The trap and the flower of the cactus

When I turned the corner in the cold early morning of the small town at the foot of the mountain that hosts the monastery, I didn’t see the cobbler’s classic bicycle leaning against the post in front of the workshop. I thought I would not find him for a fresh cup of coffee and some random conversation. However, the workshop was open. I was greeted by Loureiro with a sincere smile and a strong hug. When I asked about the absence of the bicycle, he explained that Francis, his youngest nephew, the youngest son of his younger sister, born much later than his other siblings, had gone to the bakery to fetch bread from the first batch of the day, as well as a piece of the good cheese made in the region, famous for its delicate flavour. Before long, Francis was back. He was a teenager, close to entering adulthood. He had a face with delicate features and long black hair at shoulder length. Undoubtedly, a handsome boy. He greeted me politely but without enthusiasm. At first, I thought he was shy. Then, while Loureiro made a pot of fresh coffee, perfuming the environment by mixing with the aroma of leather, already impregnated to the workshop, Francis and I prepared the sandwiches, I noticed that the boy wasn’t shy. In truth, he revealed a great sadness through his eyes. A grief that seemed to me installed some time ago, like a silent suffering, with no owner nor control.

Loureiro, like a good friend who knows the other just by the way they look, while filling our mugs with coffee, said: “The eyes are the projections of the soul”. Francis did not understand, nor did he attach any importance to his uncle’s commentary. I understood the shoemaker’s message. In fact, there was a lot of sadness in that boy. It wasn’t difficult to understand that the nephew was there to talk to Loureiro. The craftsman, a lover of red wines and books on philosophy, was famous both for his skill at sewing leather as for his skill at weaving ideas. I made mention of leaving, saying that my ride to the monastery would not take long, so that they could be alone. The shoemaker asked me to stay. He said that perhaps I could help. The young man made a gesture as if to say he was not bothered by it. Francis told me that he had gone to live in the capital to attend high school in a renowned school. Recently there had been a brief period of protests, in which the young man had participated effectively, including violent demonstrations. Together with other young people, he broke some shops and cars. The demonstrations decreased in tone until they ceased completely. Opposition politicians had reached agreements with the government. However, he had the feeling that, except for the speech, nothing had changed. He had the feeling of having fought for nothing. Then the violence with which Francis moved gave way to sadness. Before, however, he had gone through a phase of cheap fun, with ephemeral relationships, loud music and an excess of alcohol. He talked about his dissatisfaction with the world, the system and people in general; complaints of generic and unspecific characteristics. He confessed that, without knowing how, when he realised it, he had lost interest in life.

Last week, he had ingested a pack of anxiolytics alongside a half-litre of gin. He nearly died. When he was discharged from hospital, his mother brought him back to the small town where he had lived in his childhood and much of his family had lived since forever. Francis said he found that place even more boring than the capital. Unlike there, where time didn’t seem to pass, in the bigger cities things at least happened. Or seemed to happen, he observed.

I had a brief but significant exchange of glances with Loureiro. It was the myth of the abandoned seed; we were facing the archetype of the sleeping gardener.

The shoemaker began to construct his reasoning: “From birth, we live under the influence of various conditioning factors, from ancestral to cultural, which keep us at a constant level of dissatisfaction. When the arrow hits the target, it disappears. Another shot, no sense of victory. What is enough never seems to satisfy us. We live based on concepts in which all satisfaction is short-lived”.

I added that we are under the enormous influence of information and propaganda. Not by chance, information is usually at the service of propaganda, whether mercantile or ideological. Loureiro interrupted me to, with a sly smile, say that I was the owner of an advertising agency. Francis looked at me startled as if I were incoherent, insensitive, hypocritical or even crazy. I smiled back at the shoemaker; I understood the depth he wished to offer to his nephew’s understanding. I explained that advertising was necessary to industry and commerce. Consumption, like advertising, is not necessarily a villain. On the contrary, we need to sell products and services to generate jobs and income, otherwise we will return to periods of recession, hunger and misery. The problem is not consumption, advertising or information; all are important and have their place. The question is how we relate to this network of influence. It is the wrong way of using it that leads to abuse. This occurs when we do not understand the limits that we should impose and the healthy way to deal with a situation that is common to everyone’s daily life. It is necessary to understand that what is available for use cannot become an object of domination. No situation can have the power to possess you.

Loureiro helped: “There is nothing wrong in buying a new car, a bigger house, a fashionable outfit or a high-tech gadget. The problem lies in believing that your happiness depends on it. Nothing that is in the world, be it something or someone, can have the power to steal your peace and prevent you from being happy. There is no situation that can stop you from being worthy and free. Or even to love.”

I explained that the misunderstanding lies in the illusion that the way I dress, the means of transport I use, the mobile phone I use or the tribe I am part of, even the virtual ones, are determining factors in establishing who I am. In the same diapason are the ideas I embrace and share. Information is like capsules of ideas. However, they only become knowledge when I am interested in delving deeper into them, into their origins, motivations and applications. It is indispensable to metabolise the ideas: are they legitimate and balanced, do they bring virtues in themselves or do they conceal hidden interests, prejudices and dogmas? Although it may not seem so, lifestyle is not defined by the clothes I wear, the neighbourhood I live in or the places I go. In truth, it is defined by how I think.

I am the exact way I relate to myself and to the world. Who I am cannot and should not remain static but should transform all the time as I improve my perspective of reality and my choices, according to the depth of my thoughts. Ideas liberate or imprison; we must understand all aspects of each one of them.”

“Much more than the clothes I wear or the places I go, it is other habits that make me connected to the time in which I live. Thinking clearly is the main one of them.” Loureiro reminded, “Attending a temple doesn’t necessarily make me a good man or guarantee that I am closer to the light. Going to a place of low vibration, although not advisable, does not necessarily make me a bad person either. Understanding the honest reason and the sincere motivation to be there, as well as any other place that I may be, does”.

“This is true in every moment of life; it’s true here and now. It’s true forever.”

“A person sentenced to life imprisonment is not prevented from feeling free. If they confiscate all the properties of an individual, they will not prevent him from being worthy if he thus goes on conducting his choices with virtue. Being in the midst of one of the many storms of existence will only rob you of peace if you allow it. Nothing and nobody has the strength to forbid you happiness. Even if nobody cares about you or offers you shelter in the rain, you can choose to love all the people you want. All that is truly important and essential is not found in the world, but within you. That understanding makes you immortal by the power it bestows.”

Francis laughed bitterly. He said that his uncle was mistaken, as he had learned in Sociology that man is a product of the environment. We react to the influences we suffer, he claimed. Loureiro pondered: “There is no doubt that the environment has an influence on the individual. However, we react according to the level of consciousness we possess. This will establish the strength and destiny of each one. The world in which we are inserted will always be the raw material, never the artist. The work is yours.”

“Your life, your art.”

“The world is no excuse for my stumbling; only the weak use this claim.” He took a bite of his sandwich and continued, “Power takes root at the moment when, even in the face of opposing forces, you find reasons to act according to your virtues and core values. You are able to be your best self, in the pure light of consciousness, despite the antagonistic desires of your shadows and the world’s opposing movements.”

The nephew insisted that his uncle’s speech was far removed from reality. I interfered to argue that information becomes dogma when we don’t dive deep into it; unquestioned socio-cultural conditioning becomes prejudice; propaganda without the filter of reason becomes a lifestyle that is shallow of ideas and poor of feelings. This, indeed, keeps us in illusion, by distorting choices and keeping us away from the unimaginable possibilities offered by life when connected to the nobility of virtues. For this, it was necessary to think differently and do better. Every day, forever.

Francis looked at us in a strange way, but said nothing. We ate our sandwiches and drank our coffee. The young man broke the silence to ask how it was possible to activate such power. He stressed, however, that this did not mean that he believed our words; they were too strange and disconnected from reality, in his opinion. He stressed that it was merely a matter of curiosity. Loureiro answered immediately: “This power will always be yours; it does not perish, it only awaits awakening. It germinates in the mind to bloom in the heart. In short, it is a matter of learning to think in order to calm your emotions and transform your perspective. The mind needs clarity to think, which is impossible under the domination of passions or when plastered by ideas that are constantly being simply accepted without deepening into them”.

The nephew interrupted again. He wanted to know more about learning how to think and how to have clarity of thought. The shoemaker arched his lips in a slight smile and said: “Pay attention to your thoughts. Both the multiplicity and the randomness of them. Ideas overflow into us on the most diverse subjects. When you analyse them carefully, you will have the feeling that many of the thoughts that pass through your mind are not yours. This is not mere sensation; it is pure perception. Yes, many, perhaps most of the ideas that occur to you are intruders on your thinking. This is real. It is necessary to understand the sources of each one. Separate the chaff from the wheat. There are those with clear origins; there are those with murky origins. Add to yourself those thoughts linked to virtues, capable of transforming yourself, of taking you beyond where you have always been, of bringing you closer to the light. Dismiss or transmute the rest.

“Learn to differentiate the thoughts that bring lightness, by the strength of transformation and overcoming that they provide, from those that hold you hostage, by dense emotions that surrender the domain of your life to bitterness and discouragement. This defines shadows or light”.

Francis wanted to know how to do it. Loureiro reminded him: “Meditation is perfect for this because it is an exercise capable of making the connection of the being with itself, of finding the sacred that inhabits it. Meditation will show you the need for blank space, without which there is no room for creation.” He took a sip of coffee and added: “So does prayer. For the connection it makes with the higher spheres. Remember to only ask for light and protection; nothing else. Prayer will allow you to feel the value of the absolute, essential to know love. Thus, prayer and meditation complete each other”.

“Studying is also primordial. Read a lot; read about everything. Get to know authors from the most diverse philosophical traditions and viewpoints. Flee from ideologies, they imprison the mind. Admire without ever idolizing. Question everything and everyone, but don’t be sceptical. Love is real and is the truth, although it is an infinite construction, is present in all moments of life”.

“Watch films and plays. Talk about ideas, always knowing the time to be firm or tolerant, with yourself and with everyone else. Debating is not fighting; nobody is obliged to agree with anyone. Everyone has their own time to mature, including you and me. However, set limits so that there is no abuse on any side. Even yours”.

The young man asked what’s next. The uncle explained, “Gradually, the will to abandon the old ways in which you have always lived will grow; you will notice how obsolete they have become. Things and situations that have always been important will prove unnecessary. Detachment becomes smooth and effortless. Much of what has always been discourse will become a practice. Interests begin to change; so does everything around you. Some people will move away, others will move closer. These are the winds of a new season.”

“On the next step the creation phase will begin. You will begin to design a lifestyle different from everything you imagined possible until that moment. New virtues, different thoughts, better choices. Gradually doing more with less. This, little by little, will prevent you from being torn away from yourself. You will take over the life that was always yours but was never in your hands. Personal power will grow. Until it becomes absolute and full”.

I opened my backpack and took out of it a notebook and a pencil. I asked Francis to write down the criteria he used to achieve peace, dignity and love. What was needed to feel happy and free. Then what he had done up to that day to achieve these things. The young man hesitated. He analysed for a few moments and left the paper blank. Then he confessed that he had never thought about it. He had never rationalized the search for the fundamental achievements of life. He had never been clear and precise about the reasons why he lived. He admitted that the reasons were generic, sparse and opaque. 

I remembered that, consciously or unconsciously, everyone longs for happiness, freedom, peace, dignity and love. What changes is the way each person believes he or she will achieve them.

The nephew turned to Loureiro and wanted to know how his uncle did it, for he always seemed serene and good-humoured: “There was a time when I believed I needed a sailboat, on which I would travel aimlessly around the world, as a way of feeling free. I once thought I needed to have a generous bank account to be able to be at peace. I lived for a long time under the illusion that my dignity depended on how people treated me. I was certain that I would never be happy without the applause and acceptance of other people. I cried because I thought that the fact of a woman leaving me would take with her my possibilities of loving. But, believe me, none of that is decisive”.

“Do you know what the logo of my atelier is?” he asked Francis. The boy, finding the sudden change of subject strange, mumbled that it was a cactus inside a circle. The shoemaker questioned whether his nephew knew why he had chosen it. The young man said he had no idea. Loureiro explained: “The cactus lives with the essential. Where everyone thinks it impossible to survive, this plant extracts the necessary amount of nutrients from the arid soil, without allowing itself to be defeated by the lack of rain or overwhelmed by the conditions of a harsh climate. It does not allow itself to perish for what it does not have, but flourishes in the face of the improbable, extracting from the dry sands enough sap to germinate. This is only possible because it needs little to be a lot. The primordial for blossoming in beauty and strength is not in the desert, but in the cactus itself.

Beauty and strength? The nephew, with a hint of provocation, asked if his uncle also thought he was beautiful and strong. Loureiro smiled again when he realized the young man’s intention. He kept to the virtue axis: “The cactus is only an emblem of beauty and strength. Looking at the logo every day reminds me that I have the right to feel and be this way; it depends only on me. It also teaches three basic concepts that complement each other: less can be more; the sufficient is enough. More than what the world offers me, what I need is at the core of my being. Then the circle closes as a lesson synthesis for a lifestyle, finalising the design of the line around the cactus.”

“A lifestyle that moves me away from dependence on the manipulations, addictions and shelves of the world, allowing me to create an existence sustained on my own pillars. A way of being unique, with the uniqueness typical to any person. A beauty and a strength available to all”.

Francis questioned whether this way of thinking wasn’t a trap for the weak because it makes them give up fighting for the good things in life. Loureiro frowned and returned the question: “What are the good things in life? What have I been doing to achieve them? Those are the things we asked you to write minutes ago and you couldn’t do it,” he recalled. “By generalising the search, we lose the reference of this search. We run out of the right answer when we deny the right question. We deny the question in order not to accept the answer. It is not always easy, because it will be necessary to rebuild concepts, admit mistakes; not infrequently, change the route and the target. It requires a lot of effort”.

Then he argued: “In truth, the real trap is to generate many frustrations and sufferings by conditioning myself to unreachable goals, when I do not understand that external achievements only make sense if they reflect internal advances. The trap is in allowing people to think and choose for me without my perception; to set the frontiers of where I can go. The doors close when I believe that flowers are not born in the desert.”

“The cactus flower symbolises the antithesis of that trap.”

“That which is outside me hardly ever depends on my will to change. What is inside, only needs my effort to be transformed. Just as the desert does with the cactus, life will always offer me what I need. To blossom is my part. This is how power, overcoming and light germinate.”

The boy gave a bitter smile and shook his head in denial. He added that that conversation had made him even more disoriented. He said he was sleepy and needed to go to bed. Loureiro gave him a strong hug, a kiss on the cheek and told him to come back whenever he felt like it. Francis turned on his heels and left.

I said that Francis was empty inside. The shoemaker disagreed: “The seed of life, when exposed to the storms of bitterness and sadness, remains abandoned for a long period, but never withers. All that is needed is the gardener to wake up to it one day. However, we must not irrigate it with tears or laments. Joy and hope are immeasurably better fertilizers. Almost as good as love. Almost.”

“Each in their own time, at some point Francis will discover that too.”

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic

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