Imagine a desert – parched, changeless, seemingly without life and stretching for mile after mile in all directions. In this desert, you have the essentials: water, food, maybe even a tent and sleeping bag. Hence, you are able to survive.
Amidst the dryness and isolation, one night you dream of a river. It is flowing beneath you – vibrant, changing, nourishing. You wake with a desire to find these hidden currents that might lead you out of the barren desert, and quench your thirst.
Upon reflection, your arrival in the desert was not something immediate or even planned. It occurred over time by following wide, well-traveled paths. At each junction along the way there was a choice. Your feelings told you to go left into the dark forest, while your rational mind looked to the right at the large groomed trails and assumed despite reservations, that the well-worn path must obviously be the way. Time after time, choice after choice, the decisions led you to your current situation. The desert is the culmination of ignoring the signals from your inner compass –from your heart.
As human beings we are ingrained with a mechanism that can tune into our own sense of personal fulfillment. It is an impulse system that we feel when we tap into what it is that moves and excites us into action. When this system is ignored, we find ourselves in the desert, existing but not fully living. It is a refusal of the call.
There is always going to be some system or someone to tell you what you should be doing with your life. You “should” study business. You “should” pray to this god or that god. You “should” be married by this age. You “should not” do anything dangerous or risky.
When we look deeply, it is clear that many of these things are hard-wired into our culture and consciousness. After all, this is what we see in the media, and in the institutions that we are taught to believe in as steadfast and solid. However, unless these things align with our own impulse system, we metaphorically find ourselves in the desert –a place that T.S. Elliot called the “Wasteland”.
In the words of Joseph Campbell, “When one thinks of some reason for not going (following one’s own impulses) or has fear and remains in (security) because it is safe, the results are extremely different from what happens when one follows the call. If you refuse to go, then you are someone else’s servant. When the refusal of the call happens, there is a kind of drying up, a sense of life lost. Everything in you knows that a required adventure has been refused. If what you are following however is your own true adventure. If it is appropriate to your deep spiritual need and readiness, then magical guides will appear. Your adventure has to be coming out of your own interior. If you are ready for it, then doors will open where there were no doors before, and where there would be no doors for anyone else.”
As we work to grow and progress as individuals we must move from our center, from the inward impulses that guide and call each of us to adventure. This is a highly individualistic undertaking that takes courage-the courage to tell ourselves and those we love that we choose uncertainty over certainty, experience over comfort, and bliss over security. This is the only way to live authentically and it comes out of our own internal listening.
We must “enter the forest at its darkest point where there is no path. Where there is a way or a path, it is someone else’s path. Each human being is a unique phenomenon.” By following a path that is well traveled because it seems easy, or because we believe we “should”, we are running from our dragons- the monsters that hide and keep from us what we truly desire. The dragon stands for “thou shalt”, and what they ultimately keep from us is our unique treasure- our authenticity. By not facing these personal or societal dragons directly and reclaiming what it is that truly makes us who we are, we will inevitably find ourselves in the wasteland –living, but not fully alive.
Joseph Campbell once wrote, “ I find working for money to be the wasteland –doing something that somebody else wants instead of the thing that is the next step. I have been guided all along by a strong revulsion from any sort of action that does not correspond to the impulse of my own wish.”
The dream in the desert of the underground river is this impulse of your own wish calling out. It is always there, but often is covered by layers upon layers of sediment and sand – the rules, responsibilities, and conventions that we conform to in order to stay in the comfort of the known. Still, if we have the awareness and if our will is strong enough, we only have to dig down to find the current flowing inside of us – a nourishing aquifer of vitality that is always available if we choose to look. This is the source of our true nature -our talents and purpose. This is our authenticity.
Sometimes it takes a desert, a wasteland, to force us to listen to what we are truly called to do -to wake us up to the power of the choices that we make each day. Living in the wasteland is a life of perceived certainty, predictability, and routine. It is an attempt to protect ourselves from the fear of inevitable loss, change, failure, and uncertainty. We must choose then to approach uncertainty with fearlessness. To come to the edge of our own personal cliffs, and like a fledging bird, jump -trusting that our innate compass will carry us soaring toward our own fulfillment. This is the Hero’s Journey, and the way to an authentic life.