A Spiritual Place Not Often Talked About
©copyright R. Hayes 2007

*The following is a transcript of a talk given on 01/21/07 at The Unitarian Church, Pittsfield, MA

A few weeks ago I was here talking to you and I told you about the male bonding experience my son Dan and I had while setting up a new high-tech TV.

What I didn't tell you was how ill-prepared I was for what I'd gotten myself into. As a matter of fact I had no idea.
My son had said he'd gotten a similar set and that it'd been a snap to get his up and running. So I was expecting the same.

But when we unpacked it from the box he looked a bit surprised. This set wasn't so similar after all. As I struggled with where to plug things in, Dan told me he hadn't had to do all that.
There was a manual, but I'd tossed that aside in my excitement of unpacking everything.
After a lot of struggle, frustration, head-scratching and a few 4 letter words, I thought it might be a good idea to go look for the manual.

From there things improved, and we managed to get it all set up. It only took about 3 more hours than I'd expected it to!

But the pay-off was turning it on and seeing that excellent picture!

That was when Dan put his arm around my shoulder and said softly, almost reverently, “It's a beautiful thing.”
And it was! But clearly the experience I'd had was quite different than the one Dan had with his set.
Of course had I used that manual from the very beginning, things might have been easier.

When it comes to the spiritual life there are also instruction manuals available.
Bookstore shelves are full of them. There's a whole section at Barnes & Noble dedicated to spirituality. Clearly there are no shortage of books to help the seekers.

We human beings seek meaning. Whether we recognize it or not, we are spiritual beings.
If you doubt this read Emerson or Thoreau, or Shakespeare, and see how your heart feels when you do.
Listen to a great piece of music-look at a sunset.

What we feel moving within us when we are touched by these things is spirit. We are born with it, or perhaps it is born in us. But whatever the case, it is a vital part of who we are. And it needs to be nurtured.
And, if we don't nurture it, like any living thing that isn't fed, it will begin to starve.

But fortunately our spirit does let us know this. That's probably why there are so many people in the aisles at Barnes & Noble in the section titled “spirituality.”

I've read a number of these books-as a matter of fact I even wrote one of them- and I've heard many of these authors speak. And while I've found much of what they have to say helpful. I fear that, in many of these books, the emphasis is too often on all the positive aspects-the "feel good "stuff.
But that's only half the story.

The spiritual journey is one that goes through darkness as well as light.

Most of us want to feel happy , peaceful and content. None of us wants to feel pain and uncertainty.
And what may attract many to the idea of becoming more spiritual is the promises that many modern books seem to make: greater peace and serenity, a sense of connectedness, more abundance and love. In short, a happier life.

But there is a place you may come to that will test you and challenge you like no other. And it's a place where you don't want to get lost…at least no more lost than you already are.

I call this place the desert.

This is a place where you may feel unsure, abandon and totally alone. All bets are off: who and what you thought you are no longer seems to apply.

Jesus went into the desert. Mohammed went in to the desert. The Buddha, had his version of the desert.

When I turned 38 Something within me shifted. There was an uncomfortable-ness about me. I felt somehow “wrong” inside my own skin. The things I'd accepted as true about life, suddenly didn't feel true at all. And I began asking myself what I really believed in.

Then, one night, something awful happened.
I realized that I didn't really believe in much of
anything. And that included myself.
And with that realization came a profound sense of emptiness unlike anything I'd ever felt before. I literally felt barren. In a free-fall- panicky, as if I might die any minute.
I had no idea what was happening to me.
I didn't know it then but
I'd arrived at the desert.

And as in my TV adventure, I was ill prepared.
But truthfully I don't know that any one is prepared for this place. I'm not sure that you can be.
But I believe you need to know about it, and that's the reason for my talk this morning.

The desert experience is unique to each person. Again, like my story about setting up the TV, just because Dan had an easy time of it, I'd expected the same.
And that expectation only made things harder for me.

What may bring the onset of this experience is also unique to each one of us.

At some point chances are each one of us will find ourselves standing at the edge of the desert.

Do we go on or turn around?
Sometimes we have no choice.

I've known people who've had a deep, deep faith. Been devoted practitioners of a particular religion. Totally believed in God-felt God's presence often in their life. And then, one day, it's as if all that is over. They feel nothing there. Where God had been, there is now nothing

The absence of God is considered by many to be the experience of hell. And the desert may feel very much like that. But as Winston Churchill said, “When you're going through hell, keep going!

The other day I ran into a friend who's just learned that her 45 year old sister has cancer. The prognosis is not good. My friend is a spiritual person. And as part of her path she's worked hard at developing a relationship with a God of her understanding. She cried as she spoke to me about her sister and the conversation they'd had the night before.

My friend felt powerless. Unable to reassure her sister. And her own beliefs-what had been certainties-suddenly felt pretty shaky to her. And she asked, where is God in all this? That is a question no one can answer for her. Only she can discover that, and she may have to venture into the desert to do so.

But God doesn't have to be part of the equation.
Spirituality is by no means synonymous with God.
I know deeply spiritual people who don't believe in “a God”.

As a matter of fact you don't even have to be spiritual to find yourself in the desert!
All you need is the experience of something falling away that has been central to your life.

Suppose you've been in a job for years, it's not only what you do, it's “who” you are. People associate you with it. You believe deeply in it. You draw power from this. And then the job is gone. Maybe it's you're choice and you've retired. Or maybe something else happens.

What if your credentials-all your degrees or titles- are central to your life and the sense of “who” you are? You're tops in your field. Your mind has earned you praise and accolades all your life. It's been the thing you believe in. It's your “source” of power.

And then a stroke happens. You no longer are able to function at the high level you once had and you must step down. Maybe you wind up in a nursing home and now are dependent on disgruntled and low paid aides.
Who you have been has no meaning to these people. You're just another patient. All your life you've depended on your brains and ability. Now that's gone.

What do you do?

A few weeks ago I asked, what is your source of strength in times of struggle?
So, what do you do when you've always been the source of that strength and suddenly that strength is no longer available? That thing that has defined who you are is gone... what are you left with?

Welcome to the desert.

During my first visit to the desert (and yes you can find yourself there more than once), when I came up against this question, “who am I?”, my initial reaction was to list things like musician, businessman, father, husband. But those answers - answers I'd accepted once - no longer sufficed. I realized that these were things I did, or roles given to me by particular circumstances. But they didn't answer the question!

For much of my life I'd said things like, “I'm a musician” or I'm a “service manager”. Realizing I wasn't those things left me wondering “who” was the musician?...”who” was the service manager?

And there I was stumped. Taking away all the things I'd believed to be “the story of me”, I seemed to be left with a blank. It was as if I was empty.

There's a story about an American professor who began studying Buddhism. In time he becomes an expert.
One day a famous Buddhist monk who this professor greatly admires is visiting the U.S. and the professor has the opportunity to meet with him. When he arrives at the Monk's room he's bursting with excitement. He has all kinds of things he wants to discuss with this Master. So he begins talking, and talking. He is telling this monk all about his understandings of Buddhism.

The old Monk sits patiently and listens. After some time he politely interrupts the professor and asks him if he'd like some tea. The professor says yes. The monk hands him a tea cup and begins to pour as the professor continues talking. The monk fills the cup but doesn't stop pouring when it reaches the top. The professor doesn't want to offend and at first doesn't say anything, hoping the monk will realize what he's doing. But the monk continues to pour and the tea continues to overflow the cup. Finally the professor says, “Master, can't you see that the cup is full?” With that the monk smiles and puts down the tea pot and says, “The cup is like you-too full. No room for more”.

My first experience in the desert was one of emptying out. Like that tea cup, there was no way I could receive anything new until I let go of some things.
And this took time.
And it hurt.

Carl Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain”

Struggle is a natural part of the growth process-we don't grow without being challenged.

When I felt this emptiness my first response was to somehow get rid of it because it was so uncomfortable. I wanted to fix it-to fill it somehow. Experiencing this emptiness seemed to erase “me”-or the me I thought I was. And that was very, very unsettling.

In today's world, where so much calls for our attention, and so many things can distract us, it is tempting to turn to any number of things to help us feel “full” again- God only knows there are no shortages of things to occupy and distract us.

But if you do this, you may miss the opportunity to make an amazing discovery.

It's not “out there” - it's "in here"- it's within you!!

That swelling sensation in your heart when you read a great writer like Emerson, or that tear that comes to your eye when you're suddenly overcome with beauty....or grief;
That tingling, light-headed sensation that moves through you from head to toe when the love of your life takes your hand and tells you that they love you-
THAT is not coming from somewhere out there! It's in you!

So I've come here this morning to encourage you to dive deeper, to not be afraid. Don't let discomfort and fear stop you. Don't turn around and walk away when your feet touch the first grains of sand. Step in and let yourself sink. Allow yourself to experience this emptiness. What may feel like things going very,very wrong may actually be a necessary and eventually even a welcome part of the spiritual journey.

What may feel like hell may be the desert, where you empty yourself of preconceived notions and expectations, and allow yourself to become open to deeper understandings. And finally to ever deeper spiritual experiences.

While feeling empty and adrift seems anything but spiritual, it is a spiritual state of readiness.

And the discovery that awaits you is the question you began with when you arrived here in this world, before you believed and accepted what others told and taught you.
The question is the one we all ask, “who am I?”

On the other side of the emptiness you may catch a glimpse of the answer. And it may be much, much more than you've ever imagined.