When I was in graduate school I worked with a Jungian analyst, June Singer. She used to say, “Work expands to fill all of the available space.” The problem is not the amount of things you have in your life, it’s the attitude. It’s your fear of space. Busy-ness in the Tibetan tradition is considered the most extreme form of laziness. Because when you are busy you can turn your brain off. You’re on the treadmill. The only intelligence comes in the morning when you make your To Do list and you get rid of all the possible space that could happen in your day. There is intelligence in that: I fill up all the space so I don’t have to actually relate to myself!
Reginald Ray, Busyness is laziness
One of the mighty illusions that is constructed in the dailiness of life in our culture
is that all pain is a negation of worthiness,
that the real chosen people, the real worthy people,
are the people that are most free from pain.
bell hooks, American author and social activist
In the south of Kildare there is the small town of Castledermot, the Gaelic name of which is Diseart Diarmad. I was struck by this name as we passed it the other day, as the word diseart means “desert”. This refers to the monastery founded around 800 by the father of St. Diarmuid, after which the town takes its name. So the space where the monks lived was called a desert, even though, as you can imagine, dry deserts are somewhat hard to find in Ireland. However, in most religious traditions we find references to the desert. So what does it mean and is it relevant to us today?
The first obvious meaning of the word desert refers to a place where nothing grows and conditions are simple, even harsh. This absence of growth means that a person is removed from normal distractions and encouraged them to focus on what was really necessary. Familiar patterns and habits no longer apply. So for example in the Old Testament, the Prophet Hosea says that “The desert will lead you to your heart where I will speak”. I find it interesting that people found the need to create deserts in eight century Ireland when things were very quiet and remote compared to today. In a hectic pace of life, like todays, some creation in our schedules of a similar uncluttered space, both externally and internally, is even more necessary.
However, the desert can also be a metaphor for periods in our lives, as all of us can pass through moments when nothing seems to be moving or growing in us, when things seem barren and dry, or when familiar ways no longer seem to work. It can be said that at such times we enter our own “desert” where we are forced to re-evaluate what is important and simplify things down to what is really needed. Periods of change and difficulty – when we are faced with the removal of our usual points of reference or with no sustenance – can be somewhat frightening and confusing. We can no longer follow our old habits of fantasy, escape or distraction. When this happens it is hard to believe that our own empty and desolate moments can be in any way positive or moments of growth. And yet, one theme which we find in both eastern and western writers on meditation is that our problems become the very places where we can discover greater wisdom and depth. Sometimes we are encouraged to make “difficulties into the path”.
Not always easy. However, the word desert, and the name of the town remind me to hold difficulties in a different light. They may not be all negative. It would seem that the secret of the desert is learning to lose, to let things go, to simplify. Periods of dryness or confusion or doubt are challenges to stay with ourselves, to observe, to learn gentleness and allowing. The frequently found theme of the desert teaches us the importance of slowing down, of being patient and waiting for the meaning or the growth to appear in its own time. Difficult periods can be, as the Prophet says, a time for journeying deeper into our own heart.
Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain.
As long as it talks I am going to listen.
Thomas Merton, Rain and the Rhinoceros
We all have well-established habits of thought, emotion, reaction and judgement, and without the keen awareness of practice, we’re just acting out these patterns.
When they arise, we’re not aware they’ve arisen.
We get lost in them, identify with them, act on them — so much of our life is just acting out patterns.
As I was washing my hands the other evening before the meal I turned on the tap marked “C” and started to wash. After a moment something registered, and I thought “this water is cold, it should be getting warm by now”. And then I realized that “C” in an anglophone country like Ireland refers to “cold” whereas “C” in a francophone bathroom would indicate hot water. I noticed that my behaviour had been automatic, done without conscious awareness, based on procedural, formed, memories. I had turned the “C” tap without thinking and gradually my brain caught up with the fact that this was not France and that the patterned behaviour would not get the desired result.
Frequently we operate on procedural memories or knowledge. This is fine for something like driving, which is fairly automatic regardless of whether one is driving on the right or the left. However, doing things in an automatic way can mean that we fit things into familiar boxes, or do not see things as new but presume that they will be the same as before. We do not give the moment a chance to reveal any new riches, because we have it figured out even before it happens. We can reduce others and, even more frequently, ourselves, to limited pre-defined expectations and not believe in any possibility for change.
The promise of being broken
and the possibility of being opened
are written into the contract of human life.
Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open