It's true that camels don’t get a very good press, what with having bad breath, being ornery, smelly, not exactly lyrical … but wait, have you looked closely? I don’t mean too up close and personal, but close enough to be able to feel their presence and notice how they look out on the world? Straightaway you see that they don’t make eye contact - even if they look straight at you, you feel as if they are really looking way beyond you. That has a strange effect, because you realise that you have been reduced to being just another ‘thing’ in the world, their world. You are not even important enough to stand out from the background, you’re just part of the scenery.
I was waiting to depart on a retreat into the Sahara. We were assembling at an oasis village on the edge of the dunes and going the rest of the way on foot, while the camels were carrying our baggage. Life happens slowly in the desert. Events don’t really happen at all. The next thing comes when it comes. And sometime that morning the camels were going to arrive, so, nothing to do except wait. After a couple of hours they plodded into view from behind a collection of mud-brick buildings which were between us and the dunes, stood looking lazily into the distance for a while, and in the end lay down haphazardly on the empty space in front of us. Sometime later in the morning they were loaded, an operation to which they paid no attention at all; and sometime later still, they were bidden to rise, which they did, in their own time, back legs first, looking unfazed by the fact that their centre of gravity went quite awry in the process. Then people and camels stood around for a while seeming to consider what might come next, until, without any apparent signal, our disordered caravan moved off.
It was as they got up that it came to me. They were paying no attention to what they were doing, they were just doing it. They were putting just enough physical and mental energy into the act of rising for it to happen − I doubt if anyone has seen a camel fall over − and no more. Apart from that, life was, well, staring into the distance. No attitude. It was all in the body language. When they were standing, they stood. When they were walking, they walked. When they stopped, they just stopped. Just that, no more. Waiting was not waiting, it was ‘being’, until the next thing came along.
This is what I have, slightly whimsically, dubbed ‘camel mind’. In many ways it is akin to mindfulness and it offers us the opportunity to stop getting in our own way. It means that those things we know we have to do but can’t bring ourselves to get down to, without acting out some petty routine of pique or annoyance, would just get done… and it wouldn’t even hurt. And those occasions when we couldn’t settle because of what someone said or did, which irritated or offended us - they would become peaceful and tranquil, as we looked out over the space and the time to come… which will hold everything.
Space is what there is in abundance in the Sahara. In the vastness of the desert there is the sun, the sand and the wind, and a very different sense of horizon. You don’t need to walk for very long to realise that the horizon hardly exists, that it is simply where you stop being able to see beyond. And you come face to face with yourself.
In very different surroundings, Rainer Maria Rilke in his eighth elegy, offers an ethereal depiction of our relation to the ultimate horizon (of death), by setting the human outlook side by side with the animal:
“We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects – not the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces. Free from death.
We, only, can see death; the free animal
has its decline in back of it forever,
and God in front, and when it moves, it moves
already in eternity, like a fountain.
And where we see the future, it sees all time
and itself within all time, forever healed.”
(translation by Rudolf Kassner)
Perfect mindfulness in the mind of the camel...
allow this moment to be just what it is… and the next will come.
About the author: Simon Cole is a long-standing senior-accredited counsellor and author, who worked for many years in the NHS and privately and now runs a retreat centre catering for individual, couple and group retreats and therapeutic stays. He integrates therapy with mindfulness and meditation, as well as walking and the natural environment.
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