imperfect, and with fewer answers than you might expect. But what She/I said to me, well, that is a story we must save for another time.