By William Elliott
Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2005 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Elliott, William. "Longing: From Relationship to Religion and Beyond." Quest 93.3 (MAY-JUNE 2005):101-105
Judean Desert, June 2002
"There's blood on my hand."
I touched my fingers to my forehead and looked at them again—more blood.
"Oh my God—I'm bleeding."
I had walking near my tent on the third day of my forty days and nights in the Judean desert when I felt a sharp pain in my stomach and then dizziness and then . . .
The next thing I knew I was picking myself up off the ground. I had passed out and my face was lying in a pile of irregularly shaped and pointed rocks. I pressed against the ground with my hands and slowly raised myself up while spitting out pieces of stone and wiping away the last bits that still clung to my face.
Then I saw the blood.
"This is when the journey really starts," I whispered to myself.
I was bleeding—and it suddenly had all become so real and different. And yet the harassment by the flies and mosquitoes was nothing new. The intense heat at seven in the morning was expected. Even the deep need that I felt for someone to save me, to take care of me, wasn't a surprise. But still, it was all different—I was different.
Three days earlier, a small red car had dropped me off in the desert and I watched as it drove off into the distance and disappeared over a hill. The doorway through which I had entered the Judean desert had closed that day. Actually, it was more than closed—it was gone.
I'm really here, I told myself. I'm in the middle of the Judean desert where Jesus was tempted by the devil—and I'm alone for forty days, just as he was.
And it was on this third day in the Judean desert that I first began to bleed—and then die, over and over again.
In early June 2002, I left the United States and went to Israel to spend forty days alone in the Judean desert. I almost died in the desert.
Why would a human being do that?
In 1985, I began writing Tying Rocks to Clouds, and in 1996 I began writing A Place at the Table. While writing those books, I spent every penny I had traveling the world seeking out the people who are thought to have clues to a deeper relationship with the divine, people like Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Ram Dass, Marianne Williamson, and Billy Graham.
Why would a human being do that?A one-word answer would be longing.
Religion was created in order to answer the question of longing. Religion was meant to foster the ultimate relationship, which is the relationship with God. Today, millions of people read relationship books in order to have a better relationship with their mate. But in order to have a real relationship with your mate, at some point you have to put the book down and be with your mate. The same holds true with religion: at some point you must put down the book—whether it's the Bible, the Vedas, the Koran, or the Talmud—and be with your beloved.
Marriage is in some ways a religion. It is meant to keep one connected to one's beloved by a belief or law. But the point of being married is not the marriage, and the point of being religious is not the religion. Both religion and marriage were created (spiritually speaking) so that eventually they could be left behind, so that a human being could experience union and unite with the object of his or her longing.
As far as I can tell, longing lies at the bottom of every human heart and it drives us to do what we do. Whether we long for money, power, sex, or love—it is ultimately the longing that drives us and not the object of the longing. Men and women may lead amazing or crazy or destructive or productive lives, and each of these lives may appear different, but actually they are very much alike because they are all driven by the same thing: longing. This empty feeling is experienced at the base of the human soul. I believe each human being develops this longing soon after birth. Longing is created because we have forgotten our Being, and thus we long for what we believe is lost. This longing will do one of two things: will either turn toward God or turn into the desire for the things of this world. The question then is, why do we have this longing? Where does it come from? And how do we deal with it?
As Joseph Campbell pointed out in his meetings with Bill Moyers, the word religion derives from the Latin religion, which means "linking back." This implies that there is something in the past to link back to, something that we've left behind, from which we have become disconnected. For the human who has awakened to the spiritual life, this "forgotten thing" is the most important thing there is—because it is what we are seeking to link to, and it is Being itself.
From my travels around the world I have found that the main problem of the human life is this: hardly anyone knows anything about the experience of Being. It is inherent in our name, "human being," and yet hardly anyone has the conscious experience of being. Being is our true nature, it is the spirit of God, it is and always has been a part of us—and it is the largest part of us. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that "being" is our vast nature and it is most like space.
I realize now that my book Tying Rocks to Clouds was an attempt at understanding, finding, and linking back to being. Somehow I had the sense that I was missing something, and yet I didn't know what it was. Like a detective who investigates a murder after finding a body, I too was investigating a crime—but I did not know what the crime was, nor was there any obvious evidence of a crime. All I had was the not-so-vague sense that something was wrong and that something was being kept hidden from me.
In Buddhist teachings it is said, "Nirvana is the goal and yet no one enters." Being itself is nirvana, and only being can experience itself. The ego or sense of "I" does not enter being; instead ego is surrendered, revealing the link to being that has always been. Saint Paul described it beautifully when he said this experience of being was "secret and hidden" and that it was given to us "for our benefit before the world began." Paul quoted Isaiah by saying,
No eye has seen,no ear has heard,no mind has conceivedwhat God has prepared for those who love him
Paul went on to say, "None of the rulers of this age understood it . . . but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit [or Being]"
In June 2002, I went to the Judean desert for forty days. Like many people, I had been a seeker of God and had sought a relationship with God. But I no longer sought to be a seeker through beliefs, thoughts, or rituals. Instead I wanted the experience of God. I sought a religion, or linking back, with God because the longing in my heart demanded it. This longing drove me to leave the United States and travel to the locus of my own soul. If one were to look at a map, one might say that my destination was Israel (specifically the Judean Desert) and that I had traveled 6,497 miles. But in actuality, I traveled much farther than that—upon a road whose traversing is not measured in miles but by the deepening of the human experience, love, and acceptance, and not by direction, for there is only one direction—inward. And whose perilous mountains, cliffs, and valleys were not composed of stone or sand but of one's own psyche: the most dangerous of the world's creations.
"You're making a mistake," Orel, the manager at the Metsokey-Deragot Hostel said. "You've got snakes and scorpions out in the desert, and it's very hot, and there are so many cliffs where you can fall. So many things can go wrong," he said, shaking his head, "and there will be no one to help you if you fall or get bitten by a snake and can't contact us . . "
Orel was right: I could easily die out in the desert. I knew almost nothing about being in nature. I had the outdoor knowledge and common sense of a man who ventured into nature only occasionally—and that was to play golf. The Metsokey-Deragot Hostel was in the middle of the Judean desert. It was miles away from any town, and once I ventured out into the desert, I would be miles from Metsokey-Deragot.
I looked over at Yael for some kind of assurance. She was the girlfriend of Tamir, the desert guide who had found this place for me to stay, but since he had punctured his eardrum the day before, it was she who would be dropping me off near my destination. But Yael wouldn't even look at me. Instead, she looked down at the floor and nodded in agreement with Orel.
I turned away from them and looked out the office window into the desert. At one time the Metsokey-Deragot Hostel had been a kibbutz, started by Jewish hippies. But eventually they realized that nothing would grow here, so they abandoned it, leaving four or five small adobe buildings. It was now a place where tourists occasionally came to spend time in the desert, but anyone who has ever been in the desert (in the way that the desert demanded) knew that this wasn't really the desert. Instead, the desert was still out there, beyond the broken barbed-wire fence lying unmended; beyond the several sets of small hills that distanced one from the safety of others; beyond the space that opened up just past those same hills, a space so hungry for disturbance or anomaly that it would swallow up any sound or call for help. In a science fiction novel, the Metsokey-Deragot Hostel would be the last space outpost, the place from which the hero or fool sets off as he ventures into the vast unknown.
What would drive a human being to risk his life by spending forty days alone in the desert?
The night before I left for the desert, my older brother, a Chicago cop for thirty-five years, phoned me and asked, "Why are you going to the desert?""I'll tell you when we meet at O'Hare Airport," I said.The next day, we shared an order of fries at an airport restaurant before my plane left. I stood up to go and said, "Well, brother Jim, if something happens to me—I love you a lot."
"Hey," he said abruptly, "I already told you I loved you back when I had my heart attack. So if something happens—I already said it."
His question remained unanswered: Why was I going to the desert?
The most obvious reason for going into the desert for forty days was because Jesus did and my connection to Jesus had become very strong during the past five years while I was writing a book about him. And like Jesus, when God says, "You are my son whom I love," the love shoots up from within your soul and affects everything you do. I went into the desert because I felt that love and I heard those words and now I longed to relax into them, to allow them to overcome and overtake me, to be felt all the way down into the grounded feet of the soul. Just as an engaged couple's next step is marriage, going to the desert was the next step in my relationship with God. And now this relationship demanded a consummation, a confrontation of both love and anger that could not be avoided any longer—and I didn't want any interruptions: no television, no friends, no lovers, nothing that had to be done other than eat, sleep, go to the toilet, and relate to God.
These days religion has a bad name. It has a bad name because the original aim of religion was union with divine being—experience of divine presence now. But this union with God and the death or seeing through of a separate self has been replaced by rules on how to act and beliefs about God rather than the experience of God. But this attitude is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, Jesus quoted Isaiah and said:
These people honor me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me.They worship me in vain;their teachings are but rules taught by men.
When I met with Ram Dass years ago, he said, "All religions are rooted in the same spirit. Some religions are very entrapping. If a religion works, it must self-destruct at the end. You have to go beyond religion into the spirit, and a lot of religions almost prevent you from doing that."
Judean Desert, Day 31
Water is scarce in the desert. So during these past 30 days, the desert has baptized me in stillness. The baptism of stillness brings silence and eventually the silence gives way to Being. It is this experience of Being or God that I've sought. At the beginning of my spiritual search, I sought this Being through my meetings with other people. A few of them were able to baptize me in Being, not because they had any control over Being (because Being can't be controlled), but because they had become transparent to Being.
Today, during my meditation, I felt my usual movement of energies, then I felt a physical tensing or resisting, then fear, then I cried some, then a release, then an awareness of the energy of Being. This progression in meditation had become a regular occurrence in the desert, with the cycle repeating itself often. But this time while I was crying and seeing it—the crying seemed to shift and then I realized that crying is also Being. And then I had the subtle realization that I previously "hid" in crying—but now that crying "saw," that crying was Being and I couldn't hide in it. Then I went to fear, and I realized fear was Being also. That every speck of fear "saw" truly. Then I went to my bodily tensions and contractions—but I couldn't hide there either. Everywhere I tried to hide was Being and had "eyes"—it saw. And this went faster and faster until there was nowhere I could hide from Being or from myself. Then I thought of calling my meditation teacher about this, but I couldn't even hide in that thought. Finally, it all became horrible, overwhelming and totally crazy because I couldn't hide anywhere, and everywhere was nakedly seen—and seeing. I cried at the horror of not being able to hide, the horrible seeing of it all. I thought I was going insane, as I felt the insanity of nowhere to hide, but I could not even hide in my insanity. Like a man yearning for a dark place to sleep, but even the dark is light to him! Then I laughed and even my laughter was seen through and was "seeing" itself.
I saw myself and every place I hid with a naked, diamond-clear and razor-sharp awareness that destroyed me and sliced me down to nothing—and yet the all-pervading love of God was indivisible and present throughout the experience. I found myself saying "I'm sorry" several times, but it was always pre-empted by God's love. There was not a flicker, a blank spot or a hesitation in the love of God's Being. There was no judgment at all, no comments at all—only love.
If you want what visible reality can give you,you're an employee.If you want the unseen worldyou're not living your truth.—Rumi
It would be much easier if linking back to Divine Being was the end of the path of being human. But it is not. This re-cognizing of being is only a first step on the road to being a full human. As the Tibetan lama ChÃ¶gyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, "Enlightenment is not the end of the spiritual journey—it is the beginning."
After the union of being has been realized, being returns and manifests consciously in the human life; it is only then that we humans take conscious ownership of our inheritance and name: human being. What had been unconscious before in the human (namely "being") is now conscious in the human being. This integration of humanity and being is what Jesus meant when he said, "I've come to bring you life in full" and is also represented in the story of Ho Tei, an enlightened sage of the first millennium, who after his enlightenment was walking down a mountain with a sack over his shoulder. The sack contained "the abundance of life." A man saw him, and recognizing Ho Tie's enlightenment, asked, "Ho Tei, what is enlightenment?" Ho Tei, without saying a word, dropped his sack. Then the man asked, "Ho Tei, how do we live in the world?" Ho Tei, still without speaking a word, simply picked up his sack and kept walking.
William Elliott is the author of Tying Rocks to Clouds (Quest Books, 1997) and A Place at the Table (2001). This is his first contribution to Quest magazine.