The deserts of the self

When I entered the mess hall of the monastery to grab a cup of coffee, I saw the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, talking to Valentina, a young and pretty sister of our Order. She is one of the most talented poets of her generation and, in her spare time, works as an engineer in a big airspace company. I had just arrived at the monastery and was not aware she would also be there for her period of studies. I was happy to see her. Only when I was about to approach them did I realize she had tears rolling down her face. I was about to retreat, when she saw me; she smiled and invited me to sit with them. She even joked, saying I should not be afraid of women who cry. Even though I felt a bit embarrassed, I smiled and shook my head saying I had no problems with that, but I did not want to be in the way, in their conversation. She insisted that I sit with them. The Old Man cracked a large smile when he noticed Valentina kept her good mood and kindness despite the pain, pointed with his chin to the chair next to him and said: “Tears are drops that overflow when the seas of the heart are rough.”

The poet explained she had been preparing herself for a higher position at her company. All her close coworkers thought her promotion was sure. She too believed it. But in its last meeting, the board decided to choose another employee for the position. She thought that unfair and resented the fact. With teary eyes, the young sister said she was upset and, she confessed, even a bit angry. Soon she would have to return to work and, even though she loved her job, she was contemplating the idea of resigning and taking a sabbatical at the monastery, a time for reflection and understanding.

I said it was an excellent idea. She put on a faint smile and looked at the Old Man as if seeking his approval. The good monk furrowed his brow and said, seriously: “I don’t think it is a good idea. Sabbaticals tend to be profitable when we change our routine to go deep in an experience that will give us a different perception on all things. I don’t think this is the case.” I said she should first understand the course she wanted to give to her professional life. Valentina nodded in agreement. The Old Man disagreed once again: “This is the idea and the image Valentina has of herself. The truth, in this case, is that the sabbatical disguises her escape from reality.” He sipped some coffee and added: “All escapes are shady.”

“Whenever we feel anger or sorrow, this means that our ego has been affected by the choice of others. By allowing that such shadows take control over our will, we lose the power we have over ourselves and move away from the light.”

“The ways we react to things are different and show who we are yet to be. Some people curse, others regret or slander. There are those who deny being sorry, but claim to be disappointed, and act with contempt to satisfy their hurt pride. Some feel bothered by what the reaction reflects, mirroring the sensibleness of the exacerbated ego or a lie that vanity, as makeup used to disguise, has concealed. There are those who tend to hide themselves, delusional that the world is not a good place and people are bad, and decide to remove themselves from reality, for fear of facing it. Hence, they feel despondent before life”. He made a pause and then said, sincerely: “This seems to be the case.” 

Valentina pondered that perhaps the company was no longer fulfilling her, professionally, and she had to consider the need for a breath of fresh air. The Old Man was kind in his rebuke: “To know different landscapes is always very good, because they foster the necessary personal transformation. However, until a little while ago you loved the company you worked for. Just because you were passed over for the promotion you wished for does not seem enough to me to change the reality. One must understand how much pride and vanity, either before others or before yourself, are distorting the proper way of looking at things. The truth begins with the clarity and honesty with which we handle our feelings, particularly those it is hard for us to face, and therefore we deny them. We tend to reject our image in the mirror when it is not the one we have idealized.”

“One must learn how to handle one’s frustrations. This is the reason why relationships are a source of precious, invaluable lessons. Our wishes, as pure as they can be, are not always in accordance with the choices of others. Accepting that with peace of mind, as something natural, is an important step towards plenitude. It is a sign of respect for yourself and for the world.”

“Disappointments may be as a deadly wound, capable of putting you out of action. On the other hand, they may be like a magic potion to awaken skills and capabilities you have but hadn’t realized, to transform you into a different, better person. How the narrative of this story will unfold depends on your maturity. It is a choice between the shadows or the light that dwell within you.”

“Sorrow or disappointment for one’s decision, particularly when I am somehow affected, reveals the deserts that still exist in me.”

“Each person lives inside themselves. Deserts or gardens are internal, individual work. We share flowers or sandstorms, depending on the work we are devoted to do.” I interrupted him to say I had not understood. The Old Man was didactic: “In short, it all depends if we strive for victory over others or before the world, or if we aim for personal achievements. The first brings fame and applause; the latter, the true wealth of life, plenitude, translated into its five stages: freedom, peace, happiness, love and dignity.”

“The reverences and tributes from the world often enhance the shadows, making the self fragile by making it more and more susceptible to offense, hurt, sorrow, disappointment, sadness. The improvement of self heals all pain. It is light transmuting shadows as flowers that blossom in the barrenness of the desert until a beautiful garden is formed and sandstorms disappear once and for all.”  

“The bad habit of sloth or fear in facing the challenges that are posed to us requires others to satiate for us an endless hunger that each one should satiate for themselves. We end up by looking elsewhere for something that only exists inside ourselves. Within this framework, the world will always be disappointing to us. Not by errors of others, but due to our own carelessness. The achievement of plenitude is a personal battle fought inside yourself and improved from your relationship with everyone.”

“Each hardship can be faced as disappointment, sorrow, suffering, sadness or abandonment. Hence, you will have a problem that is impossible to solve. On the other hand, if such difficulty is dealt with as a lesson life provides, you will have the honor and the joy of being before a master.”

“A problem can take you to the middle of an inhospitable desert and leave you there, alone. Or it can be the breeding ground of valuable seeds for a new life cycle. Flowers and fruits, scents and beauty forbidden until now. Only you can decide about gardens or deserts in your life. Nothing else and no one else.”

He shrugged his shoulders and whispered: “You have no idea of the power that exists in you.”

The poet regretted that practice was quite different from theory. She said turning theory into practice was a work of art. However, she added, she did not know how to begin, because, in addition to feeling she had been wronged, she confessed she felt embarrassed before her colleagues for going back to the same position she had, when everyone thought her promotion was a sure thing. The Old Man arched his lips in a sweet smile and commented: “You must also consider that the employee chosen by the Board could be better suited than you for the job, and therefore the choice would have been a fair one. We are almost always biased when we assess situations which we are involved in. In such cases, you should work hard and improve yourself, when a new opportunity arises. On the other hand, if the choice the company made has proved to be wrong, you will be back in their minds, if you are prepared and willing to devote yourself to work. Whatever the case, never be regretful. Silence, kindness and work are always the best response. Stick to the foundations of light and give the universe time for the process to be completed”. He winked an eye as if telling a secret and added an enigmatic sentence: “Long are the fingers of the universe.”

I meddled once again to ask what the foundations of light were. The Old Man was patient: “Always live in accordance with your virtues. Strengthen and be strengthened by those you already possess and allow your daily struggles to bring forth from your core the other virtues, still embryonic. Handle your shame, pride and vanity as humbly as you can; about the shadows of others, be filled with sympathy; in face of mistakes by others, forgiveness, sincerity and kindness in dealing with everyone; be honest when you look at your own face in the mirror; sensibility and composure in face of future choices; patience, determination, hope and faith before life. These are some of the available tools that can change the fate of everyone. In fact, they may be more than that, they are healing instruments, the steps towards plenitude. Virtues are love and wisdom in motion.”

On the following day, Valentina went back home and continued working for that company. Three years passed before I met the poet again. Our annual retreat periods at the monastery did not match until one day we attended a ceremony of the Order. When I saw her, she was having a lively conversation with the Old Man and laughing. She was far from resembling that young woman drowned in sorrow. She motioned me to join them as soon as she saw me. She greeted me with a sincere smile and handed me an envelope. She said it was the invitation for her wedding. I asked her who was the luckiest man on the planet, and she told me she was living a romance as if written by a wonderful screenwriter. She explained that after our last conversation at the monastery, she carried on with her studies and work, without becoming involved with the comments made at the workplace about the company’s decision. With the passing of months, the employee selected for the promotion was shown to be a competent, serious professional. However, the project he was in charge of was too big, and he needed help. He invited her to set up a team with him. He said he admired her, not only for her professional capability but also for her attitude throughout that time. With so much rapport between them, from his right-hand woman she became a happy girlfriend; he, from a potential adversary became a loving fiancé. They are deeply in love. The Old Man did not say a word; he just smiled and stretched his hands as if saying: “Long are the fingers of the universe.” 

I asked, jokingly, if he was a psychic. The monk thought it funny and explained: “It wasn’t necessary. Suffice to pay attention to the Laws. They move towards the light and are relentless.” 

I went to the balcony, away from the hubbub. I placed my glass of wine on the top of the small wall and opened the envelope with the invitation. As one would expect, below the common formalities there was a beautiful poem by Valentina:


“A lost traveler was talking to a grain of sand.

Traveler: The desert is endless.

Grain of sand: You move guided by the dunes; every day the winds change their place.

Traveler: I am stuck in a sea of sand.

Grain of sand: Guide yourself by the stars.

Traveler: I sleep at night; I walk during the day. The sun hides the stars.

Grain of sand: At night, check where the stars are; during the day, take them in your heart.

Traveler: I tried, but my heart is treacherous.

Grain of sand: When you abandoned it, you forgot how to listen to it.

Traveler: I need my camel, not my heart.

After a few days, they had another conversation.

Traveler: I am almost without water. Thirst killed my camel.

Grain of sand: The desert is not a good place to live.

Traveler: Why do deserts exist?

Grain of sand: To teach us see the stars inside our heart.

Traveler: Not that silly story again.

Grain of sand: It is the only one I tell because it is the only one I believe.

Traveler: If I do as you say, will I get out of the desert?

Grain of sand: No.

Traveler: Then forget it.

Overcome by suffering and fatigue, the traveler once again went to the grain of sand.

Traveler: What will happen if I follow the stars in my heart?

Grain of sand: You will find a seed.

Traveler: Will this seed help me out the desert?

Grain of sand: No.

Traveler: What is the seed good for?

Grain of sand: To turn the desert into a garden. A garden is a good place to live.

Traveler: So, what is the desert good for?

Grain of sand: To show the importance and where the seed is hidden.”

I put the poem in my jacket pocket. I looked at the sky; the crescent moon seemed the lips of the universe smiling at me.

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