Tranquillity and camaraderie were the hallmarks of the monastery. All the monks who arrived for another period of study brought with them a willingness not only to be receptive to new knowledge, but also to have a fraternal relationship with the others who were there. The monks treated each other with respect and good humour, although fights and intrigues were also part of the conviviality, as is common in the process of illuminating the personal shadows that live in all of us. The most subtle feelings, as well as dense emotions, run through the bowels of any person; knowing how we use them defines who we are and where we are going next. Just like light, shadows act wherever we allow them to move. The range of perception will be restricted to the lenses we use and sensitivity will be affected by the level of contamination of the filter we use. Understanding this elaboration is indispensable to the evolutionary journey, without which we cannot reach wholeness.
As usual, I stayed at the monastery for about a month for another period of study. I had already been a monk for a few years, but I didn’t know all the members of the Order, because as the monastery was open all year round, the cycles didn’t always coincide. So much so that some of the older ones, like me, only knew each other by name or from the courses they taught. I had heard about a young man who had recently joined the monastery, no more than three years ago, but was already standing out for his wit and dedication to his studies. Those who had been around him praised him highly. I learnt that he was going to be a student at Shiur, the course I was responsible for, when I was handed the list of applicants. I was excited to be living with such a talented young man.
As in the Order we don’t use surnames as a method of preventing undue influences, so common in society, from interfering with the equal treatment offered to all monks, it was a huge surprise and a great joy to come across Jonas, the son of a partner I had for a long time when I was in charge of an advertising agency. The partnership had broken down in a turbulent way and, a few years later, I had left the profession for good to start a new existential cycle. In my memories, Jonas was still a boy entering his teens the last time I saw him. Now, at around twenty-five, he had grown into a handsome man with an incredible physical resemblance to his father. He was the young, talented monk that many people talked about.
I found it strange how he behaved when I expressed my joy at meeting him again after so many years. Although he treated me politely, he seemed cold and intent on maintaining a cautious distance. I asked about his parents and wanted to know about him. Politely, but with few words, he explained that he and his father ran the same advertising agency, which had become one of the most respected in the market. I was struck by how soft-spoken and confident he was for a young man who had just entered adulthood. I was sincere when I told him how happy I was to have him at Shiur and how I wished his whole family prosperity. I believed that the past in relation to the agency or his father had been solved, with all the knots untied. He thanked me with serious features and only one word. I attributed his behaviour to his introverted personality traits, without giving it any other importance or reason.
From the very first lessons, Jonas showed a deliberate way of provoking me. As the explanations progressed, he questioned them. What at first would have been an interesting way of broadening our understanding through the possibility of delving deeper into the subject and clarifying the ideas being discussed, soon began to cause discomfort due to the dense atmosphere of animosity generated by the clear intention of taking away my serenity or disrupting the smooth running of the class. The unnecessary behaviour was damaging the course due to the excessive number of interruptions, as well as the growing unease among the students.
All relationships need limits so that they are not abusive. That afternoon, rather upset by the events, I retired to the monastery’s balcony overlooking the mountains. I needed to think about what action to take so as not to allow evil to grow and provoke unpleasant reactions; on the other hand, I had to be careful not to go too far in the action I would take, in which case I would be unfair. To make matters worse, Jonas had befriended a small group of three young monks, who seemed to delight in this behaviour, as if they were some kind of organised crowd or spectators in an arena, and although they were silent, you could see in their features, with every provocation, the expectation of an unbridled reaction, waiting for an unfortunate outcome in an unnecessary fight.
As it was cold, the balcony was empty. I sat down in one of its comfortable armchairs and let myself be enveloped by countless thoughts about the best course of action. There was no doubt that something had to be done to stop this unhealthy situation from growing. Pretending it wasn’t happening would be like ignoring the evil, a hypothesis that, because it was inadmissible, I wouldn’t consider. Even because it was jeopardising the lessons. However, there were several other possibilities. From having a conversation with Jonas to excluding him from the course. Between these two extremes, there were multiple scales of approach.
In my opinion, the only reason for this hostile behaviour was the fact that Jonas had grown up with a preconceived idea of my personality, created from the disagreements that arose with his father, because of the difference in perspectives that we came to have at a certain point in our lives. We had been great friends in our youth, we had built up the advertising agency together and won some awards. However, at some point, we began to lead our lives along different paths. Everyone’s perspective on life changed. Neither was better than the other, they were just different. When we realised it, the affinity had disappeared. Then the lack of unity led to conflicts. We began to see the company through different lenses and the filters became increasingly polluted. The relationship, once clear and joyful, became blurred and murky. It took many fights and several years before the company was dissolved. Jonas had grown up with the truth understood by his family.
However, the truth of Jonas’ family, although genuine, was different from my truth, which was equally legitimate.
This is what I explained to the Elder, the oldest monk in the monastery, when he sat down in the armchair next to me. He brought two steaming mugs of coffee and handed me one. The good monk had realised what was happening and had come to talk to me. I expressed my idea: “Jonas needs to know that he doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth, but only a partial view of everything that happened in the past. For every fact there are at least two versions, in addition to the truth itself. In other words, perhaps everyone brings a part of the truth with them. Together, we’ll have it in its entirety.” The idea seemed sensible and unshakeable to me.
The Elder looked off into the distance, as if fascinated by the beautiful landscape. He remarked as if talking to himself: “It’s true, but it’s also not”. Before I could express my surprise at his reasoning, he asked if I could see the mountain in front of us. Without understanding the obvious question, I answered yes. He continued enigmatically: “As long as you can’t see through the mountain, you’ll only have an insurmountable rock in front of you. You must see the other side of the mountain, because that’s where Jonas is. You’ll never find someone who you can’t see. The mountain is the conflict that separates the both of you”
I thought that I wanted to find a harmonious coexistence with the young monk. In order to do so, it was necessary for him to know my truth, or my version of it. The Elder shook his head as if to say that he understood and asked me: “Ask yourself if you just want to shed light on the past with your truth or if you want to impose it at any cost, even as a subliminal way of cowing Jonas in the face of the teacher-student relationship that brought you face to face. If that´s the case, then there will be no light, but a mere duel and, as such, a dance with the shadows. It will merely be a battle waged against Jonas and not a fine work of overcoming yourself. An opportunity will be wasted.”
Before I could disagree, he continued: “If you want to take the fight out of the vulgar arena of the world and into the intrinsic laboratory where consciousness elaborates experiences, builds truth and expands reality, it would be important for you to ask Jonas how he sees you. However, be prepared to hear some very unpleasant and even absurd things”. I said I didn’t see any point in that, because nobody’s opinion can have the power to say who we are. The Elder agreed: “That’s true, but I didn’t make the proposal with that in mind.”
“The suggestion is for you to see how far you can live with distorted views without taking offence. It will also help you to know your ability to filter the truth from others in order to understand what can help you improve and, at the same time, leave out the harmful and worthless content.” I asked why should I mistreat myself like that. The Elder explained: “The truth is as hard as granite. When worked well, it will become the secure foundation on which the pillars of a strong and sweet person will stand, capable of withstanding the harshest storms while managing to smooth out the roughness of our relationships”. He paused briefly and concluded: “You can’t make good use of a truth until you’ve worked it out”. He looked at me deeply and warned: “However, don’t accept my suggestion until you’re sure you’re ready. Be aware that many people allow themselves to be crushed by the harshness of the truth. Then no benefit will be possible, and it won’t bring any growth.”
I didn’t say a word. I had to metabolise that idea. That’s when the Elder surprised me again: “To see the other person through the mountain requires humility, compassion, sincerity and courage. It’s impossible to achieve this by walking the routes of the world. You must have a soul willing to take unimaginable flights. Think about it.” He took his leave and went to the library to read.
I couldn’t sleep that night. A whirlwind of ideas prevented me from doing so. Memories of the fights with Jonas’s father came to mind, as I tried to imagine the versions he had heard at home, when he was still little more than a boy. I considered that perhaps he had grown up not only with a horrible concept of who I was, but had learnt that hating me was the right thing to do. He never said that, but it´s a conclusion I could take for granted in the face of everything I’d heard. The older the ideas that make up who we are, the more ingrained they become in our personality, the harder they are to break down. We have the feeling that we will disappear if they are no longer part of who we are. This is one of the greatest difficulties of evolution.
These components made the mountain that separated me from Jonas enormous. Finding out who was on the other side could also mean discovering the part of the truth that I didn’t know. Its importance? It would help me find not only Jonas, but also a part of myself that I didn’t know.
The mystery of a conflict is the cause of its existence: the difficulty of seeing in the dark, when then nothing will be found.
The next morning, I looked for Jonas. I found him in the canteen having coffee with the three monks his age who formed the group. I invited him to have a chat alone. He refused. He said he had no interest in it. I noticed that the young men sitting at the table with him exchanged ironic glances and sinister smiles, as if they were fed by his confrontational behaviour. I warned him that he was suspended from my classes until the conversation took place. Jonas claimed that one thing had nothing to do with the other. He argued that I was letting personal issues interfere in the daily life of the monastery. I contested that, in fact, he was the one who was doing what he was accusing me. I explained that his behaviour was getting in the way of the classes. I suggested that we needed to understand the reasons so that we could work out a more harmonious coexistence. He accused me of misusing my power as a teacher to make him do what he didn’t want to do. I said that I was doing it out of respect for myself and also as a way of stopping the spread of an unpleasant situation. I believed that he would benefit from this conversation because, like me, he would have access to a different view of reality as he knew it. This would expand the truth for both of us. Jonas promised that he would formalise a complaint with the coordination of the Order; he considered my attitude to be abusive. I advised him to act as he saw fit.
In Jonas’s absence, the lesson went smoothly enough for everyone to enjoy it, including me, without the untimely interruptions that made the atmosphere tense. I noticed that the three young monks who made up Jonas’ group were astonished and insecure at the turn the situation had taken. They remained silent during the lesson. At lunchtime, I learned that Jonas had brought the complaint to a conclusion as he had promised, but he had been surprised by the Elder’s declaration that he agreed with my decision: “Whoever refuses dialogue is closed to peace,” said the Dean of the Order.
The young monk’s reaction was to turn to his colleagues for support. He realised that a collective protest would gain the strength to change the course of events. Under different excuses, the three monks not only shirked any commitment to join Jonas’ fight, but also distanced themselves from him. It was clear, as is usually the case, that they were only interested in the conflict as spectators. When I heard that, I remembered Loureiro’s words: “The boxers are brave one, the cowards are in the audience, addicted to violence and hatred. However, only fools climb into the ring to fight.” Isolated, two days later Jonas came to see me.
We went to the canteen, which was empty at that time of day. I asked him to sit at the last table, near the window where we could see the mountains, and I went to get two mugs of coffee. When I got back, I put them on the table and got straight to the point: “Jonas, without any melancholy or censorship, tell me exactly how you see me”. He questioned the need for this. I explained: “All conflict, and therefore all evil, stems from a mistaken perception of the truth in relation to reality. This affects our sensitivity. So everyone loses, because everything we could be and live for will not exist.”
Jonas closed his eyes for a long time, as if opening every drawer in his memory to look for the facts that would justify his views and attitudes. It’s a very difficult time and there’s little balance. When revisiting old facts, we can come across details that we didn’t realise at the time and this changes our truth, not always in a pleasant way. Then he took a deep breath and began to speak. He spoke for over an hour. I didn’t interrupt him. He reminded me of apparently forgotten facts. In other moments, he showed them through different eyes than mine, to the point of seeming like a liar. No, those situations had happened; the way he interpreted them was the cause of my strangeness. The same flower’s colours and scents are altered by the observer’s lenses and filters.
Lenses and filters make it possible to navigate different realities because they are the tools that will define the calm days or storms with which each person will cross the seas of existence.
Lenses can be of different colours; light or dark; scratched, blurred or incredibly sharp. The lens used alters the observer’s perception. Problem or opportunity, love or hate, light or shadows, the interpretation of a fact changes according to the lens we use. This defines the level of tolerance and the type of reaction: the will to educate or just to punish those who have acted in disagreement with our truth.
Filters are equally important and have a dual function. They help us separate the good from the bad in the situations that affect us and in the relationships we experience. They allow light to enter while at the same time preventing contamination by shadows. We have an external filter, which purifies our relationship with the world, and an internal one, which filters the ideas and emotions that are part of who we are. Both filters need to undergo incessant processes of improvement and purification, without which we won’t be able to enjoy the best reality. When a filter is too porous, it will let dirt through; when it is contaminated, all the water that passes through it, even clean water, will be polluted.
After so many years, when I heard the truth told through the lenses and filters of Jonas’ family, many of the interpretations were still absurd to me, because they showed that his father’s unilateral interests and desires to the detriment of mine. On the other hand, in several situations I could see the same behaviour on my part towards Jonas’ father. We had acted in much the same way. That’s when I realised two fundamental aspects. The first was how the mind creates tortuous paths to justify its desires; we change lenses and filters to create a truth that deceives us and becomes conveniently pleasant. The second aspect was the realisation that the reasons for the break-up were not the huge differences that existed. It happened, however, when we let go of what united us.
If we used the right lenses and filters, we’d realise that our differences weren’t a problem; on the contrary, they were the cranes that lifted the agency while working under the same axis. If we allowed ourselves a shred of sensitivity, we’d be happy for all the good things we’d built and achieved during the time we let our differences explain themselves, complement each other and, above all, admire each other. Artists have come to see themselves as more important than their work. There was a lack of perception. At some point, we missed the point we had in common. When we moved away from it, we became lost. The difference that had strengthened us, in the carelessness of using inappropriate filters and lenses, was the same one that destroyed us.
It took humility to apologise for my mistakes and to have compassion if Jonas couldn’t understand his father’s misunderstandings. I had to admit that I lacked better lenses and filters at the time. I explained to him where I could have done things differently and better; I didn’t do it at that time because I didn’t know; I also explained where I understood that the same applied to his father. I added that it wasn’t a case of looking for who started it or comparing who made the most mistakes, but of each person making a commitment to themselves to do things differently and better from then on and, above all, to allow love and wisdom to manifest themselves through forgiveness.
Forgiveness, being the fruit of love and wisdom, brings with it more advanced lenses and filters.
Everyone involved needed to let go of their sorrows in order to find the peace that is indispensable for the lightness of our days. It would also allow us to intensify the connection of dignity with the present, which becomes clearer and stronger when we settle accounts with the past, regardless of how complicated it may have been. Only then will we understand happiness.
After my words, Jonas’ reaction was silence. We were silent for a long time. He asked if I wanted more coffee. Without waiting for my answer, he got up and returned with two steaming mugs. He sat down at the table and we said nothing. Until he asked if he could go back to Shiur’s classes. I nodded in agreement, and he excused himself and left.
Until the end of the course, the lessons went smoothly and everyone enjoyed them very much. From then on, Jonas asked few questions, but they all proved to be valuable and pertinent. I noticed that his friendship with the three young monks had changed. They were still colleagues, but on a different level. He and I no longer spoke. When that period of study ended, on the day of his departure, Jonas came to me, held out his hand, looked at me steadily and murmured: “Thank you”. That was it.
A year passed. I was engaged in a conversation with the Elder in the canteen, talking about the difficulty of conceptualising love as a force and a feeling, a power that was both the path and the destination. Although poetry allows us beautiful definitions, it was the good monk who explained it best to me: “Love is the inner readiness to embrace the other with the same affection that I embrace myself. This is the commitment without which love will be restricted to poems.”
Then a monk interrupted us to say that someone wanted to speak to me. I asked him to come in. A few minutes later, I was overcome with emotion when I saw Jonas’ father, my former partner in the advertising agency, walking towards me. He had watery eyes and a beautiful smile on his face. I got up and went to meet him. Without saying a word, we exchanged a tight, long and unforgettable hug, interspersed with many sobs. The enchantment of forgiveness took over the canteen and enveloped the monks who were there. Even though they didn’t understand the exact reason, they could feel the luminous vibrations of that moment and joyfully began to applaud. Jonas cried, the Elder smiled. We had managed to fly over the mountain, a feat only possible after changing our lenses and filters.
We went to talk alone in the monastery’s inner garden. Jonas’s father said that my beard was almost completely white and that it went better with the rings I’d been wearing in my ears for many years. I also thought that he had aged well, he was more handsome. Sitting on a stone bench, we revisited the past through sweet and generous lenses; we listened to each other through filters no longer contaminated by rivalries, hurts and disappointments. The Elder’s words about the meaning and importance of the internal availability to welcome the other resonated in me with unbelievable lucidity. Love. It was a day that will go down in my history because it ended an important learning cycle and for the transformations it enabled in all of us.
As we talked, I watched the Elder moving though the side corridor of the monastery. Discreetly, he walked with slow but sure steps.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.