Letter from the Road #22

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Being Alone


At the moment Rabia and I are waiting in the silence near a remote canyon in the Great Basin Desert of southeastern Utah. We are waiting for a small group of people we have guided out here to return from their three days of solitude and fasting. This is day two.

Each of these people has found for themselves a “power spot,” a place they are particularly drawn to out amidst the redrock cliffs and the gnarled juniper trees, a place in which to hold their fast, pray, consider their life’s purpose and direction, and listen to the silence. Once each day they go to a pre-arranged circle of stones and place a stone inside the circle to signal they are all right. Otherwise they have no contact with anyone. No one even knows exactly where their site is, although we have a general idea in case of emergency. Their aloneness is sacred.

Imagine what it’s like to be out there. There are no distractions, nothing to do. Your eyes follow a solitary hawk turning in a thermal, and then it disappears beyond a ridge. You feel the soft movement of air on your face. You shift into the shade of a pinion pine. You wait. Sand runs through your fingers. You watch your thinking mind thinking, and it becomes uninteresting. You feel old like the cliffs, and the story of your entire life becomes present to you, its great loves and little failures, its hopes, its first dreams.

Sometimes you might cry, remembering some wound of your life. If you decide you want to be finished with it, you might pick up a little stone and whisper into it this thing, this wound, until the stone signifies the entire sad affair. Then with great determination, you dig a hole with your hands and bury it, or pitch it into the abyss of the canyon. You make little rituals like this.

Sometime you might imagine this day is the end of your life, the last one of all your days. As evening comes, you say some prayers or whatever you need to do to state your intention and make the moment sincere. Then you close your eyes and wait to see who comes to say goodbye to you since these are your last hours. Maybe your children come. Maybe your grandmother comes, even though she’s been dead for many years. Maybe someone comes who has caused you pain, or to whom you have caused pain. You sit with each person, one by one, listening to what they have to say and responding in whatever way you wish to make things good between you. In this way you clean up your life.

When night comes it makes you humble. You see the universe. There are no city lights, and with the moon absent, as it is at this time, the blackness is complete. Thousands upon thousands of stars are scattered across the heavens. It is utterly silent. As you lay on the earth looking up you feel as if you are falling outward into endlessness. You can hear your own breathing and the beating of your heart. You might choose to hold a vigil on one of your nights of solitude, staying awake until sunrise. It’s a hard thing to do, to stay awake that long, asking for guidance or healing or simply giving thanks for your life. The stars slowly wheel in their great arc and you all but disappear.

When the dawn comes it comes with the slowest grace, a pale lightening in the east, then lavender-coral-rose-gold and the faintest blue-white of the approaching sun. Finally the sun pierces the horizon’s edge with a diamond light that is unbearable but so comforting, like a companion who loves us without speaking.

When the sun warms up the rocks you might go to a place where the tan entrada stone spreads out, an ancient sedimentary layer that is smooth and curved like skin. You might take off your clothes to be as naked as it is, and lay with your belly against it. Things are simpler, and the stone teaches you about that. You remember your origins.

Often you are hungry, but even if you were offered food you would turn it away, not wanting to abandon the clarity fasting gives your body. “There’s a hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness,” writes Rumi. “We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music. If the brain and the belly are burning clean with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.”

When the final dawn comes on the fourth morning you pack your few things, scatter any ceremonial stones or altars you have made, brush out your footprints as best you can, and return to basecamp and your life amongst people. You are glad to be back, glad to eat, glad to look forward to a hot shower, but the time spent out there “alone with the Alone,” as an early Christian mystic described it, will never leave you. In fact, it will keep working inside you, patiently returning you to your primal perspective and revealing the strength that is naturally yours. It is, to quote Rumi again, “free medicine for everybody!” The strength and gratitude you feel becomes a source you can draw from to give away to others – free medicine. And that’s the whole point. “You go out in order to come back,” as our late great teacher, Steven Foster, said, “to bring a gift for your people.”

So here we sit, waiting for our brothers and sisters to come back. We pray for their safety and that they will be able to receive what is revealed to them. They are doing a hard thing and need whatever help our little prayers might bring. They are doing it for all of us.

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