If you look at a map of the Sinai peninsula, you might wonder what route could possibly have taken forty years for the people of Israel to navigate from Egypt to the Promised Land. Following in the footsteps of that paradigmatic journey, you might similarly wonder why a two minute conversation with the Tempter in the desert took Jesus forty days. There seems to be a chronic case of inefficiency in the biblical world. Why don’t they just get on with things? Why do things take so long? Where’s the sense of purpose and direction?
Yes, we do like a sense of purpose and ‘wasting time’ seems like a crime against life. But what if our desire for control and ‘productivity’ is, in fact, a problem rather than a virtue? It seems to me that the long periods of wandering in the featureless landscapes of the desert – though Sinai is very beautiful in its rugged barrenness – are designed precisely to take the wanderer beyond the level of what it is merely ‘interesting’ to the deeper place of growth and wholeness. We often have a tendency to over-value our likes and preferences, our ideas and opinions. While these have their place, it is a mistake to think that ‘I’ am simply the sum total of these characteristics. Our true self is something much less clearly defined, because our true self consists in our capacity for openness, compassion and attentiveness. The testing time of desert wandering, chosen or involuntary, can be a process whereby we learn how to loosen our grip on superficial things in favour of a simpler and stronger open-heartedness. This process can be long and occasionally painful if we are very attached to these superficial things, but it’s fundamentally an enlivening process. It is also one that does not require effort so much as patience and a willingness to bear with a degree of uncertainty or ‘unfinishedness’.
Meditation is one of the ways we can practice this disposition in a regular way and Lent affords an opportunity to recommit oneself to a life of deliberate wandering.
I learned something new about agriculture yesterday (most things I might learn about agriculture will be new to me…). It was that there is a method of farming that rejects the tilling of the ground on the basis that the soil retains more of its nutrients when it is not disturbed. This approach also helps prevent erosion and increases the retention of moisture.
Given that ‘cultivation’ is a metaphor we use in the spiritual life, I was drawn to the idea of an uncultivated field as a different kind of metaphor for spiritual growth. In addition, I am always drawn to the cluster of metaphors around ash, dust, soil and dirt that are so prevalent on Ash Wednesday. So here goes with a bit of metaphor-stretching:
What if we turn away from ideas of the purification of the soul by removing the weeds that infest it towards an idea of the retention of all of our ‘organic matter’ – our dirt and soil – because we recognise it to be the fertile ground of our lives? Might it not be healthier for us to look towards an integration of all that we are, our faults and misdeeds included, rather than seeking a purgation of those elements of ourselves we judge to be ‘dirty’? I see a couple of good reasons for doing this. One is that we don’t always know for sure what is dirt and what is fertile soil, or what is wheat and what is weed. There may be an experience of wrongdoing that tells us something rather important about ourselves. Another is that self-judgement can easily lead to self-hatred, and I wonder how easy it is to forgive others when we can’t forgive ourselves.
Another dimension of this metaphor of an untilled field is that it suggests an approach to the spiritual life that is not over-concerned with method or refinement. The spiritual mind is our natural mind and we allow that natural mind to do its thing by letting it get on with the business of ‘minding’, ie paying attention. The Zen teacher Irmgard Schloegl was fond of the idea of ‘gentling’:
‘There clings an aspect of primitive wildness to the heart which is in need of taming, gentling, and transforming to that which it is by nature’ (The Zen Way, p.62)
For no-till agriculture is still agriculture – it requires some activity to allow the soil to be what it is by nature. Our spiritual practice, which gets an extra focus during Lent, might then be concerned with the ‘activity’ of simply letting the fertile field of our lives be what it is. It does not need forceful intervention, it just needs our attention, a quality of mind that is accepting, open and still.