Being in the Desert

Recently, I was reading a beautiful document by Karen Tse, describing the basis for her work, and I was struck again by the image of the desert which she references, about the necessity of “going to the desert” in order to “discover what it means to draw upon the vast well of our spiritual resources and wisdom” and to connect “our outer work with our inner lives.” Her words refer specifically to human rights work, but they could as well refer to many kinds of leadership challenges. I found her words particularly helpful because right now, metaphorically speaking, many of us are in the desert and for any number of reasons, but particularly because times are hard financially. Whether it is a question of being out of work, or working very, very hard in order to maintain position or just hanging on in the most basic ways to make ends meet, the pressure cannot be underestimated, and it drives us down into the search for inner resources and inner connections to outer realities.

We usually don’t have to hunt for the desert. It just comes to us, and often unbidden, perhaps a necessary part of a search for meaning in our work and our lives, but difficult nevertheless. The desert is here, right here in front of us. And it can be felt as an emptiness, just space, just time, dry and hot, or dry and cold, and we can be wanderers searching for the knowledge of what we should do and how to do it; how, in effect, to go on.

It is good to remember that there are many who have been here before us, and who have found a home. It is an ancient part of being human. Yesterday, I visited Acoma, a pueblo atop a mesa west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and listened to the story of the ancestors who migrated to this remarkable desert place, who would know home when they found it because of the echo that would come back to them, because it was a place that had been prepared for them. In fact, that is what their name, Haak’u, means. Acoma is an anglicized version of the word for a place prepared or made ready.

There is an obvious symbolism to be found in the notion of finding one’s home in an echo and knowing this place as the one destined. There is an obvious symbolism in the desert itself, and how it turns out to be a place of abundance, not scarcity. What is abundant about the desert is life itself, real life, real meaning, as opposed to an abundance of outer things. This is not to say there is no pain, no dryness, no sense of what is parched and needs water. It is just that this is also the place of visions, dreams, and appreciation for the stunning mythic shapes of a landscape, outer and inner, that are so much larger that our minds must bend and bow to receive that landscape as it is. Then, it shows up through our hands as art, as music, painting, writing, as images and stories, as a path, as a place to call home.

There is suffering in the desert, but there is also space that is without dimension, and time without dimension, and these qualities lead us to think, reflect, and prepare, to follow a greater Self, to both find the center and carefully consider the peripheries of consciousness and what they tell us. Things behind us come forward into knowing. In a desert time, people find each other and learn to stick together. We learn to respect everyone’s talents and right to a life, inner and outer. In the desert, we learn about being, more than just surviving.

In terms of corporate life, I think it means we discover that leading is something much larger than our organizations, our “households.” There is so much nonsense out there right now about leadership and leadership development that is divorced from the soul; an artificial, rationalized form of programming people that is simply designed to serve corporations and other kinds of institutions. Leading to serve something but that something may not be good for people in the end at all; leading to serve, for example, the right of stakeholders or stock holders to make money, but not necessarily to benefit the community of humankind. We have forgotten, perhaps, that organizations of all kinds are only projects of a true leader’s heart and values and desires for positive change and the sustenance of community over time. In the desert, it seems to me, it is very clear that following Self is premised on finding a destined home outside of the false promises and illusions of safety that our traditional corporate cultures seem to offer.

I don’t need to tell you where to look in the news for good or bad examples. You already know. All I am saying is that outside of our fantasies, a desert waits, and within that magnificent desert, under the sun and moon and stars and clouds, free of servitude to a false self, so does your own vision and your own most telling wisdom.

And, well, I think at last it also comes back full circle to Karen Tse, repeating the words of her own spiritual teachers, reminding us “that whatever you focus on will grow.”

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  • Patty Neil wrote:

    Discussion of what type of person it takes to be a CEO of a large corporation in the recent “Following Self” workshop, troubled me.

    Dan’s comment in this blog post sheds light on this . . .
    “We have forgotten, perhaps, that organizations of all kinds are only projects of a true leader’s heart and values and desires for positive change and the sustenance of community over time,” brings us back full circle to the understanding that it needs to be about the heart first.

    When my children were young, I told them that they needed to decide in their own hearts what they believed, not accept someone else’s definition of faith. A belief that was actually their own, would be the only belief that would survive in the face of difficulty.

  • Thank you, Patty. I love what you told your children, and I agree totally. It is interesting, isn’t it, how what we tell our children can reflect the best of our own character by showing them how to follow Self on their own.

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