Life was boring. That was my thought when the bus stopped near the only inn in the Chinese village on the way up to the Himalayas. Everything was dull; everyone seemed to conspire to take away the beauty out of my days. My relationship with my girlfriend was shaken after successive disagreements; at the advertising agency, a serious internal dispute was causing rivalry among the employees and compromising the company’s work. Clients realized what was going on and some did not want to renew their contracts. I had an argument with my daughters because of the little attention they paid to me; my friends were uninteresting, always with the same talk and subjects. I left my suitcase at the inn. As I walked through the streets of the village towards the house of Li Tzu, the Taoist master, for another period of study, I walked by a small restaurant that did not exist when I was there last time. The place looked attractive and pleasant. As I had not eaten for hours, I decided to have lunch before meeting Li Tzu. I was enthusiastically welcomed by the owner, who, to my surprise, was a foreigner, just like me. I sat at a comfortable table. The menu was far from traditional Chinese cuisine, which, at that moment, I thought was great. While I was waiting for my meal, Stefan, the friendly owner, told me that the restaurant had an excellent craft beer from a small local producer. I agreed to try it. In fact, the beer was of excellent quality. We began to talk. Stefan told me how happy he was. During his vacation he had come to visit the Taoist master, as at the time he felt sad. He was delighted with the place. He did not hesitate to drop everything to live in the village. He was a partner in a construction company in his home country, but was stressed out by the rhythm of the big cities. Now he was living in the calm and bucolic atmosphere typical of a place where everyone lives unhurriedly. So much so that he no longer dispensed with studying the Tao Te Ching. He felt, at last, a complete and fulfilled man; he did not wish for a different life. The conversation became lively; beers came one after another. I arrived slightly drunk at Li Tzu’s house. The Taoist master asked me to rest at the inn and return the next morning.
Early in the next morning, I returned to Li Tzu’s house. The students would still take a while to arrive for their classes and therapies. Following his routine, he invited me to join him in yoga and natural gymnastics exercises. I declined, arguing that my body needed rest. I waited for almost an hour for him to finish. Then, in accordance with his routine, he invited me to meditate. I begrudgingly accepted, not wanting to be rude. While I was meditating, a single thought filled my mind: what was I doing there?
Why continue to search for knowledge? Wasn’t the search for knowledge an anxiety like any other? Life was simple. I had already studied too much. I needed, in fact, to change the way I lived my life. Isn’t life made of cycles? One huge cycle was about to close. I had to sell my shares in the agency, end a long-term relationship that dragged for far too long, move to another city, make new friends. My daughters were grown and could live without my assistance. I was determined to have a different life. Meeting Stefan had been a sign from the universe.
When we finished the meditation, Midnight, the black cat that lived in the house, looked at me from afar. He didn’t seem to like what he saw. I realized that Li Tzu was also watching me briefly sometimes, as if there was something strange about me. It was my firm determination for change, I thought. We went to the kitchen for tea before the students arrived. As Li Tzu put some herbs into infusion, he commented that my aura was agitated. “In meditation you failed to soften your thoughts to make room for new ideas. As a result, you did not connect to your own soul, where all potential for evolution awaits awakening.”
I interrupted to say that I was tired of it all; I was exhausted from the routine I was leading. I told him that I had made the decision to change my life. He asked me how I was thinking to carry it out. I talked about my plans. Li Tzu commented: “There is nothing wrong with changing one’s life and habits. However, it is not the habit that makes the monk. The monk creates in himself the will to live new habits.” I said that this was exactly so. The will to live a different life had arisen in me. He looked at me kindly; there was gentleness in his voice when he said, “I think you are going the opposite way. He shrugged his shoulders and concluded with resignation, “But the reverse route, sooner or later, also leads to the junction through which the Way passes.”
We sipped our tea in silence. The students began to arrive. That morning the activities would begin with a lecture by Li Tzu on the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In the back of the house there was a good-sized classroom. Next to it there was a space for yoga and natural gymnastics. A smaller room was designated for individual conversations with the Taoist master. The larger room was filled for the lecture. Li Tzu had a serene oratory, chaining together the points of his reasoning with beautiful lightness. He began to discourse on Robert Pirsig’s book, but I could not bear to listen. Going to the Himalayas to hear about a North-American writer was pointless. I asked permission to leave. The Taoist master consented with a nod of his head. Before I left, he handed me a battered copy of the Tao Te Ching. It was his personal copy, where one could see the wear and tear of having used it countless times. He marked chapter ten and said, “Right now that’s all I can do for a dear friend.” There was compassion in his eyes. A fact that, I confess, made me angrier.
I went to Stefan’s restaurant; he was not there. I sat down at one of the tables and ordered a beer. That’s where life began. While I waited, I opened the Tao on the chapter marked:
To have body and soul, and to embrace the whole,
without separating anything.
To master breathing, vital energy,
and be flexible as a newborn baby.
To purify the original sight until one sees only the light.
To love the people, govern the empire
and not act, by acting.
To open and close the gates of Heaven,
to play a feminine role.
To understand, to be open to the four directions
without resorting to action.
To produce and make it grow,
to create and not to possess,
to work without asking for anything,
to direct without dominating.
This is the essential virtue.
A lot of nonsense. Those words, as if they encoded a great secret, made me tired. I put the book in my backpack; I would return it as soon as I found Li Tzu. It wasn’t long before Stefan arrived. He was happy to see me. I noticed a trace of drunkenness in him, but I didn’t pay any importance to it. I told him what had happened and of my firm decision to change my life. He said that I was doing the right thing. It was time to be happy. He invited me for a walk in the mountains. We went to a beautiful waterfall that I did not know. On the way back we stopped at the bar of a man who was not well liked in the village, although he was born there. Stefan ordered a bottle of baijiu, a typical spirit of the region, with a high alcoholic content, and two glasses. I found the drink too strong and didn’t want to continue. He went on. I realized that he was close to the owner of the bar. Before long he began to tell me about the things he had had, about the life he had led in the past. He stressed that he once had many things, but did not explain how he lost them. Soon he invited me to become a partner in his restaurant; he argued that he needed to expand because of the growing clientele coming from the Li Tzu courses. Once again, he reminded me of the quality of life of living in the village. I asked the price. I thought it was very expensive, but said nothing about it. He added that, if I were willing to invest more capital, it would be interesting to set up a hotel, an excellent business, according to him, since there was only one inn in the village, which could not cope with the growing demand from Li Tzu’s students.
He went on again about his engineering company, the money he had made, and the things he had done. I began to wonder why Stefan talked so much about his past, with obvious displays of pride and, most strangely, with nostalgia for the life he no longer had. His eyes sparkled more when talking about the past than the present; his plans for the future didn’t show the strength of an unshakable conviction either. I had learned that there is something wrong with someone when the past proves to be a better place to live than the present. The bottle of baijiu was empty. I paid the bill and, since he was drunk, I took him home. His house was very simple, nothing wrong with that. However, I didn’t like the dirt and clutter. I had learned that the house usually tells the story of its inhabitant. Not infrequently, house and inhabitant have mirrored energies. It’s like a picture of our soul; all it takes is a careful reading.
It was late when I left him fast asleep. I went to the inn. It took me a while to fall asleep. I thought about everything that had happened and what I had witnessed. Stefan no longer seemed to me like a man who was there by free choice in the face of vast possibilities. In my eyes he remained trapped by existence in the face of past mistakes. These are moments when the possibilities of choice are not always generous; a common and efficient educational method used by life. Apart from the advantages Stefan told, I knew almost nothing about him. But it was unnecessary. I could tell there was little truth and much illusion in what he was trying to make me believe. His story was cut up with the parts that interested him and glued to the narrator’s taste. He was not lying to me; he was lying to himself. Living in the village had not been a serene choice, but a desperate escape. Maybe an escape from himself, because of the difficulty of living with the person he had become, and now he was forced to face a reality that was not attractive to him. This is why he coloured it with paints of too much brightness and not enough texture.
However, he still refused to accept it, delaying his own evolutionary process. In these cases, it is common, in order to diminish the feeling of abandonment in the face of existential emptiness, to try to drag with you whoever is distracted or lost. The unconscious is often conditioned to the vain attempt to share the pain as a therapy to lessen suffering. My emotions transitioned from anger to frustration. Finally, I felt a sincere feeling of mercy for the huge wound that bled inside that man. Under the faint light of the lamp in the room at the inn, I read and reread the chapter of the Tao that Li Tzu had recommended to me.
At the following day, I walked through the mountains. I needed stillness and solitude. I went to the spring of a crystal-clear stream. I sat under a leafy tree and meditated on the passage from the Tao that I had read so much that I knew it by heart.
To have body and soul, and embrace the whole, without separating anything. Body, in it the mind; and soul, the Holy Trinity of the individual. To understand the whole extension and amplitude of the being in order to live its integrity and, from there, the infinite possibilities; either horizontally or vertically, concomitantly. The three vertices of the sacred triangle need to be harmonised and balanced, working towards the same purpose. When only one is taken care of and the others are relegated to second place, this generates decompensations manifested in the form of sadness or aggressiveness. When one lives the dream and exercises the gift, even if there is difficulty, there is well-being. Those who walk willingly do not become discouraged.
Mastering breathing, vital energy, and being flexible like a newborn baby. Balancing emotions to be beyond frustration; adapting to the imponderable. Adaptability is a symptom of evolution; every difficulty is a lesson and a power to be awakened.
To purify the original sight until one sees only the light. We carry socio-cultural conditioning that deceives us as to the true reality; the shadows imprison us with values without value. Curtains that we need to open to let the sunshine in. We die for the concrete, but we carry only the abstract in the lightness of the baggage for the next stretch of the journey. It is primordial to see the door to then go through it. The light awaits beyond the door of each of the virtues.
Love the people, govern the empire and do not act, by acting. This is not any exercise of worldly power, but essential spiritual practice. You are your own unique empire; each of us can only exercise legitimate power over ourselves. You are like a complex country in its particularities; education, health and welfare. Love yourself and those around you; the people. Starting with your family, friends, co-workers and neighbours, expanding the waves in concentric circles from the shores to the centre of the lake of eternity. May each choice reflect the greatness and purity of your being. May each attitude not be for the purpose of exaltation before the world, but to rejoice and enrich the core that dances in silent joy at each act full of virtue and love. The ego is noisy and loud; it is on display to the world. The soul is silent and invisible. In the language of Tao, not act, by acting.
To open and close the Gates of Heaven, to play a feminine role. To be in permanent contact with the invisible spheres of life, coming and going, always in the commitment to create new possibilities, to reinvent oneself, to generate light; just as a woman gives birth to life.
To understand, to be open to the four directions without resorting to action. Feel the stream of life; perceive the flow and the signs; understand your dream and your gift, they are your life’s purpose; your dharma. Do not resist the light. It is often hidden where we least expect it or where we are used to denying it. Understand the fundamentals of existence; do not allow the greatness of the world to become an obstacle to the greatness of your soul. The contradiction is only apparent. The soul acts subtly and unnoticed within the values and invisible riches of life, unlike the muddled action of an ego still disoriented by brilliance, because in truth it does not yet perceive the light that awaits it in the soul.
To produce and make it grow, to create and not possess, work without asking for anything, direct without dominating. This is the original virtue. To create conditions, to generate life through unthought possibilities. Choosing and acting for love; sowing the good, building bridges and breaking down walls. Understand the difference between I and mine. To I and mine the exact value and importance due to each of those things. In personal virtues lies the fullness of being.
No doubt this is a synthetic and timid interpretation of the depth that the text allows; a chapter worthy of a book of its own. Just a brief notion of where one can arrive on the fantastic journey of the Tao; who one can become if one goes through it. At that moment I was enveloped by a pleasant feeling of being in tune with life. I was flowing with it and through it, serene like the stream that follows its flow, without allowing the rocks along the way to stop it from fulfilling its destiny. I was grateful for the knowledge allowed. However, any knowledge only has value if applied to life.
I went to my problems, enveloped by the atmosphere of the Tao, in sincere reflection. By behavioural addiction, I was bothered by my girlfriend’s way of being because, deep down, I wished she would change to suit me. It is a mere convenience and an invitation to stagnation to believe that my difficulties arise from the behaviour or lack of understanding of others. Well, everyone is different. If something is not right, am I not the one who should change? After all, I must always keep in mind the possibility of being different and better. A little more every day. I have to rule myself and love the people. I cannot demand a perfection that, ironically, I am far from possessing. This is ruling someone else’s empire. It is very common for us to demand from other people precisely the virtues that we lack. We call this completeness. A conceptual mistake, because nobody is completed by anybody else; this is called dependence. Each person completes him or herself. Sharing the best of oneself is the inevitable effect of being whole. I missed my girlfriend.
As for the agency, I understood that I had a team made up of highly competent and even genius professionals. As I had the concept of letting creativity, a factor of enormous value in advertising, run free like a wild horse, it turned out that everyone had no limits as to their responsibilities and attributions. Discipline was lacking as an ordering factor for both work and creativity. This trail was my responsibility. To open and close the door to Heaven; and to generate life. I had no doubt that after this, everything would return to the indispensable tranquillity and, no doubt, everyone’s productivity would improve, because conflicts would cease. Peace is necessary to work well. It is worth pointing out that one case is never the same as the other, however, when something is not going well in our lives, we resort to demolishing the situation when, sometimes, a simple and well-thought-out reform brings expansion and a better use of the moment, without the need to give up everything that has already been built. To produce and make it grow.
As for my friends, it was not the conversations that were uninteresting. Friends usually talk about the same subjects over and over again. It’s the same conversation, but it’s different. Books, movies, sports, work, kids, travelling, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is the link that unites them hidden under the cloak of any subject. Friends are sacred, however, although they can help, exhausting my existential emptiness is not their function or obligation.
Work without asking for anything, this is how friendships are strengthened. The Way is full of solidarity, but it is absolutely lonely. No one can walk it for us.
Finally, my daughters. They had grown up and I refused to accept the fact. I wanted them in the nest when their wings already allowed them to fly solo at high altitudes. Under the illusion of the pretext of loving and protecting them, I stubbornly resigned myself to their freedom and mine, because I insisted on the role of the prison warden who, until he leaves his post, will not go out into life. To create and not to possess, to direct without dominating. Let them take off on their own wonderful flights. My heart would always be a good place for them to be when they feel like it. Even if in sweet thoughts like a simple verse of a beautiful love song.
The Tao will always have infinite applications.
I cried to myself. I smiled to myself. It had been a beautiful encounter, one of those that we have to make more commonplace in our existence.
I went back to the inn and packed my suitcase. I bought a return ticket on the next bus. I went to Li Tzu’s house. I sat in the living room while waiting for him to finish a consultation. Unlike last time, Midnight curled up on my lap. The Taoist master arched his lips into a smile when he saw me: “Your aura has changed. It’s clearer,” he commented. We went to the kitchen. While he prepared the herbs for tea, I told him what had happened. I told him that I would take the next bus, as I had important matters to attend to. I added that we don’t change our place in order to change our life, we change our life in order to change our place. He smiled brightly and agreed: “This stage of your studies with the Tao is now complete. You understood what you had to understand, now it’s time to apply the lesson. When you feel like it, come back for the next lesson. But only if you feel like it,” he reinforced. I told him that, without a doubt, I would soon be back.
I said that I was worried about Stefan. Li Tzu understood: “I’m worried too. Now, many people in the village also understand what is wrong with him and are willing to help him. However, he is still withdrawn and quite angry about the harmful consequences of his past choices. As long as this continues it will be difficult to get any help. It is necessary to take off the mask and the character. He has to accept himself in order to help himself. Only then can we help him. This is a movement without which we cannot begin. We need to respect each person’s time of resignation and understanding of the reality that surrounds them. Then we will be ready to begin the process of transformation.” He frowned and concluded, “Defeats should not become walls of shame, but bridges to overcoming. Overcoming oneself, the only kind that has value. If everyone knew that the best books and movies, in essence, tell stories of overcoming, they would enjoy the setbacks of existence more and better.”
I mentioned that it is amazing how we waste the tools that life offers us. Li Tzu remembered a phrase from Pirsig’s book, which he used in his last lecture: ” ‘The truth knocks on our door, and we answer: ‘Go away, I’m busy searching for the truth. And then it goes away. Really unbelievable.” We smiled at this. I was sorry that I had left the lecture. He corrected: “There is nothing to complain about. At that moment your search was leading you to the same understanding, however, in another way. In your way.”
I gave him a tight hug and told him that I would be back soon. The Taoist master smiled again to show his contentment. Before leaving, I commented that when I arrived in the village a few days ago, I had the mistaken conviction that life was boring. A certainty that had been deconstructed. Li Tzu nodded in agreement and concluded: “Boring is something dull, without originality or elevation. Life is the reverse of this. Or else we still don’t understand it.”
I asked to keep his personally used copy of the Tao Te Ching as a souvenir of that trip. Li Tzu said it was a gift; to keep it with me, as I had just begun to learn how to use it. “Just begun,” he stressed. I thanked him. The book is kept on the altar I keep at home; it is sacred to me.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic