It is not infrequent that I remember nostalgically the joyful abandonment of some moments of my childhood. Wonderment was my watchword: the colors, the smells and sounds of an experience were the only elements before me. There was nothing to pull me out of the moment – no shopping lists, no future plans to coordinate, no sticky memories to stew in, or major life choices to belabor. I’m standing in front of the great pyramids of Giza, why is my mind trying to determine if the cost of the taxi was fair?
This weekend we are heading out to the white and black deserts west of Cairo. The drive out there is long, a few hours speeding along the flat stretch of pavement that connects the sprawling city on the Nile to the remote desert oasis where we’ll find our guide. In places the wind has pulled the sandy edges of dunes onto the pavement as if sleepily pulling a blanket over her shoulder, and we swerve around and back to our straight and outstretched drive. As morning conversation dozes into the stillness of the vast scenery surrounding us, I pull out my iPod and listen to a lecture series about mindfulness that has been sitting for months in the digital equivalent of a stack of books on my desk. Eventually, having met our guide and driven off in his 4×4 with days of supplies we were unleashed into the desert ocean that knows no pavement, rumbling over its dunes and getting caught in its slippery sand.
There is something immensely spiritual about the desert. To stand atop a dune and see the vast expanse of the sandy waves, and then to gaze up from my sleeping bag at the nighttime galaxy of suns beyond suns, I feel like a grain of sand to be swept onward by morning’s wind. To wake as dawn’s light warms the sky and find the tiny footprints of small desert jackals and jack rabbits all around our camp, I am reminded that this seemingly barren expanse is in fact teeming with life tucked away just below its surface. We found sea shells – sea shells – and I imagine how the sand in between my toes was once the expansive bottom of an ocean floor. I consider the humbleness of my breaths on earth, how this wrinkled and timeworn desert barely smiles at me before my time is gone and then welcomes new epochs and civilizations that pass just as the shooting stars that paint its skies at night.
These desert mountains have been solid for the blink of human existence. And yet during our comparatively brief period here we are so concerned nearly every moment of our life with the things that have passed and those that are to come that we don’t even experience the moment we are in. We are constantly striving, always imagining how wonderful the future will be when we are older, when we graduate, when we are working that job and so on, that we forget that we are in the future now. We are in the moment we have always been waiting for. The lecturer laughingly suggests that we should be called human doings rather than human beings, because we rarely just be. But when we can be and truly experience life as it presents itself, the doing that emerges from that being is infinitely more mindful and intentioned.
Scaling the sand mountains and nestling into their valleys, the traveler enters the Valley of Wonderment. “Now is he struck dumb with the beauty of the All-Glorious… At every moment he beholdeth a wondrous world, a new creation, and goeth from astonishment to astonishment, and is lost in awe at the works of the Lord of Oneness.” Indeed, Bahá’u’lláh writes, “if we ponder each created thing, we shall witness a myriad perfect wisdoms and learn a myriad new and wondrous truths.” Sitting with open palms atop the sandy wave of the bones and shells and rocks of millennia I too greet the prayer “increase my astonishment at Thee!” I gaze to the right and to the left as if awaiting the mercy of the All-Merciful. The sands that once greeted the steps of caravans of pilgrims advancing across the sun beaten expanse now kiss my forehead, warmed by the rising sun.
Though a grain of sand I may be amidst this vast expanse, each grain, like the desert itself, has likewise folded within it a myriad mysteries and wonders…
Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
when within thee the universe is folded?