The inner laboratory

Many years ago, I was in a Chinese village near the Himalayas during one of several trips I made to study the Tao Te Ching, the Book of the Way and Virtue, with Li Tzu. As I always had the habit of waking up very early, when I left the inn the sky was still full of stars. At the house of the Taoist master, where classes were held and apprentices came from all over the world in search of this ancient knowledge, the gate was always open. As I walked through the bonsai garden, I could smell the incense that perfumed the house. In the kitchen, Li Tzu was brewing herbs for tea and welcomed me with a sincere smile. Without saying a word, he pointed out a chair for me to sit at the table. Midnight, the black cat, who also lived there, looked up at me sleepily from the fridge and went back to sleep. After filling our cups, he sat down and we drank in silence until I commented on the fact that the innkeeper increased the room rates year after year. The number of climbers willing to climb the Himalayas was increasing, which reduced the supply of accommodation for Tao students. As there was no other place to stay, we were unable to negotiate. That year I thought the prices were abusive. I said I understood the law of supply and demand, but I thought the standard should be fair value for every service or product, regardless of people’s needs. Furthermore, I added, the building was old and had not been renovated for many years. Li Tzu listened to my complaints without interrupting me, and at the end he said cryptically: “The utility is not in the walls of the old inn, but in the space within its rooms.” Before I could show my incomprehension, he showed me the cup in which I was drinking my tea and said: “The refinement of the porcelain is of no use if there is no space available to put the drink”.

He drank the tea, showed me the cup again and said: “If it is always full, the usefulness will be lost; always empty, too”. Then he reminded me of the primordial lesson of the Tao: “Expansion followed by contraction, in infinite movements from the inside out and back to the inside to come out again. Thus Yin and Yang nourish life, showing the usefulness of being in living and living for being”. He took another sip before concluding: “When we do not understand a landscape in the world, it means that there is something in us that is still imperfect and waiting to be understood.”

Before I could start a question session, Li Tzu said it was time to start his daily yoga exercises and invited me to join him. I brought my doubts and setbacks to those physical practices that were at the same time lightness and strength. Between one movement and another, as if guessing my thoughts, he said: “Feelings need purity so ideas can acquire clarity. This is the yoga to form a light and strong spirit at the same time. We don’t have to be oblivious to evil or shadows, but we go along without making use of these elements even though you have them at your disposal. This is what distinguishes purity from naivety and gives the wanderer lightness and strength. This is the power of light awakened in our consciousness”. He then reminded me: “Tao means path, Te means virtue. There are no virtues in a consciousness separated from the heart. Without virtues there is no path”. He paused briefly and concluded: “The Tao Te Ching is travelled in the company of the conscience and heart into the unknown of ourselves. The misunderstandings of the outer life show the weaknesses that still exist within the wanderer”.

I did not have time to present my various questions to the Taoist master. As the yoga ended, other apprentices began to arrive for that day’s classes. We were to study Poem Eleven. Li Tzu introduced us to the text:

“The clay shapes the vessel,

But the usefulness lies in the space available inside.

A house may have flowery windows and sturdy doors,

But it is in the space between its walls that life happens.

In the concrete, things.

In the abstract, life.

Appearance and essence.

Existence and transcendence.

Illusion and reality”.

As usual, we kept our eyes closed while the Taoist master read the poem, slowly, three times so that we could fix the words in our memory. Afterwards, we began meditation so that we could metabolise the millenary teachings left by Lao Tzu.

 Li Tzu always reminded us: “Let the conscience find new meanings for the words, but let the heart drive them. Only then will they serve as a beacon on the Way”.

At the end of the meditation, we would start discussions. We talked about our interpretations in order to build a common understanding. Li Tzu would wait with great patience and a captivating serenity in his eyes. Only when we had exhausted our ideas or believed we had reached the limit of understanding a poem, would he begin his explanation. Always in a clearly, as authentic sages do, showing that the most difficult equations of life have simple solutions.

“Simplicity does not mean ease”. This is how Li Tzu began to explain the poem: “Because the only obstacles to the conquest of a full life are inside and not outside us. Everyone has his or hers own difficulties to overcome. We know nothing about most of what we are. The road to this knowledge has beautiful and enchanting stretches, interspersed with others that are very difficult, dark and even treacherous. Enlightenment comes gradually and therefore the steps need to be slow so that they can be safe.”

“Life as we understand it in the world is only a reflection of each person’s understanding of themselves. Every time we encounter a difficulty it does not mean that life is antagonistic to us, but that we are facing a personal and inner aspect that needs improvement.”

“If there is a lot of conflict within you, there will be a lot of confusion in your relationships. The problem was already sown, dissatisfaction was the announced harvest.”

He arched his lips in a beautiful smile and joked: “Is life boring? Start looking for what even you can’t stand within yourself”. We laughed. He continued: “But we only do the opposite. We believe that it is the imperfections of the world that get in the way of our lives.”

Li Tzu frowned and changed his tone: “That’s exactly where all the problems begin. We have been conditioned to seek movement and understanding in the world that does not exist outside. We insist on looking for the wonders of life in a place that only reflects the beauty that exists within us. This is why there is so much dissatisfaction. Without finding the wonders of being there will be no charm in living”.

He pointed to his own chest and said: “Real life happens in here. The outside will always be a mirror of what you can already live in yourself”.

“I know it is strange to get used to the idea, but the only true reality is abstract; it is the experiences that add love and wisdom to the being. All that is concrete is merely an evolutionary tool for each individual to be able to carry out their own project, design reality and colour life”.

“The refinement of the porcelain establishes the price of the vase; the usefulness of its contents translates its value. Everything that has a price is a tool; that which has value is a work”. He winked like someone telling a secret and said: “Existence and transcendence”.

“This is why we cannot look at a person and understand them in the limits of their body or only evaluate their capacity for work, because if we do so, they would also be treated as a tool and this will be harmful to everyone. Strive to perceive a person as a spirit and respect the universe they bring with him or her, the difficulties and achievements, pains and joys. In this way, you will teach and learn from this person. This will transform you both. As a consequence, reality will be changed”.

“Has the world changed? No. But the way you go through it and marvel at its landscapes has changed”.

“However, this will only be possible if there is space available for the essential movement of life to happen within you. Otherwise, you will be just a body that moves but does not walk; that sees everything and understands nothing; acts but does not transform; confuses conquering with possessing; exists without transcending”.

I asked him if he meant that I am the cause of all the conflicts that happen to me. Li Tzu nodded and added: “Absolutely. When the levels of dependence on external events decrease, dissatisfactions also cool down. I feel marvellous when I feel loved by someone. I like and need this. However, when I suffer any undesirable reaction, it is up to me to understand the other person’s difficulty in offering a better feeling; at that moment they were unable or did not know how to do differently. When I understand this movement, I stay well if I can feel compassion for the difficulty of others. If possible, I try to help; otherwise, I go my own way. Then there is no conflict”.

“On the other hand, often, there is the possibility that my action was wrong, which made its consequences unpleasant; that is, I was the cause of the effects I suffered. In this case, I do not allow myself to be paralysed by guilt; I apologise, make amends for the mistake, and take responsibility for perfecting the content that I carry within me. No one walks without this commitment. Then, what was a conflict turns out to be a learning experience”.

He smiled again and concluded: “The possibilities are endless. Nothing that is in the world reaches me, except when I ignore who I am not yet. This is the power of humbleness, because it is this virtue that grants lucidity and unlocks the inner space for luminous transmutations to take place. This is why humbleness is synonymous with power and strength”.

“In living there are the ingredients for all transformations; however, they will be wasted if there is no space inside the being that, like an inner laboratory, is capable of making good use of this raw material, altering reality to the extent that it manages to improve instincts and intuitions, to perfect thinking and feeling”.

“By definition, inner means everything connected to the essence”.

“The world does not change, you change. Then the world changes”. We all laughed at the construction of such a seemingly incoherent idea. Even Li Tzu was amused by the phrase. But he had got where he wanted to go. He paused, looked at us gently and asked: “Can you understand what illusion is and where reality is?”.

The room was filled with absolute silence. More than an idea, there was an innovative proposal for life in that poem from the Tao Te Ching. The class has ended, we said goodbye and left.

It was time for lunch. As I had forgotten my wallet in my room, I returned to the inn. As I entered, the owner called me to tell me that from the following year the daily rates would be increased. A growing group of climbers would be arriving and there was no room for everyone. I controlled a burst of irritation that tried to overwhelm me and answered nothing. Like me, many Li Tzu students would like to return to continue their learning. My budget would need to be reviewed. I decided to walk around the beautiful corners of the village. I needed to think. Life was giving me two invitations: one of complaint and conflict, the other of understanding and evolution. It was up to me to choose which invitation to accept.

I followed a path that led to a plateau in the mountains, where I could see woods full of flowers with the mountain range in the background. I leaned back on a rock. As I marvelled at the beautiful scenery, I let myself be enveloped by the good vibes of that cathedral of nature. Without realising it, I closed my eyes. I realised the moment was right for a wide and deep dive.

I let thoughts and feelings flow freely without trying to exercise any control or censorship over them. In an intense dialogue, some remained because they were consistent, others fell apart because of their incoherence. In the end, some concepts seemed fundamental to me: the inn was a business like any other, and it was up to the owner to make the decisions she deemed appropriate for her administration, including setting the daily rate. It was up to the customers, myself among them, to accept it or not. No-one was obliged to. The fact that there was no other place to stay in the village, although it should not allow an abusive charge, could not restrict the owner’s rights to run her own business as she saw fit. On the other hand, I considered that in other seasons, when the cold was very severe in the region, such as autumn and winter, she might spend weeks, or even months, with all the rooms empty, incurring huge losses. So it was necessary to make up the seasons. I was unaware of the administrative difficulties it faced, maintenance costs, taxes and so on. Ignorance makes judgements frivolous and cruel. If I kept the reasoning I had until that morning, of looking at the issue from the sole perspective of my interests, I would be nothing more than a stone thrower.

Even though she was exercising a legitimate right to set the price of her inn’s room rates, perhaps the innkeeper’s motives were fair, perhaps greedy. No matter; it was not for me to judge. What was true and valuable was that I could not place the power of my happiness in the hands of someone else, whoever they were, regardless of their intentions and conscience. That would be the same as giving up myself. Something inconceivable, yet more common than we realise. I just needed to understand where to proceed. We always have the solution, we just need to calm our minds and let our hearts beat without irritation. To do so, it was necessary to empty the inner space so that I could fill it with a new and fine content.

I asked myself how valuable those days spent in the village learning the Tao Te Ching with Li Tzu were. The value was immeasurable, both for the opportunity of the lessons made available and for the fact that they, if well used, would help me build a different and better way of being and living, a wealth that nothing and no one could ever take from me. Giving money to receive knowledge is not a mere exchange. It is a real and true investment; it is one of the good uses we can make of time. The key issue was not the price of the inn, but the value of Li Tzu’s lessons. Having somewhere to stay while I took advantage of this beautiful opportunity was wonderful. I was very grateful to the owner of the inn for offering me a warm room to spend the nights in so that I could wake up in a good mood to enjoy the Tao lessons the next day. Prosperity is not measured by the price of things acquired, but by the value of experiences lived.

A true idea that diminished the size of the conflict within me.

Conflict feeds darkness. Since not all adventures in the physical world are possible, if the price of the inn became impractical for my budget, I would find other means to continue my studies of the Tao Te Ching, even without returning to the village. I would look for books, among many other possibilities. Nothing and no one could stop me. Perhaps it would not be like attending Li Tzu’s classes, the perfect world is not about what is ideal, but about what is possible. Dependencies and fears build prisons. The universe never denies anyone the chance to delve into the mysteries of themselves and access the codes of life. I could not abandon my principles of firm determination, free-thinking and love of virtues. Thus, nothing will be denied me to evolve. Each individual is responsible for staying on the Path; for keeping his own light burning. 

I was enveloped by a marvellous feeling of lightness and peace. The conflict had broken down within me.

As I returned to the village, I thanked Lao Tzu and Li Tzu for teaching me how to use inner space as a laboratory where reality is created and recreated. The afternoon was late and, as it was past lunchtime, I decided to have dinner in a small restaurant that operated in the living room of the house where the owners lived. On the way, I had to pass in front of the inn and saw the owner wrapped up with the protests of some students about the increase for next year. When my gaze met hers, I offered a sincere smile of gratitude and bowed my head in a traditional gesture of respect. Although she did not understand why I had done so, she also inclined her head in my direction and smiled back.

The students looked at me in surprise. Maybe they saw me as some kind of traitor or something. It didn’t matter, I knew my reasons and feelings. That was enough for me. I can’t have the expectation that everyone understands me or agrees with me. I felt serene and strong because my attitude was in coherence with my conscience.

Everything in the world was exactly the same, but the world had changed. When conflict is broken down, suffering disappears. The experience of achieving peace is exclusive to the inner laboratory. There is no other way. It is not about becoming a conformist or apathetic subject. On the contrary, understanding where the power to transform reality lies is revolutionary and requires intense, broad and deep activity. The monk is the evolution of the warrior.

I was greeted with joy by the couple who ran the restaurant. I was already known to them, as I used to eat there. The two of them did all the work. They cooked, cleaned, and served the customers. I was seated at one of the four tables that fit in the small room of the house. At the end of the meal, they came to talk to me. They asked about the problems arising from the growing demand for accommodation in the village inn. I explained what was happening and offered my point of view. They asked if I would return to school the following year. I replied that although I was keen to, I did not yet know if I would be able to return. However, I was convinced that I would continue my Tao Te Ching studies, one way or another. Then the husband offered to let me stay in his son’s room next time I came to the village, which was empty, because the boy was attending university in Beijing. He would charge me half the price I would pay at the inn. I smiled and, before saying yes, it was impossible not to think that the opportunity had arisen just when the whole situation was already resolved within me. Was it a joke of fate or synchronicity? I said it was settled, I would stay at their house, but I wanted to know why they had invited me instead of another of the many students who also ate there. It was the wife who explained: “We realise that you are a peaceful man. We don’t want the vibrations of agitated people in our house.”

The next day, Li Tzu was already sitting with a cup of tea in front of him when I arrived at his house. Another cup was set on the table opposite to him. He smiled as if he had been expecting me. And he was. He gestured for me to settle down. I sat down, took a sip of the delicious tea and thanked him for teaching me about the inner laboratory. The master corrected me: “It wasn’t me, it was Lao Tse”. I told him about the events of the previous day. I narrated the incredible harmony between my moment and the invitation I had received to stay at the home of the nice couple. I commented that the fact had occurred after I understood the difference between the price of the vase and the value of its usefulness.

Li Tzu smiled and taught me an unforgettable lesson: “Chance does not exist. Synchronicity is one of the manifestations of the Cosmic Law of Cause and Effect in infinite movements of learning, justice, wisdom and love”. He shrugged his shoulders as if stating the obvious and offered me a definitive explanation: “It is the luminous steps that keep the path protected”.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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