The gate to Li Tzu’s house was always open. It was late afternoon and getting dark. As I walked through the garden, I came across a peach tree full of fruit. I approached the tree feeling the water pooling in my mouth, but I was startled when I almost step on a snake coiled near its root. Shaken, I turned around and ran for the house. I found the Taoist master sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, quiet and alone, with his eyes closed and a cup of tea on the table. Gasping for air, I interrupted his thoughts to warn him of the danger that was near. I told him to be very careful when going to the garden. Unperturbed by my panic, Li Tzu invited me to join him for tea. I sat and he asked me to calm down. I told him about the risk I had taken when I had almost been bitten by a snake. I explained that it was coiled up, ready to strike. I added that I had been very lucky and had narrowly escaped. The Taoist master listened attentively but didn’t say another word. A little calmer, I managed to taste the tea; it was delicious. He explained that it was an infusion made with the peaches he had picked that morning. That’s when I realised that I hadn’t told him that the snake was right next to the peach tree. On hearing this detail, Li Tzu frowned. I asked him if he didn’t believe me. The Taoist master explained: “I respect your fear, it’s genuine. However, it´s cause is unfounded”.
I told him that he shouldn’t play like that or despise danger. He got up and told me to go to the garden together. I argued that it was too risky. The Taoist master asked me to trust him. When we approached the peach tree, I didn’t dare go any further and stopped. Li Tzu, uninfluenced by my fear, continued walking with his peculiar tranquillity and, very close to where he was standing, I could see the snake ready to strike just as it had been when I had passed by a few minutes before. I swallowed back a scream when he bent down to pick up the snake and showed me, laughing, a piece of vine wrapped round the foot of the tree. I’d made a mistake.
Back in the kitchen, I felt ashamed of the scene. Li Tzu put some peaches on the table that he had picked and said: “The trees in the garden are frequented by several owls, which reduces the possibility of small reptiles and rodents in the neighbourhood to almost zero. I was sure you were wrong when you said the snake was next to the peach tree. I left the vine there in the morning. I’m going to use it to secure some orchids.” He drained his teacup and concluded: “It’s worth the lesson to remind us how many of our fears are the result of a wrong perception of reality.” I explained that the dim light, common at dusk, had contributed to the error. He philosophised: “That’s what always happens when we’re shrouded in dim light”.
I pondered that at night, when there is no artificial lighting, darkness predominates. Li Tzu agreed again: “Yes, that’s why the sages teach that those who walk correctly don’t need to be afraid of the dark”. He refilled his cup, took another sip of tea and added: “because they have their own light to dispel the darkness”.
I asked him what it means to walk correctly. He explained: “It’s enough to be loyal to one’s own truth, which is no small feat and not at all easy.” I asked him to explain further. Li Tzu did so in a didactic way: “You’ll need to understand a few concepts, such as reality, truth and conscience”.
“Reality is the boundaries of the world through the eyes of the beholder; in other words, everything and everyone has the beauty, dimensions and colours that this person can already see.”
“Truth is the limit reached by consciousness. It’s like a degree or level that has been achieved. In other words, truth is fundamental because it establishes the criteria of illusion and reality that have already been understood.”
“In turn, consciousness is responsible for creating and ordering truth. This occurs as consciousness balances all the elements that make it up on the same vertex. We mustn’t forget that we are many in one. This intrinsic harmony translates into light. It then illuminates the truth which, as a consequence, expands reality. In short, consciousness is the perception of oneself added to one’s sensitivity to life around us.”
“Fear is one of the elements that inhabit consciousness, and it has a strong repressive influence. In its primary stage, it acts as an inhibiting factor to the expansion of consciousness because it prevents new and fundamental experiences, without which it won’t be able to aggregate as unity all the elements that are essential to broadening its perception and deepening its sensitivity.” He looked at me and asked: “Do you understand?”.
I said yes. To make sure I had really understood, he said that fear stimulates the inertia of being and living. Reality will always be limited to the truth reached by consciousness, which expands or contracts according to the influence of fear. No more, no less. As consciousness advances, reality changes because truth also changes. To achieve this, it will be essential not to let fear control consciousness. Li Tzu continued: “Exactly. This shows that reality is not somewhere else, but only in your consciousness, as a consequence of the truth that you have perfected up to that moment. This is why consciousness is the theatre stage of life. Not in the sense of theatre performances, but where the individual will be perfected. In life, the experiences; in consciousness, the final elaboration.”
“It doesn’t matter if no-one has understood a particular choice you’ve made; if you’ve been consistent with your truth, that’s enough. Remember that the consequences will also be yours. The painful ones and the liberating ones. Every risk avoided can also mean an opportunity wasted. Be attentive to realise who is in charge of your consciousness. This will define the size of your reality.”
I said that everything had seemed simple up to that point. Li Tzu disagreed: “The complexity is much greater than it seems. In order to free yourself and grow, at a first stage, a very common conflict will arise, which occurs when your consciousness points to one direction and the world points to another. You can deny or ignore the conflict, but you won’t get anywhere. The difficulty arises when you meet yourself and break the ties with common sense, with the pre-established concepts that govern social judgements. You’ll be exposed to criticism from others, even though it’s not anyone’s right or responsibility. You may feel a clear, albeit veiled, sense of banishment. This will bring with it a certain fragility and many doubts as to whether you should embrace your truth or the ancestral standards that have always served as parameters for reality. It’s a phase that will cause many uncertainties between choosing the path of your own light or settling into the armchairs of acceptance of the group to which you belong. Living under the axis of one’s own conscience is not as easy as many imagine. But it is indispensable in order to define the perpetuation of existential slavery, with which no one becomes whole. Only after understanding and accepting this truth will you be ready for the first step”.
“The questions will not cease, nor will the difficulties. They will only change level, bringing about changes in the truth you understand and the reality you experience. Consciousness cannot remain static. Intrinsic movement is indispensable for intensifying and expanding life inside and outside the being. Consciousness transformations modify the truth. So yesterday’s reality will not be the same as today’s.” He paused, smiled and teased me: “Now we have a problem, right?”.
I replied yes. Li Tzu explained that, having understood these concepts, we had to go back to the beginning of our conversation: “To walk correctly, you need to be consistent with your truth without forgetting that reality will change during the transformative experiences that occur incessantly. So it is with everyone who wants to grow. It may take you a while to adjust to this impermanence and imperfection. However, this new moment will allow you to get closer to essential virtues such as humbleness, simplicity, compassion, sincerity, and courage. With them will come intrinsic serenity and abstinence from a terrible vice: the one in which we get used to judging the missteps of the crowds. Follow your truth, but don’t force anyone to follow you. Remember, there will always be those below and beyond you. Respect is rooted in understanding your own difficulties. This is the acclaimed lucidity!”.
I wondered how I could trust my truth if I knew beforehand that it would change. Li Tzu smiled as if he expected the question and explained: “Yes, this demonstrates the importance of two attributes that are indispensable to evolution: principles and virtues. Together, they form the traveller’s safe harbour.”
“Principles are the seeds of light, the criteria that guide personal ethics, such as freedom, peace and dignity. They are the treasures to be unearthed at the centre of one’s being. The virtues, being variants of love, provide the gardening tools without which the seeds, that is, the principles, would not mature.”
“Principles and virtues never lose their reason of being. They are only perfected in their scope and use.”
I wanted to know how to do it. Li Tzu explained: “If you want to walk, you need to develop perception and sensitivity at the same time. Perception has to do with the ability to see in the dark using your own light, which will give you a unique view of reality. Don’t be surprised if your sharpness is often denied by many. Trust your light, because good and evil are not always clear and defined. Only your own consciential experiences will allow you to discern them perfectly. Sensitivity will guide you as to the limits of action. Often, good or evil can vary according to the dosage applied.”
I asked him to explain with examples so that I could be sure I had understood. Li Tzu did so: “There is a Chinese legend that tells of a very ancient and prosperous kingdom where many people were dying of snake poisoning. To protect the people, the emperor promised a gold coin for every snake captured. It was an unprecedented hunt. Every day hundreds of snakes arrived to be exchanged for gold coins. Many left their jobs to become snake hunters. Before long, there was a shortage of bread for the people and horseshoes for the horses, among many other things, as bakers and blacksmiths began to devote themselves to the new and lucrative business. Some even tried to breed snakes in captivity to sell to the emperor. The kingdom began to face difficulties, such as famine, not just because of the lack of bread, but because the wagons, whether due to lack of maintenance or drivers, could no longer travel to trade in other kingdoms. There were no longer any people interested in working as bricklayers or weavers. The worst happened next. When there were no snakes left in the kingdom, rats proliferated by the thousands due to the lack of an important natural predator that attacked these rodents while they were still in the nest. In the wake of the rats came the bubonic plague, which killed more people in one year than snakes could poison in a century.”
I commented that it was a legend with a valuable lesson embedded in it. Li Tzu shrugged and said: “But we can’t always apply the lesson to the moment we’re living. For example, parents have an enormous responsibility in raising their children. To do this, it’s not enough to show them the importance of attending school, but above all to transmit fundamental concepts about ethics to guide their values and explain how solidarity paves the way for proper social interaction. They must be taught how to deal with and dissolve the emotional knots that arise from inevitable frustrations. The important thing is not what the world does to you, but how you react to it. This clarifies or opaques your conscience and defines the suffering and traumas that will affect the joy of your days. They must also help develop a taste for work as a fundamental part of personal evolution. In short, they should help their children strengthen the existential muscles that are essential for a healthy life. This is of the utmost value and a beautiful way to love and protect children. This is how fathers should be, and many look after their children with this mixture of firmness and softness. These are parents who are already living the best of love. However, there are parents who care little for their children, leaving them to discover the best meaning of life in their own mistakes and disappointments. A sturdy tree is at its most vulnerable when it’s still a tiny, unprotected stem two feet above the ground. We often see lives wasted because of this negligence. These are parents who know nothing about love. There are also parents who, in their eagerness to protect their children from the dangers of the world, keep them in safes. Isolated and with no idea of who they are, no idea of their real possibilities, no idea of how to walk in the world and how to walk in life, they become weak, spoilt, deluded, fragile, discouraged, sneaky and petty. Although the love of their parents cannot be denied, these children will behave as if they were the sun of the universe, even though they are far from reverberating a minimum of light. They are parents who miss out on the best of love because of a lack of perception and sensitivity.”
Li Tzu continued: “The line between good and evil is not always clear. For example, patience is a valuable virtue, permissiveness is a dangerous shadow; even though we know this, we often let them mix and deceive us. Wisdom is different from fear, but few people know the difference. There are situations in which virtue lies in generosity, in others in justice. Many people are already able to give generously, but finding the right measure is a stage that very few have reached. As long as you’re not fair to yourself, you won’t be able to be fair to others; this lack of perception and sensitivity is the cause of much pain. Through carelessness, good becomes bad; through abuse, good becomes evil.”
“So self-esteem becomes pride, care becomes vanity, comfort becomes luxury, work becomes an instrument for greed. The humble become subservient, the stoic will be nothing but miserable, purity is confused with naivety and there will be those who believe that jealousy is the spice of love. The misuse of good is one of the most common origins of evil. In truth, good and evil will always be personal and evolutionary issues, as they are regulated by the perception and sensitivity that mould the conscience.”
“Therefore, forget the standards of good and evil established in society, not least because they change according to the way of being and living of each people in different historical periods. Learn about everything and, above all, get to know yourself better, so that you can get closer and closer to good and avoid evil. Yes, both inhabit you. As long as you don’t live your own experiences, you won’t be able to improve your choices and, by mistake, you’ll continue to misuse good tools. We misuse good tools because we feel afraid. This is the origin of evil.”
“We must never get used to evil or the suffering it causes us. To avoid evil, you have to stop feeling fear. The secret is to encourage the expansion of perception and sensitivity without the influence of fear, which insists on deceiving us by claiming that in order to live safely we will have to give up our freedom and dignity. Fear deceives us about peace and deludes us about love. Happiness will become a place that doesn’t exist.”
“Deconstructing fear is the minefield of the good fight, the intrinsic road. Will there be mistakes? Undoubtedly, you will make mistakes many times, and you will have to bear the inevitable consequences. However, not all the effects of mistakes are bad. Error is inherent in learning and a great teacher when used well. Mistakes have always been the ally of the wise. But to do so, you have to learn to choose within the limits of your truth, without external or undue influence. Improved perception and sensitivity give rise to the transmutations that are primordial to evolution because they are the pillars of consciousness. When expanded, truth allows for a better experience of reality. There is no other way to separate the chaff from the wheat, without which there will be no bread.
We emptied our teacups and spent long minutes without saying a word. Then I decided to try one of the peaches lying on the table. It was delicious and I commented on the sweet flavour of the fruit. Li Tzu arched his lips in a slight smile and joked: “In order to taste the honey of life, you must no longer confuse the vine with the snake”. I remarked that it had been a simple but significant lesson. There were several pending issues in my life, some of them for years. I had been putting off decisions that I felt were right because I was afraid of the consequences. I didn’t want to displease others, causing dissatisfaction within myself, because I was disrespecting my own truth. By avoiding risks and discomfort, as a natural effect, I kept various existential aspects stagnant and hindered my evolution. In fact, fear acted as an inhibiting factor in my consciousness and, as a consequence, generated suffering by keeping me away from the truth and preventing me from a clear reality. Yes, I could be different and better. Li Tzu frowned and summarised that day’s teachings in a simple piece of advice: “Today is a good day to grow up, young man!”.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.