Imprisoned in ourselves

“Every time someone is imprisoned in himself, he shows what he is yet to be, but isn’t at the present moment. Then he suffers because of the artificiality by which he conducts his life”, said Loureiro, the elegant shoemaker who loved red wines and books on philosophy. He went on: “The artificiality of existence is the negation of truth. It occurs when our choices are out of sync with the life-ordering principles transmitted by the soul, the inner ruler.” I interrupted to learn the definition of truth. Loureiro explained: “Truth is the frontiers of consciousness that we managed to clear”. He continued: “When we move away from the truth, life loses its meaning and existence gradually becomes tasteless. Inside us, thoughts become misaligned and cannot move forward, as if they were going around in circles, and at a certain moment we stop believing that it is possible to arrive somewhere different and better. Feelings, like a closet full of messy drawers, remain confused and begin to confuse us too instead of coat us in beauty. Disorientated by the emptiness that he feels but cannot understand, the individual is dominated by an inexplicable sadness, at least for himself, and, more and more, he wants to live inside a dark cocoon, far from the joy of others and the sunny days. In other cases, he begins to react in a hostile way to any discomfort, even without any apparent cause that justifies the harshness of the attitude. This kind of people live with a sharp knife ready to cut everyone. They believe that the cause of so much discomfort is in the world, without ever considering that it may reside within themselves. Discouragement and impatience are different symptoms of the same existential disease: the prison of the soul.

I had this conversation with Loureiro many years ago. At the time, I was on my way to the monastery for another period of study when I visited his workshop in the charming little town of narrow winding streets at the foot of the mountain. I remembered those words when I took a few days off to visit one of my daughters. Contrary to what I had expected, I did not find her smiling and jumping around, characteristics inherent to her way of being. Although she was happy with our meeting after almost a year, there was a sadness that was impossible to hide, of such strength that it dimmed her light. When she hugged me, she cried a lot. She said it was very good that I had come, because she needed to talk to me. From the airport we took the subway, left our suitcase in the flat where she lived and went to a coffee shop that I loved on that same street.

Duly seated with two steaming mugs on the table, not waiting for me to ask, she began to talk. She told me that, together with her best friends, they had taken advantage of a long holiday to enjoy themselves in a country house belonging to one of her colleagues. They all studied at the same university, except for the owner of the house, who had abandoned her studies in the first year of her course. After the death of her parents, she had received a huge inheritance. As it was a lot of money, “more than she would be able to spend”, she understood that college was unnecessary, as she would no longer have to work. Her time would be devoted to “enjoying life”. However, the friendship had remained intact. In the initial days everything went well and they had a lot of fun, listened to music, cooked, walked in the open air, recalled things they lived together and confided intimacies. At a certain moment, without my daughter being able to explain why, Liz, as the owner of the house was called, became aggressive with one of the girls. Every day, another girl was added to the list of those she excluded. The atmosphere in the house began to become tense until there was a nasty argument. The trip ended a few days before the scheduled date, everyone was very angry with Liz’s behaviour. “I don’t know what happened, Dad. I love Liz, but we offended each other as if we were mortal enemies. The friendship is over,” my daughter said with her face bathed in tears.

I asked her to calm down. It was necessary to think clearly, something that was impossible without the necessary serenity. To understand the facts is to understand the cause of the reactions and their motivations, whether yours or others’. After understanding it all, it will be possible to allocate the events within the heart without any suffering. As I had already emptied my coffee mug on hearing the story, told in a fragmented way, I asked her to recall all the details of those days so that we could get to the heart of the matter and disarm the trap that caused so much pain. Yes, we do not suffer because we are the target of someone else’s actions, but because of the way we react to the attitudes and choices of others. For example, I am only offended by someone’s words when my pride is in command; something that never happens when I am under the guidance of humbleness and compassion. By taking the bait offered by the shadows, our own shadows, the trap closes and imprisons us. By learning how to dismantle it, we come to know its mechanisms and how to avoid them from then on. This gives us immeasurable power.

Crying, she lamented: “None of that was really necessary, Dad.” I reminded her of something important: “Intimacy has the power to break all the rules of coexistence. For better or for worse. It is a tool that, like any other, we must learn to make good use of.”

Because of the movement at the counter, it took me a while to return with a new mug full of coffee. I then asked her to tell me about the days at the countryside house in a linear fashion. As she talked about the first few days, I could see the happy smile on my girl’s face, until the moment when the first fight came. Since Liz’s fighting with the other classmates had been a seemingly inexplicable attitude, I realized the connection of the conflict, which happened in the morning, to a conversation the girls had the night before about their summer holiday internships. As is routine in that university, students take advantage of the extended period of three months without classes to do internships in large companies, as a way to apply in practice the theory learned in the classroom. The subject had come up when Liz invited them all to spend the next holiday at another house she owned on a very nice beach. The girls said that they couldn’t go, because they were committed to their internships. Then one of them, Cris, very excited, told how she had enjoyed the experience lived the previous year; she was very excited because she had received an invitation from the same company to return on the next holiday. This gave her the hope of ending up hired at the end of her time in college. The other girls also talked about their projects and career aspirations. Except Liz, for obvious reasons.

I have this habit of nodding my head when an idea strikes me. My daughter was always amused by this and smiled. I was inspired that morning, “We are one, but we are many”.

As I was met with her astonishment at that statement, I explained, “Pay attention to your mind and notice if it doesn’t feel like a chat room, with many people talking at the same time. There are many voices that want and need to be heard. We are much more than ego and soul, we are also everything that interferes in their formation and development. We are the clear and also the obscure reasoning, the dense emotions and the subtle feelings, the information from the world that comes to us in avalanche, all the science and mysticism that we know, the interests and ethics that often contradict each other, the shadows and the virtues that are related to us at each evolutionary moment, the ancestral instincts, the cultural conditioning, the prejudices that we have and do not know, the shallow volition and the deep will, the social forges and laws that insist on shaping our truth, the fear that screams “no”, the love that says “yes”, the senseless desires and also the deserved ones, the painful memories and the happy ones, the disappointments and the sorrows, the hugs and kisses of love, the invitations for the euphoria, the doors of joy, the sacred intuitions, besides the choices, either the right ones or the wrong ones. These are the people who inhabit us. Each of us is a tribe in itself. We are many, but we are one. Understanding who is in charge defines the honey and the gall of existence. The fundamental thing is to understand that all the inhabitants are important, for they tell a part of our history and show what still need to evolve. Many bleed and cry out for healing; some are lost in search of guidance. Others can and must help. It is necessary to offer the people that exist within us a single north to follow in harmony, otherwise there will be no evolution. And nothing causes greater discomfort than the stagnation of our being”.

“A person’s mismatches reflect how messy his or her tribe is: the incoherence between the principles existing in the soul and the values chosen by the ego. The root lies in not understanding the voices that speak within us. Or not knowing which one to listen to and the reason for their cries. Sometimes there is so much confusion that anguish and melancholy set in, in such a way that it is very hard to identify the origin of the maladjustment that caused them”. I paused and concluded, “This is being imprisoned within ourselves, because when it happens it means that we will not be able to go anywhere. As long as it lasts, we will not know the breadth of peace, the depth of love, the joy of dignity, the immensity of freedom nor the lightness of happiness. Imprisoned in ourselves, we will be just a ghost of the potentiality of all that we could be, but we’re not.”

“Resigned to confusion and bitterness, we will not be able to find our way out of the labyrinth that has become our thoughts, continually devastated by emotional storms. We will look for the external walls that lead us to the world and we will find nothing, since first it is necessary to go through the door that will lead us to the interior of ourselves. Then, after this encounter, we will be ready to marvel at the true beauties of life. Until this happens, we will be content with being who we’re not”. I concluded: “There is no delight in this”.

We were silent for a few moments. She needed to allocate the idea that she was a thousand in one. No doubt many inhabit us and talk to us; a diverse fauna of interests and origins. They are the many parts of the same being; to align them under the same axis is primordial for any person to become whole; nothing can be left over, nothing must be missing, at the risk of not being complete. I winked at her and asked: “Do you understand?”

Any new idea needs time to be metabolized in our being and then become part of our living. My daughter said she understood where I was going with my reasoning, but found it inconsistent, because Liz had dropped out of college because she felt it was unnecessary to continue her studies. She would not need to enter the job market. She just wanted to “be free”, in her own words. “It was her choice,” she explained.

I deepened my reasoning: “In truth, there is only one prison in life, a cruel cell that is not built with bricks or concrete. It is our sufferings. We suffer for the sole reason that we have not learned to align our thoughts, to deal with our emotions and, mainly, to understand the causes and consequences of our choices. In truth, we ignore who we are. This leads us to drown in sorrows and disappointments”. I looked at her seriously and said: “The keys that lock us in the prison of suffering are the same ones that set us free. The choices.”

“You are right when you say that everyone wants freedom. Freedom is an unshakeable principle. However, what are the values by which you will earn it?”.

“Would it be to travel to all the places you want to know? To have so much money that you don’t need to worry about your own survival? To spend your days just contemplating the beauty of nature without having to build anything? To feel so important as to feel that you do not need to give satisfaction to anyone? Not having a person by your side who causes you discomfort or needs to be taken care of? Never having to obey an order or carry out an exhausting task? Freedom would mean having no obligations or commitments? To have everything and everyone at your disposal without ever having to serve anyone?”

“In this way, without realising it, one believes to achieve freedom through idleness, disrespect, escape, selfishness, pride and vanity. Believe me, you will know many countries, but you will go nowhere; you will socialise with many, but you will relate to no one. The values contrary to freedom are diametrically opposed to light. Being loose is not the same as being free. It is not enough to possess noble principles like freedom, love, dignity, peace and happiness, without knowing anything about the indispensable values to achieve them.”

“Freedom is the power to go beyond ourselves, to develop the immeasurable power that exists within every being.  All the rest are days of mere travel without any journey.”

“Contrary to popular belief, as paradoxical as it may seem, we cannot be free without making serious commitments, either to ourselves or to the light. Only with enlightened steps will the Path be protected and show ways hitherto unimaginable before your eyes. You will only understand the power of being free when, on the verge of falling into the abyss, you notice your own wings opening. True freedom is only discovered when you learn the difference between throwing yourself and flying. You don’t get to this point without a lot of commitment.” 

My little girl’s eyes sparkled with attention. I encouraged myself to continue: “However, everyone has to understand what they want for their life. There are no two equal paths; there are no models to be followed, therefore, it is essential to create our own way of walking. It is unique and, for this reason, it brings with it a singular beauty. Remember, your desires set you free when driven by love, or they imprison you if dominated by fear.”

She interrupted to say that fear is important for warning us of the dangers of the world. I disagreed: “It is not fear that fulfils this function. But a valuable virtue, precaution”. She asked me to explain the difference. I went to the beginning: “Fear has its ancestral roots in our survival instincts, to subdue the other in order to dominate them and prevent them from doing the same to us. We use attack as a defence strategy, we are hostile or react badly because we have been conditioned to believe that one has to overpower the other, that the stronger will eliminate the weaker. A reasoning in which the difficulty we still have in living with differences and setbacks predominates. Why is it necessary to defeat the other? Why must the weakest perish? Where there is fear there is no freedom, nor love. Fear does not allow me to treat others as I would like to be treated, so dignity also disappears. Fear stifles peace because it is born of a lack of confidence in myself and faith in the light which illuminates me and is capable of dispelling all darkness. On the contrary, fear feeds and aggravates this darkness.”

“Caution works by a different and totally opposite internal system. It warns us that at every moment we are faced with a crossroad where there is a choice between love and fear; light and brightness.” Memory took me to distant facts, I philosophised: “Brightness is the favourite mask of shadows”. Then I continued: “Caution reminds us of the opportunity that arises every instant to be different and better, that heaven and hell are nowhere but in our hearts. Every day doors open that will lead us to the stars or to the abysses”.

My daughter interrupted to wonder if Liz’s hostile reaction was the unease of having found herself facing this bifurcation. She recalled the conversation about summer internships, when all her friends were excited, except for Liz herself. By her own choices, she was barred from this experience that provoked so much joy in the others. She was being told, by herself, that this was an opportunity to step back and retrace her story. Liz was hearing the virtuous voice of caution telling her about the need to face the fear of being herself, to expand internally so that she could experience all that is good in life. Denying the truth makes us bleed endlessly. However, each one only accepts the truth they can already bear.

“While fear limits, freedom expands who we are,” my daughter said to me as if speaking for herself to hear. I opened my arms as if to say yes, that was the mechanism of the trap that had imprisoned Liz. My daughter furthered her reasoning, “That premise leads me to the inevitable reasoning that evil is a mental creation that I must learn to deconstruct if I am ever to break free?” I smiled and shook my head in agreement.

I continued, “Reflect for a moment and realise something definitive: just like all people, no one has harmed you more than you have harmed yourself. Fear was the main reason. However, fear is still the main engine moving the world.”

“Finally, the difference between fear, always dark, and caution, eternal source of light, is a tiny and precious verb that does not receive the importance it deserves. To want”.

She again dissented. She argued that everyone wants to be free. I pondered: “To want is the primordial will to travel. The foundations that build the wanting are the routes that will define whether the traveller will reach the destination. Understanding the values is indispensable to reach the desired principles. Then, the travel becomes a journey”.

“It is necessary to understand your objectives, the scale of your priorities and live coherently with them. These will always be the limits of your truth. Love does not sign a contract with selfishness, freedom has nothing to do with the absence of commitments, peace will never have fear as an advisor, dignity is not allied to pride, and happiness knows that prosperity and wealth have different concepts.”

“Prisons exist. However, they are nothing more than conceptual constructions, in which ideas oppress more than iron bars and fear is more solid and difficult to demolish than entire cities of mortar and concrete”.

My little girl teased me: “Complex, isn’t it?”. I remembered Loureiro once again, quoting an aphorism attributed to a Renaissance sage: “The most complex of all sophistications is simplicity”.

“Complex because I need to deconstruct the obsolete forms that have shaped who I’m not; while I live as being who I’m not, I will annul who I am. Thus, I imprison myself in myself. Complex because of the need to unmask the illusions that have served as hiding-places for the truth; and the truth, although indispensable, does not always gently embrace us, especially when we refuse it for a long time. Complex for taking off the fantasies I wore for fear that people would not like me or find out about my insecurities and fears. Complex because I believed that subterfuge and artifice would enhance my beauty, when, in truth, they hide it by denying the essence by which life flourishes.”

I asked a rhetorical question, “How much truth can each of us bear?” I paused briefly and said, “Only simplicity has the necessary strength to lead us to it.”

“Simplicity lies in admitting that the king is naked and that this king is me. Nothing is so difficult in life. Alongside humbleness, simplicity opens the portals of lucidity for me.  Without this, life does not begin. The transformation will be at the exact distance of the reach of my gaze and will have the difficulty established by my wanting.”

“Not rarely you will have to give up admired values in the world, undo conditioning, build the concepts that will guide you from now on, understand the principles you want and the true values that will enable you to achieve them, live with inevitable criticism, assume the risks inherent in life, say no when it was easier to say yes, accept when it seemed more convenient to deny, among other difficulties. Living in the axis of one’s own light is not easy, but it is liberating”.

I ended with a few more questions: “Do you understand why there is no freedom without commitment? Do you understand why sometimes we have to go backwards in order to move forward? Do you understand how the way someone treats others is a mirror of how they relate to themselves?” I didn’t just mean Liz, I meant all of us.

We remained for a while without saying a word. It was she who broke the silence: “Freedom is much more than the sensation of walking loose and aimlessly through every corner of the world.” I took advantage of her commentary to bring up a lesson left by Socrates: “Wherever I go, I shall be there too”. Faced with my daughter’s astonishment, I explained: “I will accompany me every day, wherever I am. I am the baggage that I cannot avoid. However, it can be neat or messy. This defines whether the self that is with me is free or is imprisoned in itself. It also defines the scope of my days, whether I will allow myself a long journey or travel nowhere.”

We were silent again until my girl lamented her lost friendship. Up until then, Liz and her had got on very well. However, the hostile attitudes had been quite unpleasant. I reminded her of the essentials: “Realize that Liz’s aggressiveness is a cry for help. She is trapped within herself and does not know which voice to listen to from the many that inhabit her. The tribe is in conflict. Your friend needs help. But, of course, she needs to understand and, above all, want it. It is possible that Liz is still in the denial phase, so it is up to you to be patient and wait. Everyone has their own pace to walk. The will is the driving force of evolution. Its axis is love and virtues; wisdom is the sagacious helmsman. However, your friendship is going through an angular stage: it can be lost forever or be ready for its most sublime moment, when a friend makes us believe in the power of our own light. Freedom is a very personal achievement. No one can grant it to anyone, as it is an important stage in the evolutionary cycle.”

“Freedom is broad and deep. Breadth and depth are different aspects. Depth refers to the capacity of a person to dive inside him or herself; then, step by step, to understand the transformations allowed by the truths through the infinite possibilities of expansion of the being. Breadth is characterised in the coherence of daily choices with the truths attained; the exercise of living. The free being is longitudinal and latitudinal at the same time. While longitude leads to self-knowledge, latitude pushes towards self-liberation.”

I shrugged my shoulders and said: “The choice is yours. Allow yourself to understand how much will exists within you, as well as the scope of your own consciousness. Will is a reflection of self-esteem, of the love that has already blossomed within you. You will always need the strength that comes from will, because you will often have to go against the dominant flow, to face the difficulty of doing what few would do or many would advise against. However, when fully in tune with the truth you already know, your days will be wrapped in joy and lightness”.

My daughter looked at me earnestly. At first, her features were contracted. Then her gaze wandered across the space between dimensions. A natural reaction when many voices dialogue within us. It is necessary to know which one we are going to listen to and, even more, to align them all under one direction so that there is serenity and conditions to move forward. I waited for a time that I cannot specify. I emptied my coffee mug and went to the counter to get another. On my way back, my daughter said, “Maybe Liz got caught up in herself in the carelessness of any given day. I believe she is also suffering from all that has happened. Who knows, maybe I can help her in my own way?”. Without waiting for any manifestation from me, she asked for permission and left with her mobile phone in hand. Through the window of the cafeteria I could see her making a call.

She was talking to Liz. They talked for a few minutes. When she hung up, she turned to me, closed her fist and extended her thumb. Then she gave a smile I hadn’t seen since i’d arrived. She signalled that she would meet me later, sent a kiss and left bouncing, as if her feet would not touch the ground. A new journey had begun.

I closed my eyes, thanked life for its magic and was seized by an unmistakable joy.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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