Alone with the Alone

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As I write this my wife and I are waiting near a remote canyon in the Great Basin Desert of southeastern Utah. We're waiting for twelve people we've guided out here to return from their three days of solitude and fasting. This is day two.


Each of these people has gone out alone to sit and sleep beneath one of the gnarled juniper trees, or against the base of a red rock cliff. There they hold their fast, pray, consider their life’s purpose and direction, and listen to the silence.

Imagine what it’s like to be out there. There are no distractions and nothing to do. Your eyes follow a solitary hawk turning in a thermal and then it disappears beyond a ridge. You feel the soft movement of air on your face. You wait. Sand runs through your fingers. You watch your thinking mind thinking, and it becomes uninteresting. You feel old like the cliffs, and the story of your entire life becomes present to you, its great loves and little failures, its hopes, its first dreams.

Sometimes rabbit, coyote, owl or lizard comes to you, and you ask her or him questions. You might ask how to see clearly the next steps in your life, and how you can go forward without self-doubt and in full presence. If you're lucky, they show you.

Or sometimes you might cry, remembering some wound of your life. If you decide you want to be finished with it, you might pick up a stone and whisper into it this thing, this wound, until the stone signifies the entire sad affair. Then with great dedication you dig a hole with your hands and bury it, or pitch it into the abyss of the canyon. You make little rituals like this and their significance becomes powerful for you.

Sometime you might imagine this day is the very end of your life, the last one of all your days. Then, as evening comes, you make a circle of stones and step inside it. This is your sacred circle, the place where you will bring closure to your life. You pray, saying whatever you need to out loud to state your intention and make the moment sincere. Then you close your eyes and wait. You wait to see who comes to say goodbye to you. Maybe your children come, or your spouse. Maybe your grandmother comes, even though she’s been dead for many years. Maybe someone comes who has caused you pain, or to whom you have caused pain. You sit with each person, one by one, listening to what they have to say and responding in a way that makes things good between you. In this way you clean up your life.

When night falls, it makes you humble. You see the universe above you. There are no city lights, and with the moon absent as it is at this time, the blackness is complete. Thousands upon thousands of stars are scattered across the heavens. It is utterly silent. As you lay on the earth looking up, you feel as if you're falling outward into endlessness. You can hear your own breathing and the beating of your heart.

You might choose to hold a vigil on one of your nights of solitude, staying awake all night until sunrise. It’s a hard thing to do, to stay awake that long. You prepare yourself by washing your body, and then enter your sacred circle. There you sit in silence, or talk out loud, or sing all the chants and songs and lullabies you can remember. You ask for guidance. You give thanks for your life and for all the people who have cared for you and loved you and taught you. You pray for the healing of the world, for the end of wars, for understanding and compassion among all people, and for the well being of the entire community of life on earth. You do it again, and again. The stars slowly wheel in their great arc.

When the dawn comes it comes with the slowest grace, a pale lightening in the east, then lavender-coral-rose-gold and the faintest blue-white of the approaching sun. Finally the sun pierces the horizon’s edge with a diamond light that is both comforting and unbearable, like a companion who loves you without speaking.

When the sun warms up the rocks you might go to a place where the Entrada stone spreads out, an ancient sedimentary layer that is smooth and curved like skin. You might take off your clothes to be as naked as it is, and lay with your belly against it. Things are simpler, and the stone teaches you about that. You remember your origins.

Often you are hungry, but even if you were offered food you would turn it down, not wanting to abandon the clarity fasting gives your body. “There’s a hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness,” Rumi says. “We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music. If the brain and the belly are burning clean with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.”

When the final dawn comes on the fourth morning you pack your few things, scatter any ceremonial stones or altars you have made, brush out your footprints as best you can, and return to basecamp and your life among people. You are glad to be back, glad to eat, glad to look forward to a hot shower, but the time spent out there alone with the alone will never leave you. In fact, it will keep working inside you, patiently returning you to your primal perspective and revealing the strength that is naturally yours. It is, to quote Rumi again, “Free medicine for everybody!” The strength and gratitude you feel become a source you can draw upon to give away to others — free medicine. And that’s the whole point. “You go out in order to come back,” our late teacher, Steven Foster, said, “to bring a gift for your people.”

So here we sit, waiting for our brothers and sisters to come back. We pray for their safety and that they will be able to receive what is revealed to them. They are doing a hard thing and need whatever help our prayers might bring. They are doing it for all of us.