From a very young age I had difficulties in dealing with authorities and hierarchy. Taking orders was something that bothered me. Discipline was linked to ancestral issues of domination of one individual over another, subservience, emotional abuse and slavery. Feudal relations between suzerains and vassals. Rebellious, I was averse to discipline in the places I walked through. I created problems and, not infrequently, fighting. “Nobody tells me what to do”, I used to say to whoever would listen. “In order to be free, a man cannot obey another,” I used to say to myself. I was expelled from schools and fired from some jobs for insurrection. I never even considered changing my stance, I was willing to pay “the price of freedom”. However, everything we run away from, deny or hide is usually also what explains us.
This understanding, at the height of an existential crisis, was put to the test when I had the opportunity to join the EOMM – Esoteric Order of the Mountain Monks. Before being accepted as a member of the brotherhood, I was invited to spend a period in the monastery, studying and getting to know its structure and members. The desire to be part of it was not enough, I had to be aligned with the principles and values of the congregation, which meant obeying its rules and precepts. While I was studying, I was also being studied. The first few days were pure delight. I was received kindly by everyone and, from the very first lessons, I could see the treasure they were offering me. I had no doubt that I wanted to be a part of it all. Then, one morning, one of the monks handed me a broom and asked me to sweep the monastery’s inner garden. A windstorm at night had left it covered with leaves. Without blinking, I refused. I argued that I had paid a certain amount for those days of stay and study. I was a student, not a servant. Bento, as the monk was called, said nothing. He only nodded his head as if to say that he understood my position.
I went to class. It was about the Good Fight, the internal process about how to lighten our personal shadows, using the virtues as an instrument of liberation. Antonio, the monk who taught the class, spoke about pride. I remember his words well: “Pride, like many shadows, is a mask. Every mask is an idealised self-image that has the intention of protecting us by means of a character created, often in childhood, and therefore hidden in the unconscious in the adult phase, to keep away fear, insecurity or the unspeakable feeling of fragility”.
“By being an idealised self-image, the mask distances us from the reality of who we truly are. By its artificiality, it will never achieve its goals. It will delay the evolutionary process and intensify suffering to the extent of how much we believe in the character we create and live, but that we are not.”
“To maintain the constructed self-image, it will be necessary to hide from the world, and also from ourselves, how incapable we feel of overcoming the difficulties inherent in life. As a precaution, pride fires bursts of arrogance and grenades of haughtiness to ward off the danger that lies ahead. The proud is very afraid that people will find out about their weaknesses. So, they attack as a defence tactic.”
“Of course, none of this is consciously thought out. It is a strategy set up, in ancient times, in the unconscious. The proud person does not think he or she is arrogant or haughty, they need to believe they are superior to others. As such, they support themselves on absurd rights and imagine themselves to have a capacity that they do not yet possess. They do not do it out of malice, but out of fear. They create twisted reasoning to justify their attitudes. They use noble principles and virtuous values, in a mistaken way, to explain to themselves that they do nothing wrong or evil. They only exercise a supposed right. An unreal right because it is based on an artificial self-image”. Antonio offered a simple and effective example. Although apparently absurd, it was also very common. It is usually disguised by different appearances, but with the same essence: “If I believe myself to be king, you are my subjects”.
The class laughed. He teased, “Crazy, right? But don’t make an effort to look around before you pay attention to yourselves.” Silence fell immediately.
Antônio explained a little more about some characteristics of the proud: “They get easily irritated when faced with the inevitable setbacks of existence. They say they have no patience with the incompetence of others. However, deep down, what upsets them when faced with a difficulty is to realize their incapacity to solve the problem that presents itself. Deep down, every proud person does not accept their own fragility”. He paused and suggested: “Think about that the next time you get irritated with someone”.
He shrugged his shoulders and concluded: “However, only by admitting your own fragility can you begin the journey of strengthening yourself, intensifying the internal connections to diminish your dependence on events in the world”.
At the end of the class, I went to congratulate the monk for the splendid and revealing explanation. A coherence of such clarity that I could not understand how the proud could not see themselves in this situation. Antônio, who was a psychoanalyst by profession, explained: “Remember, these are issues related to the unconscious, so we do not notice them. The only symptom is suffering, manifested in sadness, an implosion; or in aggressiveness, an explosion. Until we go to the cause of the problem, understand the reason why he built this escape route and, as such, a mistake, we will not be able to free ourselves from the real prison: our mental creations.”
“Although every proud person feels like they own their own nose, and some even believe they own the world, they are nothing but sad prisoners of themselves and the painful memories of their past.”
“Pride is a shadow that is still very poorly understood. Not infrequently, I hear people say: I am very proud of having achieved this or that. They confuse pride with self-esteem by ignoring the difference. Pride is about the victories to be admired and applauded by the audience; self-esteem rejoices with the achievements that transform and enlighten the soul”.
I questioned whether one situation annulled the other. Antônio explained: “Not necessarily. However, it is necessary to understand which one is your priority”.
I thanked Antonio. I was delighted with the monastery and the countless opportunities for knowledge that presented themselves. “Only a fool does not realize the idealized self-image that limits and tortures him,” I thought as I headed for lunch.
That day, it was the monk Bento who was at the door of the refectory directing everyone’s accommodation. He did not allow me to enter: “You are not allowed to have lunch with us because of your refusal to sweep the garden,” he explained. I would have to look for a restaurant. I told him that this could only be a bad joke. We were isolated on top of a mountain and the nearest town was almost an hour’s drive away. Besides, I had paid for my stay and studies, I argued. Without losing his serenity, Bento explained: “Yes, indeed, you did. However, that does not exempt you from the various jobs indispensable for the proper functioning of the monastery, which are also part of the learning activities”. He added that I had the right not to accept the rules: “You are a free man,” he reminded me. In that case I should go to the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, to ask for my dismissal and due compensation.
Dissatisfied, I went to the Elder’s office. As he was having lunch with the others, I had to wait for him to return, a fact that increased my irritation even more. When the good monk returned, he welcomed me with kindness. I noticed that there was compassion in his eyes. I confess that I did not like it. “I don’t need anyone’s pity. I’m not miserable”, I thought. A typical reasoning of someone who knows nothing about humbleness. With an altered tone of voice, I complained about the absurdity of the situation and explained my reasons. The monk listened to me with infinite patience. At the end, he pondered in a serene voice, without allowing himself to be contaminated by my lack of control: “The Order is guided by principles of equality and freedom. In turn, choices are values that are fully respected. However, it is indispensable that there be balance in the decisions and harmony among all”.
“I believe that, like me, you must also be guided by your noblest principles and value them through your choices. With each one, we add or detach something in ourselves. Understanding this is primordial on the Path.”
“The monastery is a place that excels in knowledge as a tool for overcoming difficulties and healing the soul. Knowledge is not built only with books and classes. Work is of vital importance, because like studies, it is an indispensable element for progress. I am not referring only to the world, but to the soul itself. No work, no progress. There is no escaping this equation.”
“To be part of the Order is to conform to its rules and precepts. However, no one is obliged to become a member. Remember that one of our principles is freedom? Everyone can leave when they see fit. However, equality is also a principle we do not abdicate, as it creates the values of justice and honesty that are essential for a good life. Justice and honesty sustain healthy relationships. Here everyone studies, here everyone works. We learn and serve. To serve is the school which forms the best teachers, for it alone teaches us about love”.
He opened one of the drawers of the desk and took out a bundle money. He counted it and gave me back the full amount that I had paid and added sincerely: “I apologize that this has not been said before in order to make clear the relations that maintain the Order”. Politely he handed me the money and said: “Discipline is fundamental to freedom. Perfect freedom is not doing only what we want. There is no freedom without dignity. There is no dignity without treating others as I like to be treated. Beyond this border is the territory of abuse”.
I said that I did not understand the last sentence. He explained: “Nobody’s freedom subsists without respect for the freedom of others. If I do not discipline myself to respect your freedom, I am not a free man, but an implacable jailer, even if I hardly ever see myself this way. The same concept applies to equality. If I do not apply to you what I want for myself, I am not a just and worthy man, but a petty tyrant.”
“All work that I consider to be minor disables me from its enjoyment; To benefit from it would be unworthy, as I would be disregarding the principle of equality. If I do not discipline myself, I will be neither dignified with myself nor fair with others.”
“Many turn their noses up at the cleaners. But have you realised how great a job it is to leave the place where we live clean and fragrant? Few are disciplined to this understanding.”
“When I disrespect a job because I consider it to be minor, I belittle the person who did it. I demonstrate my inability to express a beautiful virtue: gratitude. A common and often imperceptible gesture, in which, in truth, I demonstrate my inconsistency about myself, the noble principles and values that should guide my choices and, consequently, my life. Without gratitude I cannot achieve fair and consequently egalitarian relationships. So, when it happens, I fail to respect my essence, that which I have most vital and precious. I move away from myself and towards the emptiness of existence.”
“Imagine a world in which only you existed. In this case, what would be the value of the art of being free?”.
I contested. I argued that freedom is an internal conquest. The monk agreed only partially: “No doubt it is a personal journey. However, it will only be possible to exercise it through the relationships that you have with everyone.”
“When I speak of discipline, I am not referring to obedience oppressed by emotional abuse, blind submission to philosophical dogmas or vassalage in which choices are annulled and, without them, our very being. I am referring to the vigilance that each one must have with regard to our personal ethics, which must gradually be rewritten by hands perfected in the calligraphy of virtues. Nobody is born ready. Improvement is daily and never-ending. Whoever does not discipline him or herself to the light ends up imprisoned in the shadows”. He paused and concluded: “Without discipline the walker does not walk, he or she will always find an excuse to restrain the effort of the next step. We end up swollen by the great quantity of unnecessary things and illusions added to our being. Without discipline we cannot go through the door of virtues. It is too narrow”.
“However brilliant an artist may be, however skilled a warrior, without discipline none of them will become a master. The work will not be accomplished nor the battle won.”
I went down the mountain with a bitter taste in my soul and checked into a hotel in the charming little town just below. “My life, my rules”, I said to myself while, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, I did intense intellectual gymnastics to construct a reasoning that would justify the choice made that day. I managed to construct several half-truths. However, all the half-truths together do not erect a single truth.
At that moment I understood that I would have a life in accordance with the coherence of the principles and values that I established for myself. No more and no less. I was free to choose the life I would have, but I had to discipline myself to the rules that would lead me to it.
There is no freedom without respect for ourselves. To respect yourself is to be coherent with the virtuous principles that guide your life and the values that define your choices. Coherence requires strict internal discipline. There is no evolution without effort. This is an inexorable rule for those who long for the alchemy of the soul. It is impossible to transform lead into gold without many hours in the laboratory. With little dedication, all creativity will be wasted. Without discipline, no genius will build any work. The great work of art is the making of life itself. Discipline is its loom.
It was a long night. Before sunrise, I knocked at the monastery gate. It was the Elder who came to open it. He was holding a broom and I had the absurd feeling he was waiting for me. He shrugged his shoulders and spoke in a tone of sweet defiance when he saw me: “It was a strong wind this morning, the garden is strewn with leaves”. Then he added: “We have to take care of the garden; it is important to us”. The Elder had a mischievous smile on his face. I smiled back as I noticed that there were few scattered leaves. The gale he was referring to was the one that had shaken my soul that night; the scattered leaves were the pieces I needed to put together inside me if I ever wanted to feel whole.
I took the broom from the Elder’s hands and began sweeping. He smiled again, winked one eye, as if revealing a secret, and said: “Before we understand what is truly important to us, we shall never have a garden.” He paused and finished his lesson: “With each answer to a question that until then we had refused to ask, a flower is born.”
“More important than the garden are the principles that make it exist.”
While I was sweeping, I began to wonder the origin and the reason for so much difficulty regarding discipline. It was only the first question. As if guessing the questions I would ask when I looked at him again, the Elder spun on his heels and left me alone. It was time for me to start learning from myself too. Many answers are in books and in the world; others, only in the soul.
I watched as the Elder walked away with his slow but steady steps, as the steps on the Way should be.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.