The twenty-ninth day of the crossing – when the desert rips you out of yourself

I woke up with Ingrid, the pretty, Nordic ginger-haired astronomer handing me a cup of fresh coffee. I thanked her. She smiled with her eyes at me. After the events of the last couple of days, it wasn’t hard to notice that her eyes had a different sparkle. A light typical of those who rejoice to see what they were previously unable to see. Ingrid said she had some things to do and left. Seated on the sand, I said my daily prayer and drank my coffee unhurriedly while watching morning movement around the caravan. Once I emptied my cup, I went over to the mess-hall tent to get some more coffee. A group of men were talking at the entrance of the tent. Although they were not my friends, after so many days almost all of us knew one another by sight. I greeted them. One of them was tall and quite strong, despite his older age. His more striking feature was a countenance that showed his suspicion about everything and everyone. He always made sarcastic comments, as if the fact of mocking others somehow nourished him. They said he had worked for the Department of Intelligence of a country of the now extinct Iron Curtain, under Soviet rule at the time. His name was Ivan. There was something in him that exuded danger. Perhaps this is what bothered me when I was close to him. Perhaps it was just intuition. Oftentimes we take intuitions as wishes and fears. Knowing how to differentiate the former from the latter helps prevent disappointments.

The men gathered at the entrance of the tent politely returned my greeting, except Ivan. He made a double-entendre comment regarding Ingrid. Out of instinct, with no trace of wisdom, I was acid in my response. I would not let him mock my relationship with the astronomer. Because his mere presence was uncomfortable to me, his irony was enough to annoy me. The tone of my response was confrontational. Ivan felt outraged, as all travelers seemed to fear him. However, he loved the aura of fear that surrounded him. To keep this gloomy aura he cultivated, Ivan threatened me. Oddly typical of his behavior, he did not make a direct threat. In fact, there was nothing clear about him; all his words seemed to convey an underlying message. The threat was veiled, true to his style. I said that if he had anything against me, we should settle our differences right then and there. Nothing should be left for later. His eyes stabbed me with fury. He cursed and took a step towards me. I kept my gaze steady. More out of pride than bravery.

I was saved by the arrival of the caravanner. He placed himself between the two of us, looked at us and said nothing. He didn’t have to. In the desert, the caravanner was the law. Everyone respected him, no exception. Not even Ivan dared challenge him. In face of silence filled with ill will, I filled the cup with coffee and left. Before leaving, I looked at the caravanner and saw a poise of firmness and composure. When I looked at Ivan, I noticed contempt on his countenance, as if sending the message that I was too weak for him. I also felt that my attitude was like a dart that wounded his pride and vanity. I was sure there would be a payback.

Actions and facts are vibrational factories; energetic waves of shadows or lights that reach all those involved. To remain immune to the shadows or to take advantage of the light requires knowledge and practice. However, we are much less than what we know. We have the habit only of reacting to a situation, prompted by our ancestral and cultural conditionings. We react through the instincts that had taken us to that point, guided by the shadows we are yet to educate within ourselves. Shadows cause imprisonment. Had I put in practice what I knew, I would have allowed the virtues that I possessed manifest themselves into action. I could take advantage of the occasion to germinate other virtues still as seeds. Virtues are sources of light. I knew it all, but I could not be all of this.

As a consequence, I felt bad. My shadows were in command; fear, pride and anger took turns through ideas and emotions. It was all so dense inside me there was not a single breach through which the faintest beam of light could pass. When imbalance is installed in the self, the lucidity of noble thoughts and the clarity of good feelings vanish. Everything becomes bothersome. When Ingrid told me that, on that day, she would ride next to the good tea man, whom everyone thought to be a wise man, because she had many issues to discuss with him, I became jealous and talked back to her, in full disrespect of her freedom. She looked at me without understanding and moved away. On the surface, the reason for my behavior was my falling out with Ivan. Deep down, it was from not knowing how to deal with my emotions when someone was hostile to me. I mounted my camel; no one paired their camel next to mine. A little later, after some minutes, the caravanner approached me on his white stallion, gave me a deep gaze for a moment and said: “The desert has ripped you out of yourself.” He paused and concluded: “For you not to drown in storms of distress, you must go back to yourself. There is no better shelter.” His heels touched the belly of the horse while he skillfully handled the reins and vanished from sight.

As if the caravanner was capable of reading my soul, the first part of that day’s journey I spent drowned in tremendous distress. It was as if there was nothing else around me. Even worse, it was as if I no longer governed myself. I couldn’t think in anything other than the possibilities of further developments of the quarrel. Whatever they were, I foresaw disaster as the only possible outcome. The shadows, my own shadows, had total control over me. Fear, anger and pride were the triumvirate that ruled me.

At midday we did not stop for a brief rest, as we usually did. We marched on for two more hours until we reached a small well, to supply ourselves with water. The order came to set up camp. We will stay there for the remainder of the day and the night. I filled up my canteens. Then, I distanced myself from the group. I sat on the sand and closed my eyes. I needed to think but was unable to. My ideas were confused, as if clashing against my emotions. Everything in me seemed dispersed. I felt despondent. When I open my eyes, the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes was seated next to me. As if guessing my thoughts, she explained: “Discouragement emerges when we let the inner sources of light dry out. Then, we drink at the stream of turbid waters. We get poisoned and in the dark.”

I confessed that feeling was stronger than me. I felt unable to leave from where I was. The woman reasoned: “Our consciousness shapes reality. You must believe you are strong enough to face any situation in your life. Otherwise, you will fail.” I said she had a point, but that didn’t seem to be enough. She agreed: “It is only the first step. However, it is essential in your climbing to the top.” I asked her where did the top lie. She replied at once: “The prevalence of virtues in the form of actions, rather than mechanical instincts of reaction; the wisdom over the folly, as both dwell within ourselves; the shadows transformed by the light. The entirety of the self; the achievement of plenitudes.” 

Although I knew that, I admitted that knowledge was ineffective at least for me, in my day-to-day relationships. The woman was generous: “Without proper practice, the theory would crumble in the nights of time.” She paused and then added: “I will teach you an exercise. This is how I learned how to get stronger, how to find my balance and not lose my sources of light in times of conflict, like the one you find yourself now.” She asked if I was willing to do that. I immediately said yes. She asked that I lie down on the sand and close my eyes. She took out a small flute from her shoulder bag and started to play a soft tune. She asked that I try to disconnect my mind from everything around me, including the memory of recent and past events. This would help empty my mind from emotions and ideas that dominated me. I should let myself be led by the music. I had to let each note enter my body and, as if it was a broom or a sponge, wipe any trace of dirt that hampered me from having clear ideas or light feelings. She continued with the tune for some time; then, she stopped playing and asked me how I felt. I said I was a little better, because for a few moments I had been able to disconnect myself from the facts that were disturbing me. But just a little bit better, I emphasized. With her smooth voice, she advised: “Don’t let your anxiety darken the road. We will start now. We have a long journey ahead of us.” 

The blue-eyed woman asked me where I felt better, cozier and safe. I answered it was at home. She commanded: “Imagine that you are at home, having a meeting with yourself. You are seated face to face. Explore all the knowledge you have acquired so far to convey to yourself the basis that will support your future attitudes from now on. A behavior filled with virtues. Fear, pride, vanity, envy, selfishness, senseless desires, hopelessness will give room to courage, humility, compassion, gentleness, mercy, purity and faith. An exchange that will cause an unthinkable transformation of yourself.”

“Before any decision, bear in mind that you should treat others as you would like to be treated; consider that hardships befall everyone, including you. Understand that not only strength, but also clarity, are in the consciousness, in addition to any external and material circumstances. One starts fighting the good fight within oneself. It is fought by those who use virtues as a sword. Virtues manifest themselves through choices, without which one does not move forward in crossing the desert.” She paused before concluding the first step: “Make an agreement with yourself and accept responsibility for what you have just agreed on. This is how light consecrates its warriors.”

I felt home as a sacred temple. It was like the whole power of light was anchored in me. Somehow, I felt different and better.

She continued: “Now, on your mental screen, think of someone to meet, someone you trust, whose presence is comforting and whose wisdom is admired. It can be anyone you know, a master of humankind or even a remarkable literary character whose saga and huge body of knowledge have love as the main pillar.” I immediately thought on the Old Man, the oldest monk of the monastery, for his composure and wisdom. The woman went on: “Imagine yourself seated next to him, having a friendly conversation in which you present your problems and listen to this master’s advice. You listen to the words, understand their ideas, unveil the veil of delusion.”

“After this conversation, go look for the person who bothers or frightens you. Look into their eyes. See them without anger or resentment. Even if you are afraid, don’t step back, fear is normal; just allow your courage to surface and, little by little, take the place of fear. Don’t ever be aggressive; only cowards are violent. Be kind, yet firm; kindness is a virtue the best warriors have. Devoid yourself of pride and vanity. Do not take jealousy in your pocket nor hide envy under your sleeve. Be pure, to be whole. Being pure does not mean to be a fool; to be pure is to be free of deception. Imagine all possible attitudes this person can take. Refuse to react out of impulse or instinct before each possibility; you have always done that and no good came out of it. Rather than only reacting to the movement of this person, act to show you no longer accept the rules of an obsolete game. Stop playing the game according to the rules of the shadows. From now on, follow the rules of the light. Remember, no one walks in the desert at night. In this scenario, imagine how you will act if you are provoked or cursed; consider all possibilities, be creative and think of something you have never thought before. Don’t forget that now you will take action with the weapon you are committed to use, the light.”

This stage took I don’t know how long. At each possibility, I reacted on the same tone, “giving back the same medicine”. I had to think my ideas over and the due course of action; I had to do differently and better; I had to give the other cheek. The poorly understood other cheek, one of light. It wasn’t easy, but transformational. The blue-eyed woman waited with infinite patience until I said I was ready. 

Finally, she suggested: “Now, go back to your sacred place to meet yourself once again. Analyze your entire trajectory. Look into yourself, but don’t forget to look out of yourself; be good to you but offer others something they don’t have or don’t know. The desert will always perfectly mirror the walker. Understand your own reasons, but bear in mind that the other, just like yourself, also lives on the edge of his own consciousness. Oftentimes, each one has a part of the truth. Analyze if you were worthy in your behavior of offering what you would like to receive; if your attitude is of a person free of prejudices, conditionings and dependence; if you strived to sow an idea of love; if you were happy with your choices and, at the end, in peace with yourself.” She paused to conclude: “Then you will be ready for the good fight.” I pondered about the imponderable; I wouldn’t know how to react before an unforeseen attitude. She reassured me: “The biggest danger is if you act outside of the light. The power that illuminates you is also the one that protects you.” Then, she stood up and left.

Later, I met Ingrid and apologized for the behavior I had had in the morning. The astronomer was kind and said everyone has their bad moments. She said I was a very important person for her. Ingrid had a gift of making from her heart a good place to be around. Everyone felt good next to her. Demanding her presence for oneself alone was an attitude not worthy of free people because it imprisons her freedom. It would never be a gesture of love because it imposes conditions to love. After all, no privilege is fair; if we are not fair in all our relations, we will not be happy or in peace. I smiled to myself. I had never realized how apparently ordinary situations of everyday might teach us so much about the plenitudes.

In the evening, at suppertime, I went to the mess hall tent. I filled a bowl of pea soup and, as usual, went to sit afar. On the way, I bumped into Ivan. We were alone. He provoked me with innuendos about Ingrid. Then, he offended me once again. My first emotional response was anger; it is impressive to see how fast the shadows act. This time, however, I was prepared. I managed not to let anger take possession of me. Anger, like any gloomy emotion, generates energy. However, it is up to me to turn this energy to the opposite direction, so that it is used for the good. To that end, I have to envelop it in a virtue, so that it turns into light. Then I can use the modified energy to better purposes.

I used compassion to change the frequency of my anger. At that moment, I discovered a love unknown to me. I felt myself oddly powerful, being adamant in my commitment to light. Then I started to understand a little more about faith and in how to set the light in motion through me.

I did not want to fail in my first combat. In fact, I realized the battle would be not against Ivan, but that it would take place within me. I could only help Ivan overcome his shadows if I were able to overcome mine. The compassion I had to modify my anger was possible only when I admitted that Ivan’s hardships are similar to the hardships I had or still have. The degrees and types may differ, but their relationship is undeniable. 

Our eyes met. I knew there could be no trace of pride or superiority. Humility is the primary virtue, without which no advance is possible. I said, honestly, that there was something in him, Ivan, that I admired. He looked at me, surprised. I said he exuded an immeasurable strength everyone around him felt, and that was very important because it gave the sense of protection and construction. However, because of his aggressive demeanor, that strength was frightening; thus, repelling. I suggested that were that force better directed, it would elicit respect and admiration; thus, closeness. He had an impressive innate strength that should be managed in a different way. I offered to help him with that. I also considered that he had much to teach me, no question.

Astonished, Ivan diverted his gaze. He kept it away, much beyond the dune or the desert stars. When he looked back at me, I saw suffering in his eyes. Behind that burly man there was a lonely boy asking for help. He said no one has never spoken to him that way. Away from the hubbub of the caravan, we sat on the sand.

Ivan told me about his miserable childhood and the hardships of growing up in a totalitarian country, in which individual rights and freedom were almost non-existent. Fear reigned; brute force was valued. Thus, he had learned how to use fear to impose himself. That was the only tool he knew how to use. This is how he had grown up, and he did not know any other way of being and living.

Ivan behaved as he always had. Aggressiveness was a subconscious way of hiding himself from others or from admitting to himself his frailties, moral and emotional weaknesses which he could not deal with. He cornered people because he was afraid of being questioned. Violence was a shield he used to protect himself from internal issues he did not know how to handle. He became feared, but not happy. Fear does not allow friendships to blossom. Men would approach out of vested interests, not for sincere affection. Women would come close when they wanted protection, never out of admiration. He confessed he was tired. His strength was also his weakness, this means, his aggressiveness reflected his cowardice. Cowardice of facing himself.

Ivan asked me how he could change and be respected rather than feared. I explained that strength and violence are different manifestations; love and virtues differentiate them. I took the caravanner as an example. He was a man who exuded unquestionable power, but his enhanced sense of justice made him a respected and pleasant person, because of an aura of trust that enveloped him.

We remained silent for a while. Ivan, with teary eyes, confessed he has always felt like he was out of himself, as if at some point of his existence someone took him off his track to live the life of a fictional character. He said it was about time he should go back on track, to find who he really was. However, despite his age, he did not know how. He sincerely thanked me for helping him. I said the conversation only went the way it did because he was ready for the change that was about to come. I had only awakened him from a long sleep. He thanked me once again and said he would like to have me as a friend. He added he had much to think about. He stood up and left. To my eyes, I saw a boy going away.

I had also much to think about. The desert had ripped me out of myself, but when I found myself again, something had changed. I noticed that, up to a point, the fear and aggressiveness Ivan used as tools had something to do with me. Throughout my life, I have always been tremendously vain of my professional creativity. I had used it liberally to corner clients, deprecate competitors and, therefore, managed to get quite generous contracts. It had been a poorly used tool for it allowed the shadows to hurt many people, granted me undue achievements and, even worse, made me delusional in believing I was better than the others. In addition, it made me addicted to praise and applause. Although Ivan’s shadows might be more visible for most people, mine were no less harmful than his, nor was I a better man than him. Deep down, the fact is that there were more similarities than differences between us.

Equals attract one another. Differences are accountable for what we do not understand in ourselves.

A beautiful lesson of the desert had been ingrained in me. I said a prayer; I gave thanks for problems and conflicts, as they are important transformational levers. I had also to thank the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes for the exercises. When I opened my eyes, I saw her from afar, on the top of a dune. She was dancing for the stars. 

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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