The question

The taxi dropped us off, Denise and I, at the door of my cousin Osvaldo’s house in a noble neighbourhood of São Paulo. We were greeted by his wife in a kind and polite way. It looked like a cinema party, organised in every detail. People circulated in the large living room, balconies, gardens and around the pool. In the midst of many guests, I gradually met several relatives, some I had not seen for years. I took the opportunity to introduce Denise, whom they did not know. I was feeling light and serene due to the discoveries I had made that afternoon, as I reported in Labels. I felt even better because of the smiles and hugs I got from cousins who had shared their childhood and part of their adolescence with me. Before long, we were in a small circle reminiscing the events that took place in our grandparents’ house. Even the frequent confusions were reasons for good laughs. It was proof that we had overcome our differences and moved forward. The empire of forgiveness is a great place to live.

As the waiters passed by in an ebb and flow of delicacies and drinks, we caught up on life. I listened to everyone with interest. At the same time, I thought about how everyone’s destiny, including mine, had taken unthinkable routes. Everything had gone in very different directions from what each of us had planned at the time. However, the destinies seemed perfect to me, not if you looked through a worldly bias of material achievements, but if you dared to look through a lens of learning and evolution. Difficulties of various shades, such as professional disappointments, serious illnesses, love disappointments, the delicate question of the death of children, the misunderstanding of the meaning of life, among other serious issues, are not always seen from the perspective of learning. When they bring bitterness and, more seriously, discouragement about the days to come, the infinite possibilities that exist each morning are wasted. Discouragement is like a sad and slow giving up process.  

Few understood the wisdom and love of life for giving them, not what they wanted, but what they needed to become different and better people. Sometimes the lessons are severe, never because of the carelessness of the masters, but always because of the indolence of the apprentices. Most of us stubbornly allow ourselves to be led by the snake charmer: the values of the world. Success still has strong links with fame and money. While this does not prevent us from gaining the riches of life, such as dignity, love, freedom, peace and happiness, it does not ensure it either. However, many still lose their way by insisting on staking their days on worldly values as a bridge to attain the riches of life.

Worldly values draw illusory curtains which, besides hiding the truth, delay the search for what is essential, because they centre efforts on surface charms, all of which are ephemeral, fragile and inconsistent. The wonders of life lie in the depths of being, they cannot be touched with the hands, they do not always bring comfort to the body, but they are sure balms for a soul that is already able to act in the world in conformity with the ego that accompanies it. Far from the truth there will be no release from suffering.

But what is truth anyway? It is the limit of your consciousness. And what is consciousness? It is the perception of yourself and everything around you. So if there is suffering it is because the boundaries of truth are still narrow in our consciousness.

Gradually, the initial minutes of joy at the reunion became a row of lamentations for the misfortunes of existence, as if the infinite personal power of choices and karma, the Law of Learning and Evolution, were not guided by the guidelines of love, wisdom and justice. As the conversations progressed, when the layer of politeness that disguises the true reality was overcome, some began to complain about the lack of grace and flavour in life. For them, existence made no sense and they had little of what they considered important for happiness. Although contained and not always admitted, bitterness was gradually revealed.

“The demand for the immediacy of the answer robs the greatness and beauty of the difficulties. The fingers of the masters are long”, taught The Elder, the oldest monk of the Order, of which Denise and I were members.

Contrary to what many believe, solving the problem does not lie in finding the answer. Every problem brings with it a question. The enigma of life’s difficulties is not solved by the answer, but by the question. But not just any question. Finding the right question for every problem is the key that opens the door to its solution. Without the right question there will be no answer.

When we felt the conversation becoming inadequate, reduced to a whinge-fest, we walked away. We hadn’t seen Osvaldo yet. We sat on chairs near the pool and were chatting pleasantries when my cousin approached to greet us. After asking if the waiters were serving us well, he wanted to know if we had any plans for the near future. Politely, as is her way, Denise replied that we planned to spend the summer holidays at the OEMM monastery studying philosophy and metaphysics. Then we would go for a walk in the beautiful region. Osvaldo looked at me, gave a wry smile and hissed: “A simple and easy life for someone who preferred not to have a family”. And he added with obvious sarcasm: “I envy you, cousin”.

Contrary to what many believe, veiled and disguised violence has a greater destructive power than open and frank violence. In the former, the abyss at the heart of the aggressor makes his emotional imbalance evident; in the latter, as there is hardly any social censure of the behaviour, it often goes unnoticed; if the offended person does not stay alert and take care, he will be inoculated by a poison whose effect is slow but lasting. It is necessary to know the evil in order to avoid it.

Evidently, Osvaldo’s provocation referred to my lifestyle outside the traditional patterns. I was not married to Denise, we lived in different cities and lived together only at weekends and on holidays when we travelled. My daughters, from different marriages, were studying abroad and we would see each other during academic holidays. This was my family, although we did not share the same roof. A family is not built by merely bringing people together to sleep at the same address, but, in truth and always, by the degree of commitment that one has among its members. We all know sad situations of people with the same surname, who share the same house, but hardly talk or care about each other. Although they look familiar and even see each other every day, in essence they are people who have abandoned each other. In our own way, my daughters and I were a beautiful family, with all the typical concerns and charms of living with people who love each other, even at a distance. In building and maintaining a family, one cannot avoid any commitment, from the material to the affective. In every possible way, you should make every effort to show the other person how important they are to you. The amalgam that binds people together and consequently forms a family is love. Love can only exist where there is commitment.

I knew that and I didn’t let the provocation get to me. Osvaldo knew it too, the difference was that he had never faced the question: What are the pillars that truly support a family?

Perplexed, Denise squeezed my hand for fear of an angry reaction, given the ease with which provocations had aroused my fury in the past. When I was young, I prided myself on the courage not to take any crap home, a way of life learnt on the streets where I grew up and which I believed necessary in the face of everything I had to face. The shadows are skilful at tricking us with a power we don’t possess. I carried the habit into adulthood, a behavioural addiction that stayed with me for a long time. As the years went by, and the transformations that were slowly taking place in me, I began to feel bad every time I reacted aggressively. I wanted to change, but I couldn’t; conditioning speaks faster than reasoning and thus prevents changes. The difficulties become greater when we believe that personality traits are immutable. This is a lie, because the personality moulds itself to the new internal reality so that evolutionary transformations occur. It was not easy; I tried, but soon stumbled. By the time I realised it, I had become unbalanced and reacted badly to a provocation. Tired of that situation, I once, after another uncontrolled reaction, asked myself the question: Why does this happen? I had to dig deep to find the pride and vanity that dictated my choices. It took a long time for me to be able to illuminate these shadows. It was only possible when I asked myself the following question: Are you afraid of change?

It may seem like a silly question. After all, no one can be afraid of becoming a better person. However, it is more common than it seems and many transformations still await us for the same reason. I explain. It is not easy to exchange the fantasy of shadows for the nakedness of virtues. It is exactly at this point is where many fear to feel vulnerable and fragile; however, it is where the centre of strength lies.

Shadows such as pride and vanity lose their strength if illuminated with humility and simplicity. For this to happen, it is necessary to understand that simplicity is not to be confused with existential poverty, nor is humbleness a characteristic of the humiliated or subservient, of those who have no will of their own. In fact, simplicity translates into profound existential wealth through the incredible experience of living without masks, bringing the individual closer to himself through the clarity of conviviality and thus enabling the improvement of the being. Humbleness is the essential virtue for opening up the space for the creation of a different and better person. It gives the individual a blank sheet of paper to redefine a new way of living. It is the primordial virtue for understanding the mistakes made, the existing difficulties, how much remains to be learnt, accepting everything you no longer want for yourself and having the firm purpose of evolving. Humbleness brings the power to accept fair criticism with gratitude and to dismiss undeserved criticism with compassion. It does not allow itself to be corrupted by compliments of any kind so that they do not occupy the internal space destined for endless lessons.

The idea of feeling big, dominant, admired and powerful is still well sold by the shadows and ends up proving to be retrograde by closing all the Portals of the Path due to the lack of internal space to carry out the inevitable transformations. In order to be humble, one must perceive oneself as small. For many, it is a minor and conformist idea, but in truth, it is grandiose and revolutionary due to the infinite evolutionary possibilities it provides.

“Humbleness is when the values of a blossoming soul can prevail over the interests of an immature ego,” the Elder once summarised with extreme perception and sensitivity.

The predominant counterpart is the masks provided by the shadows and their tempting offers of power and protection. Lest anyone discover how fragile and unfortunate we are, we defend ourselves with the shield of arrogance and attack with the spear of hubris. In this way we try to keep everyone away from who we really are, including our ego which, lost and disorientated, lives an invented character. Sometimes, through an unusual situation, a gesture or a word, pride or vanity leaks out and we feel offended. These are hallmarks of immature egos and embryonic souls.

The conclusion is obvious. While proud and vain people are easily offended, humble, simple and compassionate people never feel affected, because they know that the offence only reveals the emotional imbalance of the offender.

To get out of every existential labyrinth it is necessary to find the right questioning. It was no different with me. I did not get the answer until I found the right question. When I asked myself the question, it took me a while to accept the answer. In practice, it is like turning yourself inside out and not being scared if there is very little or nothing left of what you imagine yourself to be. This is not a bad thing, on the contrary, it is the moment to change skin in order to grow. Then, when I realised that I was the reason for my sufferings, I had to decide whether or not to face this fear in order to deconstruct its power in me. Although it is a necessary choice for evolution, it is not easy to admit that much of your personality no longer serves you and needs discarding for the creation of a new being.

It is not an instantaneous process. There are small cycles in which we notice minimal progress; each step is important and provides the purest happiness to the wanderer. Humbleness and simplicity bring with them the incredible power of lucidity; we are enchanted by the refined look when we begin to see life in a broader and deeper way. We have the feeling that the world has grown, but no, it is still the same size; it is your consciousness that has expanded. However, these are virtues whose climbing, due to their extensions and connections, is gradual in order to be safe.

Finally, at that moment, I was facing a test to see if I was able to complete another small cycle. I could imagine the Guardian of the Portal watching me to authorise my passage or not. I thanked him for the opportunity and tried to pay attention to my every action or reaction; only they serve as a passport to advance on the Path.

It always causes discomfort to be faced with an aggressive act. Like the day before, once again Osvaldo had shown violence disguised in apparently unpretentious comments. The well-worn dark trick of belittling others to make himself feel better. An easy trap to disarm when we are attentive. However, dense vibrations present themselves quickly and there is an urgent need not to let the darkness expand its power. It is not always possible to control the situation and the external environment, but I can never forget that mastery over myself, besides a right, is my true strength.  I am the light of the world, I mentalised, not to forget my commitment and essence. Unlike the day before, no sadness came over me, because I brought out the compassion that I had lacked before: I allowed myself to understand in him what he himself did not understand.

However, this time I did not want to leave silence as an answer. When my eyes met his, I endeavoured to remove any harshness in the tone of my words and asked, “Why do you do that?”.

My cousin was not programmed for that reaction. He would have known how to act if I had been equally rude or if I had been cowed by his aggression. But he didn’t know how to deal with the presence of a mirror placed politely in front of him. When the mirror is exposed to us in a rude way, we usually break it into pieces with an unbalanced reaction. We believe that the reaction was justified, for it was violence responding in the same way. The subtle and unusual mirror, in the form of a simple question, at once surprising and calming, took him apart.

My cousin was not prepared for that question. Although simple, it pierced the immature ego to disturb the sleep of a sleeping soul. Immediately, he fled with his eyes averting them from mine. I could see in his features an internal confusion, not understanding why he had not achieved the same effect as the day before, when he saw me wrapped in sadness. Even for a fraction of a second, that gentle question made him realise unfamiliar aspects of himself.  It scared him and made him feel vulnerable. Gentle reason, devoid of any malice, has the power to provoke reflections that are indispensable to the light. Osvaldo tried to look at me, but when he realised my steady eyes were searching for his, he turned his face towards the pool and hissed at me: “You’re a hopeless case. You could have had everything, but you have nothing”. He searched for my reactions and when he realised that the arrows were falling far from the target again, he shot: “You are such an idiot!”. And walked away.

Alone, Denise suggested we leave. Osvaldo’s hostile behaviour, with painful and unresolved reminiscences of a distant past, added to his existential imbalance, made that party a minefield ready to explode at any moment. She was right. The question between boundaries and respect is a delicate one. I can’t force someone else to respect me or change their mind. No-one can. But I can impose limits on all my relationships by setting boundaries that are agreeable to my good living. Time and space are the tools available. A calm and firm behaviour is also necessary. Compassion is not synonymous with permissiveness. The only respect available to me is the respect I have for myself. When well exercised, that is enough. In dealing with everyone, especially ourselves, one must realise the expansion and contraction of boundaries. Without limits, relationships tend towards abuse and darkness sets up a kingdom. The limit is the parameter of respect. As in a two-way street, one respects the sacred space of one’s own individuality and, as a consequence, makes all relationships healthy.

After talking to everyone, except Osvaldo who walked away when he saw we were leaving, we went to a delicious bistro in the same neighbourhood. It was inevitable that we would talk about what had just happened to check that all the pieces were properly fitted together and understood. Denise commented: “It will take a long time for Osvaldo to understand the need for any transformation in his behaviour”. I wanted to know why. She explained: “His identification with his own shadows is enormous. He feels powerful and believes that an aggressive and domineering personality will make him enjoy the honey of life, which he confuses with worldly riches and honours. In his conception hatred, pride, vanity are necessary weapons for a victory that exists only in the imagination of those who go through existence believing they are at war with the world. For people of this persuasion, love is a characteristic of romantics, dreamers and weaklings. That’s where yesterday’s comment in the coffee shop came from, you know?”.

I said that I had the feeling that the question I asked had touched his soul. Denise agreed, in part: “It did, but it didn’t wake him up. He will be asleep for a long time still. Osvaldo’s immature ego is gigantic and keeps swelling. As long as it does it, the soul has no chance. He doesn’t even realise the importance of the soul because he is living in a phase where he believes that the ego is powerful and has all the answers. However, he does not know that he does not have any answers, since it is up to the soul to ask the right questions so that the ego feels like evolving. For now, there is no internal dialogue. Osvaldo is disconnected from the deepest, broadest and most beautiful aspects of the personality. Any change only begins with the ego’s firm commitment to the changes proposed by the soul. He is very far from understanding this. For the time being, it does not want to change because it does not understand or feel the need to.”

“At the stage he is at, he believes that giving up his most striking characteristics would be like self-destruction. It’s giving up everything he most admires about himself. Of course, it’s a shallow awareness, but that’s how he likes to see himself, as a domineering subject who believes that victory lies in overcoming others rather than overcoming himself. From the perspective of an immature ego, orientated by worldly values and driven by shadow fantasies, yes, he is right.”

I interrupted to say that it was impossible for Osvaldo not to suffer being like that. Denise agreed: “He suffers a lot, but people who think like him develop mechanisms to numb their suffering. To do so, they need new conquests and are easily irritated when they are slow to arrive. They subjugate and treat other people as if they were mere tools or an audience forced to applause them. They feel pleasure this way and think they feel no pain. But it is a short-lived pleasure, like an ordinary drug. Soon they need more and more. Then greed arises in its many aspects.”

“For them to begin to perceive themselves and then understand the need for change, there needs to be an intimate and luminous dialogue. How to do this if the soul has not awakened? Alone, the ego deliriously deludes itself in illusions of power and believes itself to be king”. She paused and concluded: “At the moment there is nothing to be done. Just wait. Everyone dances to the rhythm of the music they have chosen. If he ever needs it, be there with open arms and heart”. I agreed with her.

We ordered our dishes and Denise suggested we drink a good red wine. I joked about the day before: “Won’t the wine dull my conscience?”. She laughed and explained: “Yesterday you were sad without understanding why. You needed to think and alcohol would get in the way. Today I see you well and balanced, understanding all the steps of the process and especially the importance of using compassion. I realised when the dense vibrations approached soon after Osvaldo’s provocation. I also noticed how you managed to keep your light on so as not to be enveloped by the darkness you presented, reacted in a luminous way and did not feel bad about your cousin’s attitude. You were able to effectively overcome your old difficulties; a step has been taken on the Path”.

I disagreed: “There is no end to the commitment to light. Despite the long struggle to overcome this particular difficulty, it was clearly realised. I had known it for a long time and was bothered by its influence on my reactions. The apparent shadows are clear and require no big effort to identify. This is the easy part of the good fight”. Denise wanted to know what the hard part was. I confessed: “It is to face the indispensable question: What shadows still dominate me, what dark corners still need illumination in me and I do not even know of their existence or perceive their manifestations?”.

I paused and commented resignedly: “The Guardians of the Path will not let me cross the next Portal before I answer that question”.

Denise nodded, smiled beautifully and kissed me.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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