In the Mojave Desert, J. Jason Graff reflects on silence, time, and slowing down in our modern age through mindfulness.
While walking slowly through the Mojave desert I found what looked like part of an old desert tortoise’s shell, sun bleached and chalky, broken into pieces that fit together like a puzzle in large geometric shapes to form what might have been the bottom plate of his shell. Who knows how old he was when he died. He didn’t keep track, I’m sure. But we do, and he could have been 100 years old when he took his last step. A noble desert traveler returning to dust, being carried off on the wind, the whispering desert wind.
At twilight the red and purple sky of the sinking desert sun played backdrop to the yipping of coyotes off on an opposing ridge, the wind would sometimes stir and the sound it made through the Joshua Trees was like a whisper of the cool air. If I listened closely enough, and with a mind settled like snow on a frozen lake, would I hear what it had to say? Could the wind talk? I like to think it can, but only if we listen, which we’re not likely to do anymore.
I had lost my way. I used to have a mindfulness practice but it went by the wayside some time ago and there’s nothing that feeds the drama wheel of modern American society than mindlessness and a blindspot to self awareness. I was caught up, “in the web” or like a fly in Vaseline, mind like a “monkey mind” the Buddhists say, darting this way and that with no control, carried on the waves of emotion like a feather in a whirlpool, slowly dropping, but quickening as the swirl sank further.
I wonder if some of my lack of awareness, my decreasing attention span and scattered mind, might be because the internet is rewiring our brains. Making us less able to concentrate. Less able to pay attention, to listen, to be present. Throw in cell phones, texting, earbuds… and now here you have one culture hellbent on doing something other than whatever it is they’re presently doing (like just sitting, waiting, eating).
For a long time I had a mindfulness practice and have done residential meditation retreats in silence, practicing for 7 days starting at about 6 am and lasting until about 10 pm each night. I have studied eastern philosophy (Taoism, Buddhism, yoga, etc.) for over 18 years. But I had let my practice go by the wayside. And it showed.
I was caught in the stream like a fish getting hooked on every single thought my mind wanted to entertain me with, and so I was on autopilot as a result. Drifting along. My mind like a drunk on an open dance floor barely standing but trying to follow each white dot that spun on the floor from the magical disco ball above. So to the desert I went.
To re-wire my brain. To take it back from the busyness of the modern world. Meditation can change our brains, reclaim what is I think our ancestral heritage (and right) to silence, peace, calm. To a collected, concentrated and equanimous mind.
When my mind has been as active as it was it takes some time to settle down and become quiet. I knew this from years of practice so I was patient. Eventually my mind gave up trying to get my attention, the dramas in my head slowly fading away, the constant chatter, the simulacra it must rehearse for some supposed future event that always never happens as my mind plans it, yet it never learns from this and continues to try and prepare for a future it will never understand.
And that first instant when it finally shuts up and all I have is the warm sun, the endless blue sky and the monzogranite boulders beaming light from the quartzite gems embedded in them, that first instant of silence is like a great massage of the soul, like a giant exhalation casting off the fetters of a tense and stressful grip, releasing me into a timeless moment that most cultures before us probably knew, like the Hopi, or the Lakota, or the Mojave.
Along with the listening I watched. I took slow walks, sat often out in the open desert, scanning the silence, the desert floor for a rock that moves slowly. I’ve never seen a desert tortoise but I know that from a distance it looks like a rock. And then it moves, surprising the unsuspecting witness, taking its time. Slow time. Deep time.
The desert tortoise has patiently plied the Mojave Desert for centuries, eons really, with little care about getting anywhere at all. Its sense of time must be very different than ours. We seem to view it as some sort of contest, or race, to get in as much as we can in as little time as we can and we’re sure keep track of it all. We have watches, clocks, countdown clocks, timers, alarms, hours, minutes, seconds, nano-seconds….but we’ve lost the sun as a result. And the moon. We’ve lost the rhythm of it all. We’ve lost a sense of time that is grand, that is slow, that is quiet.
Most of what drives our lives now, most of what we acquire, the “stuff”, all of the activity that fills the gaps between the activities we’ve already taken on, the new car, the new house, a different job, facebook, texting, tweeting…..all of it is racing towards us, or us to it, in order, in my view, to avoid one thing: Boredom.
So I sat in the desert and experienced boredom to its fullest. I watched as my mind wanted to hike, or bike, or run, or surf the internet, or climb, or DO SOMETHING, damn it, other than just sit there, and I became comfortable with boredom again. I think I briefly sank into slow time, deep time, and I imagined that when all of my “stuff” is stripped away, all of my busy body activities are removed, that the peace I felt was something that was a genetic right I inherited, that all humans inherited, and that somehow we’ve managed to push it away. I think it is a tragedy that we’ve lost a sense of a right to just do nothing. No agendas. No deadlines. No schedules. No time.
I think that if we were to ask the desert tortoise how he deals with boredom he would look at us with confusion (sadness really) and wonder what in the world it was we were talking about. It’s like when the Dalai Lama was asked about self hate and he didn’t understand the question. When it was explained what self hate was and that many Americans experience it, he became very sad and shook his head. He couldn’t understand such a thing. Self hate was not a concept in the Tibetan culture so to him this foreign phenomenon seemed alien, and tragic.
I imagine the desert tortoise reacting the same way to a question about boredom. I see him shaking his head, slowly lifting himself with his stout legs, and walking off at a measured, deliberate pace, picking his way through sage and cactus with no specific destination in mind nor schedule to meet. I would watch him until he disappeared, which would take a long time, to grant him the respect an old sage deserves, a desert wanderer with nothing to accomplish. No one to impress.
I think that we fear the quiet actually, we fear slowness, we fear “nothing to do.” In our culture if you’re not doing something you’re lazy. We boast of working 70 hours a week, one upping each other in some strange competition to see who can accumulate the most stress per pay period. It’s odd really when you think about it (if we ever think about it at all). We created the wheel, then we jump on it and run and run and run trying to catch up to some abstract “dream” that is uniquely American (of course) and if we just run faster we’ll catch that dream and live it. Like those blissful people you see in anti-depressant commercials. They found the dream. Why haven’t you?
Early in the morning I would search for bobcat. They would be hunting the deer mouse, or the jackrabbit in those early hours, but mostly I saw raven. Two black forms up in the deep blue desert sky one cawing, gurgling an almost heinous sound, and then back to cawing. Maybe he was telling the desert tortoise to rise. The sun is fast approaching old friend, come out and take your rightful place among us. The desert tortoise would be too smart to listen to raven knowing he was trying to trick him, for raven is a predator and not much of a friend to the desert tortoise. So he would stay in his burrow until February or March, waiting for the cold nights to pass and lengthening days that bring higher temperatures under the hot sun.
I imagine that in spring, from raven’s perspective up there, he can see rocks down below that slowly start to move. The desert coming alive, slow rocks shifting in no particular order, no sensed pattern, no goal in mind. Patient desert wayfarers that thank the morning sun and move on slowly toward no place but this place. Right here. Right now.
I followed the desert tortoise’s pattern of stirring when the sun was warm, retreating when it dropped behind the Little San Bernardino Mountains. We never did see a desert tortoise over those five days in the Mojave because they are dormant now in their burrows. But still I searched. Their numbers are falling and it is not so easy to spot them as it used to be. Another threatened species to add to the list, their habitat shrunk due to human encroachment, they are now confined mostly to the Mojave and Sonoran Desert.
They’ve come so far, through time, deep, geologic time only to arrive to a shrinking world around them. The closing in of their world brought about by a species with a sense of time that thinks in terms of accumulation, consumption, a single generation. A species that has things to do, promotions to achieve, sales targets, retirement homes to erect. And they have very little time to do it, it seems, the way they race around like they do, the tortoise must think. What’s the rush? I imagine him asking. Who is chasing them?
The human species is but a brief moment in deep time, a mere blip in the scale of geologic time so in terms of planetary seniority, we are the greenhorns. You would think we would show a little more respect to those who came before us. To those who’ve scaled deep time slowly, patiently, arriving here in this moment after many, many centuries of existence so that we may bow to them in reverence and maybe even learn something from them, and yet.
At night the stars in the desert sky arc over like those quartzite gems in the boulders on the desert floor and twinkle in blue, orange, yellow and red pulses…the only thing piercing the dark silence is the occasional rumbling jet high above racing towards another landing. Then another takeoff. Then another landing. The desert tortoise waits below the earth, deep down, patiently as he does, for the changing tide, the warming soil, the golden rays increasing intensity to beckon him out. Come out old friend, I imagine the sun saying to the tortoise, Come take your rightful place among us. And when this happens months from now in spring, this time the tortoise will listen, trusting the old sun, thanking him for his warm embrace as he slowly emerges from his winter burrow. And then, just as the heat of the desert floor shimmers in the distance, when the raven whirls above in dark angles, the rocks will begin to move. Slowly. Just as they have for centuries. Just as they have for eons of deep time past.
Five days of desert solitaire and I think I’ve recharged somewhat. I came out of the desert with a wish to approach this next year a little differently than the last. I want to react less and respond more with a sense of compassion, empathy, connectedness. I want to listen more, speak less. I want to appreciate downtime and not try to fill it with “stuff.” I want to stop trying to “save time” and spend time instead. I want to experience more peace, right now, in this moment without having to look for some activity to fill the time between the activity. I want to be present and be okay with “now” and let “what will be” come to me as it surely will, dressed very differently than what my mind would like to predict and daydream and rehearse about.
I want to honor the disappearing desert tortoise and just slow down. Make space. Rest. This is my hope for the entire world actually, but especially for us here in America. I wonder how many of the problems we face as a culture, as a species, would be solved if we all just slowed down a little. Took our time. Spent our time.