Finding Your True Self in the Desert

“The desert has a deep personality. It has a voice; and God speaks through its personality and voice. Great elders in all ages…have sought the desert and heard its voice.”
Letter to the Student Body of Deep Springs College, President L. L. Nunn, 1923.

Morning Light over the Sierra Nevada

October 2005. I gently close the door to room 20 and step into the cold, morning darkness. This room was where John Wayne slept when he made his last film. The parking lot of the Dow Villa Motel, Lone Pine, California is filled with cars sporting a spectrum of out of state license plates. I turn on the motor of my Olds Bravada and slowly move out on to Highway 395, turning right toward the next signal, Whitney Portal Road. I maneuver the winding mountain road that eventually leads to the base camp for climbing Mount Whitney. Passing through a gap in the Alabama Hills I continue toward the Sierra Nevada, turning right on Movie Road. Drive slowly here because two deer just ran across the highway. I drive north on this wide dirt road, park the car and step out on to crunching sand and a slight, cold breeze. I face the Sierra as a new day of life begins. Dawn light emerges from the east out of Death Valley illuminating the Sierra with soft purples and pinks. A cottontail rabbit dashes into a clump of sagebrush.

Silence. The soul awakens in this spiritually thin place between heaven and earth, between darkness and light, between the past and the future. This present moment. This present breath.
The dawning of a new day is when the first songs of praise and adoration ring from the world spiritualities.

Each morning many Shoshone face the Sun in the east and sing a prayer song to Appah. They believed that the rays of the Sun carried their words up to Appah, “Our Father” or Creator.

From the Pratha Smarana Soorya Stotram (Morning Prayer to Sun God, Hindu Rig Veda, Translated by P. R. Ramachander):
I meditate in the morning, upon the greatly exalted form of Sun God,
Whose plane is Rig Veda, whose body is Yajur Veda,
Whose rays are Sama Veda, who is the source of light,
And whose unimaginable form does the work of holy trinity.

I salute in the morning the sun god who has a body of fire,
With my body, words and my mind,
Who is being worshipped by Braham and other devas,
Who causes rain and also becomes the cause of rain,
Who looks after all the three worlds and has three qualities.

I sing in the morning about Sun God with his limitless powers,
Who is divine and removes sin, enemies, diseases and sorrows,
Who is the source of measurement of time for all the worlds,
Who is the primeval God responsible for freeing the tie in the neck of Cows.
(this short prayer invites the person to dissolve in devotion to God).

The Muslim also prays this prayer for a new day (Salatu-I-Fair):
Glory to you, O Allah, and Yours is the praise, and blessed is Your name, and exalted is Your majesty, and there is no God besides you. I seek the refuge of Allah from the condemned devil. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Merciful.

From my own Christian voice I pray from Psalm 118:24:
“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The sun warms my back, desert wind encircles me, and the Holy surrounds me in love and peace. The desert calls me deeper into God’s unconditional embrace.

January 1978. The panic attacks always seemed to strike before Saturday midnight. The worst of times. I had to be bright, alert and ready on Sunday morning to preach and celebrate the Eucharist at St. Mary’s Parish, Laguna Beach.

This Saturday afternoon I had worked out hard at the Laguna Beach Health Club, curling 55-pound dumbbells. Heavy weights pressed the limit of my endurance. After dinner, I jogged two miles into the hills around our Laguna Niguel home. I hoped that the endorphins would take over: that natural narcotic would bring me sweet sleep. But not this night. I have been tossing and turning in this bed for two hours. The clock says 11pm. I try that relaxation exercise: do you remember it? I am filled with sand, there are holes in my feet, and the sand is slowing emptying out of my body. However, the panic attack has a firm, possessive hold on my body. The pain in my legs, the titillating prickly sweat of anxiety covers me. I feel my pulse: 110. My mind is churning as if I had had four cups of coffee. I try to remember quiet places of past memory, but my body resists. Finally, at 2am I get up, walk into the living room and jog in place until I can no longer stand up and I am covered in sweat. By 3am the panic attack possession has left my body and I sleep for four hours. Sunday morning I feel as if my mind is moving through thick fog. I cannot go on living this way.

These panic attacks must mean something. Am I heading toward a nervous breakdown? A friend suggested I get some counseling to find out what my body is telling me.

The following week I climb the stairs to the La Veta Street office in Orange of  Robert Phillips MD. I had known Dr. Bob previously as he had attended services at St. Mary’s. I remember his quiet, Buddha-like presence in a wheelchair in a corner of the church. He always had some pithy, humorous reflection on my sermon to share with me.

I entered the office of his psychiatric practice wondering what I was getting into. What inner doors would I be opening and should I be afraid? I had been a priest for seven years by this point and had counseled many persons through marriages and crises. I invited them to live in the light and be open to God and what was going on in their life, to live in a place “where no secrets are hid,” and share their struggles. But this was a different situation for me. I sat on the couch in his office at that first clinical encounter. Dr. Bob came closer to me. In those days, he liked to smoke those thin cigarettes wrapped in very dark paper. He told me that he had originally prepared to become a pediatrician at Columbia University Medical School. One day he attended a lecture on Multiple Sclerosis and he recognized that he himself had the very early stages of the disease. He changed to psychiatry as a form of medicine he could practice from a wheel chair.

Dr. Bob was a heavily built man, with long straight grey hair tumbling over his shirt collar. Bushy eyebrows were like exclamation points to his penetrating questions. He presented him to me as an Orthodox Jew, Episcopalian Christian-Zen Buddhist-Gestalt therapist. Moses, Jesus and Siddhartha wove in and out of our conversations.

Health insurance was more generous in the 1970s. I could see Dr. Bob several times a week. Eventually I was lying down on the office couch, in that traditional Freudian repose, staring at the ceiling as he guided me deeper into reflective consciousness. I must have been boring most of the time. He did not have much to say to me during those 45 minutes sessions until the very end. Sometimes I would find him nodding off. Another time I looked up and saw that he was flipping through pages of the New Yorker at his desk, while I poured out my soul to him! I was angry and chastised him for his indifference.
He responded, “When you have said something that is interesting, you will hear from me.” I almost walked out the door, never to return. But I wanted to know what was going on with these panic attacks. Why this restless energy?

As I look back at those sessions of psychoanalysis, it is hard to remember Dr. Bob’s revelations. I recall trying to write down an insightful observation at the end of a session. Nevertheless, as I tried to write, I could not recall the words that he had said only five minutes previously. It was as if some mysterious force did not want me to remember what had been revealed.

Two insights have remained with me all these years: the power of the addictive voice and the struggle to break free from the false self in order to embrace my true self.

Memories opened from inner recesses: a long life of compulsive lying. Theft of books from the USC Doheny Library, arrest for Grand Theft, and expulsion from school. Webs of lies and deception trapped me. I can remember Dr. Bob saying something like: “Brad, you are an intelligent person and part of your problem is you have this very clever voice that talks you into lies and deception. If you weren’t a priest, you would have been successful at “white collar crime” until you were caught.”
“Is there any hope for me?” I pleaded.
“No. You are hopeless. That inner voice is just too powerful. It will probably pull you down into some destructive addiction”
“No hope? Is there no way out of this?”
“Your only hope is to see that you are powerless in trying to manage your life. Much of your anxiety comes from trying to control the events and people around you. When you finally let go, help will come.”
“You sound like a priest, telling me I need to let go to God.”
“Right now I am the only priest you have to guide you through this wilderness. I hear you preaching on Sunday about faith and God’s grace, but in all of our time together, you sound like someone trying to run your own universe. And you are experiencing the emotional expense of living in that mirage.”

Gerald May writes:
“Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things that are not their true desires….Addiction is a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire. Addiction sidetracks and eclipses the energy of our deepest, truest desire for love and goodness. We succumb because the energy of our desire becomes attached, nailed, to specific behaviors, objects or people.” P. 16.

Dr. Bob was underlining the teaching of all world religions: the Holy One birthed us for love and freedom. Addiction blocks this relationship. He wanted me to recognize my helplessness to fix my situation on my own and my need for divine Amazing Grace. Years later, it would be in the desert encounters with the Holy that I would understand what he was trying to tell me.

Over many months of psychotherapy, I also had revealed to me the possessive power of my False Self. Memories of childhood revealed experiences of deep, genuine nurture from my mother; being touched, held, spoken to softly, reassured in scary times. Every night before sleep, Mom read to me. She was generous and playful. I was surrounded in a circle of love from my parents.

I think it began around seventh grade at Wilson Junior High School in Pasadena: those hormones and the initial push back and resistance to my parents. They began to trade love and their approval for my good performance in school: good grades in Latin, math and science; practicing the cello in orchestra, rising above the crowd in student government and lettering in football. The more successful I was in school the more I received parental approval. I learned who the popular kids were and worked my way into their friendship. By ninth grade I saw that my value depended on what I could do, what I had, who I knew, what other thought of me. I was well on the way to construct my False Self.

I asked my long-time friend Dr. Laurence Budner MD, child psychiatrist, to share with me his thoughts about the construction of the False Self. Here are his words:
“During the first months of an infant’s life, the mother’s devoted care and responsiveness gives the infant the sense that the world is safe, reliable and loving. Misunderstandings between them are quickly corrected. However, at some point, the infant expresses a wish or an impulse and gets a response back that hurts: anger, frustration, or being ignored. The infant learns that there are some parts of himself or herself that can’t be expressed, because it threatens that secure relationship with the mother. This is the beginning of the false self: dividing wishes, preferences, and impulses into acceptable and unacceptable categories, only showing the acceptable ones to the world, and forgetting that the unacceptable ones are still very much present.”

Stop here for a moment and think about yourself. When you are in a new situation meeting people, how do you introduce yourself? Do you know who you really are?

The full flowering of the False Self came at Pasadena High School in 1960. At one of the premier high schools in America, with 4200 students, I was the first tenth grader chosen for the men’s honorary service club, the Key Club. I enjoyed more affirmation in football, student government and the inner circle of popularity, which culminated in my election as District Governor of all of the Key Clubs in California, Nevada and Hawaii. I was so busy and involved, I needed a personal assistant. I still look back at those three years of high school wistfully. April 1963 I pleased my parents immensely when I was accepted to the University of Southern California, the only school to which I applied and where seven of my aunts and uncles had attended. I had pleased the whole family. In June, the news was even better: I received a full scholarship to attend USC. However, the False Self has an insatiable appetite. At the Senior Awards Assembly, plaques and trophies were given to outstanding scholars, student leaders and athletes. At the announcement of each award, I was breathless in expectation. But nothing for me. I remember slowly walking the hallway in the Administration Building after that event, staring blankly at display windows inside the building, my eyes welling up with tears and my throat choking. I lacked perspective. I received a scholarship that today would be worth $200,000 and I was deeply depressed because I did not receive a $25 brass plaque.

At USC the days of reckoning descended on me. Trying to be the perfect, successful son had its price. My first love relationship challenged the attention of my parents, especially my Mother. That relationship broke up because of my compulsive lying and other dysfunction. I blamed my parents for my unhappiness and did not see them for many months, even though they lived twenty miles away. The isolation was increasing. I stole books from the Doheny Library where I worked and tried to sell them at a Pasadena bookstore. I was arrested on my 21st birthday, which made the charge Grand Theft. The university decided not to press charges but to dismiss me from the school.

The House of Cards had collapsed. I was now a total failure, but I was not in jail. Here was the beginning of what Dr. Bob would say was a glimpse of an unmanageable life.

My uncle John Trever was able to get me into Baldwin Wallace College in Ohio where I could finish college. But here is the weird part: in the middle of isolation, anger and bad choices, I was attending the Episcopal Church in Altadena, California. I found a new family/community that welcomed me and I did not have to perform. I volunteered in the Sunday School, teaching an unrulely class of second graders and singing in the choir. I was being drawn toward the priesthood, as I deeply admired the parish priest, his social activism. I was encouraged to apply for seminary.

Application into the discernment process for ordination involved a psychiatric exam and that doctor must have seem the turbulence within me. I was denied. However, Uncle John, a Methodist minister, encouraged me to apply to the ecumenical religious school in Berkeley, Pacific School of Religion. I was admitted. This was not the way things were done. You received your Bishop’s approval to attend seminary (always an Episcopal seminary) only after you were accepted to Postulancy, the first step in the ordination process. I was being a free agent here and that was extremely risky.

The day I arrived at Berkeley, September 1967, America’s Counter Cultural Revolution was in full bloom and I was at the center of it all. I arrived at the front door of the seminary and student Martin Murdock welcomed me.
“I’m just heading out to a party. Want to come?”
“Yes,” I said.
Within the hour, we had arrived at the exact corner of Haight and Ashbury! We went up two flights of stairs to a large apartment, where some student nurses lived. We were welcomed in. The sound of folk music and good times. What strikingly beautiful ladies were there. Then came the shock, which would be one of many I experienced in three years of Berkeley student life. All of these beautiful student nurses had been nuns in the Los Angeles community of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In the heated conflict with old-time traditionalist Cardinal MacIntyre, following the hopes for liberalization in Second Vatican Council, the religious order was kicked out of Los Angeles and many of the nuns left the community and came to the Bay Area. Most of the other young men I saw at the party turned out to be novices in the Christian Brothers Order.

I return to Dr. Bob’s couch, the panic attacks and the False Self. The False Self is a fearful place to live. I had to be ever on the defensive. I needed constant approval, I wanted to please and be a successful priest. I couldn’t let anyone get too close, including my wife Janice. It was that lonely place, discerned by Basil Pennington “that down beneath all that we have and all that we do is that little one who is all need and is ever trying to win the approbation of others in the hope that it might ultimately assure us that we are worth something.” P. 35

This is what drives us to psychiatrists and Emergency Rooms where we can get pills to sedate us, because we don’t want to live with the pain. I asked for pills to calm me and help me sleep. Dr. Bob said no, I needed to go through this cold turkey, and besides I would certainly become an addict. But he did offer Janice medication, because she had to live with me. She refused.

The wisdom people of the world religions tell us that the prescription for liberation from the False Self, from restless desire and endless dissatisfaction is some form of meditation. This is actually what Dr. Buddha does. In the Four Noble Truths he diagnosed the core spiritual problem of humanity, Duhkha, the endless dissatisfactory nature of life, which fame, sex, power, money cannot satiate. Dr. Buddha’s prescription for liberation was the Eight Fold Path with sarzen sitting meditation at the core.

Lao Tzu echoes this invitation when he invites us to sit on a rock with him on the edge of the forest, watch the flowing ripples of the stream next to us, and empty our minds, quiet all that thinking and desire, and become one with the Great Mother of all things, the Tao.
Hindu Sadus invite us into the forest for meditation with yoga. As we harness our body and breath, the mind will be tamed, and we will flow into the deep place of Atman, intuitive consciousness, where we become one with God.

Meditation helps us to simply be. The last struggle of the False Self is our thinking.

Dr. Bob the psychiatrist was also a kind of spiritual director guiding me closer to the Holy One. The restlessness, panic attacks and depression were also about a spiritual crisis.

Ron Rolheiser writes in The Holy Longing:
“…we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to simply rest….We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives of quiet desperation.” P 3

There is a fire that burns within us, a wild desire pulling us this way and that way.

Rolheiser continues:
“Spirituality is….about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings…Thus when Plato says that we are on fire because our souls come from beyond and that beyond is, through the longing and hope that its fire creates in us, trying to draw us back toward itself, he is laying out the broad outlines for spirituality. Likewise, for Augustine, when he says, “You have made us for yourself. Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest.”

Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest or our sleepless Saturday nights when the panic attacks hit. I know what he means by the fire that burns within and I think you do too. You know the restless dissatisfaction of which I am speaking. You have had your own experiences of tossing and turning. Rolheiser has this wonderful phrase good for priests to hear: “Spirituality is more about whether or not we can sleep at night than about whether or not we go to church.” It has something to do with how I live with this fire inside me and how I channel my Eros and the disciplines and habits of my life. Will these energies take me in all directions seeking satiation of the appetites of the False Self, or will the fire take me deep within, toward that God-shaped void that only the Holy One can fill?”

I found sustenance and guidance at the Center for Spiritual Development, in Orange, California. This ecumenical center open to all spiritualities provides spiritual directors who are trained in helping us listen within and to connect in deep friendship with the Holy One. It was here that I learned about meditation and Centering Prayer. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, a 500-year-old curriculum for praying through the gospels and the life of Jesus brought me deeper into communion with God. We need wise teachers who point the way and remind us that we are beloved by God. Here was the place were I was given the tools and disciplines that have helped me for over twenty years.

It has been a very long pilgrimage for me leading me home to that for which I was created, communion with the Holy One. For more than twenty years, the desert has become that place where I am most able to quiet my mind, and enter into that place of love, joy, peace and hope with the God.

In forty years of marriage and being a parent, I began to meet my True Self in the love I have received from Janice, Erik and Katie. As a continuously flawed human, with all sorts and conditions in my psychic DNA, they each have loved me. Remembering that I have been loved by others, in spite of my humanness, is a great joy. Basil Pennington reveals “the only way we really see ourselves is when we see ourselves reflected back to us from the eyes of one who truly loves us.” Ultimately that Person is God. I find my True Self in communion with the Holy One.

A daily practice of meditation guides us toward our True Self. Let me share with you a daily practice that has helped me. It is called the “Examen of Consciousness” and it was developed by Ignatius Loyola 500 years ago. There are five easy steps and this is how I practice it.
At the end of my day, a good night kiss for Jan and a hug for our son Erik, who sleeps in a bed about six feet from ours, because of his night seizures. When all is quiet, I gaze up into the dark ceiling and reflect on the day. I begin by inviting God to be present with me.
Gratitude. I try to recall the good things that happened during the day, the little blessings for which I want to give thanks. I am not doing a self-assessment here or a fantasy trip through the day that is past. I want to anchor myself in the place of thanksgiving. Perhaps there was good news, or an enjoyable family experience, or an encounter with God in creation that bubbles up. Some of these experiences can be powerful and I want to savor them, not rush through a memory. Savoring an experience for which I am thankful slows the whole experience down and I am blessed by that event.
I ask for the grace to see where I have turned away from my True Self, the deepest part of myself. I allow myself to see those times when I was not my best; maybe I was hard on someone. Insensitive. The point is not to beat up on myself, but to let the voice of my conscience remind me of a better way. Maybe tomorrow I need to go back to that person and make amends. As I pay attention to this voice of conscience, God is helping me to be more loving.
I review the day. It is like a YouTube video of the past day. I begin from when I first awakened and go through every event. I pay attention to what made me happy, when I felt stressed, angry, confused, frustrated. I try to imagine with all my senses the past day. You will be surprised when you do that as a daily habit, because events and people will bubble up that you had forgotten and there may something important connected to them.
I ask God for pardon for what I may have done.
I resolve with God’s grace to make amends where I can. I ask for God’s help in the coming day.
I close with a prayer.

During the night, when I have to make those middle-aged male visits to the bathroom, I am surprised by moments of great clarity. A phrase comes forth. Often it is an answer to a problem I have been praying about. Regular meditation opens the mind’s filters to the flow of intuitive consciousness. Some of my most creative ideas or answers to conflict have come from these 3am Aha’s.

Lest you think this is a linear project of self-perfection, my favorite mystic Thomas Merton wrestled all of his life with his own cunning False Self. You can read about these struggles in his Journals and his Letters. As a maturing mystic in the Trappist Cistercian order, the new project of his false self was to become the perfect monk. Some of his earliest writings expressed his project oriented spirituality and the image of the perfect monk.

However, meditation in the presence of God’s love revealed to him the truth of his wanderings in New Seeds of Contemplation:
For me to become a saint means to be myself. Therefore, the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my True Self. The recognition of the True Self in the divine image is recognition of the fact that we are known and loved by God. P 84.

Lest you think the False Self has been fully exorcised, sociologist Erving Goffman reminds us that all of life is performance and we act out with different personae depending on whom we are with and the context.

Twitter and Facebook have created new challenges for our True Self.
Professor Sherry Turkel of MIT, in her book, Alone Together, interviewed several hundred parents and children about how the use of cell phones and social media affected their lives.
“Among young people especially she found that the self was increasingly becoming externally manufactured rather than internally developed,” reports Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times.

Dr. Turkel writes:
“On Twitter or Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are. But because you are also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become a performance. Your psychology becomes a performance.”

Facebook and Twitter have helped me reconnect with old friends, classmates, and family members who live in Sweden. Recently I have been using social media as a vehicle to share my desert journeys in the Owens Valley and invite them into this spirit soaked landscape.

There is a reason why most of the wisdom people who helped birth the major world religions had their foundational experience of the Holy in the desert. The desert revealed and fostered their True Self. Spindly creosote branches brush against by Wrangler jeans and a sweet sage scented autumn breeze caresses me as I walk in the morning light. My soul becomes like an old bed sheet strung up between two pine trees, the gentle wind of the Spirit blows through me. This is my favorite mediation, the yoga that quiets body and breath and mind, walking in the vast spaces of the Owens Valley, where I embrace my True Self.

I hope this blog entices you to visit some of the special sacred sites I am describing. Perhaps you will stay in Lone Pine, at the Dow Villa Motel, in room 20. At the end of the day, your muscles will feel tired but well spent in your desert walks. Perhaps you may practice the Examen of Conscience, discovering a surprising wellspring of deep thanksgiving for the graces of creation, the beloved people in your life, and for the renewed awareness that you are precious to the Holy One. Just before you turn off the lamp stand in the room, a portrait of the Duke himself will gaze upon you as a final blessing. Tonight you will sleep very well.

Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions, Gerald G. May, M.D. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius Loyola.
The Holy Longing, Ron Rolheiser, New York: Doubleday, 1998
True Self, False Self: Unmasking the Spirit Within, M. Basil Pennington. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000.
The Way We Live Now: I Tweet, Therefore I am”, Peggy Orenstein, Sunday New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2010, p 11-12.
The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, James Martin, SJ.
New York: HarperCollings, 2010

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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2 Responses to Finding Your True Self in the Desert

  1. mark ross says:

    Wow Brad! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Ann says:

    Dear Brad,
    Thank you for sharing. Reading this blog helped me realize I have lived a long, long False Self. …. Have been to Ignatian retreats, meditation classes etc only to abandon them. Now I realise why .. the False Self will always dominate and deceive. Finding space for my True Self is a journey I must now embark on. Please pray for many, many who are like me …. Thanks and God Bless.

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