That year, I had been responsible for coordinating a traditional course in the Order called The Journey of Self-Knowledge through Sacred Texts. It was a series of studies on texts from the most diverse philosophical and metaphysical traditions. From the millenary Tao Te Ching, through the Letters of Seneca, walking hand in hand with the Sufi poetry of Rumi to the esoteric writings of Fernando Pessoa. We studied the shamanic legends, we read stories about the cabalist teachings. We ended with the interpretation of some passages of the Sermon on the Mount. It was very interesting to realise how wisdom, whatever its origin, always pointed in one direction only: “know yourself and you will know the truth” and then complemented by “know the truth to set yourself free”. The course lasted a month. We stayed in the monastery and the lessons took all morning. Everything was going well until I received a telephone call and, due to a family problem, had to return home before the end of this period of study. I chose a monk, as the members of the Order were called, to replace me in the coordination of the course. As I was saying goodbye to everyone, I noticed that another monk, with a grim face, came to speak to me. Bruno was his name. In front of everyone, he questioned my decision. He claimed to have been wronged. I explained my reasons and the criteria I used to choose the substitute. Dissatisfied, he insisted on the accusation and let slip some malicious insinuations that, according to him, would have influenced my decision. Then something happened that I should not have allowed: I let myself be irritated. Instead of continuing to argue calmly and even realizing that it was the moment to end the conversation, I started an argument that escalated to very unpleasant tones. I was out of control when I went through the gates of the monastery to return home.
I felt unwell for several days. Not that I was regretting the decision regarding the course substitute. I was sure I had made a fair choice, even in the face of Bruno’s ponderings. However, I was deeply upset at having lost control and got into a huge fight, in the face of a situation in which there was the possibility, even a very simple one, of a serene and wise conduct. In class, based on various philosophical currents, from Stoicism to Buddhism, it was taught that, without our permission, the storms of the world will never be able to reach us. However, I had allowed it. Besides contaminating the psycho-sphere of the monastery with dense energies, originating from an unnecessary discussion, I had failed yet another exam applied by life. I still could not become what I knew I could be.
The following year, when I returned for a new cycle of studies, coincided with the period when Bruno was also present. From the very beginning, his animosity towards me was perceptible. He would not speak to me; he would withdraw when I entered an environment where he was; his eyes hissed resentment. His behaviour bothered me. After a few days, I found him alone in the cafeteria. Before he could avoid me, I went up to him. I asked if we could talk, clear up the misunderstanding and undo the harmful emotion that still reigned. I said that both of us had already reflected a lot on the fact. Without judging the other, but with sincere personal reflection, that each one understood and assumed the responsibility of doing things differently and better from then on. Thus, we would return to a healthy coexistence, with humbleness, compassion and joy. It would be a collective victory.
He replied that he had no interest in reconciling with me. I argued that there was no need for so much hatred. He replied that I didn’t even deserve that. He explained that it was only contempt. I confess that I felt even worse.
On the same day, the bulletin of the courses for that period of studies was published by the management of the Order. To my surprise, they kept me in the coordination of the same course, despite what had happened the year before. As I was not expecting that, I was happy with the new opportunity. Bruno was offered the command of another course. As usual, the monks were given the right to choose which classes to attend. This time very few signed up for my class. Bruno’s was well attended.
I heard comments about a probable movement to boycott my classes. That was when the Elder, the oldest monk in the monastery, found me on the balcony, looking sadly at the beautiful surrounding mountains, while my thoughts wandered to many places in an attempt to find the best grounds. With his sweet manner, he sat down beside me and said nothing. I didn’t need to. I began to pour out my dissatisfactions, doubts and reasons. The Elder let me talk until I got tired. I admitted the possibility of asking for my exclusion from the Order because of the discomfort I felt. The Elder pondered in his way that mixed firmness and softness: “Make a sincere reflection so that you can speak honestly. Then tell me if that is really what you want.”
I confessed that it was not. In truth, I had loved the possibility of continuing to be responsible for the same course as the year before, pivot of all the controversy. I had deduced that the direction of the Order had manifested that, despite my lack of control, there had been an unfair provocation. Or perhaps it was nothing of the sort, I pondered, and they were only offering me a new opportunity. Either way I was happy. Bruno was also being given a chance. However, the reaction of the monks, most of whom had avoided my classes, showed an evident condemnation of my behaviour. I felt uncomfortable and believed that there was no environment to continue. I quoted a popular saying that it is better to be happy than to be right. The Elder gestured with his hand and disagreed: “Nonsense. Exhausting oneself trying to convince others of the value of our reasons, yes, is a waste of time and opens the gates of bitterness. However, abandoning one’s own path for lack of courage in facing the difficulties that present themselves, will lead us to enter through the same gates”.
The Elder advised: “People have over us the power we give them. Only that. The opinion of the world cannot prevent a person from being whole. Respect everyone, but above all, respect yourself.”
I told the Elder about the conversation with Bruno earlier in the cafeteria. He arched his lips sweetly and said: “Contempt is the vain attempt to disguise aggressiveness with the varnish of politeness. At the bottom, it is only an act of violence like any other. Besides, don’t allow yourself to be hit by this blow. All aggressiveness reveals the portion of incomprehension that the offender has about himself. His pains and weaknesses. All hate has its origin in the inability to deal with difficulties, to face problems and seek to overcome through the improvement of our being and the way we live. Irritation is an unconscious demonstration of manifesting insecurity, of the fear of not being able to overcome the obstacle that opposes our wishes. Hatred is the poison of the fruit whose seed is fear”.
I said that I found it strange that Bruno was part of a spiritualist brotherhood like the OEMM. It was then that the Elder showed me the importance of offering the other side, the face of the light: “These are the ones who most need shelter, compassion and love. The reason the monastery exists is to help those who need help.” I looked startled, as if asking an unspoken question. The Elder shrugged and confirmed: “Yes, everyone needs help, including you and me.”
Shyly, I lowered my eyes because he needed to remind me that humbleness is the primordial virtue of the Way. The Elder tried to rescue my spirit in dealing with Bruno: “The value is in your action and does not depend on his reaction. You did your best to put an end to his wild emotions. There is the part that is his responsibility. There is no way to interfere beyond that point.”
Point? What point? I found it strange. The Elder explained: “The willingness of the other to overcome the problem. In essence, it means the willingness to go beyond oneself. We cannot impose what others do not want or do not believe in. All truth is very personal. It does not go beyond the person who understands it. It will always be at the edge of aggregate virtues, at the level of expanded consciousness and enhanced choices.”
“On the other hand, you cannot allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the behaviour of others. No one’s darkness can have the strength to extinguish your light.”
I asked what would be the best posture from then on. He showed the value of simplicity: “The time is for quietness, for the exact perception of you and of everything around you. Also work; do it with enthusiasm. Silence and joy are not incompatible. Believe in your own light and follow the path you have chosen. It alone will lead you to the truth. Go meekly, cheerfully and offer your best every day. For the rest, life corrects it”.
I questioned whether offering my best was not to insist on helping Bruno. The Elder taught me: “Always help. Solidarity is fundamental, but one must understand the best kind of help; there is a suitable help for each moment. One cannot rescue the one who believes he does not need it. The will to move forward is primordial. Only the individual capable of perceiving that his suffering will not cease while he remains in the darkness, in which he finds himself, will search for the light.”
“No one needs to accompany anyone. This means respect for oneself and for everyone. The refusal of one person to become enlightened cannot prevent another from walking. Otherwise, all will end up destroyed. We are responsible for the world, but first we have a commitment to ourselves. Otherwise, there will be no evolution. We will remain trapped in the dark room of other people’s shadows. Each one at his own pace, at the pace of his own rhythm and time.” Then he told me something I had never heard before: “Those are the frontiers of solidarity”.
A few days later, Bruno got into trouble with several monks. His behaviour created a tense atmosphere of discord that had never existed in the brotherhood. One day, having understood that he had to intervene, because firmness is as important a virtue as softness, the Elder decided to remove Bruno from the coordination of the course he was teaching. If he wanted, he could continue to attend classes as a student. It was a clear warning to make him reflect on his attitudes. Proud and arrogant, Bruno went out through the doors of the monastery cursing everyone and was never heard from again. The following year, the course for which I was responsible was again in great demand. Those interested were the same students who had rejected him the year before.
These facts happened a long time ago. I remembered it when I met a friend I hadn’t seen since we had finished college. Lisa was her name. She had been a beautiful and cheerful young woman who radiated the best of life wherever she went. I had a hard time recognizing her when she came to talk to me. We had both aged, nothing more natural. She jokingly asked about the long black hair I wore back then, which had given way to a pronounced grey baldness. We laughed. I told her she was still beautiful. Yes, it was true, the physical traits of her beauty were still there, however, one could no longer see the light in her eyes, now opaque. The charming smile was also hidden somewhere in the past, perhaps so far away that she could not even remember it. These lost features motivated my difficulty in recognizing her. Of course, I said nothing about this. There is no way of preventing the skin from showing wrinkles, the hair from losing its lustre and the slow decrease in muscle tone; it is an inevitable dusk of the body that must be conducted with serenity. However, the light in the eyes and the charm in the smile is a choice allowed by the soul and shows all the vigour of the joyful spirit in its eternal dawn.
Lisa began to talk about several subjects at once. It was not difficult to realize that she needed to talk. I invited her for coffee. She immediately accepted. We went to a nice bookstore that housed a charming coffee shop in a back yard. As soon as we sat down at the table, she began to tell us about the torment her home had become. Her husband, after having been fired from the construction company where he had been employed as an engineer for many years, after a fight with a colleague, began to show a lot of dissatisfaction and anger. He, famous for his impatience, had become irascible. Feeling unjustly treated, he became even more aggressive and began to drink heavily. These attitudes made it difficult for him to get a new position in the job market, even though he was well prepared and had an excellent curriculum. Proud, he did not allow himself another job in which he had a lower salary or a position inferior to the one he had previously occupied. His aggressiveness and addiction went up a notch. His favourite entertainment was watching violent movies and drinking more and more; his favourite activity, in Lisa’s words, was teaching God. Like a strict teacher, he complained about the world and humanity, pointed out faults and indicated solutions. However, he could not even understand himself. He did not realize the hole he had fallen into and sank a little deeper every day. Lisa proposed that he should have some kind of therapy. Several times she had scheduled appointments, but he always presented an excuse for not showing up. Even simpler things, like exercising outdoors or meditating, were incapable of motivating any interest. No suggestion was accepted. The couple’s daughter could no longer talk to her father because of the recurrent conflicts that any subject, even the most ordinary, generated. The couple’s affective life had sunk. Lisa confessed that she began to sleep in her daughter’s room because she felt bad around him. She knew she had an obligation to help him and could not abandon him at the moment he needed it most.
Lisa recognized that the time to sink with him was near. She found the strength to resist when she thought of what would happen to her daughter if she also fell into the same abyss. She confessed that she seemed to be fighting an endless battle, she stretching out her hand for her husband to climb up; he, clinging to her, pulling her down. Lisa’s strength was running out every day. She was living the spectre of existence; she was aware of this, but she no longer knew how to act.
As she spoke, I remembered every word spoken by the Elder that afternoon in the monastery, and how they had a transformative importance for the understanding and clarity they brought to me. Although they were different situations, I was delighted to realise how that conversation offered the exact understanding of that one.
Lisa was abandoning herself, a little more each day, to the extent of her husband’s refusal to modify his own life. His limitation was not physiological, but only consciential. On the other hand, her difficulty was in freeing herself from the ancestral conditioning of guilt, if she set a limit to the help she provided, even with his refusal to move forward. It was needed to break away from the stagnant parameters of guilt to tune in to different concepts of responsibility. Otherwise, they would both wither away; he from atrophy, she from fatigue.
At the end, she wanted to know my opinion. She asked what attitude I would take in her place. I had the answer. We all have the answer when it comes to other people’s lives. Not infrequently, an inconsequential answer. The reason is simple: we easily project onto the lives of others many of the changes that we find difficult to make in our own lives. Trying to manage the lives of others, although it is tempting, is an act of extreme cowardice, since the eventual disastrous effects will not reach us. I didn’t say what I would have done if I was her.
Lisa needed help. Even more, she was calling for help. However, my words could influence rather than enlighten. This would be terrible. There is no free choice without free thinking; only by turning on one’s own light will a person be able to transmute the darkness that surrounds them. Every afflicted soul deserves a shelter. However, for a new life it is necessary to change one’s way of being.
I remembered that in one of the periods of the course The journey of self-knowledge through sacred texts, we approached one of the chapters of the book The Many Abodes of the Inner Castle, written in the 15th century by Teresa of Avila. Still today, it is a published and appreciated work. It was not difficult to find a copy in the bookshop where we were. I also gave her as a present the book Soul, by the Benedictine monk Anselm Grun, as well as a copy of The Letters of Seneca. I have always held Stoic philosophy in high esteem. I asked her to read it with affection and said: “You need to help yourself so that only then can you help your husband. Otherwise, you will sink together.
Lisa asked me how she could help herself. I explained: “It is necessary that you understand who you are, the powers hidden inside you, the moment you are living in and everything around you. Then move yourself so that life can breathe again”.
Disappointed, she asked me if that was all. I was firm: “Yes, and believe me, it is not little. It is all that is within my reach at this moment”. With my chin I pointed to the books I had just handed her and added: “You have to understand and do your part in this process. Light is not a concession; it is an achievement.”
I know Lisa was disappointed in me for offering help that, at that moment, she thought was ineffective. She wanted someone to lead her by the hand, to come up with magic and instant solutions, to take over her choices. For it to be effective help, I could not cross the frontiers of solidarity.
After some time, I met her again at the book launch of a mutual friend. She came to talk to me. The light of her eyes and the charm of her smile, the same ones I had known in my youth, had returned. Lisa gave me a long hug. Then she thanked me very much for having given her those books at our last meeting. They were extremely important readings, she insisted. Not that they dealt directly with her situation, because they spoke in general terms, but they made her understand that she had let herself be imprisoned by the fact of accompanying a person who refused to walk. Her attitude, in a certain way, ended up stimulating the stagnation of the couple. To free him, she had first to free herself.
As her husband stubbornly refused to modify his behaviour, and he had this right, Lisa decided to divorce him. She told him that from that day on she would refuse to live in a way that she did not agree with and that was bad for her. If at any time he felt the need to change, he could look for her. She went to live in another flat with his daughter. She knew that there were risks involved in her choice. However, she was aware that she could not continue to insist on living in a way that had not produced any good results. Worse, it could lead her to lose hope.
Selfishness? Lisa was sure that it was not. She carried with her a firm and calm conviction. It was not fair to continue allowing her husband’s shadows to direct her life. Seeking the light is a gesture of love, she argued.
Little by little she regained the joy of living. She went back to doing the things she loved; she gave up attending to her husband’s resentment and discouragement. Lisa rediscovered her essence. Each day, her light became more intense. From time to time she visited him, because she cared for him. Contradiction? No. She loved him. She just no longer accepted to remain locked in his shadows. Lisa had that right.
She had noticed that every time they saw each other, he looked at her differently. As if the changes that had occurred with her had touched him deeply. Lisa was no longer the mere depository of grievances of old; now, she served as a silent example of overcoming. Words, though powerful, had proved useless to him and tiring to her. Lisa vibrated in another tune and showed her husband, without needing to speak, the infinite possibilities of life. When he realized that his desires and rudeness no longer reached her, that his power to manipulate his wife had disappeared, he began to review his concepts and perspectives. Hardly, he realised that he was exactly where he had chosen to be. No one had put him in that darkness; he had arrived there by his own choices. Leaving would also be his decision alone.
With watery eyes, Lisa told me about the day he had called her for help. It was a sincere request. She did not hesitate to rescue him. She stressed that at that moment, being strengthened, she was able to offer much more than before. The visible changes in his wife became one of her husband’s great incentives. He felt the desire to be at her side. For this, he would have to walk to the point where she was. He went to therapy, attended support groups, underwent sessions of spiritual treatment, began to practice physical exercises and meditation. He took a course in sculpture and worked as a private maths teacher. They had started dating again.
Lisa assured me that the conversation we had had been angular to all the changes that had occurred in her life. I honestly told her she was exaggerating. In truth, I had said half a dozen words and presented her with three books. The achievement and transformation were her merits: “I only gave you simple tools, you did all the work. If the words and the books made you hear the song of life, it was because you were willing and ready for it.” I paused before concluding, “In the same way, you just handed the instruments to your husband; the symphony is his.” Lisa smiled. Then she said she was going to have dinner with her ex-husband, and current boyfriend, at a restaurant nearby. She suggested that I accompany her, since she had told him about the importance of the reading I had advised. She wanted to introduce us, since he was sure that we would be good friends. I was pleased with the invitation and accepted.
At the restaurant, I was startled. Bruno was waiting for Lisa. One of those incredible synchronicities of life. For a fraction of a second, an old film flashed in my mind. One of those unpleasant stories from the past that we prefer to forget. However, life does not allow us to move forward pretending that the wounds are healed. One of the characteristics of evolution is the ability to look back without suffering. Forgetting does not agree with overcoming.
Apprehensive, I tried, in reading his eyes, to anticipate any aggressive reaction. From his lips came the answer through a beautiful smile. In return I opened my arms. It was a long embrace. We had both suffered, matured and changed. The two men from that fight in the monastery no longer existed. We were us, but we were different from that time. Understanding this is fundamental in the exercise of forgiveness.
Without delay, Bruno began to tell me the whole process of his transformation. At first it was necessary to understand the reason for so much impatience and anger. He had to make a journey into the past to understand the facts that had triggered this behaviour. He realized that he had been a very insecure boy, very afraid of disappointing others. He didn’t want them to discover how fragile and incapable he felt on facing the problems that arose. So that they wouldn’t see him as weak, he invented a strong character to play. The most accessible shields are the most harmful: pride and arrogance. The most common effects are hatred, the feeling of injustice and the transfer of responsibility, which appear in the face of any frustration. In short, they are nothing but perceptive lies.
The fear of facing the difficulties inherent in life, were the same as in childhood, now disguised by their intolerance and aggressiveness. He made himself fearful in order to avoid any questioning. A way of life typical of people who cannot tolerate any opposition or differences of opinion.
He admitted that he deceived himself for all of his existence. So, running away from the world was one of the inevitable consequences of refusing to understand who he was. Alcohol helped him to postpone the painful and, for this reason, unwelcome encounter: that which places him naked before the mirror of truth. Without this encounter there will be no cure. Nobody wants to suffer. However, the way chosen to deal with fear defines the depth of the pain.
Because he felt insecure to face difficulties, he preferred not to be who he was. Thus, he prevented his own evolution. Avoiding the truth is the greatest cause of all pain. In this way, that which he feared, suffering, ended up happening, because he insisted on moving in the opposite direction to the light.
People like that, he explained when talking about himself, surround themselves with others who are willing to follow their wishes and desires, without ever contradicting them. Little by little, this behaviour escalates, generates dependence and causes much suffering.
The conflicts that occurred in the monastery, in the company and in the family, in short, in the world, reflected the growing dissatisfaction that he felt but did not admit, he confessed.
He said that the first step was to recognise his own fragility. Now he realised that pretending to be powerful does not translate into strength. The power of an individual lies in the virtues he develops, in the keen perception he has of himself and of everything around him, exercised in each of the many choices he makes during a single day.
I reminded him that these concepts, among others, were taught in the monastery. Bruno agreed and recalled that there they also taught that no knowledge has value if it is not applied to life. He confessed that his personal story was one of those typical cases where you can find one person who knows everything but understands nothing. It was necessary to learn about humbleness to know where strength is born.
He took Lisa’s hand affectionately and said he was grateful to that woman for having carried him for so many years. However, in truth, she only saved him when she made him grow by himself. Her transformation was an inspiration to him. It made him understand that the greatest obstacles in life are not in the world. They are nothing but a terrible mental creation.
We talked about other subjects. I observed how they formed a beautiful couple, with a beautiful story to tell. They were happy and laughing for any reason. At the end of dinner, we said goodbye with the sincere promise of meeting again soon. I agreed with Bruno that I would take him with me when I returned to the monastery next year. I assured him that the monks would be happy to see him again. Even more, I believed he had much to teach. He, very cleverly, alluded to the parable The Return of the Prodigal Son. I agreed: “It is one of the most brilliant biblical texts. We learn to appreciate the beauty of the world, life, only when we understand the wealth we have at home, our soul.”
The Elder was right. The frontier of solidarity, in truth, does not restrict any help. But it expands it.
I decided to walk home. The streets were empty. Dawns are good for walking and organize the thoughts. Especially when we are enchanted by the magic of life.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.