“Me and the desert are sitting within each other—
sitting and sitting, until only the desert remains.”
~ Sufi saying
Since ancient times, deserts have offered sanctuary to wisdom seekers who long to realize stillness. There is no place on earth that conjures divinity in solitude quite like the desert.
In the desert landscape, there is little variety; hence, the mind is not distracted by abiding with contrast. Where ever the eyes look, for miles and miles, steady vastness stretches on – the landscape is in total unity; this kind of unity is referred to by the Sufis as Wahadut Ul Wajood—the total unity of beingness, a state in which nothing moves.
In desert vastness, there is nothing, no sense of innovators trying hard to build, become, change, or improve anything. The desert is the desert. Whether it is the Sahara, the Thar, the Gobi, or the Mohave, if you are in one desert in one time and space, it is as if you are in every desert throughout time. Desert landscape, seemingly featureless on the outlook, can draw us inward to a vast dimension within our being where our inner landscape also expresses vastness and unity.
This is why meditators in the past moved to the deserts, the attraction is the silence, the unity, a space where the inner life can enter reflection and be absorbed in a glorious and ever-widening vista.
Today, many of us live urban lifestyles and spend most hours of the day indoors. We artificially control our environment with heat and AC. We keep live plants and animals outside the walls. Our limited perception assumes our ability to control our climate is serving our greatest comfort.
However, what we have learned from living in this supposed “comfort” is that nowadays we cope with increased levels of stress, depression, anxiety, asthma, vitamin deficiencies, heart failure, skin conditions, cancer, obesity, insomnia, and autoimmune disease.
To remedy this situation, people have been turning to “forest bathing” to create more balance and wellbeing. Modern Forest Bathing started with the technocratic urban dwellers of Japan; it’s called “Shinrin-yoku.” Forest Bathing involves simply sitting in the forest and observing the surroundings. Forest Bathing is known to build strong cancer-fighting cells in the body, reduce the risk of heart attack, reduce obesity and diabetes, and reduces sleeplessness.
These days Forest Bathing has become a trendy, hip pass time. For yogis, however, being with the forest, being with nature, has been an integral part of being human and being alive. Yogis in the past do not need to go out to nature to reconnect; yogis know that forests, mountains, rivers, and deserts are part and parcel of being-ness. The Earth’s geology exists within the human body. For a yogi, being with the elements involves listening to the elements to learn, to grow so intimate with the elements that the yogi merges the individuated consciousness with the divine artistry of the elements; a yogi is the one who merges his or her consciousness with the consciousness of all the elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether.
Another trendy nature therapy is called Earthing. Earthing involves connecting the body directly to the Earth’s energy to create vibrant health. Yogis of the past meditated in underground cellars and caves to merge their consciousness with the Earth element. Sages regard this as the same as entering back to the womb of mother, and they knew that meditating underground helped to reclaim the innocence of a new born child. Ancients knew that the great Mother Earth bestows upon us a new-born mind, known as the beginner’s mind. When we learn to embrace Earth and be in her womb with the sacred soil over us, she has the power to withdraw all the negativity that we hold in our auric body.
Forest Bathing and Earthing are not about taking long hikes to conquer a trail or prove agility and endurance by covering distance and climbing mountains. No, Forest Bathing is about sitting in the forest and observing as much of the environment as possible. Earthing is about connecting to the Earth to cultivate a listening relationship with this beloved mother. When seekers attend retreats with me, I guide them through the lost art of burial meditation. In this meditation, we lie down in a shallow grave-like plot and cover ourselves with soil so only the nasal passages are exposed for breathing. We spend time consciously meditating, abandoning the push and pull of the monkey mind to yield to the powerful magnetism and frequencies of Mother Earth. This was a practice done by ancient Sufi sages, and now with people starting to realize the benefits of being in nature it is as good a time as any to revive this special form of meditation.
We can take our understanding of the benefits even further to realize that our bodies are made up of the same elements that make up our universe. This means that good health depends on our ability to adjust to natural environments, dance with the elements on their terms, and be in total unity and being-ness with nature’s expressions of the five elements.
Burial Meditation is not a nature therapy trend, but an ancient practice that was lost. Also, less known these days is the great benefits of spending contemplative time in the desert.
Typically, the desert is regarded as hostile for human, plant, and animal life; but, if you venture to the desert with the awareness of ancient yogic science, you can approach the desert with reverence and appreciation—this climate has something to teach us about the air and fire elements within our own bodies. The desert has much to teach us about the vastness of our consciousness. Beyond that, the desert offers us wisdom about how to use inner heat to generate physical, mental, and energetic healing. In yoga, this inner heat is called Tapas.
1. The intensity of the sun can teach us. In yoga, we create heat in the body; we bring awareness and balance to the fire element within.
Let’s consciously relate to the sun. Today doctors encourage us to get about 15 minutes of skin exposure to the sun in order for the body to absorb Vitamin D. But for yogis who worship the sun, solar energy can be converted into prana (life force energy). Sun energy taught the ancient Jains to ignite their inner sage lamp. That lamp, once lit, makes a sage into a genie. This took a sophisticated understanding of how to use the power of the sun inside the body. In the ancient Jain tradition, sages used to engage in certain practices to receive the Guru mantra. They awakened early, before the sun rose, and they would rub hot ash all over their bodies and all through their hair. Then they would sit and meditate and wait.
At the precise moment the sun touched the Earth to begin the day, these meditating sages would then use wood sticks, similar to chopsticks, to pluck out their hair. If they yelled out in any pain, they would be dismissed and not receive the guru mantra. But if they sat unflinching and undisturbed through this hair plucking process, they would receive the guru mantra. Jain Dharma is a sophisticated, subtle, and very esoteric path, and it was born in the desert. Masters knew how to play with the desert heat and sun.
Understand the desert as a place where your spiritual search can take on a fresh, fired-up quality.
In the desert, if you approach every moment as an opportunity to express appreciation and simply bow in reverence for the heat outside and the heat inside. Not only will your act of bowing flood your system with the health-producing hormone oxytocin, but also all that heat will burn karma.
2. The desert’s great vastness and stillness remains undisturbed by walls, gates, buildings, or fences. It is important for us to stand, walk, sit, and be with nature’s vastness to be reminded of the vast nature of being and of the Atma (soul).
The desert is open space. In advanced meditation, we focus on space in order to enter a state of Pratyahar—synchronizing biorhythms and elements with the subtle frequencies we refer to as divine and Guru’s grace. The desert gives us wisdom about what it means to create space and hold space in our bodies, in our being, and in our environments. This is important for cultivating the awareness of our limitless potential.
3. Night in the desert offers profound connection to mysteries of the midnight hour.
Night is when it is cool and many beings who had been resting while the sun was blazing are now out and about. In wisdom traditions, the midnight hours are known as the hours of the mystic. These are the hours when creatures roam and seekers sit. Seekers observe the play of the divine. Can you be so alert and listen so deeply that you can even hear the sound that starlight makes when it is reaching its shine over the desert dust? From star dust to Thar dust is what we ought to say of starlight and night in Rajasthan. Know that if you remain awake through midnight in the desert and merge your consciousness with the energy vortex of the midnight hours, you will go through a portal and emerge renewed.
4. The desert teaches us to gracefully flow with extremes.
Days are bright and hot; nights are dark and cold. In a twenty-four-hour period, both polarities play to their extreme expression. For yogis, neutrally observing both polarities in their extremes helps the consciousness to transcend all polarities.
5. Observing the ways local people, plants, and animals live in the desert and noticing the special adaptations they acquire to thrive in their environment helps to refine your consciousness to open up to desert wisdom.
Plants adapt prickly and wiry leaves and spikes; they grow deep root systems to find moisture, or they gracefully flower and bloom for short lifespans. Animals rest by day and become alert at night. In the rare occasion when there is rain, these beings respond with instinctive joy that is a divine revelation of gratitude and celebration. Observing these beings’ ways can awaken these same expressions within you.
6. Sufi masters whirl in the desert.
The whirling dance celebrates the true nature of all things: all things exist with spin, each expressing the perfect marvel of the universe in cosmic dance. The whirling dance is a great reminder that the natural rhythm of all of life is cyclical, not linear.
7. Silence of the desert is important for brain health.
Recent scientific studies have revealed that noise impacts our brain health. Constant noise, even at levels that do not damage hearing, induces stress, anxiety, and unhealthy psychological effects. These studies also showed that silence made the brain recover its resilience and creative powers. Yogis and meditators have known silence as a great way to rejuvenate the sensory system. Retreating to be in the desert is a great way to retreat into silence. This silence can ease the sensory baggage we carry around with us when we live in the hustle and bustle and clank and clamor of day to day modern life.
8. Colors of the sky and land at sunrise and sunset offer a beautiful opportunity to practice tratakam.
Tratakam is a style of meditation that involves gazing without blinking. Gazing at the sky while the sun is rising or setting was practiced by ancient yogis. Gazing also offers a way for Praana to enter the body through the eyes and fuel the body with energy. The shades and hues of shadow and light that you gaze upon in the desert sky at sunrise and sunset can color your whole consciousness with childlike wonder.
The desert offers all spiritual seekers, artists, tourists, and wanderers a space for contemplation, healing, awakening, and creative inspiration. When you integrate every landscape into your experience, you realize the ancient wisdom that says that you are not in the universe but that the universe is within you. This universe includes the desert. The desert sands invite us to bow our foreheads, surrender our lives to inner vastness, and ignite our spiritual destiny with renewed fervor.
This is a meditation that can bring you into absolute stillness.
Sit in a comfortable position with a tall spine. Press the palms together and bring your thumbs into the heart center (Anjali Mudra). Close your eyes, focus the eyeballs at the Third Eye point between the brows, and do not move the eyeballs at all. Keep both eyes absolutely still for as long as possible. Notice when you start to feel bored and restless. When this feeling arises, allow your consciousness to notice all that you are aware of. If you are aware the eyes have moved, bring them back to stillness again. Stilling the eyes will naturally bring the mind beyond a sense of boredom and into the consciousness of pure being. Allow a feeling to arise that your past, your present, and your future are one. In the here and now, be with all time. Be timeless. Naturally, there is no time limit to this practice. Be in unity and stillness that mirrors the desert.
Davidson, Robyn. Desert Places. Viking, 1996.
Javid, Ahmad. Sufi Life Secret of Meditation. Balboa Press, 2011
Miyazaki, Yoshifumi. Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing.
Williams, Florence. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018
© Yogi Amandeep Singh