The house of mirrors

In the small Chinese village located at the foot of the Himalayas, the movement in the house of Li Tzu, the Taoist master, started early. The yoga session started with the first rays of the sun. Soon after, we had a class on the Tao Te Ching. The day before, we read the poem that would be discussed in class, in order to make the studies more dynamic. Students from the most diverse corners of the planet came to Li Tzu in search of the millenary eastern wisdom. I attended the same course several times; I always had the feeling that I had failed to learn something. That time we were sixteen students and we were in chapter four:

“The Way is emptiness;

And its use never exhausts it.

It is immeasurably deep and broad,

Like the root of the ten thousand beings.

Blunting the cut,

Untying the knot,

Harmonizing with the light

Equalizing to dust.

Clear as the eternal consciousness.


The Tao carries within it a minimalist concept in which less is more. In several aspects. Thus, the book has the attribute of offering much content with few words. However, it takes effort and study to decode all the ample meaning contained in its few pages.

A very nice old lady with white hair trimmed to the nape of her neck, a literature teacher in Malaga, commented that the Way is an inner journey, where there must always be room for virtues not yet aggregated, as a way of pushing the being towards the light. The light is hidden in the core of each and every person, the root of the ten thousand beings as the millenary text refers to, as it is intimately connected to our sacred origin. In this way, the gold of life, the plenitudes, won’t be found anywhere except within ourselves. The Way has no end, nor does light have a limit. The further one travels, the more enlightened one becomes.

A mathematician, also a poet, born in Calicut, added that walking the Way is the process of personal transformation, of approaching the infinite consciousness. At each step we learn to blunt the sharp blades of words that cut, of the misunderstood gestures that bleed and tear existence into pieces of sadness, discouragement and revolt. The knots in life, those that prevent happiness and makes us distant from peace, will be untied with greater simplicity as each one of the virtues that make up the light improves. The Way teaches the importance of love and dignity for the wise resolution of conflicts. Before pacifying the world, we understand the indispensability of calming our own heart. A serene heart is a prerequisite for ending planetary conflicts. With each internal conquest, in the alignment of the ego with the soul, we get to know a little more of the truth and find the exact balance for the expansion of the light in you and through you. This brings strength. However, with the approach of this power, we cannot move away from a valuable virtue, precisely the one that allowed us to begin the journey, humbleness. To become equal to the dust means to perceive oneself as tiny as a grain of wheat that grows, flourishes and becomes the bread that will feed humanity in its spiritual suppers.

A young woman, a housewife in Porto Alegre, said that clear as the eternal consciousness refers to the clarity needed for the best choices. She added that purity of mind and heart is essential for not putting evil where it is not. Choices define who we are and are tools for the broad exercise of freedom. Li Tzu smiled satisfied with the interpretations.

Then he provoked the class: “Am I free when I choose what I want?”

After a heated debate, we students reached a consensus. We said that, faced with all the possible choices, when deciding according to one’s conscience, yes, the individual was free. Li Tzu frustrated us: “Free thinking is not just thinking at will. That is what everyone does all the time. It is indispensable to have clarity in thinking, an attribute that, in the enormous majority of cases, we do not know”. He paused before instigating: “Our choices are much less our own than we believe”.

An enormous buzz of doubts and questions formed before the Taoist master’s affirmation, only calmed when he ordered us to go into the meditation room. He asked us to calm our minds and hearts. He lit incense and put on soft music in the background. He asked us to disconnect from the world and then raise an ethereal bridge to lead each of us to a meeting with ourselves. It was a moment of stillness and solitude; it was time to get to know ourselves a little more.

After a time that I cannot specify, he asked us to imagine we were in a house of mirrors, like those common in old circuses, where in each room we come across different mirrors which distort the image in different ways. Li Tzu suggested that the mirror in the first room should be the one that made the legs smaller while making the torso bigger. He waited a while for everyone to see themselves distorted in that way. Then he said, “That is the mirror of vanity and also of pride. It is when we desire more than is necessary or believe we are great. The body gets bigger, but the legs get shorter. We can’t go anywhere.

He let us meditate on the effects of these shadows for a few minutes. An evident discomfort with the situation could be noticed through the students’ breathing. Then he asked us to visualise a mirror with the opposite effect. Long legs with a short torso. He waited a little and then said: “This is the mirror of selfishness and also of greed. It’s when we foolish desire too much. The chest gets smaller and the heart disappears. We have a lot, but we don’t manage to be anybody. You should notice that we can hardly see our own face in detail. I become a character unrecognizable to myself.”

Our breathing altered even more; the discomfort had risen. He asked everyone to stand in front of the fattening mirror and said, “It is the mirror of ignorance. I don’t mean the ignorance of the illiterate, of those who have hardly been able to attend schools and universities. I am talking about those who, even with degrees, are ignorant of themselves, those who delude themselves and, in truth, do not know who they are. He paused briefly and concluded: “They always believe themselves to be much greater than they are.”

Then the Taoist master asked everyone to look at themselves the other way round, in front of the mirror that makes us so thin that only the image of a line remains. He explained: “That is the mirror of fear. We become so narrow that we find it difficult to discover who we are”. He waited a little and then continued: “Fear is a cruel shadow that prevents us from being complete and hides all the possibilities of existence; it denies our dreams and gifts. Fear is death in life; the annulment of being.

The breaths were even more uneven; the discomfort was greater. Li Tzu asked us to, through our mental screens, proceed to the next room. It was full of mirrors everywhere. Images reflected multiple times and shuffled in countless inverted reflections, causing confusion and eye strain. The Taoist master warned: “You are in the hall of mirrors of social, cultural and ancestral conditioning; of prejudices and dogmas. All that you imagine you know and dominate, but you have never questioned the fundamentals and reasons for. The information that we confuse as being knowledge; the bridges that we cross without checking whether they are supported on the pillars of truth. Many images superimposed do not form a clear image; two half-truths do not make a whole truth. We accept misunderstandings out of fear, convenience, vice, shameful interest, pride or mere ignorance”. Despite the mild temperature, some students were sweating: “Observe how much each of us denies, hides, represses, deceives or even has never seen about ourselves”.

“So begins the process of our choices. I make a choice starting from the image I have of myself, from what I believe I am. This is the starting point”.

“If I have an altered image of who I am I distort the reality around me, arrogate to myself absurd rights and I reverse powers. Having many possibilities to decide does not make me capable of the best choice if I do not see it clearly. Without a keen eye it will be impossible to make the choice that awaits beyond the curtains of illusion, the veils of obsolete ideas and outdated concepts or the exalted passions that keep us in the dark room of existence. It would be like handing a traveller an incomplete map or one with erroneous data.”

“Worse, I deceive myself by stubbornly insisting that the environment of anguish and pain in which I exist is the only place in the world to live. I become a prisoner of my own thinking to the exact extent of how I see myself.”

“No one possesses clarity to think while the heart is filled with sorrows and frustrations. No one possesses purity to think while the mind is filled with painful and repressed memories.”

The students were panting; I was among them. It was the soul signalling discomfort and crying out for change. This is good; it is the call for transmutation and the beginning of healing. Chaos brings the force of renewal that is still misaligned. Li Tzu began to calm the class. Still in meditation, he asked everyone to go to the last room of the house of mirrors. There was a crystal mirror that reflected the exact image. That way everyone could make the best choice. However, if we looked carefully, the mirror was blurred with the mists of the past and personal conflicts. “This also limits our perspective, misrepresents choices and sets an inappropriate boundary for freedom. In this order and sequence,” warned the Taoist master.

Li Tzu asked each person to begin to clean the mirror in which they looked at themselves. He told them to make the movements of wisdom and delicacy while using the flannel of courage and forgiveness. A mirror without distortions was not enough, it had to be clean and clear. It was indispensable to observe each minimum aspect of the being, with sincerity and love, without victimization or fear. He remembered that in front of this last mirror we would be facing the soul and no longer the body. However, it would be necessary to notice each difficulty, understand each shadow and the influences that lead to the deviation of the purest choice, causing many injustices and suffering. “Lack of clarity ends up tarnishing character and generating undue rewards and punishments. Worse, by influencing myself by exalted passions, I surrender control of my life,” he explained.

He then asked everyone to gradually return from the altered state of consciousness allowed by this meditation. One of the students, his eyes still closed, babbled that he had the sensation that rays of sunlight were invading the room through the window. Li Tzu smiled and suggested: “This is only the beginning. Meditate more and open the window of the mind so that the light can drive away the darkness of consciousness. Let the soul delight in beautiful sunny mornings every day.”

After a while, the breaths calmed down. The students were smiling with joy and well-being. The lightness, not of reaching a new stage, but of discovering the existence of infinite possibilities from the moment one understands the reality of being when faced with oneself; face to face with the mirror offered by the soul. The Taoist master ended the lesson: “The only revolution capable of changing the world is the evolution of conscience. This is the seed of pure choices, of ample freedom and other plenitudes. We need clarity and purity, without which free thinking will not exist”. 

I was alone with Li Tzu. He invited me to tea. While the Taoist master infused the herbs, I sat down at the kitchen table and summed up the conclusion drawn from that meditation: choices are the possible exercises in spiritual evolution. However, the most restrictive of prisons is imposed by the mind itself. He took the teapot from the fire and considered: “Freedom begins in free thinking and is completed in the best action. However, for various reasons, the mind works like a game of mirrors that distorts who I am and blurs the reality that surrounds me. If I do not have absolute clarity in thinking, my choices will never be free. I find it difficult to keep them worthy, they become distant from peace, happiness becomes a mere memory and love proves difficult. All because, although I choose, the choice is not mine. It is influenced from all sides. Interferences that I do not understand or refuse to admit”. He looked me in the eye and said, “Every time this happens, even though I do not notice it, someone is choosing for me”.

“This happens not only in angular moments of existence, but all the time, and worse, we don’t realize it,” he added. Li Tzu was right, but I thought there was a dose of exaggeration in that statement. Nevertheless, I kept quiet. He served us tea, sat down and we talked about other matters. The end of the morning was pleasant when we were interrupted by one of the students of the course. Pablo, a nice Peruvian born in Cuzco, came to tell us that he would cancel the lunch we had arranged because some students had chartered a van to visit an ancient Buddhist temple a few hours away. I said I would go too. Pablo was sorry, but there was no room in the car. He turned on his heels and left.

Immediately everything changed. The house and Li Tzu’s conversation no longer pleased me; day turned into night and the beauty of the morning disappeared. The colleagues had been inelegant in excluding me from the tour. Perhaps they did not like me, perhaps they felt envious or jealous of my friendship with the Taoist master. A whirlwind of sour ideas took over my thoughts. In the same instant reality shifted. Everything around me turned grey due to the fact that I had been denied a hidden desire, common to almost all humanity: the desire never to remain excluded from other people’s choices; the childish conditioning to be the most watered flower in the gardens of the world. A hidden desire, not admitted and the reason of many grudges. I said that I would treat them with the disdain they deserved.

Li Tzu immediately noticed the change in my aura and said: “The world is neither good nor bad; it is neutral. It is my look in front of the mirror that establishes the polarity of this coexistence.”

“Do you understand that a good day turned bad by a mere setback? This happened because you granted enormous and undue power to your shadows, the bitter emotions born of misconceptions. They took control of your thoughts. Thus, of your next best choices. Consequently, without realising it, you have given up your freedom”.

“Away from free thinking, dignity becomes disoriented. Peace and happiness become distant. Love disappears. There is neither virtue nor plenitude.”

“Every time we let the passions born of jealousy, envy, pride, among other shadows, guide our thoughts in place of the feelings arising from the virtues, such as compassion and humbleness, just to stay in the basic ones, we remain imprisoned by distancing ourselves from different conclusions, with better breadth and greater depth. At such moments the choices go into automatic mode, programmed by the conditioning of domination and desire, loaded with revanchism or victimisation. Choices that spread pain and prevent thinking in a different way.”

“However, it will always be possible to reverse the polarity with which we relate to ourselves and others. I accept your choices out of respect for mine. For, I will not be worthy and free if I do not do so. I seek in the core the light that will guide my steps. Love is at the root of every being; the world is the mirror of this encounter. This is what the Tao speaks of. From there the thoughts become clear, I resolve conflicts, end suffering and become whole and full.

“Have you noticed how a good day becomes bad because of something that should not dwell in me? Nothing that is outside and does me harm can find shelter within my heart. Power is not granted for anything or anyone to sour the honey of life. When I feel fear or hate, freedom shrinks. Passion chains the mind. The cause lies in the fact that we are away from the central axis that sustains and guides the clarity of thinking. When we think badly, we act badly. We create successive behavioural vices and imprison ourselves in them because we believe we cannot live any other way. I end up as a hostage of my own thinking. So, without realising it, I let others decide for me.

I stayed a long time without saying a word. The tea was cold. While I wandered in my thoughts like one who travels to distant places, Li Tzu put new herbs in infusion. Midnight, the black cat that lived in the house, nestled in my lap. Gradually, I allocated the ideas and understood the importance of the teachings of that day. I thought about how shadows, conditioning, influences of all kinds, as well as personal conflicts interfere in my thoughts and limit my choices. I become less than I can be.

I told the Taoist master that he was right: consciousness will always be the inevitable mould of our reality; we should illuminate one to amplify the infinite possibilities of the other. Li Tzu exchanged the tea in our cups and finished: “Learn to see what you could never see. Then you will be able to become the owner of something that never belonged to you: yourself”.  

We drank our tea in silence. I thought that if I had gone on the walk with my colleagues, I wouldn’t have the wonderful conversation I had with Li Tzu. If we pay attention, we will see that life is like that; it never abandons, it always strengthens. The Way lights up in the pure sight. A pleasant sensation of lightness enveloped me. Everything so simple and so sophisticated; so close and so distant. I thanked for the lesson and said good-bye. As I was leaving, I realized that there was an enormous crystal mirror beside the door. I had passed by it countless times. I fixed my shirt, looked to see if my beard was trimmed, nothing much beyond that. However, I hadn’t understood its real and strategic function: to remind me to see what, in truth, I had never seen. Astonished, I turned around. Li Tzu was looking at me. And he was smiling.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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