The monastery was enveloped in a pleasant psychic sphere of joy, common at the beginning of study cycles. Conversations resumed, the latest personal events were inevitably updated and there was a great willingness to learn new things. These were days that everyone was looking forward to. Quiet, downcast and with sad features, Pedro stood out from the rest. Pedro was different than he used to be. I had got to know him much better the previous year, when he had attended the Shiur classes – The Journey of Self-Knowledge through Sacred Texts, a course I was responsible for, where we met every day. He was always laughing and participative. I waited for the first opportunity to try to talk to him. It happened in the canteen, when I saw him alone at a table at the back, his gaze lost in the mountains beyond the windows. I had known him for many years and he had always struck me as an even-tempered man. He was a little over forty, married to his first girlfriend and they had two healthy, quiet teenage children. An engineer, he worked for a well-known multinational steel manufacturer, which he had joined straight after finishing university. A stable and harmonious existence. I filled a mug with coffee and asked if I could sit next to him. He nodded without taking his eyes off the landscape offered by the window. I asked about the easy smile that characterised him. Pedro replied that he had forgotten it one day in the past. A bitterness that didn’t suit him.
I asked him if he would like to talk about the reason for such an angular change. Pedro said no, without adding anything else. I drank my coffee in silence to give him time to think about whether it would be better to face the issue with help, if only to let off steam and listen to his own pain as a way of understanding it better. In order to break down the foundations that support suffering, it’s essential to understand how they were built. With the mug empty, as there was no change of heart, I asked to be excused and got up, not without reminding him that he could come to see me whenever he wanted. Pedro didn’t say a word.
Two days later, I heard a great deal of shouting, an unusual situation for the tranquillity of the monastery. The confusion had arisen from a discussion in class about the Bhagavad-Gita, with Pedro threatening to attack another monk for disagreeing with his interpretation of a poem. It took the intervention of other monks, as we call all members of the Order, for him to calm down. When I learnt the facts, it was clear to me that Pedro’s nerves were on edge. I was analysing the best way to deal with the issue when I saw him that same day, exalted, complaining impolitely to the kitchen staff about the quality of the dinner. The monastery is not a sophisticated hotel, but a place dedicated to improving knowledge about matters related to the soul, such as philosophy and metaphysics. The food is healthy and tasty in its simplicity. Nothing more.
Without the other monks realising, I asked him to come to my room after dinner. When he met me, his features showed the unwillingness of someone who didn’t want to be there. Without me saying anything, Pedro began to argue in his own defence. He claimed that he had been provoked by the monk with whom he had argued during the Oriental Philosophy course, and that the “absurd lack of seasoning in the food” was unacceptable. I chose to take a different approach: “I don’t care much about the reasons for fights. I’m very interested in the causes of dissatisfaction”. I paused and asked: “What has changed inside you?”. He remained silent. I continued: “What’s absurd isn’t the lack of temper or the provocation someone has given you. These are common things in the world and will always happen. Almost nothing will turn out the way we want or believe we deserve. What tears us away from ourselves is never outside of us. It’s absurd when we allow our light to go out.” I paused and added: “This happens every time we can’t deal with our suffering. You can deny it. Then the world will become a villain and things will escalate into constant conflict. There will be daily wars and peace will never be known. The other option is to purge the pain by facing it head-on, without beating about the bush or making excuses. Healing requires courage. Only then will it be possible to regain ownership of oneself and one’s life. Without this, we have nothing left.”
Pedro looked at me with hatred and teased: “Who do you think you are? What do you imagine you know about the heights and depths of my soul? You’re no better than me to talk to me like that!”. Of course no one is better than anyone else, it wasn’t about that. Loss of control means loss of direction. Pedro’s axis of light was no longer under his command, something common in moments of emotional imbalance, when shadows impose themselves over virtues. He said he would formalise his request to leave the Order at that moment and would leave the following day. I didn’t let him and made a suggestion: “Get some rest. That’s what nights are for. Tiredness and irritation have never been good counsellors. No decision or gesture is worthwhile under such influences. Tomorrow we’ll continue this conversation.” Pedro said there was no need for any reflection, as he was convinced of what was best for him. He turned on his heels and left.
Ever since I was a boy, I’ve had the habit of waking up to a starry sky. It never took any effort on my part. In the monastery I became known for preparing the first pot of coffee in the morning. That day, when I entered the silent and deserted canteen, there was a steaming mug waiting for me. Pedro was waiting for me. When I sat down in front of him, he burst out before I had even taken a sip: “I’ve never been so scared,” he confessed.
Without me asking, he spoke of his woes. He had always believed he had a perfect marriage until, a few weeks ago, his wife said she was in love with a work colleague. She said she’d gone to a lawyer to deal with divorce affairs, such as the division of assets and custody of the children. Pedro said he believed he would be married forever to Laura, as she was called. It was as if he had been abandoned in a dark place from which he didn’t know how to return.
However, despite his sadness at the situation, he decided to leave home. As if that wasn’t enough, the multinational he had worked for since he was young had announced two days before his holiday that it was closing the factory where he worked. The company would prioritise the subsidiary located in a neighbouring country, whose legislation offered greater tax advantages. Some employees would be relocated. The rest would be laid off. On the day he was due to leave for the monastery, he received a message from a colleague: Pedro’s name was on the list to be fired. He would be notified as soon as he returned. He knew that at his age it wouldn’t be easy to get back into the labour market. “It may sound like a drama, but I feel like there’s no ground to stand on. My world collapsed overnight. There was no time for me to prepare,” he confessed. An unruly tear revealed the immensity of his suffering. It was as if everything and everyone had become a threat to Pedro; any discrepant movement was interpreted as the roar of a predator on the prowl.
I took a sip of coffee and suggested: “Although quite unpleasant and undesirable, it’s not the bad events that are the problem. The events that ruin our lives are the ones we don’t know how to react to. Nobody wants them, but divorces and being fired circumnavigate many people’s existence. The roaring around us are not the cause of our fears. Fear arises when we stop believing in who we are, in our power to reinvent ourselves, get back on our feet and move forward, in the power to tell our own story.”
Pedro said he didn’t know what to do: “I’m lost. I don’t know where to go. Apart from my children, there’s nothing left of the world I’ve been building all my life. What do you do when that happens?” I tried to reason with him: “Receiving love is one of the best things in life. It’s marvellous and indispensable because of the good it brings us. However, this love is not yours. It’s someone else’s love given to you. So it can suddenly stop. Accept it. You don’t control the continuity of this love. In the same way, good jobs, houses, cars and fortune are all desirable for the well-being they bring. This is legitimate. However, the things of the world are with you for ephemeral enjoyment, they are not yours. What is really yours is only what you are, the virtues you have already managed to add to your spirit, how much you have allowed yourself to evolve in the proportion of the love that has blossomed and borne fruit.” I took another sip of coffee and added: “In fact, not even your body is yours for good, because it gets sick, ages, breaks down, perishes and disappears. That’s why we value the attributes of the spirit; it is truly yours because it is who you are. Only this essence continues after the end.”
I remembered my Tao Te Ching lessons with Li Tzu and explained: “Time and existence form the raw material. You are the creator and creature of your own creation. You will be your work. Everything else is just a tool for you to be the best creation of yourself. That is the origin of a person’s strength and power.”
“When you lose the things of the world but have yourself, you remain prosperous. When you have the world in your hands but have lost yourself, you have nothing because you are nothing. It’s existential misery.
Pedro said he understood the concepts I was referring to, but in practice he didn’t know how to act. I reminded him: “You need to take back control of your guiding principles and values and accept that you can’t control the facts of the world, because they come from decisions about other people’s lives. You just need to be in control of yourself. Control your choices on the axis of your own truth, in a broad and profound way, with all the intensity of your light. That way you’ll regain your fundamental balance.”
“In addition, live one day at a time, as best you can,” was an old and indispensable concept, I reminded him. “Notice the flow of life expanding or contracting with each movement. This is how we understand the workings of the cosmic laws; they are the ones that guard, protect and illuminate the Way.”
Nothing I was saying was new to him, it was just necessary to remember important ideas that despair leads us to disbelieve. Pragmatic, Pedro said: “In theory, I’m still employed. It’s time to enjoy my holidays and make plans for the future. Suffering doesn’t add anything, we need to give hope a chance to show its worth.” I applauded the change in attitude that was coming.
Transitions are moments of intense instability because the roots of transformation are not yet properly fixed in the new place where evolution is leading us little by little. The shadows will be on the lookout to try to pull us out of ourselves and take back control at the slightest slip-up. To do so, they insist on leading us into sadness or revolt. Pedro remembered Laura and had a brief relapse: “It was almost twenty years of a happy marriage. We had a perfect relationship that suddenly fell apart”. I tried to take a different view: “Everything changes, and so does love, because it needs to evolve. The love between you and Laura has changed and, if it no longer has the strength to sustain the marriage, it can be transformed into a beautiful friendship, either because of the days you’ve lived or because of the children you’ll continue to have together. That way, nothing is lost and joy takes the place of sadness or hurt.”
He nodded. I continued with the need not to let Pedro get lost in the labyrinth of mistakes, no one evolves by shirking responsibility: “A perfect marriage doesn’t end overnight. It never does. It had certainly been deteriorating for some time, you just didn’t realise or refused to accept the reality. We lie to ourselves for the convenience of not accepting the discomfort of a changing reality. We lie to others so they don’t see us the way we are. If we run away from reality or are ashamed of who we are, an urgent transformation is waiting to happen. There’s no reason to stop it.”
Pedro nodded without saying a word. Then we went back to our activities. That was one of his best study cycles at the Order. He attended classes, made new friends, talked to all the monks, was always in good humour and willing to collaborate. Pedro’s perception and sensitivity were sharpened in search of a new point of balance. This is fundamental. He asked to give one of the talks, in which he made an interesting approach to the famous Law of Chemistry elaborated by Antoine Lavoisier, nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed, and its correlation with the inevitable transmutations to the Law of Cosmic Evolution. He was deservedly applauded. There was an obvious boiling inside Pedro, typical of transitions from one state of matter to another, according to Chemistry, or from one stage of the spirit to another, according to Evolution.
The following year, I awaited the arrival of the monks for a new period of study and reflection. Sitting in the canteen in front of a steaming mug of coffee, I wondered what Pedro’s reactions would have been to events, movements that were decisive in establishing the flow of joy or agony in his days. His name wasn’t on the list of applicants for that cycle, but sometimes some monks arrived at short notice and tried to get in. When there were vacancies, it became possible. Pedro didn’t turn up in time for the beginning of the studies, but appeared two weeks later.
He was cheerful, smiling and confident. After a tight hug, I joked that after a fortnight it would be impossible to fit him in the study circles. He laughed and said that he had come for other reasons: “A new cycle of studies will take place next year. This time I’ve come for different reasons. So that you can understand, I first need to tell you about what has happened since we said goodbye last term. In fact, Laura and I have split up. She’s now living with someone else and she’s very happy. I’d say even more beautiful. Only love gives us the intrinsic, diffuse and unique beauty that we reflect to the world.” I interrupted to say that he was looking better too. I wasn’t speaking to please him, my words were honest. Pedro thanked me and I asked him to continue. He continued: “By allowing the love I had for Laura, as a wife, to turn into friendship, I not only gained a fantastic friend, but I didn’t transfer any of the pain of the breakdown of our marriage to my children. Seeing us well, they were fine without their routines being affected. I’ve had many reflections on relationships and I realise that neglect is one of the most common causes of their deterioration”. Pedro made an analogy: “It’s like the sea spray, you don’t pay attention because you don’t notice its silent power to destroy and, before you know it, everything has rusted. I’ll be more careful not to make the same mistakes from now on.” I reminded him of his talk about the French chemist: “Nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed”. We laughed. He added: “In a way, transformation is the true power of creation. Evolution.” I agreed.
I wanted to know about his job at the multinational. Pedro explained: “It happened as I had been told. I was fired as soon as I returned to work. Contrary to what I imagined, I wasn’t sad. I realised the flow of life and understood the changes that life was signalling to me. The time I spent working for the company was marvellous, but like every cycle, it needs to come to an end for another one to begin. Otherwise, we’ll experience the bitterness or boredom of stagnation”. I asked him about the events following his dismissal. He told me: “I even sent my CV to a few companies, but when I realised that it didn’t bring me any enthusiasm, I understood that the time had come for a broader and deeper change. I learnt at the monastery that all our movements need to expand the flow of life, inside and outside us. We have to live with joy and enthusiasm. I also learnt here that joy comes from realising the virtues in your life; enthusiasm means being vibrant in your own soul.”
“I heard about a French woman who had set up a kind of ashram, a type of retreat linked to the improvement of the spirit, very common in India, in a small town in the Serra Cantareira. As well as a hotel, it offered courses and practices linked to good living, from food and body care to therapies and spiritual reflections. As the owner had to return to France for family reasons, she put it up for sale. Now, I had received a good severance package after twenty years’ service. I loved everything about the place, from the simple architectural features that gave it a minimalist sophistication, to the fantastic influence of the surrounding nature. Even better, it was only a few hours from São Paulo, the city where my children continued to live with their mother. They could come at weekends to stay with me. The most important thing was the opportunity to pass on all the benefits I had learnt after so many years of study at the monastery, which had been fundamental in preventing me from succumbing at an angular moment in my existence. I was seized by an overwhelming desire. I made the right move and life enveloped me in its marvellous flow of Light”.
I asked about new loves. Pedro confessed: “I’m dating a yoga teacher. She was part of the hotel team when I met her. There’s a special harmony between us. We have the same interests and a convergent perspective on life. Being around her makes my heart happy. I love her.” I made a point of giving him another hug. Happiness is the perception of evolution in motion.
He looked at me seriously and said: “I really want to thank you for not letting me give up on the Light. That conversation we had last year was crucial to the transition I’ve achieved.” I was honest with him: “In truth, I just didn’t let you forget everything you already knew, which is common when the shadows creep in and try to take control. I reminded you of the power of your own Light and the strength we have when we keep the roots of our principles and values grounded in the truth. There will be no room for fear and nothing will be able to bring us down. Therein lies all strength and power.”
“What’s more, when life brings transformations in the form of an avalanche, taking everything away from where it’s always been, it’s because it believes we’re ready to build a new place to live. A marvellous place within us. All we have to do is not forget our strength and power, all we have to do is not forget our Light. It’s enough that we don’t forget who we are and who we can be. Always.”
We remember the wise words of the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk in the monastery: “The problem is not misfortune, but when we forget grace.” Grace is the personal gift that makes us capable of overcoming any difficulty and moving on.
Pedro recalled that he had come for another reason: “At the hotel, we’re going to start a cycle of courses and talks inspired by the experiences I had at the monastery. I want to share this precious knowledge. I’d like you to give the opening talk”. I was genuinely moved. It’s great to look back and feel how far we’ve come in our communion with others. I asked him if he had any idea what the talk should be about. Pedro had everything prepared: “I’d like the title to be The Roaring Around Us”. I said I hadn’t understood. He clarified: “The roaring around me are not the cause of my fears. Being trapped in myself, yes; being distant from my essence, yes; not having planted my roots in the soil of truth, yes; forgetting how to switch on my light, yes. These are the mistakes that make us afraid when the world roars. Nothing out there can scare me. The love I have enlightens me and protects me on the Way. Living my truth are my roots, flowers and fruits. I lack nothing because I am everything.”
I opened my arms and said that the talk was ready. I joked that there was no longer any reason for me to be there. We laughed. Hugging, we went to the canteen to celebrate that beautiful transition with two steaming mugs of coffee.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.