When I received the news of uncle Pedro’s death, I had no hesitation in travelling to be with his children, my cousins, in this moment that is so sad and difficult for some, but so beautiful and renewing for others, depending on the observer’s point of view. I have a good relationship with death, an act of love from life, a subject that has already been discussed several times. When I arrived in Salvador, Bahia, I went straight to the wake. There, the first surprise. João, his eldest son, was dressed in the unfailing white suit that uncle Pedro wore on the most important ceremonies, as well as the Panama hat that accompanied him every day, as if they were emblems of his good-humoured, dilettante personality. João not only wore his father’s clothes, he interpreted him, with the same manner and lines that were characteristic of him. He thanked each person who arrived for coming “to the boarding platform to say goodbye”. He added that he hoped to meet them again “at the next station”. João’s gesture brought an atypical lightness to the wake, a moment that almost always is shrouded in sadness and suffering. Gradually, after the initial shock, people laughed at João’s unusual gesture and began to recall the happy events that had taken place with uncle Pedro, a smiling man who was always ready to say a good word to enlighten whoever he met or wherever he was. As father and son were very similar physically, several times I had the feeling that it was uncle Pedro himself who was talking to people. I felt as if I was inside one of Jorge Amado’s novels.
Of course, João’s manifestation at his father’s funeral was not well accepted by everybody. I noticed that some people were not happy about it. Everything became more complicated with the arrival of Madalena, João’s sister, a highly respected psychiatrist in Salvador with very rigid religious ideas. From an early age she was a quiet and observant child, personal characteristics that accompanied her into adulthood. Although we did not have many opportunities to talk to each other, I always greatly appreciated her opinions and reasoning and, above all, the sense of harmony she transmitted. Irritated by the lack of consideration for her father’s memory, she asked her brother to respect her pain. “Longing dwells in deep places,” she added on the verge of emotional uncontrol.
The mood worsened when João replied, “Nobody misses what is not good. Every longing deserves a commemoration. For there to be nostalgia it is necessary for love to be alive”. That was the last straw. Out of control, Madalena began to offend her brother and shout: “Unlike you, I loved Dad”. People them manifested for or against what was happening, at a moment when no opinion could be given, since it only served to make things worse. I put my arm around João’s shoulder and took him out of the wake. It was indispensable to prevent the conflict from flaring up again; it was necessary to rescue the tranquillity of such a delicate moment.
Once we got to the street, João asked if I had had lunch. I explained that, although I hadn’t eaten for hours, my concern was with uncle Pedro’s burial. My cousin disconcerted me again: “Let the dead bury the dead,” he quoted a well-known passage from the Bible. Then he called a taxi and asked it to take us to his father’s favourite restaurant, which specialised in seafood. We were served by the waiters who had served my uncle for years. João ordered the dish that his father always ordered. Still disorientated, I asked him if he didn’t prefer to return to the wake. I offered to talk to Madalena to get around the uneasiness. João refused: “Here we’ll say goodbye, in Dad’s way, a man fond of joy and living all the wonders offered by life. So, let’s toast to my father and may the dead bury the dead,” he repeated the same quote. I wanted to know what he was referring to. João explained: “The dead are those who can no longer share this plane of learning; it also serves as an analogy for those who have never found the meaning of life. Since yesterday, my father is no longer that inert body in the wake, but a living spirit in another sphere of existence. I will remember him every day, but always with joy, an indispensable characteristic of love. There will always be a misunderstanding when longing motivates sadness. Longing is a manifestation of love. As nobody suffers for love, when the longing is not joyful, there is a motivator that is foreign to love, such as attachment, domination or even badly solved situations hidden in imperceptible grief”. Before I could ask any questions, he was quick to explain the meaning he attributed to the sentence: “Only the dead weep in sadness for the dead, because they have not yet been able to dive into deep water.”
João was an oceanographer and used to use the things of the sea as metaphors for life. I asked him to explain further. He shrugged his shoulders, as if stating the obvious, and said: “Every time you face a difficulty, dive into deep water. That way it will be easier to find solutions”. I looked at him and asked him to continue. He didn’t need me to ask twice: “The bottom of the sea is not shaken by the storms caused by bad weather. The winds and hurricanes only hit the boats because they sail on the surface. These are moments when all marine life dives in search of the calmness at the bottom. A lesson from nature, just pay attention, it is everywhere”.
I pondered that it was not quite like that. Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes originating in the tectonic plates that lie beneath the seabed. They are tremors that bring devastating consequences to the surface. João frowned and muttered with satisfaction, “Exactly. Then he added, “Every seismic tremor is caused by the movement of the planetary centre, which is still out of alignment. At some point it will seek its balance and consequent evolution. The effects are catastrophic on the surface because of how little we know about the depths. So the damage is dramatic because it takes us by surprise. Sailors have known about tidal movements for millennia because it is the part of the ocean that moves on the surface. But they know nothing about the abyssal fossae and the possibilities of life that pulsate there.”
He looked me in the eye and asked, “If I ask you to do a deep dive into yourself, what will you find?” Without blinking, I answered: “I will find my essence”. João continued his reasoning: “However, as we are not used to visiting it, it is nothing more than an illustrious stranger to us. Its shaking signifies the need for evolution, like everything that grows and transforms, changes reality itself. However, unlike the planet, we can make the changes in our core in a harmonic, serene and balanced way.” Then he surprised me: “But few are willing to do so. At the bottom of the sea unknown predators swim and the waters are very dark. There is almost no light.”
I immediately disagreed. That analogy of the ocean to a person’s life was worthless. At the centre of an individual, in deep water, there would be clarity. It is about the important and indispensable encounter that, sooner or later, each individual will have with his own soul, its illuminated and still hidden essence. João corrected me: “The soul is not the enlightened essence. The ego is enlightened”.
Before I could speak against it, he continued his reasoning: “The soul is not at the bottom of the sea. You will find it much lower down. At the bottom of the sea, you will find the abyssal fossae of turbid waters where sunlight has problems to reach. There are our painful memories, the sad facts that we believe to be forgotten but which influence life on the surface in a way that we don’t notice it, just as the roots of many fears, impulsive and limiting reactions. They prevent us from achieving our full potential”.
“Below the familiar ebb and flow of the surface tides there are the subterranean sea currents, which drag unwary sailors to unwanted destinations. The vast majority of us still possess enormous difficulty in getting beyond that diving range. It is not easy to swim against the currents of conditioning and prejudice, because most of them are so ingrained in us that they become almost imperceptible. Many give up going down to the depths of themselves when they encounter the initial difficulties of the underwater currents”. I understood that he was also referring to personal shadows, such as pride, envy, greed, sorrows, among several others. I did not interrupt him and he continued: “Even rarer are those who venture into deep waters and decide to proceed. Of these, most believe they will find calm, free from the surface storms, but they come across a dark place, inhabited by ferocious animals that insist on attacking when we find them. To avoid repeating suffering, we flee. Thus, we chain our hearts. Pure and subtle feelings become fictional treasures.”
“So we prefer to limit ourselves to sailing according to the tides and winds that blow to the shore of ourselves. We choose to enjoy the typical beauty of the surface, with its clear sunlit waters and the white sands of the beaches, where it is possible to build beautiful castles for the ego. We strive to believe that this sums up the best of existence. This is the good side of life, we repeat to ourselves. Then the mind remains imprisoned. Clear and original thoughts become rarer and rarer until they cease to exist.”
“Many pride themselves on knowing the location of paradisiacal beaches, they think they know how the tides move and that they have learned to navigate with them. However, they forget that the sea currents that circulate just below the surface influence them, just as they determine the planetary storms. The clear waters are agitated, bringing impurities from the depths, the ocean rebels in wild waves that prevent people from bathing on the beach. The sky is grey with dense clouds that hide the stars and the blue colour typical of happy sunny days. The storms dissolve all the castles. Immature egos, like children, build them only with wet sand by the sea, because they believe that every morning will be sunny. Nothing is disassociated from all other things. To ignore the part is to waste the whole.”
“However, the sun does not reach the deep waters. Therein lies the difficulty of ego evolution.”
I questioned the reason for diving into deep water if we will only find darkness and predators. João arched his lips in a slight smile. I had asked the question he wanted to answer. He explained, “Many have difficulty imagining that beneath the murky, icy waters of the ocean floor the planet burns with fire.”
“This effervescent, boiling substance is the magma without which there would be no life on the planet. The soul is the magma of our being. Not a single body would sustain itself without the unknown and transforming force of the soul, its essence and identity.”
“Since time immemorial, for its immeasurable transformative power, fire is the perfect representation of light. Light is the expression of love and wisdom. So is the soul, which possesses light of its own. While the ego is illuminated by the light of the world, represented by the sun that bathes the surface, the soul is luminous by the fire it produces.”
“On stormy days, when dense clouds block the rays of the sun, if the ego is not illuminated by the light coming from the fire of the soul, it will embitter in the darkness of existence.”
“Emotional outbreaks are sufferings that have fled from their masters in search of healing, like shadows that yearn to be transformed into virtues, just as rebellious slaves struggle for freedom. They are the seismic jolts of repressed magma that has not yet expanded as far as it could and cries out for adjustment. Just as there would be no life on the planet without the heat that characterizes its core, neither will there be true life without the love that sustains the soul.”
“The stage of the murky waters of sad memories requires a lot of determination to be overcome. No plunge into the depths is easy and without danger. Life is an act of courage and, like truth and love, is reserved for those who want to learn to swim in murky waters. Only then, after they have overcome the deepest levels and tamed the predators of the self within themselves, will they find the light of their own fire. As long as we are still incomplete and limit ourselves to living only on the surface, all beauty will only be a frame that adorns a blank canvas. When whole, beauty becomes an integral and primordial part of a multi-coloured work.”
The waiter brought us the food. It was delicious. We ate without saying a word for long minutes. I broke the silence to ask how that theory applied in practice to Madalena, since the conversation had begun with the conflict that had arisen at the wake. João said: “My sister had serious problems with our dad in her youth. Although he was a man of excellent character and good heart, he had his difficulties and mistakes like anyone else. He never encouraged Madalena to study because he thought women should devote themselves to marriage and family. No doubt a backward aspect in a man of many avant-garde attributes. The contradictions signal the incoherences that are still present and increase the distance between the ego and the soul. There were many quarrels and, have no doubt, both of them suffered a lot because of it. Madalena was always very determined and studious, and managed to graduate in Medicine. Religion was very important because it was a centre that generated strength for her to overcome difficulties and become all that she could be.” He paused dramatically to emphasise what he was about to say and then added: “At least until that moment at the wake.”
“Madalena was always a good and balanced person. In short, an enlightened woman. However, because she had not yet become enlightened, at dad’s wake, when she came across me representing him as a good man, the painful memories of the relationship between father and daughter, which had caused her so much suffering, erupted like a submerged and uncontrollable volcano, bringing to the surface a suffering that had been repressed for many years. She was not able to look at the fact in a good mood. Her equilibrium was, in truth, a controlled imbalance that, at that moment, escaped her own. It was her soul crying out for clarity, since it was prevented from manifesting its own light.”
“Religion offers the map, but the path belongs to the walker. Madalena and dad needed to forgive each other. They believed they had forgiven each other, they repeated to themselves that they had done so, because they understood the liberating need for forgiveness. Religion talks about the undeniable value of this virtue, but it does not teach forgiveness. It is not able to or could do it. For it is a spiritual practice. We must go beyond the abyssal fossae of our own being to reach our magma. Then, in the encounter with its light, forgiveness happens.”
I put the cutlery on the plate and waited for João to continue. He did so without my asking for anything: “Although religion and philosophy are like suns that light the way, there will always be cloudy and rainy days; there are also dark and starless nights. It is very important that this should be so, for the traveller will have to learn to light the way with his own light: the lantern lit by the fire of the soul”.
He looked me in the eye and concluded: “No religion or philosophy can do this for anyone. It is a unique spiritual experience, individual and non-transferable. It is worth pointing out that forgiveness, as in Madalena’s case, is only one of the many examples of the exercise of spirituality beyond religion. There are others, such as the practice of all the virtues. Religion needs spirituality to complete itself; spirituality is whole because it is independent of religion, just as spiritual evolution is free from dogmas and obligatory religious ceremonies. Wisdom and love are paths travelled through the expansion of consciousness, the flowering of virtues and the perfection of choices. In short, wisdom and love depend only on the walker’s sincere will to follow the path.”
“Religion and philosophy teach about the need to swim in dark waters in search of the light existing at the core of ourselves. This is very important and valuable. However, learning ends at this point, when the theory is exhausted. Only the exercise of diving can lead to the magma of life. This is where religion and philosophy end, which bring knowledge about the light, to begin spirituality, as a practical process capable of igniting our own light. Only then will we find clarity of thought and purity of feeling without any dependence on the light coming from the world, which is only reflected in us and upon us, but is not ours. It is the angular experience of ceasing to mirror the light we receive in order to generate our own light. We stop being enlightened to become luminous.”
“It is like ceasing to be moon to become the sun.”
“There will be no dependence of any gods anymore, as God will be manifested through himself.”
He blinked one of his eyes as if telling a secret and unified two biblical passages, offering them a new meaning: “You are gods, after all, you are the light of the world”. He paused again before finishing: “It is not enough to know, you have to be”. I smiled and remembered that in Greek Mythology there is a passage where Prometheus steals the eternal fire from Olympus to give it to humanity and thus allow each individual to light their own life. Prometheus frees men from their beliefs and gives them the power of faith. That is, to be the light itself.
The night had already taken its place when we paid the bill and left the restaurant. I needed to get to the airport. I asked what João would do. He told me: “I’m going to look for Madalena so we can talk. I love my sister”. We said goodbye and I watched my cousin go down one of the hillsides of Pelourinho. The streets didn’t need lanterns or stars in the sky. I had the distinct sensation that he illuminated everything that passed by him.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.