3 Mindfulness Lessons From The Wilderness

There is the real physical wilderness which some of us visit from time to time.

And then there is the spiritual wilderness that visits us from time to time — sometimes longer than we would like.

Times of illness or transition or loss of any kind can put us into an existential desert where there is no map and no set path forward.

The only way out is through.

The lessons we learn from spending time in unknown territory are profound and life-changing.

In fact, there is wisdom that can ONLY be gleaned in the wilderness.

Come along on this journey with me as we dip into the Hebrew bible for some universal lessons.

A bit of context: the fourth book of the Hebrew bible is named B’midbar, which means in“The Wilderness/Desert” in Hebrew. You may know the book by its Greek name, “Numbers.”

At the beginning of this book, the Israelites have just left 400 years of slavery, and set out to the promised land.

B’midbar chronicles the time the Israelites wander in the desert for what ends up being 40 years.

There is no map.

So, the book is filled with rebelliousness and lots of complaining (“Are we there yet?”)

Basically, “Can we go back to the known?” because the unknown is too dificult.

There are three lessons that we can learn from this rough time.

Lesson #1: “I wish I had” is never the way forward. Freedom is accepting where we are right now.

Almost from the first step into the wilderness, the Israelites begin to complain bitterly. Let’s remember that they were SLAVES for 400 years and now they are FREE people. And yet, because the present moment is uncomfortable, they idealize the past and dream about the meals they used to have.

Their reasoning is that even if they were in bondage, at least they were in a place that was KNOWN and had clear boundaries.

But here’s the thing: we can’t be anywhere else but where we are right now. Even when it’s uncomfortable.

Learning to be ok in the unknown is real freedom.

Lesson #2: Playing small is never the way forward. Telling ourselves the truth sets US free.

There’s an amazing story in this book where the leaders of the group scout the promised land. They indeed see a land “flowing with milk and honey” AND at the same time, they become very afraid, because they see people who are huge.

When they go back to report on what they’ve seen, this is what they say (I’m paraphrasing): “Those people are so big that we look like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must look like that to them.”

The key phrase here is “in our own eyes.” They tell themselves a story about who they are (small, like grasshoppers, incapable…) and it is the story that frightens them and causes them to lose faith.

It was for THIS reason, this lack of trust in themselves/ourselves and in the Divine Oneness that they/we end up wandering for 40 years.

Learning to become conscious of the stories we tell ourselves is freedom.

Lesson #3 It’s the space in-between where we have ultimate freedom to choose our response.

The leader of the Israelites, Moses, is considered to be the wisest prophet of all time in the Jewish tradition. And yet, in the wilderness, he makes one YUGE (huge) mistake that costs him dearly. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

The people are complaining (still?) and Moses’ patience has worn out. God tells him to speak to a rock and water will come forth (remember, they are in the desert…) Instead, Moses strikes the rock and calls the people “rebels.”

Indeed, water does indeed gush out, and yet for this act of anger, Moses is doomed to live out his days never setting foot in the promised land. He dies in the desert overlooking the promised land.

The punishment seems so unfair.

But here’s the thing: the issue was not Moses’ anger (of course he’s frustrated!)

Rather, it was that he didn’t take the time to breathe and think about the implications of his loss of control.

As Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The people, at this stage of the wilderness journey, need a leader who is thoughtful and purposeful. It would have been good if Moses talked his feelings out with his brother Aaron so that he could be the kind of leader the people need at this moment.

We can all relate, right?

Every one of us knows the feeling of being utterly undone. And we also know that as responsible adults, we must not act from that place. No good comes from flying off the handle.

Choosing our response to what happens to us may be the only freedom we really have.

ALL of these lessons are practices in mindfulness: accepting the present moment, becoming aware of the stories we tell ourselves and putting space between stimulus and our response.

I’d love to know your thoughts. What lessons have you learned from the wilderness?