Aleph, Page 1Paulo Coelho
Transform your life. Rewrite your destiny.
In his most personal novel to date, internationally best-selling author Paulo Coelho returns with a remarkable journey of self-discovery. Like the main character in his much-beloved The Alchemist, Paulo is facing a grave crisis of faith. As he seeks a path of spiritual renewal and growth, he decides to begin again: to travel, to experiment, to reconnect with people and the landscapes around him.
Transform your life. Rewrite your destiny.In his most personal novel to date, internationally best-selling author Paulo Coelho returns with a remarkable journey of self-discovery. Like the main character in his much-beloved The Alchemist, Paulo is facing a grave crisis of faith. As he seeks a path of spiritual renewal and growth, he decides to begin again: to travel, to experiment, to reconnect with people and the landscapes around him.
Setting off to Africa, and then to Europe and Asia via the Trans-Siberian Railway, he initiates a journey to revitalize his energy and passion. Even so, he never expects to meet Hilal. A gifted young violinist, she is the woman Paulo loved five hundred years before—and the woman he betrayed in an act of cowardice so far-reaching that it prevents him from finding real happiness in this life. Together they will initiate a mystical voyage through time and space, traveling a path that teaches love, forgiveness, and the courage to overcome life’s inevitable challenges. Beautiful and inspiring, Aleph invites us to consider the meaning of our own personal journeys: Are we where we want to be, doing what we want to do?
Translated from by Margaret Jull Costa
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for those who turn to you. Amen.
A certain nobleman went into a far country, to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.
For J., who keeps me walking,
S.J., who continues to protect me,
Hilal, for her words of forgiveness
in the church in Novosibirsk
The Aleph was about two to three centimetres in diameter, but all of cosmic space was there, with no diminution in size. Each thing was infinite, because I could clearly see it from every point on the universe.
—Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph
Thou knowest all—I cannot see.
I trust I shall not live in vain,
I know that we shall meet again,
In some divine eternity.
—Oscar Wilde, “The True Knowledge”
King of My Kingdom
OH, NO, NOT ANOTHER RITUAL! Not another invocation intended to make the invisible forces manifest in the visible world! What has that got to do with the world we live in today? Graduates leave university and can’t find a job. Old people reach retirement and have almost nothing to live on. Grown-ups have no time to dream, struggling from nine to five to support their families and pay for their children’s education, always bumping up against the thing we all know as “harsh reality.”
The world has never been as divided as it is now, what with religious wars, genocides, a lack of respect for the planet, economic crises, depression, poverty, with everyone wanting instant solutions to at least some of the world’s problems or their own. And things look only bleaker as we head into the future.
What am I doing here, trying to make my way in a spiritual tradition whose roots are in the remote past, far from all the challenges of the present moment?
ALONG WITH J., whom I call my Master, although I’m beginning to have doubts about that, I am walking toward the sacred oak tree, which, for more than five hundred years, has stood there, impassively contemplating humanity’s woes, its one concern being to surrender its leaves in winter and recover them in spring.
I can’t stand to write any more about my relationship with J., my guide in the Tradition. I have dozens of diaries full of notes of our conversations, which I never bother to reread. Since our first meeting in Amsterdam, in 1982, I have learned and unlearned how to live hundreds of times. Whenever J. teaches me something new, I think that perhaps this will be the last step required to reach the top of the mountain, the note that justifies a whole symphony, the word that sums up an entire book. I go through a period of euphoria, which gradually dissipates. Some things stay forever, but most of the exercises, practices, and teachings end up disappearing down a black hole. Or so it seems.
THE GROUND IS WET. It occurs to me that my sneakers, meticulously washed two days before, will soon be covered in mud again, however carefully I tread. My search for wisdom, peace of mind, and an awareness of realities visible and invisible has become routine and pointless. I began my apprenticeship in magic when I was twenty-two. I followed various paths, walked along the very edge of the abyss for many years, slipped and fell, gave up and started all over again. I imagined that by the time I reached the age of fifty-nine, I would be close to paradise and to the absolute peace I thought I could see in the smiles of Buddhist monks.
In fact, I seem to be further from achieving that than ever. I’m not at peace—now and then I go through periods of inner conflict that can persist for months—and the times when I immerse myself in some magical reality last only seconds, just long enough to know that another world exists, and long enough to leave me frustrated because I can’t absorb everything I learn.
When the ritual is over, I’ll have a serious talk with him. We both place our hands on the trunk of the sacred oak.
J. SAYS A SUFI PRAYER.
“O God, when I listen to the voices of animals, the sounds of trees, the murmurings of water, the singing of birds, the whistling of the wind, or the boom of thunder, I see in them evidence of Your unity; I feel that You are supreme power, omniscience, supreme knowledge, and supreme justice.
I recognize You, O God, in the trials I am going through. May Your pleasure be my pleasure, too. May I be Your joy, the joy that a Father feels for a son. And may I think of You calmly and with determination, even when I find it hard to say I love You.”
Usually, at this point, I would feel—for only a fraction of a second, but that’s always enough—the One Presence that moves the Sun and the Earth and ensures that the stars remain in their places. But I don’t feel like talking to the Universe today, I just want the man at my side to give me the answers I need.
HE REMOVES HIS HANDS from the tree trunk, and I do the same. He smiles at me, and I return his smile. We make our way, in silence, unhurriedly, back to my house, where we sit on the veranda and drink coffee, still without talking.
I look at the huge tree in the middle of my garden, with a ribbon tied around its trunk, placed there after a dream I had. I am in the hamlet of Saint Martin, in the French Pyrenees, in a house I now regret having bought, because it has ended up owning me, demanding my presence whenever possible because it needs someone to look after it, to keep its energy alive.
“I can’t evolve any further,” I say, falling, as always, into the trap of being the first to speak. “I think I’ve reached my limit.”
“That’s funny. I’ve been trying all my life to find out what my limits are and have never reached them yet. But then my universe doesn’t really help, it keeps expanding and won’t allow me to know it entirely,” says J., provocatively.
He’s being ironic, but I keep talking.
“Why did you come here today? To try and convince me that I’m wrong, as usual. You can say what you like, but words won’t change anything. I’m not happy.”
“That’s exactly why I came. I’ve been aware of what’s been going on for some time now, but there is always a right moment to act,” says J., picking up a pear from the table and turning it over in his hands. “If we had spoken before, you would not have been ripe. If we were
to talk later, you would have rotted.” He bites into the pear, savoring the taste. “Perfect. The right moment.”
“I’m filled with doubt, especially about my faith,” I say.
“Good. It’s doubt that drives a man onward.”
Somehow the usual apt responses and images aren’t working today.
“I’m going to tell you what you feel,” J. says. “You feel that nothing you have learned has put down roots, that while you’re capable of entering the magical universe, you cannot remain submerged in it. You feel that all of this may be nothing but a fantasy dreamed up by people to fend off their fear of death.”
My questions go deeper than that; they are doubts about my faith. I have only one certainty: there exists a parallel spiritual universe that impinges on the world in which we live. Apart from that, everything else seems absurd to me—sacred books, revelations, guides, manuals, ceremonies… and, what is worse, they appear to have no lasting effects.
“I’m going to tell you what I once felt,” J. adds. “When I was young, I was dazzled by all the things life could offer me. I thought I was capable of achieving all of them. When I got married, I had to choose just one path, because I needed to support the woman I love and my children. When I was forty-five and a highly successful executive, I saw my children grow up and leave home, and I thought that from then on, everything would be a mere repetition of what I had already experienced. That was when my spiritual search began. I’m a disciplined man, and I put all my energies into that. I went through periods of enthusiasm and unbelief, until I reached the stage you are at now.”
“Look, J., despite all my efforts, I still can’t honestly say that I feel closer to God and to myself,” I tell him, with barely concealed exasperation.
“That’s because, like everyone else on the planet, you believed that time would teach you to grow closer to God. But time doesn’t teach; it merely brings us a sense of weariness and of growing older.”
The oak tree in my garden appears to be looking at me now. It must be more than four hundred years old, and the only thing it has learned is to stay in one place.
“Why did we go and perform that ritual around that other oak tree? How does that help us become better human beings?”
“Precisely because most people don’t perform rituals around oak trees anymore, and because by performing apparently absurd rituals, you get in touch with something deep in your soul, in the oldest part of yourself, the part closest to the origin of everything.”
That’s true. I asked a question to which I already knew the answer and received the answer I was expecting. I should make better use of his company.
“It’s time to leave,” says J. abruptly.
I look at the clock. I tell him that the airport is nearby and that we can continue talking for a while longer.
“That isn’t what I mean. When I went through what you’re experiencing now, I found the answer in something that had happened before I was born. That’s what I’m suggesting you do now.”
Reincarnation? But he had always discouraged me from visiting past lives.
“I’ve been back into the past already. I learned how to do that before I met you. We’ve talked before about how I saw two incarnations, one as a French writer in the nineteenth century and one—”
“Yes, I know.”
“I made mistakes then that I can’t put right now. And you told me never to go back again, because it would only increase my sense of guilt. Traveling to past lives is like making a hole in the floor and letting the flames of the fire in the apartment below scorch and burn the present.”
J. throws what remains of his pear to the birds in the garden and looks at me with some irritation.
“If you don’t stop spouting such nonsense, I might start believing that you’re right and that you really haven’t learned anything during the twenty-four years we’ve been together.”
I know what he means. In magic—and in life—there is only the present moment, the now. You can’t measure time the way you measure the distance between two points. “Time” doesn’t pass. We human beings have enormous difficulty in focusing on the present; we’re always thinking about what we did, about how we could have done it better, about the consequences of our actions, and about why we didn’t act as we should have. Or else we think about the future, about what we’re going to do tomorrow, what precautions we should take, what dangers await us around the next corner, how to avoid what we don’t want and how to get what we have always dreamed of.
J. takes up the conversation again.
“Right here and now, you are beginning to wonder: is there really something wrong? Yes, there is. But at this precise moment, you also realize that you can change your future by bringing the past into the present. Past and future exist only in our memory. The present moment, though, is outside of time, it’s Eternity. In India, they use the word ‘karma,’ for lack of any better term. But it’s a concept that’s rarely given a proper explanation. It isn’t what you did in the past that will affect the present. It’s what you do in the present that will redeem the past and thereby change the future.”
He pauses, becoming increasingly irritated at my inability to grasp what he’s trying to explain to me.
“There’s no point sitting here, using words that mean nothing. Go and experiment. It’s time you got out of here. Go and re-conquer your kingdom, which has grown corrupted by routine. Stop repeating the same lesson, because you won’t learn anything new that way.”
“It’s not routine that’s the problem. I’m simply not happy.”
“That’s what I mean by routine. You think that you exist because you’re unhappy. Other people exist merely as a function of their problems and spend all their time talking compulsively about their children, their wives and husbands, school, work, friends. They never stop to think: I’m here. I am the result of everything that happened and will happen, but I’m here. If I did something wrong, I can put it right or at least ask forgiveness. If I did something right, that leaves me happier and more connected with the now.”
J. takes a deep breath, then concludes.
“You’re not here anymore. You’ve got to leave in order to return to the present.”
IT WAS AS I HAD FEARED. For a while now, he has been dropping hints that it was time I set off on the third sacred road. My life has changed a lot since the far-off year of 1986, when my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela brought me face-to-face with my destiny, or “God’s plan.” Three years later, I followed the so-called Road to Rome, in the area where we were now; it was a painful, tedious process lasting seventy days, and which involved me enacting, each morning, all the absurd things I had dreamed about the night before. (I remember standing at a bus stop for four whole hours, during which nothing of any importance happened.)
Since then, I have done everything that my work demanded of me. After all, it was my choice and my blessing. I started traveling like a mad thing. The great lessons I learned had been precisely those that my journeys had taught me.
Well, the truth is, I’ve always traveled like a mad thing, ever since I was young. Recently, though, I seem to be spending my life in airports and hotels, and any sense of adventure has rapidly given way to profound tedium. When I complained that I never stayed in one place for very long, people were horrified: “But it’s great to travel. I wish I had the money to do what you’re doing!”
Travel is never a matter of money but of courage. I spent a large part of my youth traveling the world as a hippie, and what money did I have then? None. I barely had enough to pay for my fare, but I still consider those to have been the best years of my youth: eating badly, sleeping in train stations, unable to communicate because I didn’t know the language, being forced to depend on others just for somewhere to spend the night.
After weeks on the road, listening to a language you don’t understand, using a currency whose value you don’t comprehend, walking down streets you’ve never wal
ked down before, you discover that your old “I,” along with everything you ever learned, is absolutely no use at all in the face of those new challenges, and you begin to realize that buried deep in your unconscious mind there is someone much more interesting and adventurous and more open to the world and to new experiences.
Then there comes a day when you say: “Enough!”
“Enough!” I say. “Traveling, for me, has become just a monotonous routine.”
“No, it’s not enough, it never will be,” says J. “Our life is a constant journey, from birth to death. The landscape changes, the people change, our needs change, but the train keeps moving. Life is the train, not the station. And what you’re doing now isn’t traveling, it’s just changing countries, which is completely different.”
I shake my head. “It won’t help. If I need to put right a mistake in another life and I’m deeply aware of that mistake, I can do that here. In that prison cell, I was just obeying the orders of someone who seemed to know God’s will: you. Besides, I’ve already asked forgiveness of at least four people.”
“But you’ve never found the nature of the curse placed on you.”
“You were cursed, too, at the time. Did you find out what it was?”
“Yes, I did. And I can guarantee that it was far harsher than yours. You committed just one cowardly deed, while I acted unfairly many times. But that discovery freed me.”
“If I need to travel in time, why do I have to travel in space as well?”
J. laughs. “Because we all have the possibility of redemption, but for that to happen, we have to seek out the people we harmed and ask their forgiveness.”
“So where should I go? To Jerusalem?”
“I don’t know. Wherever you are committed to going. Find out what you have left unfinished, and complete the task. God will guide you, because everything you ever experienced or will experience is in the here and now. The world is being created and destroyed in this very moment. Whoever you met will reappear, whoever you lost will return. Don’t betray the grace that was bestowed on you. Understand what is going on inside you and you will understand what is going on inside everyone else. Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace. I came with a sword.”