Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.
Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.

In dream of the underworld, James Hillman says that “dimension sensed as loss is actually the presence of the void. . . . Here in depth there is space enough to take in the same physical world but in another way.” What kind of training or discipline would it take to linger for a few moments in that blank space, image-absent and unfilled?

A couple of years ago, I sat in a chair at the edge of the Thar Desert in India, not far from the Pakistani border. I’d been traveling with a lover who had just disclosed something that made me want to walk away, far away, out into the desert, to just keep walking across that flat, dry expanse. It was twilight. Someone brought us cups of chai, wanted to know if we wanted music. No, I said. I wanted nothing but the nothingness of the desert. I got up out of my chair, headed away from the small village, the dancers, the decorated camels, walked in the soft sand, the small grains working their way into my shoes. The desert drew me as surely as if it were a magnet and my body a collapsing stack of iron shavings. I kicked at anything, spat out a searing attack to the empty dunes. I wanted to pound something, his head, perhaps. The desert that evening stretched everywhere, its sands of gritty buff strangely lit beneath a high ceiling of lusterless dusk. I clomped one foot after another into the sand, which shifted just slightly. But nothing else happened. The wind didn’t gust, the Pakistanis didn’t come roaring over the border, I didn’t feel fortified by the satisfaction of being the one so clearly wronged. And no one from the village came to bring me back. Nothing happened. When I turned around, I couldn’t even see my tracks.

Everything seemed swallowed up in the vastness, the endlessness of sand, that ancient Indian sky. And finally the need to lash out in revenge lessened. I didn’t have to yell or sulk or grab the first flight home. It wasn’t that the hurt lifted but that there was, out there in the desert, more room for hurt, and so it didn’t press so hard. That familiar sense of needing to explode with emotion eased, and it had to do, I think now, with not feeling so confined, so squeezed by, so dense with hurt. Plenty of room in a desert to feel what you feel, and plenty of time to decide what to do.

Weeks later, Sunithi, the elderly Indian woman to whom I’d told the desert story, said to me, “The heart, you know, is the widest secret space. That’s where the spirit is free.” She wrote Guhaiya in my notebook, the Sanskrit word for secret space. Guhaiya, which sounds like Go here.

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