The ballast

The gate to the house was always open. Li Tzu, the Taoist master, had already done his morning yoga and meditation. He was waiting for the herbs to finish infusing to make the tea. The day dawned. Midnight, the black cat, who also lived in the house, napped on top of the fridge, looked at me lazily and went back to sleep. Liz Tzu welcomed me with a sincere smile and gestured with his hand for me to settle down at the table. He filled two mugs with tea and sat down too. That day, we were going to study poem twenty-six of the Tao Te Ching, the sacred book written by Lao Tzu over two millennia ago. Sacred is everything that makes us a better person. As with all texts of this magnitude, there are many layers of depth that gradually reveal themselves as the traveller’s perception and sensitivity improve. The Tao Te Ching is a journey towards the light. I used to study each poem before class and the difficulties were enormous due to the poetic codes used by the author. I remarked that the text we were going to study that day, in its opening verse, said The heavy is the root of the light.

I confessed that I hadn’t understood. I went on to tell him that there was no problem if he wanted to wait for the other students to arrive, so he wouldn’t have to explain it twice. Li Tzu smiled kindly and said it was fine for us to talk about it. He then explained: “Every boat has a weight at the bottom to maintain balance and improve steering. Ballast is the nautical term for this weight.” He took a sip of tea and commented: “It seems paradoxical to put a weight on the bottom of a boat that, by its very nature, should sink. But it’s essential. It’s no different to us. Everyone needs ballast to maintain their balance and course. It brings lightness and direction to our days.

I wanted to know what ballast is needed to have lightness and orientation, as the poem teaches. Li Tzu explained: “Coherence is that ballast. Being aligned with your principles, values and truths, at the exact point where you have already reached them, is the axis that will provide the indispensable balance, keeping the boat steady, without letting it stick or drift in the face of the rough seas and storms of existence. At the same time, the ballast will keep the rudder within the waters of life so that you can set the course of your own destiny.” I asked why this coherence, so useful and necessary, was considered a burden. The Taoist master frowned and answered with another question: “Have you noticed how difficult it is to be honest with yourself?”. I understood immediately. To work on the truth in constant internal dialogues, I need to look at myself without any disguise, not lie to myself and untie the knots of conditioning, prejudices, hurts and painful memories. Otherwise, free thinking won’t exist. In short, it’s a burden because it’s not an easy exercise to carry out.

Li Tzu pondered: “The difficulties are many and imponderable. That’s why, in the next verse, Lao Tzu says that stillness dominates confusion. On the verge of a conflict, or when we feel disorientated, we must seek the stillness only found when the ego strips itself bare before the soul. In this silent and essential encounter, we are able to return to the primordial state, prior to Creation, where it will always be possible to recover our genuine strength and original balance.” He then reminded me: “Never forget, your essence is light”.

Just then, we were interrupted by the arrival of two students who, like me, were staying at the only inn in the small Chinese village. They told me about a phone call from one of my cousins, Alfredo, who was trying to tell me about the death of his uncle Luiz, whom I loved very much. I returned the call. The conversation was tense. To my surprise, he accused me of having caused the death of his father, Uncle Luiz. I was extremely irritated by the accusation and the absurdity of the alleged motive. Uncle Luiz was not just a relative, but a friend. We had enjoyed an excellent relationship and had even done some business. There had never been any problems. He was a successful businessman and had acquired a good amount of wealth over the years, all of it invested in property. It so happened that, a few years ago, his company needed investment to modernise. As the time was not favourable for selling property, he had run out of liquidity. However, he couldn’t wait too long at the risk of losing ground to the competition. As I had some money saved up that I didn’t intend to use, I lent it to him. There was no formal contract; our words were enough. Time passed. So did the agreed return date. Just before I travelled, we had lunch and I told him I needed the money because I had split up with my partners in the advertising agency. Uncle Luiz said he would take care of the payment straight away. I told him that although I needed the money, he should take it easy so as not to make a bad deal to get it. It was a happy meeting and we said goodbye, with him telling me not to worry. He would soon settle the debt. I had no doubt about that. He was an honest man.

It turned out that his company was facing serious difficulties. After taking out the loan with me, he sold the property to inject more money into the firm. I didn’t know about this. I only learnt about it while I was talking to Alfredo. According to my cousin, the tension generated by my debt collection, coupled with the difficulty of paying off the debt, led to the heart attack that ended Uncle Luiz’s existential cycle. “You’re responsible for Dad’s death. You should never have asked for the money; it was very insensitive of you,” was the accusation I heard before he hung up the phone.

I was shaken. Angry at first. I told Li Tzu that I would return to Brazil immediately to have a very serious conversation with my family. The situation had to be clarified, I didn’t want Alfredo’s words to become final. It wasn’t fair. The Taoist master asked me: “How will it be if people don’t accept your arguments?”. I replied that I hadn’t thought about it, but admitted that it would be unpleasant. The Taoist master smiled at the fact that we had just been talking about the twenty-sixth poem of the Tao Te Ching and recited the following verse: “This is why the wise man travels every day without losing sight of his luggage”. Before I could ask him any questions, he said: “You have to travel inside and outside yourself every day. In the world, the Yang movement, to live experiences; in the soul, the Yin movement, to elaborate those experiences. Then return to the world, ever stronger and more balanced, thus maintaining the ballast for navigating life. The power of this ballast comes from the valuable weight of remaining consistent with your principles and values, establishing choices within the limits of the truth you have already reached. This makes you virtuous in the face of difficulties, keeping you luminous in the face of darkness. We dignify our essence which, made up of the purest light, will intensify. It allows us to truly become the light of the world.” He paused before reminding me: “Just as the weight of the canoeist is the ballast of the canoe, the luggage of the journey is the traveller himself; his conscience, virtues and choices. That’s all there is to it”.

Although I understood the arguments, I expressed my displeasure at becoming the target of comments about supposed imperfections in the family, especially when they were unfair and even dishonest. Li Tzu again used the following verse from the same poem: “Although there are interesting landscapes, the wise man remains serene and distant”. He took a sip of tea and clarified: “The journey is full of landscapes, sometimes tempting, sometimes provocative; there are many invitations to stray from The Way. There are many dullnesses available to distract and deceive us; to make us run away from commitments and abandon difficulties, as if they – commitments and difficulties – weren’t the driving forces behind evolution.” I interrupted to ask what these dullnesses were that he was referring to. The Taoist master clarified: “Dullness is the loss of perception and sensitivity caused by a substance, emotion or idea. There are countless possibilities for escapes and lies available to us. One of the most common is the revolt generated by the feeling of rejection. The lenses through which we see both the world and ourselves become blurred, preventing us from seeing the beauty of life; we lose the filter that allows us to discern the voice from the shadows. We lose our ballast. Then the rudder gets stuck above the waterline, leaving us unable to steer. Adrift, navigation succumbs to the wild sea of existence. There will be suffering and darkness. However, in the face of inevitable adversity, the wise man remains serene so as not to lose his axis of light, made up of his truths, principles and values. Serenity prevents emotions from weighing down thoughts. They are aware of the sweet invitations with a bitter taste that come from the conflicts that stir up dense passions, but they refuse to run away and refuse to lie. Despite the acidity of some situations, they don’t carry any discomfort. The wise man remains distant”. I asked him what the word distant meant in the poem. He explained: “It has the meaning of transcendence; it speaks of the truth hidden behind all appearances. The wise person remains attentive in order to remain distant, without being fooled by the flow of the crowd, the illusions of dullnesses or the shortcuts that lead nowhere. This means that he never loses himself”.

He frowned and reminded me: “If someone else’s truth proves valuable, use it to transform yourself. Be humble. Reframe the mistake and the damage; redirect the course. Take the opportunity to evolve. Otherwise, if it’s just for the feeling of approval, realise that it is weakness and imbalance that need to be looked at more closely. Only fools strive to dominate the opinions of others. For the wise, living silently under their axis of Light is enough”.

Gradually, other students from the course arrived. It was time for the lesson, in which the initial part of the poem was covered. As usual, we had a generous lunch break. I took the opportunity to call some relatives. Without admitting it, I was looking for support in the face of my cousin’s accusations. Some avoided the approach, which made me assume an implicit condemnation; others expressed their approval of Alfredo’s absurd behaviour. These approvals, as they reached my ears, made the martial drums sound. I convinced myself that I needed to undo that mark of imperfection. My cousin had to admit his mistake and apologise. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get rid of the label. So I did. I accepted the invitation to light the fire in which I would burn. I rang Alfredo and was greeted very badly. My cousin’s conviction that I was to blame for his father’s death proved unshakeable. I tried to argue, but every clarification was rejected with the aggression of contempt. We argued. He made it clear that nothing I could do could remedy the harm caused. I owed him an unpayable debt.

When I returned to Li Tzu’s house, I was overcome with indignation and revolt. The Taoist master simply told me to wait with the other students in the classroom. When he returned to the poem, he recited the first verse of the second part of the poem: “How can a prince who owns a thousand chariots lose his kingdom?”. He then explained that princes were the titles given to feudal lords, who were very rich and powerful at the time, owners of valuable estates and huge private armies. Many squandered the opportunity to develop prosperity in their kingdoms by engaging in absurd and senseless wars to the point of complete exhaustion.

He then added: “It’s no different with us. Although we possess multiple gifts, talents and opportunities, we squander the possibilities of prosperity that life offers us by allowing all our strength and balance to be dispersed in struggles that divert us from the Path and keep us away from the Light. From our own Light.” The Taoist master continued: “Despite everything we know, we still see difficulties as obstacles instead of realising that they are the best opportunities we have for evolution. It’s problems and setbacks that allow us to go where we’ve never gone before within ourselves. Only there we are able to elaborate the reality that we will then live in the world. If we don’t seize this opportunity, we lose the chance to be who we never were. We insist on our mistakes until we succumb. Ten thousand chariots of war are worthless if I stubbornly fight the wrong battle. There will be endless defeats”.

A student asked what the right battle was. Li Tzu clarified: “Overcoming oneself; illuminating one’s own shadows is the battle of the wise man’s life. Overcoming others, showing oneself to be greater, the master of reason, gaining the approval of the world, living in the laments of other people’s imperfections are some of the death wars of fools. The light that guides my steps is my truth, principles and values, never anyone’s admiration. When I don’t stray from myself, I lack nothing, I never lose myself. The landscapes begin to offer new colours, tones and nuances to the journey, no more detours for escapes, motivations for lies and unnecessary conflicts. The kingdom will prosper”.

He looked at me and said to the class: “The prince is the ego; the ruler of the kingdom. The soul is the sage. Without the guidance of the sage, the prince will remain immature, losing himself in struggles that will lead to imbalance and the depletion of his strength. He will lose his kingdom; he will no longer be his own master”.

Those words were the interpretation of a poem written over two thousand years ago. However, it was the exact reading of what was happening to me. I was disconcerted. I wanted to think; I needed to find myself in order to retrieve my ballast. I asked to be excused and went into the meditation room. I lit some incense and played a series of Tibetan mantras. I immersed myself. I had to recompose my luggage if I wanted to continue my journey; I needed to realign myself with my truth, principles and values, to let virtues govern my choices if I wanted my kingdom to prosper”.

I don’t know how long I stayed there. Everyone had gone by the time I returned. It was dusk. Li Tzu was preparing a vegetable soup with tofu. I noticed that there were two plates on the table. I looked at him and he nodded. I sat down. The Taoist master served us and we ate without saying a word. I broke the silence to thank him for his guidance. I spoke of understanding the point at which I was about to let myself be seduced by a landscape that stimulated my pride and vanity, always caused by the insecurity due by the absence of ballast. A diversion whose entrance seemed irrefutable, but ended in a muddy swamp. A perspective that is only possible when we remain serene and detached in order to see beyond the unnecessary and the appearances of everyday life.

The Taoist master nodded in agreement and said that I had reached the last verse of the poem on my own, Incoherence dries up the root; confusion brings down the government. Then he explained: “The root is the ballast of the tree, indispensable so that the great winds don’t tear it from the ground, keeping it plumb. Broad, deep roots keep the tree healthy, even during periods of severe drought”.

He then concluded: “The absence of ballast produces imbalance and insecurity. Reality becomes confused and problems become more abundant than solutions. Disorientated, the individual’s strength dissipates for lack of direction. Their efforts become unproductive; they exhaust themselves in suffering. There will be no more clarity in thinking or lightness in feeling. Deceptions about oneself and all the issues surrounding it accumulate. The individual becomes his own predator. Only the ruins of a sad story will remain from the kingdom, despite its countless riches: everything it could have been, but wasn’t.”

We finished dinner in silence. Nothing more needed to be said. Nor did it need to be redone. It was enough to move on without letting myself be stopped or diverted by the landscapes of the journey.

Without ballast, no navigation is possible. There will be no destination.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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