If you come, as I do, from a country filled with colorful plants and a great variety of animals, you might ask yourself where the attraction could lie in the barren waste which is the desert. A forest, by contrast, is full of life, the sun's rays filter through the canopy of leaves, insects hum and look for food, birds sing, the air is pleasantly moist and cool, smelling of herbs and flowers, footsteps spring lightly on the soft forest floor. The nearly perfect harmony of the forest captivates all the senses, which explains its recuperative value, especially for city dwellers: its intense sensations distract us from the manifold problems of daily life, at the same time bringing us into harmony. We need only be open to absorbing the forest or any beautiful natural place, and devote our senses to enjoying this perfect drama.
The desert, however, is barren. Walking into a stone or sand desert for the first time, we are strangely affected: Where is the echo of our footsteps? Deep sand gives way with each step, but walking is difficult also on ground strewn with sharp-edged stones. The sun burns down mercilessly, the glittering air is sometimes very dusty, and distances are deceiving. Fierce winds irritate eyes and lungs; dryness chaps the skin and seems to have a paralyzing effect. The desert, if only because of its inhospitable conditions, can be a real test of strength. No animals make themselves known; only sparse plants grow here and there, and this wasteland seems to be filled with elementals.
Staying longer in the desert brings an experience new to many: the almost complete lack of outer attractions. What remains is what is inside us, and what comes forth most strongly from within depends upon where each visitor focuses his consciousness. Reactions vary greatly: some sense an oppressing void, fear, helplessness; others become calm, harmonious, balanced. According to the disposition or state of mind, some even perceive the desert as complete liberation. Perhaps hermits for ages have been drawn to such surroundings because the reduction of outer stimuli eases the path to the inner self.
Whoever is ready to accept the desert can have profound experiences in such an environment. If one opens oneself and is in a receptive attitude, the desert gives back a multitude of insights. Surprisingly, the lack of external stimuli sharpens the senses more than does a flood of sensations. Under such conditions people allow each perception to affect them more fully, and they learn to see what they have never seen before. Much that had been drowned out by the noise of daily life suddenly becomes audible. It bursts forth out of this quietude and sparingness. One's awareness changes, just as our senses shift at night when the eye no longer has enough information at its disposal, and the ear and sense of smell fill in. Thus one begins to perceive the stark beauty of the seemingly unimportant and simple things — a stone, a green leaf in completely dried-out and rock-hard ground — everything suddenly takes on a whole different dimension. What does a leaf in a meadow signify in comparison with one that has defied months of drought and the hottest sun? One marvels and begins to think.
Perceiving the beauty of nature always strengthens the inner man and the awareness of being part of the whole. And the desert is beautiful because we can sense harmony through it, just as we do in the diamond world of a sun-flooded snow field, in the green rustling of the woodlands, in the endless expanse of the tundra, and in the eternal rise and fall of the waves. Each aspect of nature has its special kind of beauty: one intoxicating, perhaps; another charming. The beauty of the desert lies in its sharp contrasts, in nature's unquenchable will to life: a barren and harsh beauty, but an immensely powerful one.
Yet even where there appears to be a barren void, there is great potential for life. Something new can come into being in a day. It is incredible with what force the seeds hidden everywhere in the sand emerge when the first rain falls. A little water, and within the shortest time a colorful world comes bursting into life. As soon as conditions are favorable, animals appear which one would never anticipate finding in the desert. They are simply there, like the seeds that germinate when their time has come. These latent forces lie inert where one least expects them. Everything is an image of great cycles, endless yet always beginning anew. The difference between an unfolding cosmos and this plant world suddenly springing forth to fall into dormancy again is only a matter of degree.
Thus the desert shows both the way within by reducing attention on the outer world, and the existence of latent forces hidden within all beings. This strengthens the hope that we, too, will be able to bring forth wonderful things if we create the appropriate conditions for this in our own inner being:
The first step on the pathway to the heart of the universe is to recognize the truth that all comes from within. All the inspirations of genius, all the great thoughts which have made and unmade civilizations, all the wonderful messages that have been delivered by the Great Ones of the earth to their fellow human beings — all these come forth from within. — G. de Purucker, Golden Precepts of Esotericism, pp. 8-9
We can learn to experience a desert within ourselves from time to time, by turning off all outer sensations and then being ready to feel the stream of our inner fountain. How this fountain flows always mirrors the source from which it springs. In this way we can open ourselves, and discern and try to purify our inner being. It is a form of meditation which can be performed without any special techniques, at a time such as before falling asleep, when there is a natural calming of the senses.
Whatever each one awakens in himself, in the quiet and solitude comes to expression. And just as the desert always remains a desert, even when it experiences an incredible transformation in the rainy season, we always remain ourselves: we have only to change our attitudes to succeed in bringing forth wonderful qualities, in coming to a spiritual flowering and thus ourselves creating the seeds for a new level of awareness. Love, compassion, and selflessness are the rains that will transform our inner desert into a flowering and fruit-bearing paradise.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1991; copyright © 1991 Theosophical University Press)