The secret garden

The students would arrive soon. I helped Li Tzu, the Taoist master, to water the bonsai garden. Then we went to the kitchen. I waited at the table while he put some herbs in infusion. Midnight, the black cat that also lived in the house situated in a small Chinese village at the foot of the Himalayas, from above the cupboard, stared at us bored. Only the sounds of the nocturnal animals broke the enchanting silence of the early morning. Li Tzu filled our cups and sat down on the other side of the table. I said that those days of study were very good to my wellbeing. Besides the knowledge acquired, the hours passed by slowly, with an enchanting calm. Something that did not happen in my daily life. I had to reconcile myself with time. My routine was intense, with a lot of things to be done, nonstop. At the end of the day, the feeling that I had done a lot and accomplished little. There, on the contrary, one did little with the certainty of having achieved a lot. The Taoist master took a sip of tea and explained: “Obligations and opportunities”, he simply said. He paused, as if searching for the best words, and then continued: “Every day I see people more involved in obligations. There are more and more occupations that they do not want, which seem to take away precious time that would be used to seek the opportunities of life. Then they feel the emptiness and anxiety so common in contemporary society. Time passes and nothing happens, is a recurring sensation. This occurs because most people ignore what they want and do not understand what they feel.”

“We are driven by a common reasoning that leads us to believe that obligations, whether of survival or stemming from social commitments, delay the journey to meet the wonderful opportunities that will transform our lives and lead us to paradise.”

“However, what few people notice are the opportunities that exist in each obligation. “

“Each obligation can become a flower in the secret garden of existence.”

Then the students began to arrive. We never touched the subject again and I could not know what Li Tzu was referring to when he spoke of a secret garden.

That conversation had happened a long time ago. I no longer remembered it. Or thought I didn’t.

I had received a phone call from a friend, whom I had not heard from for years. In fact, Augusto Epicuro, that’s his name, had been a great friend of my father.  He was a history teacher in a municipal school and a deep admirer of Buddhism. He was a good man; cultured, intelligent and sensitive. An innate peacemaker. Augusto had helped me a lot in a certain moment of my life, when I was younger. A period of many difficulties. He was patient with me, listened to me, guided and comforted me when I was lost in a long existential labyrinth. Since then, I have never met him again. Decades passed without us speaking. He had tracked me down and said he would very much like to see me. His tone of voice was serene. I claimed that I would be very busy in those days and, as soon as possible, I would go to meet him. Augusto said he understood my many commitments, but if there was any time for him, he would like to see me. I hung up the phone and went back to my duties. I was not in the least inclined to visit him. However, I understood that I had a moral debt with that man, who had helped me in a difficult moment, moved only by the enormous compassion of his soul. I tried to concentrate on my work, but at every moment I was taken by a strong feeling of guilt. Weeks went by. I resisted as long as I could. When the discomfort became very unpleasant, I decided to visit him. I went out of obligation, not out of pleasure.

Epicuro lived in a neighbourhood considered by the authorities to be a risk zone, in Rio de Janeiro,. Not for geological reasons, but because of social imbalance. I was advised to go by bus, notorious for not providing a good service to the city’s population. It was a Sunday. Besides losing a precious day of the week dedicated to rest and leisure, I had to face the discomfort of transport. It was a day of high temperature, as are the summers here. Inside a bus that shook all the way, the sweat soaked my shirt, increasing my discomfort. I was counting the hours for that day to end. It took me almost two hours between my house and his. I got off at a nearby stop. Contrary to what I feared, I walked through the streets without any problem. At a corner, I passed in front of a bar. Wielding a cavaquinho, a man was singing an old samba and was accompanied by several people. I remembered that my father used to whistle that tune. I was seized by a sweet memory. When I arrived at Augusto’s house, I was very well received by his wife, although I noticed her watery eyes. She told me that he was ill and had little time left in this existence.

Augusto was lying down when I entered the room. He closed the book, removed his glasses and offered me a beautiful smile. That was when I realized that sincere smiles spread stars because of the joy they bring. Then he opened his arms. I sat on the edge of the bed and hugged him for a long time. Then, another discovery. Tight hugs lead to the stars, for their power to caress the hearts.

Then I realized something unthinkable. Epicuro, even with his weakened health, was the one who was taking care of me. Even at that instant.

I asked how he was. Augusto said serenely: “In final preparations, on the eve of the trip to the next station.”  Then he smiled and explained: “At the moment, checking to see if I can add anything to my luggage”. Deeply moved, I told him that his destination would undoubtedly be the Highlands. “I hope so,” he said. “I would like to meet your father. I suspect we shall have a nice talk. He was one of the greatest friends I had.” I knew about the friendship that bound them together. My father had left when I was still very young. I noticed when Epicuros’ wife, who was listening to our conversation at the door, made mention of saying something, but her husband’s simple look of supplication kept her silent.

Augusto explained the reason he had requested my visit: “I want to thank you for the meetings and conversations we had in the past”. I interrupted to say that it was I who had to thank him. He had helped me a lot. He shook his head and said, “No, that is a common misconception. For some, caring for others can be an obligation. For others, it is an opportunity they cannot miss. It only depends on how much of oneself is present in each gesture. Obligation becomes opportunity when we are whole in what we do. Then, a mere commitment becomes a great source to transport us beyond where we have always been”.

I told him it wasn’t like that. There was no family tie. Our only connection was the fact that he and my father had been friends. Nothing more. However, he had always shown enormous concern for me. I added that his gesture revealed his good heart, for he had made a commitment of which he was under no obligation. I was his debtor. Augusto disagreed: “You don’t owe me anything, son,” he said affectionately. Then he added: “Believe me, I did it for me. You were a wonderful opportunity for me to germinate virtues still in seed. I was able to exercise my best and experience unimaginable feelings. I came to know a light that I had never imagined existed, thanks to you.” He paused and added with sincerity: “Woe to those who have no one to worry about. The concern, when well balanced, far from exaggeration, sets in motion the love we have. From then on, everything lights up”.

“All the moments of life have the same value as the intensity that we are capable of offer”. 

There was something subliminal in Epicuro’s speech, as it was when we used to meet to talk in the past. We would go to the Botanical Garden. We would talk as we strolled among flowerbeds, flowers and centuries-old trees. He would always answer my questions with new questions; his words carried a huge load of subjectivity. At that time, this irritated me, because I wanted complete and easy answers, in an objective way. I never had them. Epicuro made me find my own answers. He also made me understand that the answers change when we learn to deepen the questions. That was perhaps the greatest help he gave me. I admitted this, that day, sitting on the edge of his bed. Epicuro just smiled. I was wrong, but I didn’t know it.

I suspected a piece of the puzzle was missing. We had gone almost thirty years without speaking to each other. I was supposed to represent a distant memory, no more than this. Yet we were celebrating a reunion, as if we had never been distant. I thought it strange, but said nothing. On the contrary, I regretted that we had been apart for so long. I attributed my absence to the innumerable obligations of daily life. Then I fell back into the trap of the old mental creations. I talked about the fact that life was full of obligations that took precious time away from the search for fulfillment opportunities and postponed encounters.

Epicuro sat up in bed, took a sip of water from a glass on the bedside table and spoke with the same didactics as when he was in class: “The brain, the hardware of the mind, has a tendency to prioritize bad experiences over good ones. Historically, humanity has always lived in danger. Wars, plagues, famines, catastrophes, are predominantly registered in our nerve endings. In the face of the unexpected, we have a negative conditioning, with ancestral roots, as a precaution against the dangers experienced by our ancestors. Due to this atavistic programming, sorrows and frustrations, as apparent methods of defense, occupy more of our thoughts than joys and achievements. Our neural ramifications are predisposed to fear and conflict, in highlighting the bad side of all things and people.”

“At school, we learn to admire men who have overcome the dangers of the world. History books talk about this all the time. Television shows and magazines extol the lifestyles of rich and famous individuals. Patterns of behaviour that qualify as models of success. There has been no change in the course of centuries. We find it strange when we discover that many of these characters were unhappy people and, despite their glory, had a huge emptiness inside themselves. The great battle of life, the internal journey we make to lighten our own shadows, has never interested many people. As a natural consequence of this millennial pattern, we are dominated by a kind of harmful thinking without realizing it. Failure is interpreted as something terrifying, by the absurd sense of humiliation and defeat in which we translate it. Unconsciously, we live to escape failure, not to evolve. Failure is seen as a defeat, not as a learning stage. We are afraid to go deep, to dare to do the unthinkable. We leave it until later to experience the best of life. We end up feeling guilty about what we postponed. That’s where the emptiness and anxiety that we feel and don’t know how to explain is born.”

“Enveloped by the obligations, not wanting to fail, we waste the opportunities for evolution. One is contained in the other, like Siamese sisters. They are everywhere, available at any moment. It is enough to be whole, to create them.”

“Yet we are bombarded by our own brains with standardized, pre-programmed thoughts of conflict and fear. Worse, we believe that these ideas were created by us and protect us. They arise without us calling for them. They have always been with us, which is why we consider them familiar and do not find them strange. In truth, they are thoughts which were born with us, but not created by us. They are like weeds which sprout without the need of having been planted; there is no use in pruning them, they will spring up again. It is necessary to pull them out by their roots and then plant flowers in their place.”

“Experts say that by changing the way we deal with our thoughts, we can modify the neural ramifications of the brain and reverse the negative interpretation of suffering, signaled first, which tends to dominate and direct our feelings towards the dark side of life. To paraphrase a current term, an upgrade of the hardware, the brain, is possible.”

“Today, self-knowledge, meditation and yoga are recommended in doctors’ offices as ways of keeping the mind and body healthy, strengthening the immune system and avoiding illnesses originating from frustration, aggression and stress; driving away sadness and bringing joy, by the simple fact of being at peace with oneself. A novelty for science, an ancient practice to Buddhism”.

“Do unforeseen events happen? Always. They will be unpleasant days or beautiful evolutionary lessons. The choice will always be yours.”

“We live in expectation of disaster. Believe me, the worst never happens. But we waste the best of existence by fearing it. In short, we lose nights of sleep, terrified of a monster that actually was never under our bed.”

He took another sip of water, then he explained: “In the same way, we are conditioned to interpret obligations as unpleasant situations, when in truth, all moments contain enchanting opportunities for transformation and illumination. It depends on how much love you have for live.”

“How many portals close because we treat the best opportunities of life as an obligation? We call obligation every situation in which we lack the love to shelter it in our hearts. We pass every day in front of the secret garden and we don’t see it.”

The secret garden… I had heard this term before. I remembered that morning with Li Tzu, at his home in the small Chinese village. Yes, I needed to dig deeper into the subject. When I thought to ask Epicuro, he expressed fatigue. His body was weakened. He said he needed to rest. Not before thanking me for the visit, he closed his eyes and, exhausted, turned away.

His wife accompanied me to the door. I confessed to her that I had come to visit because I felt obliged to, but the day had revealed to me a wonderful opportunity for knowledge and love. I also commented on my surprise at having been sought out by Augusto after almost thirty years. Like the messenger of a letter written by the magic inks of life, she told me a story that was also part of my story and I did not know it.

She revealed that her husband had done more than take me for a chat in the Botanical Garden. To my surprise, she said that Augusto had gone to speak personally with the judge of a complicated case in which I had been involved in my youth. I could not imagine that they knew about the mess I had gotten myself into at that time. The wife said that her husband asked the magistrate not to take into account only the isolated fact and the cold letters of the law. He insisted that life was much more. He pleaded that the sentence handed down should not end a journey, but should serve as a lantern for the steps to come. He managed to make the judge see my good heart, clouded by the typical confusions of those who have not yet discovered who they are. Something common in youth, he said.

He also mentioned that they were present at the Outeiro da Glória, on my wedding day. Discreetly, they sat in a corner of the church. Epicuro prayed for my protection. He said another in gratitude for the opportunity of the experiences lived at my side. Ashamed, without saying anything, I lowered my eyes for having forgotten to invite them. On the other hand, delighted to realize that my absence had not hurt them.

From then on, as I matured, he gradually moved away. However, never at all. Still from afar, he always kept me. I wanted to know the reason for such behaviour. His wife smiled and told me that my father had always worried about me. He considered me immature and rebellious. Already very ill, a little before leaving, he had asked Augusto to take care of me, as I would need help. Deeply moved, I confessed that I was delighted that Epicuro had taken so deeply the obligation he had assumed towards my father. His wife interceded, “It was never an obligation. It was an opportunity wonderfully seized by my husband. You are one of the flowers in Epicuro’s secret garden.”

Anyone’s life can be boring when filled with obligations. Or fantastic if it overflows with opportunities. The factor in converting one into another is only how much love we involve in each situation.

I don’t remember the journey back home. In my heart, the feeling of gratitude. In my mind, a single thought. It was past time for me to find the portals and go through them, to start making my own secret garden bloom.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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