Peace in the Chaos - Cultivating Presence and Rest in the Desert
Updated: Feb 15, 2022
This story was created on the land of the Ute Native American Tribe
What does it mean to rest? I suppose the obvious answer is that rest is to sleep, cease physical activity, and to let our minds and bodies recover from everything we do as human beings. While this is true, I don’t believe rest is really that simple, and it only answers part of the original question. So, let’s expand: How do you rest your soul? The word soul means different things to different people, but for your understanding of this passage, think of the soul as the deepest part of what makes you human, and connects you to something greater than yourself.
Resting the body and mind are simple tasks, relatively speaking, and both of them hold importance in achieving the deeper level of rest I’m talking about here, but they’re not the be-all-end-all. Deep, soul-level rest requires something more of us. It’s a bit of a paradox, how resting actually requires us to do something rather than doing nothing.
I had my first major experience with this idea right before Thanksgiving this year. I was in one of my college classes, and suddenly it felt like my brain turned off. I could no longer write (like I physically couldn’t make my hands draw letters), my thoughts were a jumbled mess, and my body’s movement felt strange, almost like I was living in 3rd person. Basically, I’d found my limit, pushed too hard, and burned out. Hard. The stress of school, the pain of situations in my personal life, and my fears of the unknown came crashing down on me and it was too much. I had to stop.
Early the next week, I hopped in my car and drove straight west, eventually coming to a stop near Moab, Utah, where I set up camp on the edge of a cliff next to the Green River. No cell service, no people. Just me, my car, and the desert. Over the next 48 hours, I made it my goal to learn how to rest.
For two days, I watched the river meander gently through the canyon. I watched the first sunlight of the day wash over the canyon walls and then I watched the last light of day ascend the same walls, leaving them in shadow. I watched clouds dance through the sky and I stared curiously into the starry night. I spent my days sleeping, meditating, writing, reading, taking photos, and possibly more than anything else, staring into the canyon. I would sit there for a long time, scanning the walls of red rock up and down all the way to the banks of the river, giving my mind the space to wander, and when it was done wandering, the space to just be. For the first time in a long time, I felt stillness in my soul.
Throughout both days, a pair of ravens soared through the canyons around me. They’d swoop in low, mere feet from my head and then dive headfirst towards the river. At one point, one of the birds came careening over the edge of the canyon and did several barrel rolls before opening its wings and launching back into the sky. I had never seen a bird do that before! The lives of these birds were both a dance and a game, beautiful and playful, existing exactly as they were created to be.
I was immensely struck by this realization. Existing exactly as they were created to be. It’s basically impossible for a raven to do anything other than exactly what a raven was made to do. Eat. Drink. Fly. Play. Repeat. Now, I’m no raven expert, but I don’t have to be to see that there’s something profound about the simplicity of their lives. I’m also not saying that the way a raven lives is exactly how we should live. There are definitely some differences going on between ravens and humans, in case you weren’t aware.
What I’m getting at is that maybe we’ve over complicated things because we’re humans and humans are meaning making machines constantly trying to figure out why they exist and how to be better at doing so. That’s part of the human experience. It’s a worthy and important pursuit for all of us to try to discover our callings and our purposes throughout our lifetimes. And for us, learning how to do so is part of learning who we are created to be. But man, it gets exhausting to be focused on it all the damn time like so many of us are.
When was the last time you stopped everything
that your body doesn’t subconsciously control and just did nothing, on purpose? Not to go to sleep, but to just be? When was the last time you stripped your life down to the basics to just enjoy being a human for a while? For most of us, the answer is probably further in the past than we’d like, if we can remember it at all. We don’t exactly live in a world that encourages us to regularly stop and do nothing.
After spending a few days above the river, I packed up and headed towards my next destination, an obscure campsite I'd heard about online and had dreamed about ever since. After a long, gnarly 4x4 drive through the desert, into the mountains, and back into the desert, I arrived on a peninsula of rock overlooking one of the most stunning valleys in the world. Some people who already occupied most of the campsite graciously invited me to park my rig with theirs and we spent the evening enjoying good food, fun conversation, and that heavenly desert light. Not a bad way to spend Thanksgiving day.
So, back to the original question: What does it look like to rest well? To rest our souls on a deep level? I believe it’s going to look slightly different for everyone. For me, it was a spontaneous solo road trip to Utah. For you, maybe it’s a few days to spend quietly at home. No matter what the environment looks like for you, the key is to slow down, simplify, and work only to cultivate presence. The same simplicity observed in the life of a raven is the same simplicity that will give you the space you need to rest and recover from the demanding aspects of life. Ultimately, it is the time spent in rest which will allow you to gain a deeper understanding of the questions you have about your path and step into a more full version of who you are created to be.
Discussion question for the comments: When was the last time you were able to truly rest? What did that look like? If it's been a long time, what would it look like for you to find that deep level of rest?