Water in the Desert

There are many challenges to building a deep and meaningful spiritual practice that serves the Gods, the world, and yourself.  Last year I wrote about returning to center when a minor annoyance or a major tragedy disrupts your life.

But not every challenge is a sudden dramatic event.  Nor is every challenge the cumulative effect of many minor annoyances.  Sometimes your practice simply dries up for no apparent reason.  Sometimes your joy in life dries up for no apparent reason.  Some days you just don’t feel like doing much of anything and you don’t enjoy what you do manage to do.

What makes these dry times especially difficult is our mainstream society’s expectations that they shouldn’t happen.  Everyone should be healthy and happy all the time.  Work should be exciting and fulfilling.  Life should move forward in an constant march of bigger better more.  Any complications should be resolved in 30 minutes with time left for commercials.

Profess a religion and the expectations get even higher.  Religious people should be above such mundane concerns.  That goes double for magical religions – if something’s not quite right, you should just cast a spell and fix it all right away.

And if none of that works, then you obviously need a new career, or a new partner, or a new spiritual path.

No.  Just no.

I’m not a psychologist or a self help guru.  I’m a Druid and a priest who makes his living as an engineer.  But I’ve learned a few things from paying attention to myself and others.  If you’ve got problems, deal with them.  If you’re depressed, ask for help.  If you need medication, take it.

And if none of that applies and you still find yourself in the desert, begin by accepting that this is part of the beautiful, terrible, complicated messiness that is life.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling frustrated or down or just not great, few things are more annoying than a well-meaning person saying “oh, that happens to everybody” or “that’s life” or “things could be worse” or some other trite phrase that implies what I’m feeling is no big deal and I should please shut the hell up.  That may be true, but it isn’t helpful.

It is helpful to remember that the normal ebb and flow of life doesn’t require drastic corrective action.  But if I’m moving through a desert, don’t tell me it’s no big deal – give me a drink of water.

These are some wells I’ve found that help me get through the dry periods of life.

Rest.  Few things will drag you down faster than fatigue, whether it’s mental or physical or both.  Most of us are overscheduled and overstimulated.  There’s always one more e-mail to answer, one more status to update, one more show to watch.  And more laundry to do.  Even when we don’t have too much to do, there’s that nagging feeling that if you unplug now you might miss something.  The end result is not enough rest and not nearly enough sleep.

The older I get, the longer it takes to recover from a long day and the worse I do after a short night.  I need about 7 hours of sleep every night – I can’t make it up on the weekends any more.  You may need more or less, but make sure you get enough.  If you’re in the desert, make rest and sleep a top priority.

Prioritize.  If you don’t feel like doing everything – or if you don’t feel like doing anything – figure out what you have to do, what can wait, and what doesn’t need to be done at all.

Exercise.  Go for a walk.  Break out the bicycle you haven’t been on a couple years.  Lift weights.  Cut the grass or clean the house.  Do something – anything – to get your body moving.

Socialize.  Call a friend, invite someone over for dinner, invite someone to go walking or biking with you.  Attend a religious service – if your group isn’t meeting any time soon, drop in on the services of a tradition you’ve never experienced.  Do something to be around other people and to get out of your own head for an hour or so.

Say no.  Desert times are usually times of low energy – don’t overextend yourself.  It’s OK to turn down invitations or requests for help, even if they come from people you love or organizations you support.  You don’t have to have a grand excuse:  “I can’t take that on right now” is all the explanation you owe anyone.

Consult your journal.  One of the big advantages of keeping a regular journal is that you have a record of other times when you’ve been in a desert.  How did you feel then compared to how you feel now?  What brought it on?  What did you do that helped?  What did you do that was ineffective, or that made things worse?

If you don’t have a journal, now’s a good time to start.  You’ll create a resource for your next desert time (and don’t let anyone fool you – there will be a next time), plus writing is a helpful spiritual practice in and of itself.

Indulge – with moderation.  Take a long bath.  Cook your favorite meals.  Have dessert – just not the whole pie.  Have a glass of wine – just not the whole bottle.  A spiritual desert is not the time for austerity or asceticism.  Enjoy the small sensual pleasures of life and savor them.

Keep your commitments.  No matter how bland you feel, the desert is no excuse to start smoking again.  If sobriety is one of your challenges, leave the wine alone.  Keep doing what must be done to provide for yourself and your family, and by all means keep the promises you made to your partner – the implied promises as well as the formal vows.

Beyond that, keep your commitments to your Gods.  Keep up with your prayers, meditations and offerings.  If you promised to do something for Them, do it.  Some deities are more sympathetic than others, but They all have Their own priorities and your state of mind isn’t likely to be too high on Their list.

Embrace the desert.  Physical deserts are harsh, barren environments, but they have their own beauty and they sustain their own life.  Spiritual deserts are rarely pleasant, but they push us to reflect on our lives and re-evaluate our priorities.  We don’t have to be masochists to appreciate the value of the deserts in our lives.

Keep moving.  Spiritual deserts are a part of life and finding yourself in one is no sign of failure.  While deserts are a call to reflection, they are rarely a call to drastic action.  Simply keep moving on the path to which you’re committed.  Sooner or later you’ll reach the desert’s end.

At some point, drastic action may be appropriate.  Maybe you do need a new career.  Maybe you and your partner aren’t a very good match after all.  Maybe you really are being called to a new spiritual path.  But major decisions like these are best made after a long process of discernment.  Making major life changes when you feel down often swaps one set of difficulties for another and makes things worse, not better.

Being a good Pagan or a skilled magician – or a devout practitioner of any religious or spiritual path – is no exemption from the ups and downs of life.  When we recognize the desert for what it is, we can find a helpful well… and keep moving through the desert.

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  • Catriona McDonald

    Wonderful, compassionate guide to the desert. I’ve just come out the other side of one and reading this today was a much appreciated piece of synchronicity.

  • Autumn Pulstar

    Beautifully written with easy to follow suggestions for navigating through a difficult part of spiritual practice.

  • Marc Forester

    Great article – very timely for me.

  • pagansister

    My husband has progressive dementia—and has declined steadily over the last 4 1/2 years. He is still more with us than not, but things are starting to fall faster from his memory. I have a “desert” experience every week and sometimes once or twice a day. Things will not get better. We will celebrate 50 years married in December. Your post above has some very good suggestions. I thank you for that.