El Cosmico and The Pilgrimage of the Soul


It started with an announcement in the presence of persons with whom I've worked for the last nine months. "I think I'm approaching burnout." The words hung in the air with a lightness of being that seemed to keep them suspended interminably. Immediately, I wondered if I was just tired and being dramatic. I have recently learned that as an Enneagram 5 wing 4 this is completely possible. Later I wondered if I truly believed that I was exhausted or if perhaps I had borrowed someone else's experience and baptized it as my own. The more comfortable I became sharing this recent insight, however, the more it felt true. The truth of the matter was that I had had a deeply troubling dream two weeks prior that caused me to wake up and write down as much as I could one early Sunday morning so as not to lose the message of the unconscious. It took my waking life two weeks to comprehend what my body appeared to be apprehending for some time. I was on the fast track toward a living death.

For the last 10 years, I have been either working toward or functioning as a nationally certified spiritual care educator. In this work, I help others become more proficient in the art of spiritual care and chaplaincy. This work puts persons within intimate proximity of both birth and death, the great mysteries that bookend the profound journey of the soul, as Jung once noted. It is equal parts deeply meaningful and relationally rich as well as mind numbing and isolating at times. For nearly six of those years, I also worked as a pediatric chaplain, specifically as the primary chaplain for a pediatric cardiovascular intensive care unit. In that technological and emotional gauntlet, I was educated through conversations with parents, patients, staff, and peers about how best to create space for meaningful dialogue to transpire and to feebly attempt to create the conditions for hope to flame in some of the most barren conditions imaginable. It was in that work that I first encountered the experience of burnout. Burnout, at least in my experience, moves quickly beyond general tiredness and thrusts one headlong into the swamp of existential fatigue and spiritual malnourishment. While I have not kept tabs on how frequently I flirt with this destructive/creative edge, I would venture to say that it visits me once every year or two.  I know that I have reached this place when all of the petty distractions I usually use to keep the soul's terror at bay no longer seem to quiet the still, small voice that has impatiently taken a megaphone to wake me from my slumber.

Slumbering is my jam apparently as I learned recently that I had been sleepwalking through much of my life. Acquiescing to the ego's project to assert itself, to become an adult, to support a family, to gain a professional identity, to establish oneself as a particular kind of partner and parent, to buy one's first home, I hitched my narrative trailer to a truck fueled by goals that could send one flying down the highway on the way to whatever passed as having "arrived."  To be fair to myself, none of us reaches the depths or riches of the education of the soul without first confronting such competencies of the first half of life wherein we see the journey primarily as an outward one that can be measured in 401(k) balances, house square footage, social media curated images depicting the ideal life, and developing the callouses necessary for climbing professional ladders. This is, to be sure, the loudest music to which our culture invites us to dance. And goddammit can we dance! The problem is that the journey that matters, the one to which all of us are invited, is an internal one. That invitation is usually lost in the mail, figuratively speaking. The message sent to our soul is rarely received without something to open us up to its paradoxical and expansive call for attention.

In the blink of an eye a few years ago, I heard such a call with a clarity and force that continues to cause me to sit up straight. "You've got mail!" As a side note, I usually love getting the mail. There's something about the ritual of opening the mailbox to see which bill or credit card offer might be awaiting me that stirs within me a deep and strange affection. When I was provoked enough to finally see that the proverbial mailbox of my soul was full of unread messages, however, it didn't leave me with quite the same benevolent feeling. If retrieving real mail is like opening the door to Betty White, retrieving the mail of the soul is like walking to the door and being taken out by Anton Chigurh's cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. While my ego spent a good portion of time trying to make sense of the event that led to this wake up call, it couldn't bear the dense weight of the soul's awakening. What the ego can't bear, the seat of the soul--the unconscious--will gladly step in to communicate symbolically under the cover of night. Waking up to that dream reminded me that I avoid the inner mailbox to my own detriment. Thankfully, dreams can be truly apocalyptic in the most biblical sense of the word. That is, they serve to uncover and to reveal what is often avoided or obscured in our waking lives. One feature of this particular dream included the feeling of being trapped and isolated. My associations with those themes were numerous, but after allowing the dream to rest it became increasingly clear to me that I was in deeper trouble than I realized.

My dream involved a house that I had entered through an outdoor window, and when I got inside the home I noticed a young girl, maybe three years old standing there attentively yet with an air of unobtrusiveness that could be mistaken for shy hospitality. I was so spooked by her presence that I decided to try to leave the home, but I couldn't find the open window. When I finally located it and attempted to thrust my body through its unforgiving angles, I was shocked to find that it led me back into the middle of the house. Like a Klein bottle or the Hotel California, I could enter but there was no leaving this place. As I am wont to do, sometimes I take my dreams too literally. What was I feeling trapped by, I wondered? Surely there was something external to me that I could blame and/or project onto so that I didn't have to follow the shadowy presence that moved deeper and deeper into darkness, beckoning me further with its furtive glances. Unfortunately, the darkness held the key to encountering myself, as it does for all of us. It had become clear that my binding was of my own doing. I was like a great magician who had handcuffed himself and swallowed the key before being lowered into the tank full of water, only I hadn't practiced the act. Prior to entering into the home in my dream, I was in the backyard. It was night and beautiful outside. My association with backyards includes a sense of expansiveness, connectedness to nature, and wildness. The home seemed to represent safety, confinement, and stuckness. Listening to the dream, I kept hearing a call to the wilderness, specifically to Marfa, TX. I knew I wanted to detach from the world and be out among the stars, and I remembered some friends who had stayed at a hippie-esque RV tent commune called El Cosmico. I went online to reserve my room but told myself if it was meant to be I would wait until the week of my trip to book it. I kept refreshing the browser on that Monday, only to keep seeing the same tent available. The universe seemed to be conspiring on my behalf. The barrenness of West Texas was calling to offer my weary soul the chance to be born again.

One of my favorite features of traveling is the preparation that goes into the trip itself. The researching of lodging possibilities, places to eat, experiences worth splurging on, and natural wonders to explore. There is something about the ritual of preparation that whets the appetite and sets the stage for what is to come, as if through preparation one glimpses in part what one will apprehend more fully somatically once foot falls on new soil. There was something different about this trip, however. Rather than choosing a destination for vacation, I felt as if I were assenting to a destination that had already been selected in advance by something deeper than a casual perusal of a travel site. In times of burnout, it is not a vacation that the soul needs but a pilgrimage of sorts to adjust the alignment of the spiritual spine. In my case, I was gently forced into the desert to insure that I would encounter the very self I had successfully avoided for so long.  After booking my trip, I sat puzzled as to why I was inspired to take a trip to a dusty town of 2,000 in the middle of nowhere. As I packed, my mind went into overdrive in preparation, but it was bereft of its usual objects of control, the countless hours searching reviews of hotels, restaurants, and experiences not to miss. Instead, I packed simple foods to eat, books to read, and other items one might assume one needs when camping in the heat of early summer. The goal was not entertainment or escape; rather, it was to immerse myself in a place where the possibility for true encounter with Self might materialize. I was both looking forward to and dreading the 8 hour drive and wondered if I was overdoing this. Self-doubt began to creep in telling me I could just as easily have camped in my backyard or visited a local retreat center. Thankfully, a conversation with a trusted colleague who had made a number of these pilgrimages in his own life's journey said, "It's so nice to have that 8 hour drive ahead of you to help create the threshold." Thresholds, as I had learned in working with Godly Play, were liminal places that marked space and time and imbued them with the signature and expectation of the sacred or eternal. As my friend had observed, the drive from Dallas to the depths of West Texas provided the perfect backdrop to the threshold crossing into the time outside of time out of which the soul emerges. Just as a space shuttle's breathless ascent requires the thrust of rockets that eventually fall away in order to propel the spacecraft beyond the constraints of our atmosphere, the journey from the city to the desert involves a gradual falling away of cultural artifices whose imposing figures against the horizon trick us into believing that we are merely characters created for the grander stories of commerce and work. As I navigated my way between anonymous buildings over roads whose smoothness and careful lines gives one a false sense of control and direction, the towers decreased in height the longer I drove until there was, at last, nothing between my car and the open horizon in front of me. My mind, no longer occupied with the frenzy of city traffic, was now able to begin the long and helpful process of letting go in order to be open to an atmosphere more suited for reunion with purpose and wholeheartedness. Within a few hours, the journey itself became enough. No longer bound by the constraints of time and ideas of efficiency, I looked around me and saw an expanse around me that evoked wonder and connection, wildness and a sense of my own creatureliness. By the time I drove under the all seeing eye that marks the threshold into El Cosmico, I had passed through other thresholds of space and time along the way that served to help shed layers of the many selves that obscured my true self. It took driving more than 520 miles to find myself again.

Once here, I sat down in my camping chair and began to read David Whyte's Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. In it, Whyte's poetic prose spoke to me so accurately it was as if I had personally commissioned its creation for this trip. Themes of soulfulness, burnout, and conversation with a world of whose depths we have only scratched the surface jumped off the pages like firm but loving face slaps from a universally wise and salty grandmother. Distilling the differences between ambition and desire, Whyte methodically deconstructs the essence of work and the pilgrimage of the soul and attempts to paint a picture that calls our minds eye to see as if for the first time the horizons that have been our heart's deep longing. Through his vulnerable reflections, Whyte connected his personal story of burnout to the slow process of clutching his life back from the throes of trance and invites the reader to join him on the path. This pilgrimage of the soul to which he testifies throughout the text felt like a cosmic ripple of which my own journey was one concentrically connected. The prison of my own making over the course of these last few years, and the thing my dream seemed to be trying to tell me, was connected to this sense that I had been hiding from life, afraid that were I to pop up—prairie dog-like—from the ground I would face a fate worse than what had sent me underground in the first place. And then I read, "To find good work, no matter the path we have chosen, means coming out of hiding. Good work means visibility." There are instances when the universe seems to find whatever it can use to get your attention. Moses had a burning bush. I had David Whyte, a dream, and a glorified tent in the middle of the desert. If there had been a bush out here, I have to believe it would have been engulfed.

I took off my shoes and quietly heard a voice that sounded like my own say, "Welcome home."