I heard a term coined the other day that caught my attention—spiritual loneliness. The term was defined as a period of disquiet that occurs along one’s spiritual path. The point when the coolness of the forest path breaks away and you find yourself trudging across an endless expanse of desert.
It is the place on the path where the sign posts become less frequent, or non-existent, where you suspect you have traveled beyond your map, where there are fewer and fewer fellow seekers to talk to, fewer brains to pick, and you stop, wondering whether to go on. The only sign you locate disheartens you even more. It reads: You are now entering the void.
Moving forward feels like such a radical leave-taking, you worry you may never be able to find your way back. (Although, is that necessarily a bad thing, you wonder?) Retracing your steps does not even remotely seem like an option. And, standing still is, well, standing still.
I remember a couple of years ago, as I entered this difficult patch in my ongoing spiritual journey, a guide told me I would be “roaming the desert for forty days and forty nights.” Foolishly, I ran to my daybook and counted forty days forward, fully expecting that I would burn through this disturbing dearth of spirit in about six weeks time, have a long, tall glass of water, and continue blithely on my way—none the worse for wear.
So, after many months now of roaming the desert, aimlessly, fruitlessly and thirstily, I‘m beginning to understand that the forty days and forty nights thing might just be a metaphor. A metaphor for something far more arduous, amorphous, and ah, yes, LONGER. (I mean, if Christ completed his trial of desert surfing in forty days, do you think yours and mine might take a tad longer? Yes, I think so, too.)
Those of us who have been on a spiritual path for a while have been meticulously working to develop a strong and accessible relationship with—what else?—spirit. Either through meditation practice or prayer or journeying or channeling, speaking to nature, or strengthening our intuition, we have carefully worked to peel back the skin of illusion and ego, or little self, in the interest of getting a better peek at what lies underneath—the Higher Divine self—the God within.
And it has not been easy. Peeling off skin can be a tedious and painful process, exposing wound after buried wound and offering it up for healing. Slowly, tediously, raking thorough our emotional detritus in the hope of unveiling a consistently flowing power and balance that is said to come from this clearance and release—a thing we might call wholeness.
But, what sometimes occurs after many years of this careful process, is not so much fullness, but emptiness. Not empowerment, but beleaguerment. Not divine connection, but complete and abject loneliness. Not clarity, but a backlash and rerun of seemingly all the illusions you had so carefully dispelled. A spiritual stalemate. And after all your due diligence to clear away wound after wound, you find a raw, naked and deranged ego, spitting-nails angry to have been found out. And not a sign of that calm and knowing power-being you expected to find waiting for you, rewarding you, and grateful to finally be acknowledged and released.
How do you know if you, too, suffer from spiritual loneliness?
1) You will feel as if your very own brain has been surgically removed and replaced with some questionable and unfamiliar substance whose origins you can’t identify: (View clip). I am being humorous, of course, but not entirely. Because the unrecognizable quality of walking around inside yourself will be stark.
2) Everything you have learned on your chosen spiritual path, be it shamanism, Buddhism, Sufism, paganism, or any other esoteric path, will tap out. You will simply come to the end of your well of understanding and all that you have been taught, and all that has fed and nurtured and slaked your spiritual thirst, and you will come up dry. You will send the bucket down into the well again and again. And each time you bring it up, the bottom will be drier and drier than before. The practice itself will not lose its viability and vitality, it will just lose vitality for you. You still believe. You still practice, but nothing salves the longing. Nothing appeases the suffering. Everything that worked before doesn’t. “Episodes of this nature can be found in the life stories of shamans, founders of the great religions of the world, famous spiritual teachers, mystics, and saints,” say Stanislav Grof. “Mystical literature of the world describes these crises as important signposts of the spiritual path and confirms their healing and transformative potential.”
3) You will lose your ability and your desire to connect. It’s not a smug or anti-social thing—it’s a disability. You already know the plug doesn’t fit the outlet. You have no words for what is happening, because you have no prior experience with it. You cannot muster a response to the conversation of others. It’s not as if you were speaking a different language; it’s more like you have no language. Welcome to spiritual dumbfoundness.
4) You will feel an unrelenting apprehension and fear—about your future, about your sanity, and about your life. You will think that your physical body, your day to day life and your mind are all becoming lost to you, because the part of you that once ruled these realms—your ego—is in rebellion. And there is nothing more terrifying. The ego you believed you were taming into submission has just amassed an army at the border you cannot even fathom the magnitude and force of. When you started out on your spiritual path, you heard about death of the ego and you thought it would be such a good thing when that pesky, self-serving drama-queen breathed her last. But, the ego does not go down without a fight—and you have no battle strategy for this.
5) You will lose your arrogance. Everything you thought you could handle, you thought you could risk, you thought you could fake, you thought you knew, you thought you could fix, will no longer be clear or manageable or worth what brought you here—to your knees. What was I thinking? Why is this happening? Where will I end up? And how the hell did I get here? All these will become commonly repeated questions, and the answers will consistently elude you.
6) All the things that once brought spellbinding joy and meaning to your life will no longer be of interest. They will not be enough. They won’t even be relevant. Not falling in love, not romantic movies, love songs or stories, not vacations or the prospect of adventure, not winning or mastering new things. Experiences that once seemed zingy and wild and groovy will be flat and two-dimensional. This is not the lens of depression. This is what it is like to live inside the body of a dying ego, and a spiritual consciousness that does not speak romance, does not seek nor care about the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. When you undertook this journey, you assumed it would only require eliminating the fears and sorrows of the ego, but it is also necessary to abandon everything the ego loves and is addicted to—and that’s the hard part.
What can you do when you find yourself in this spiritual stalemate?
1) Pray. You are in a place where the only things that will please you are the things that please your spirit. Being in nature, singing, letting go, detaching from expectation, being generous, listening, not judging, acts of kindness, forgiving, being at peace—at any cost—and, seriously not caring about the freaking heating bill or what people think. Pray in jubilation, not supplication. Try it. Try praying and not asking for anything.
2) Meditate. Be quiet in your mind. Embrace your own sad, beleaguered self, hold it to your bones and don’t let go. Not for anything. Not for phones that ring, or worries that plague you, or cats that scratch at the door. If your ego doesn’t have the creature comforts and illusion junk food it once had, you must find something new to feed it: for starters, self-love and respect for having endured the unendurable.
3) Make offerings. Offer your time, your ear, your interest, your smile, your suffering, your songs, and the inner peace that you worked so damn hard for. Give it all away with gladness. It’s not about what you get in life; it’s about what you give away.
4) Stop abusing yourself with worry and fear. This is a cruel and mean-spirited thing to do to yourself and others. Stop telling stories where bad things happen. Talk about all the miracles that can be borne out of any given moment—be dumbfounded about that.
5) Engage in ceremony and ritual. How else can we inform the ego (psyche) that it has passed through the desert and found its way into the arms of spirit? Shamanic dismemberment journeys, deathbed meditations, and death-without-dying rituals will signal to the psyche that the suffering is over and the transformation into spirit is complete. “The Kingdom of God is for none but the thoroughly dead,” said Meister Eckhart.
6) Surrender to the idea of not knowing, because you don’t. You might as well admit it now and be done with it. “Show me the way. Show me how to be of service. Show me how to be a light for others.” This is the language of surrender.
You have no doubt been hollowed out by your experience; you have been opened. Yes, at times it felt like you were being put through a vegematic. But you’re here and you’re still breathing and life is more precious than ever.
What will you bring forth through that opening? That is the question to be asking. The answers to this—and there are many—will fill you with breathless anticipation and dispel any shred of loneliness from your heart, your soul and your bones.
“The ego searches the loveliest garden to find a single thorn,” says poet Dean Jackson. “The spirit searches the most desolate desert to find a single bloom.”