Routine, time, fear and art

My life was a mess. There was never enough time to do everything I should or would have liked to. My thoughts were confusing, and my perspective of life had become cloudy. As I denied it, the difficulty of deciphering the problem increased. In the simplicity of superficial reasoning, we believe that people full of obligations are more important than others. It was a time when life seemed like a tangle of threads with no beginning or end. As I was unable to cope with everything I was going through, the unfulfilled tasks went into a box waiting for a tomorrow that never came. Examining the box made me feel uncomfortable. There was forgotten gold in it. It would be lost if it wasn’t lived and experienced. The accumulation of postponements removes the measuring ruler of life and the awareness of our days. I lose connection with myself every time I move away from the truth that represents my essence. Existence is a blank canvas supported by the easel of time; virtues are the paints used in the drawings of evolutionary cycles. Being and living accordingly to the coherence of the truth we already achieved is the talent of the artist. When I move away from my core, I abandon the art behind all art, the work in which I believe the meaning of life lies dormant: the construction of a different and better person as the days go by.

When there is a lack or surplus of time, it means that the non-renewable raw material, time, is being wasted. The drum of all rhythms, as the Recôncavo alchemist sang. The rhythms of our personal evolution; that’s how time is measured where time no longer matters.

All these fundamentals formed a knowledge that I possessed but couldn’t use. At the time, I even scheduled meetings at intervals that I knew beforehand were almost impossible to fulfil. Of course, people were right to be annoyed with me. There was an abuse of other people’s time. I would apologise on the grounds that I was a very busy professional. Without understanding the mistake, I said I needed a 36-hour day. The disagreements piled up. It got so confusing that I decided to go on a trip in an attempt to find a different way of organising my days in the search for better results. That’s what I told Li Tzu, the Taoist master who lived in a small Chinese village up in the Himalayas. He looked at me curiously and asked: “What did you do with so many tasks?”. I told him that I had put them all off. However, I confessed that I was worried because there were very important matters waiting for me. Li Tzu shrugged and said: “You haven’t understood anything yet”. Surprised, I remarked that, not only did I already have a good background of studies, but I had travelled to a peaceful place in order to organize my days and my life. The Taoist master smiled with compassion and said in a sweet tone of voice: “You won’t find the peace you’re looking for here”. I asked him why he said that. Li Tzu, without any sarcasm in his voice, explained: “Because you came along”.

Before I could say anything, he excused himself and left for the classroom where the students were waiting for him to study the Tao Te Ching. The next morning, I woke up startled. I remembered that I had forgotten to file my income tax return and pay some important bills. It was a time when the Internet, still in its infancy, didn’t offer so many resources. On the way from the inn where I was staying to the Taoist master’s house, I analysed whether I should return immediately. As usual, the door to Li Tzu’s house was open. The day was dawning. Alone, he was doing yoga and signalled not to be interrupted when I wanted to talk to him. In the end, I told him that I needed to talk about something important, as I was considering interrupting my trip to get back to my work. He said it was time for his daily meditation and invited me to join him. Then we could talk. I went along, even though I couldn’t find any benefit in the meditation practice. I found it unsuitable for my hectic lifestyle. I commented on this as I sat in the kitchen. Li Tzu was preparing some herbs for tea. The Taoist master clarified: “It happens because your body is never in the same place as your heart”. He paused and concluded: “Two halves don’t always make a whole”.

I said I hadn’t understood. He clarified: “As long as we don’t understand the distinction between obligation and commitment, we’ll be far from accomplishing our priorities. Then the most important thing gets lost.” He poured the tea into our cups and said: “Obligations come to us from the outside, they are imposed by the world through laws, social conventions and cultural customs. Somehow, there is a punishment for failing to fulfil an obligation. Services are interrupted if we don’t pay our bills, fines are imposed for late payments. Legal rights are invalidated, privileges are lost. Perspectives become skewed when an attitude surprises the established model, friendships fall apart. Professional circles close in the face of a behaviour outside the established pattern, business deals are no longer done.” He sat down on the other side of the table and added: “Guilt is also an obligation, because it doesn’t originate from the core of our being, but from dogmas and concepts that we haven’t yet managed to free ourselves from. In all these cases, we suffer from a sense of loss.”

He sipped his tea and continued: “Commitment goes in the opposite direction, from the inside out. It comes from realising that your evolution is the greatest art. Time is the raw material, virtues are the tools. Choices are the hands that sculpt, in a united movement, the sculptor and the sculpture as one creation.”

I wondered if I should leave my obligations in the background. Li Tzu corrected me: “That’s not what I said. It’s impossible to live in society without rights and duties. Rights give rise to duties; the reciprocity applies. It’s natural and fair. However, there are two preponderant issues. Not all obligations are necessary. Many of them we adopt out of misunderstandings and petty interests, driven by vanity and greed. The other issue arises from the inability to align obligations and commitments in a harmonious coexistence. This creates conflicts over time, which generates a lot of agony and anxiety. Depression arises from the excessive accumulation of unfulfilled anxieties and postponed projects, as if everything good were to be put off until tomorrow. The individual then sinks into themselves in search of a dark place to vent their suffering. Both situations are somehow connected to the misuse of time. Even if unconscious, the artist has the perception of wasted art”.

I confessed I was enchanted by the theory. I said that I knew some of it, but I couldn’t understand how it applied to everyday life. Li Tzu asked me: “What are the priorities in your life?”. I replied that they were love, freedom, dignity, peace and happiness. In short, the so-called plenitudes. Li Tzu nodded and said: “None of them are obligations, even though they are the most important things in your life. The world doesn’t care if you achieve them, because they are restricted to your personal interests, in movements made from the inside out. Nobody will punish you if you don’t dedicate yourself to achieving them. Plenitudes are intrinsic commitments; the pursuit of them is a choice. If you don’t make them real, they will remain restricted to beautiful poems. The essential is lost. Nothing more.”

He paused and asked again: “In your daily routine, how much commitment do you have to these essential goals in your life?”. I admitted that far less than I would have liked. Li Tzu asked a sequence of questions: “How many times during the day do you ask yourself if that’s what you’d really like to be doing? If there was another way to live those hours? Have you weighed up the existential losses and gains due to the lifestyle you’ve adopted?”. I lowered my eyes in response. He concluded with another question that didn’t require an answer: “Do you understand when I say that your body needs to be where your heart is?”.

He took another sip of tea and continued: “Some people attach too much importance to obligations. Not that we should despise them, that’s not the point. However, there shouldn’t be a lack of space or time for commitments. When there is movement in only one direction, from the outside in, the pressure becomes unbearable. We suffer from the discomfort we experience. It is essential that there is also movement in the opposite direction, from the inside out, so that there is the essential balance.”

“On the other side of this movement, there are those who prefer to deny their obligations, making living together in society unfeasible. This is a kind of voluntary banishment, caused by maladjustment and the cause of much suffering. In both situations, there will be disorder and confusion at the heart of the individual, either because they have abandoned themselves or because of the inadequacy they have imposed on the world. You can’t live well away from your own essence, the source of animation and joy; nor can you live well in disregard of others; relationships are indispensable sources for maturing and perfecting of our being. Balance is the source of harmony”.

He emptied his cup and continued: “A balanced life has its subjective pillars in the individual’s confidence in their ability to overcome any obstacles and move forward. Only fear can stop you. We often deny obligations and commitments when coerced by fear. As we have been conditioned to run away from fear, we use a thousand excuses. Claiming that we lack the time, the right conditions, that the benefits aren’t worth it or any other of the many reasons we’ve become accustomed to deceiving ourselves in order to escape the truth, we stop living what’s essential. We lose our way. Even so, we maintain the belief that we will be able to move forward. That’s a mistake. Nobody walks while running away from their own fears. Fears are mental creations driven by emotional disorders. They are the consequences of mistaken perception and sensitivity. Therefore, when I run away from my fears, I refuse to go to the meeting I need to have with myself. Insecurity and imbalance will reign for as long as you allow them to.”

“When insecure, we postpone vital decisions. When unbalanced, we make the wrong choices.”

He filled the cups with tea and clarified: “Unlike what you’ve always done, never run away from your fears. Meet them in order to rescue what has been taken from you. Inside every fear is a safe with fragments that complete us.”

I interrupted to say that the idea of meeting fear seemed frightening and even incoherent. Li Tzu explained: “We think this way because of the ancestral conditioning we have become accustomed to. By running away from fear, we have created the images of the hunted and the hunter. Fear is a relentless hunter who won’t give up the hunt. It’s also cruel, because it won’t kill you, but it will imprison you in order to suck out all your energy. This is how we wither away, often without understanding why.”

I said that the idea of any of my fears happening frightened me. The Taoist master reminded me: “The vast majority of them will never happen. But we have to keep in mind that whatever happens will be for our good. It will serve as learning and improvement. To run away from fear is to deny personal evolution. Fear is the opposite of the confidence a person has in their own strength and power. Disbelief in oneself leads to imbalance.”

I said I didn’t know how to do it. Li Tzu advised: “Look into the eyes of each of your fears. Without any fear, tell them that even the most complicated of problems will not be feared; if it happens, it will be so that you can go beyond where you’ve always been. There is no problem without a solution. Just realise that the solution won’t always be in line with your desires, but in line with your evolving needs.” He then reminded me of something very valuable: “Anyone is greater than their greatest fear”.

“Fear is the main factor in the imbalance between obligations and commitments, adding pressure in the form of demands and stress, or emptiness in manifestations of maladjustment and anxiety.”

I asked about the objective pillars for building a balanced existence. Li Tzu explained: “In practice, the foundations are supported by our daily routines. Many people harbour the belief that routine is bad and boring. This will be true for those whose habits are far removed from the essence that animates and drives them.” He paused to allow me to gradually allocate the new ideas and said: “Turning your back on obligations is mere immaturity, typical of a soul still in its infancy. Children hate obligations, but they also don’t know the value of commitments. They just want to have fun. This explains the behaviour of many adults. The most important part of this matter lies in knowing how to select obligations, understanding the exact importance of each one, without belittling or exaggerating, but with respect and wisdom. The main thing is not to forget your commitments, as they are essential sources of light. Without neglecting your obligations, don’t just fit commitments into your routine, but keep them as priorities. There is no other road to the plenitudes”.

He offered me some vanilla biscuits and went on: “The word routine has its origins in other languages. Routine or route mean track or path. In the routine you establish the route of your existence. It’s the assembly of the tracks that will lead your evolution. Many people turn their noses up at routine because of the discipline it requires, since it requires a lot of effort and dedication. It’s a road with no shortcuts, travelled inch by inch, inside and outside of you,” he paused deliberately to emphasise the following words: “At the same time”. He continued: “There has to be surrender without it ever becoming a burden. It has to be light and joyful. To do this, understand the pleasure to be found in transformations driven by routine.”

“Deluded, many believe they can take refuge from routine through the arts, in a vain attempt to avoid the drudgery common to other professional activities. Another mistake. Artists such as Shakespeare, Beethoven and Da Vinci lived lives of vigorous routine, without which their works would not be complete. Pablo Picasso once said that all genius is lost without discipline. There is no discipline without routine. The best routine is not always the easiest, but it will never be weighed down by the pleasure it provides. Those who believe themselves inadequate to the demands of evolution are nothing more than fugitives from themselves. They will remain dissatisfied, sitting by the side of the road.”

“Of course, we must forget the absurdity of thinking that there is an ideal model or a correct pattern of routine that fits everyone’s way of being and living. If each individual is unique, it’s up to them to find the routine that best suits their style, gifts and dreams.” He frowned and reminded us: “You just have to be careful never to lie to yourself. It’s not wise to deceive your own heart”.

I wondered if all the discomfort and confusion I was experiencing was the result of an inadequate routine due to my misuse of time. Li Tzu said: “Subjective aspects aside, routine will sustain the objective pillars of a harmonious existence. Routine brings the balance of being in living through the transformations it allows, like real works of art. This allows us to discover previously unknown personal capacities, powerful sources of strength and balance. Without neglecting obligations, a proper routine offers the time needed to build a different and better person, capable of seeing and enjoying many of life’s wonders that are still unknown. Most of them are not visible to the eye. This is a process of liberation through the conquest of an existence in which suffering will be smaller every day. It will be a genuine and legitimate pleasure, since its foundations lie within the individual. A valuable and permanent pleasure, because there is no dependence on anything outside of oneself to maintain it. It will be of great value because of its usefulness in the face of life’s inevitable storms.”

He arched his lips in a slight smile and concluded: “A routine full of commitments drives the development of virtues. A virtuous routine makes us luminous.” He winked and, with an old phrase, reminded me of someone I knew: “Habit makes the monk”.

I wanted to know, taking the opportunity to learn from his experience, what would be the most appropriate routine for me. Li Tzu was honest: “I have no idea. Hence the importance of stillness and silence, meditation and reflection, in order to bring together all the parts of ourselves that are still disjointed. An intrinsic movement suited to separating the chaff from the wheat, sorting out priorities, fitting obligations into commitments with harmony, unscrambling the essential from the superfluous, finding the sacred hidden in the mundane, understanding where true pleasure lies. To be a citizen of the world without giving up being an artist of oneself. The greatest significance of art is the transformation it provokes.”

The students were beginning to arrive to study another poem from the Tao Te Ching. Before the Taoist master left for the classroom, I thanked him for the talk and asked permission to stay in the meditation room. I needed to design a new routine for myself. He consented, but warned: “Never forget that everything is constantly evolving. Routine is not a prison; it’s a mapped-out route, not to the destination, but only until you reach the next city. The routine will need to change in accordance to your personal changes.” 

He arched his lips in a slight smile and ended the conversation: “Now it’s up to you.”

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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