The first day of the crossing – when less is more

This was the first day of the journey. I was in a small city at the edge of the Sahara Desert. My intention was to join a caravan that was to leave for an oasis where a wise dervish lived. In the esoteric milieu he was a well-respected sorcerer, believed to have a tremendous body of knowledge of many secrets “of heaven and earth”. I was still in my early steps on the Path, and had been deeply impressed with the stories I had heard about him. This caravan was the only way to reach the oasis and, therefore, to the wise man. It left twice a year, but the dates were uncertain, and the crossing lasted 40 days. I went into an inn that I was told was the meeting point. It was an odd place; not only did it sell food and beverages, there one could also buy anything one would need to survive for many days under the sun, among dunes. My entrance in the place remained unnoticed by all. As the information I had was vague, I went to ask the man who was serving at the counter about the caravan. He looked at me for a few seconds, as if doubting my ability to complete the endeavor I intended to embark on, and with his chin, without saying a word, he pointed to one of the windows. Beyond the dusty glass I saw the blue sky and the yellowish-beige sand that extended endlessly. I fixed my gaze and, from afar, I could see an imposing figure, wearing the typical garb of the people of the desert; he had a hawk perched on his gloved arm. With my sunglasses on because of the light, and holding my panama hat on my head, so that the wind would not blow it away, I clumsily walked over to the designated person. During that short walk, I saw the bird making wonderful circular low passes until it returned, placing its claws on the thick leather glove of his master. I asked the man if he was the one with whom I would have to make arrangements to join the caravan. He simply nodded his head in response. I told him my intention to join the caravan was to meet the wise dervish. I had to know the date of departure and the cost to be a member of caravan. He looked me deep in the eyes and said: “Crossing the desert is dangerous. I cannot make sure each and every member will reach the destination.” 

I imagined many and severe deprivations, the discomfort, and possibility of being robbed by nomad tribes, the terrible sandstorms, in addition to the harshness of the desert itself as some of the challenging obstacles the man had meant. He continued his brief explanation: “Many remain under the sand forever. We make a prayer, but we never notify the family. Disobedience and fights are severely punished. The caravanner has the right over the life of each member of the caravan. This is the only rule. We will depart tomorrow, before dawn.” Then he told me the price to join. Even though I thought it expensive, I made no comment and said I accepted the conditions. He told me to make the payment to a woman who was seated at the last table of the inn. I asked the man what was his name. He was rude and blunt in his answer: “Caravanner. I am the caravanner.”

I had no problem identifying the woman. She was seated at the last table, on the right side of who goes in, under a huge window. The light from outside helped her read a book that entertained her. Even though the place was packed with people, many of whom would participate in the crossing, she sat alone at the table. When I got closer, it was impossible not to be astonished with her beauty. Despite the dryness and coarseness, whether of the place or the people, the features of her face were fine, and her eyes were blue, a blue more intense than the desert sky. When I approached her to settle the payment, she greeted me with a delicate smile, and her sky-blue eyes indicated a chair for me to sit. I took a wad of cash from my backpack and put it on the table. She collected it and thanked me with a simple nod. I told her I was ready to leave. Then I had the first of many surprises, when she said, with disarming casualness: “Payment does not ensure participation in the caravan.” Seeing puzzlement on my face, she explained: “That would be a waste of time, in addition to you being exposed to unnecessary risks, if you go see the dervish without being ready to talk to him.” I realized that, somehow, information there circulated as rapidly as the winds of the desert. How did she know my intention was to visit the wise man? Perhaps that was obvious, I thought. Even though I suspected that many people engaged in the crossing with that same purpose, I knew that that oasis was one of the Sahara’s largest, and, contrary to what many may think, hundreds of people fixed residence there. Many of them were weavers of rugs, known for their unique beauty; others lived off sought-after handicrafts. Most, however, traded food or raised livestock, like goats, horses and camels. The caravan included traders, tourists, relatives visiting their families, in addition to some mystics, like me, not to mention the caravan staff, people who were in charge of organization tasks, such as the setting of tents, preparation of the evening meals, and those in charge of security. However, for some reason I did not know, she knew of my purpose. The woman took out a book from her purse, marked a page, handed it to me and said: “Read this text. Tomorrow, before departure, we will talk about it. This will determine whether you will go on the crossing or not.” Next, she made a small gesture with her head indicating that I could leave. She cracked a smile I could not decipher at that moment.

It was a book of poetry by Rumi, the Sufi poet and a respected scholar of his time. His writings, since always, have illuminated the steps of those who tread on the Path following the tradition of the people of the desert. The poem the woman indicated, What we are not,goes like this:

“The hurt you embrace becomes joy.

Call it to your arms where it can change.

 A silkworm eating leaves makes a cocoon. 

Each of us weaves a chamber of leaves and sticks.

Silkworms begin to truly exist as they disappear

inside that room.

Without legs, we fly. 

When I stop speaking,

this poem will close,

and open its silent wings . . .”

I read and re-read the poem many times during the night, until I knew it by heart. Anxiety kept my sleep at bay, and I remained enveloped by my thoughts under a fantastic sea of stars visible only at night in the desert, until the preparation for the departure of the caravan started. I looked for the woman, but she was nowhere to be found. Time was passing, which increased my distress. I went around to various places, and asked for her to many people, unsuccessfully. Until a man touched my shoulder and pointed, to the inn’s window beyond which I could see the woman, seated at the same table as the previous day. When I approached, she cracked the same enigmatic smile and, with her chin, pointed to a chair before her, for me to sit. Without any order, we were served a pot of tea and slices of warm bread sprinkled with olive oil. Anxious, I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. She sipped the tea, took a small bite of bread and, using only her lapis-lazuli eyes, asked me to interpret the poem. I took a deep breath, trying to overcome my nervousness, and said that the first stanza meant that every suffering has a master hidden in itself, as it is a lesson universal love teaches. The existence of pain reflects the excessive importance we give the ego relating to the appearances of relationships, leaving aside the values of the soul, the essence of life. Only in the core of being, in the depths of knowledge that each one should have about oneself we will find the cure for emotions that corrode us and the discomfort we feel regarding the world. In accordance with such understanding, sadness should not be cursed or feared. Just the opposite, when embraced and conjoined with the noble virtues, it will become a source of joy for the freedom, transformation and evolution it elicited.

The woman nodded. She sipped her tea and the blue eyes told me to continue. I said that the second stanza indicates that in the infancy of existence we are like caterpillars that crawl. The leaves that nourish the being are emotions of all sorts that circulate around the world. Only by purging the feelings that invade and shake you will it be possible to reach the stage of maturity required for evolution. From caterpillar to butterfly; leaves must be transformed into silk threads, and the cocoon is to dive deep into oneself. This is the basic process that makes legs turn into wings. In the magic of transmutation, love is the main ingredient. The power is only apparent in the world. In fact, it lays dormant in the heart of each one, waiting for the mind to awaken.”

Her lips curved in a discrete, almost imperceptible, smile. I took that as an approval and became more excited. Then, I continued by saying that the third stanza teaches that in order to know who we are, we must remove any illusion pride and vanity elicit. It is when, even in the world, we are freed from its conditionings and conduct ourselves according to the values taught by the virtues. It is the point in which the ego passes on to the soul the guidance of being. Victory is not conquering the world, but yourself. This understanding provides the lightness that will keep us hovering two feet from the ground. Therefore, no one needs legs to run around the world when they can hover over it with their own wings. 

The woman nodded, showing her approval. She took a bite of the bread, and little olive oil oozed over her fingers. She licked them, smiled as a playful child, and asked: “Please, conclude.” Confidently, I said that the last stanza was very simple. The poet stated that he would stop speaking as everything had already been said. That from that point on, each one should make their own discoveries.

At this point, her she furrowed her brow, and looked like a darkened sky just before a storm. She fixed her dark-blue eyes into my approval-seeking gaze and passed the sentence: “You are out.” I immediately objected. I argued that I had spent the night awake, reflecting about the poem, and I was sure about my interpretation of it. I suggested that, if I was wrong, she tell me what was the best understanding of that poem’s last stanza, so that we could discuss. The woman rebuked with words as enigmatic as the poem’s: “The title complements the conclusion, and addresses what we are yet to be.”

I waited for her to continue the explanation. Because she did not, I told her I had not understood her answer. In response, she shrugged her shoulders. I choked back to control the anger that was starting to invade me, and reasoned that she should take into consideration the proper interpretation I had made of most of the poem. She said, almost in a mumble: “This is not enough.” I mentioned, for her to recall, all the expenses and efforts I had made to be there, and how ardently I wished to talk to the wise dervish. She explained: “There is no point in crossing the desert if we are unable to initiate the journey of the soul.” She grabbed her bag and left. Between puzzlement and disappointment, I was unable to utter another word. It was probably good, as I did not vent out the anger I was feeling.

For some minutes I did not know what to do; I was completely lost trying to understand all that had just happened. From the window, I could see that the caravan was almost ready to depart. Almost everyone was already on their camels. I got my huge, heavy backpack, filled with all the gear and victuals I would need for the crossing, and went looking for the woman, to seek her compassion. I found her in the middle of other travelers. Differently from almost everyone else, she was riding a beautiful black stallion. Not too far away, the caravanner rode a bright white Arabian horse, and shouted the final orders before departure. I went next to her, as if begging for an act of mercy. Even though she noticed me, she ignored me. 

After some time I cannot count, I heard the commanding voice of the caravanner ordering the beginning of the journey. My attention was drawn to a young man who would go with the group. Perhaps to try his luck at the oasis, perhaps to visit a relative. I realized the man lacked many things that would be useful for the journey. Resigned, I took the backpack I was carrying and gave it to him. The young man thanked me with a smile showing sincere gratitude. I turned around, not to look back. At this moment, a man touched my arm and pointed to someone who was calling me. It was the woman. She signaled me to mount a camel next to her. Surprised, I obeyed. The caravan had already started to move. I was a bit clumsy, and was helped to mount the back of the gentle animal. She moved away; I followed along the caravan for hours, in full silence, trying to put my thoughts in order.

When the stars took the place of the sun in the sky, the caravan stopped to set camp for the night. Campfires were lit to ward off the paradoxical cold of the desert; around them the meal was served. Then I walked aimlessly around the camp for a while. At some point, I found the woman, seated alone. I did not know if she was meditating or praying. She saw me and made a signal for me to get close. I told her that all that had happened in the morning had been disconcerting for me. I told her I still did not know how to interpret the facts. She explained: “At the time of departure, you showed you had finally understood the last stanza of the poem: to be part of life, words are not enough, but actions are mandatory. This is why the poet would end the poem with his mouth closed. Poetry is art; life, a master piece.” My eyes showed I was eager for more, and the woman was generous: “When you gave the backpack, you overcame your own rage, which allowed you to be light to set off on the journey. The knowledge turned into action. This is wisdom; when driven by love, it is light. Therefore, you being here is not out of my permission, but an achievement of yours.” 

I was honest to say that, even though I willingly gave the backpack to the young man, now, that I was traveling with the caravan, I would miss some of the stuff. The woman reasoned, with strange simplicity: “This can be so bad as to prevent you from reaching your destination or so good as to engage you in the crossing as if you and the desert are one single body; then, all will be given to you.”

A thousand images invaded my mind at that moment. Disconcerted, while I tried to understand the meaning of those words, she completed: “‘The less I need, the freer I am’. This verse is a prayer, of the desert and of life.” 

Before I could say anything, she motioned me to stand up and leave.

That was just the first day of the crossing.

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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