View from the water tower, Dagahaley Camp, Dadaab, Kenya

“When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.” – Carl Sagan. 

In Dadaab, Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp at the time, it was hard to choose which was more stifling – the heat or the security rules. After a day of working at the hospital, a truck would collect me in the late afternoon, and return me to the gated compound I shared with almost one hundred other foreign workers. No other movements were allowed. 

My room was cement, just big enough for a bed, and too hot to stay in. A TV blared in the middle of our yard at all hours, even when no one was watching it. Eventually I would find my way to the top of the water tower and watch Kenyan friends chase a football in the dusk dust. Every week or I would climb down, find my field coordinator in her office, and beg her to let me join. At least run across the field once, full-speed. Something. Anything. 

One afternoon, she relented. I could go into the camp to have coffee at a colleagues’ house, an Ethiopian who had left his country for this strange terrain. I was overjoyed. It was hard to work with people and not know how they lived. Most importantly, I would be away from the TV. 

The morning came, and I climbed into the land cruiser, promising to be right back. After all, how long could a coffee take? An hour, tops?

We passed houses made of plastic sheets and children looking long at us. If the streets had names, I would never know them. My friend heard our car, poked his head from the door of his house, and waved. I stepped out from the land cruiser with a promise to call the driver on the handset when I was through.  

Inside, it was a home. A child crawled on a floor covered with a plastic mat. A small table made of planks perched on empty paint tins, and a couch made from sacks of fabric on which he gestured me to sit. In the corner was a traditional clay coffee pot. On the table were four cups. 

We talked about Ethiopia, the refugee camp, the journey of a lifetime between the two, our families. I looked at my watch. An hour had passed. The coffee would be cold. Oh well. I didn’t need it that much. 

A friend of his arrived with a small fabric sack. We went through introductions, a biography, a discussion on the arc of history. My watch. Two hours now. 

“Well, I should be…”

My host looked confused. We hadn’t even had coffee. He opened the small fabric bag, shook a few coffee beans into my hand. They were green. 

The wood for the fire arrived a bit later, then the pan to roast the beans. People smelled the aroma, popped their head in to say hi, meet a new guest. The beans needed to cool, then to be crushed, then a new fire built, water boiled, grounds added, corn popped, coffee poured. It was dark before I got back.

Mircea Eliade, a Romanian philosopher, explored the role of ceremony in human life. It was, he decided, the primary way a person might break the spell of ordinary (or “profane”), interrupt the homogeneity of our usual experience and touch something deeper that transcended time. It is the way we experience the eternal. 

Sitting in Zazen, as we do at CEC, can be a ceremony, during which we touch the human yearning for peace. Depending on how you look at it, humans have been sitting in the posture for thousands of years. Or the posture has bloomed on millions of bodies. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony was not about the coffee at all, but an expression of the land, of family and community, sharing and knowing. 

Our dominant culture in the West seems almost devoid of ceremony. If there is a ritual, it would be in unboxing an Amazon package. We gulp our coffee. I sit in Zazen, too often, not in reverence for the eternal position, but as an item to check off on a daily list of them. The connection to the eternal, the collective wisdom of our ancestors, is frayed.

“Go to the land,” my late, great friend, Elder Dave Courchene, would say, when asked what his advice would be to all people. “There you will receive further instruction.”

Don’t go to the land and play; go to the land and pray. For rain, for peace, for understanding, like people have been doing for thousands of years. Let it feed your dreams. Allow it to change your life. 

He would have approved of the coffee ceremony that found me like medicine in the middle of that desert, for he was a type of medicine man himself, in his language, Nii Gaani Aki Inini, “Leading Earth Man”. When we were talking about different ways of helping people, I explained my starting point as a doctor was to ask about a person’s pain. His was different. He asked a person in need of help  “who are you?”, and if they didn’t know, he would send them into ceremony until they realized their whole life was a ceremony. Everything is sacred. It is in the forgetting that we suffer. 

We aim this month of practice at CEC towards ceremony, to the cultivation of slowness, of humility, of ritual, permission for the preciousness of this one wild life move into view, and with it perhaps, the eternal return to the land that holds all our riches. 

That first trip into the camp was also my last. My field coordinator was unhappy with my delay, the security risk deemed too high. But it was enough. In the space from that afternoon, something opened, beyond time, and it was big enough to hold my worry and loneliness, my sadness at being far away from people I loved. I ended up leaving Dadaab, traveled to Ethiopia to work in their emergency departments, and have never really left. That ceremony is with me still. 

*James is a physician and author of the international bestseller “Six Months in Sudan” and “Life on the Ground Floor“. He practices emergency medicine and trauma at St. Michael’s Hospital and is an award winning teacher at the University of Toronto. He directs a program that works with Ethiopian partners at Addis Ababa University to train East Africa’s first emergency physicians and has worked for Medecins Sans Frontieres as both a journalist and a physician. He practices and teaches mindfulness at the Consciousness Explorers Club in Toronto, and is passionate about its potential to encourage personal and social change.  He started meditating over 20 years ago, and rekindled his practice in response to the demands of increasingly difficult work.  As such, his expertise is working with difficult emotions at increasing subtle levels, particularly as they impact frontline workers and caregivers.  He has also recently learned how to nap, and considers this unanticipated reward the greatest meditation might bestow a shift-worker.