Where have you been lately?

Heaven and hell are at my disposal. They manifest themselves according to my choices. Before I choose how to act or what words to use, I need to remember that all ideas and emotions are created within me; they influence my decisions which, in turn, define who I am. Even if I decide not to do or speak anything in a situation, I choose which thoughts I use to construct my reality. Consciousness establishes not only the boundaries of reality, whether broad or narrow, shallow or deep, but also the aspects that exist in this reality. So I can’t blame anyone if I’ve spent most of my days in the noisy turmoil of hell. It will always be a personal choice as to where I wander in the next few hours. As long as I believe that my days are bad because of what others do, it means that I know absolutely nothing about freedom.

It took me a long time to learn this simple lesson. So elementary that I tend to forget it. I only remember it when I notice I’m spending my afternoons in hell. Why do I insist on wandering around places that are so bad for me?

It all started many years ago, when the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk in the Order, came to Brazil for some lectures. They were to take place in Bahia. An admirer of Jorge Amado’s stories, he was enchanted by the magic contained in the characters and scenarios narrated by the writer. He wanted to walk the slopes of Pelourinho, visit the Mercado Modelo, be enveloped by the energies of Candomblé, visit the colonial churches, watch a capoeira circle, listen to the music, savour the cuisine and appreciate the costumes of the people. I met him in Salvador. Other monks, as we call the members of the Esoteric Order of the Mountain Monks, who are also Brazilian, went to meet him. As well as his undeniable wisdom, the Elder’s sweet personality was one of the reasons why people liked being around him. The good monk seemed to stroll through the gardens of heaven every day. He had the gift of taking us there as soon as he uttered his first words. What’s more, his mere presence made the atmosphere pleasant. The problem was that most of us couldn’t stay in heaven for long.

He asked me to take care of the itinerary and make the necessary arrangements. I did just that. The problems started at the airport. Jonas, a monk born and raised in Salvador, insisted that the Elder stay at his house in Rio Vermelho, a traditional neighbourhood in the city, where Jorge Amado once lived. He said the house had plenty of rooms and could accommodate everyone. The Elder loved the idea and asked if I would mind cancelling the hotel. Although I held back my initial annoyance, I said there was no problem. As a group of six, we all set off for Jonas’s house.

Without any luxury, but very comfortable, the house in Rio Vermelho seemed to emanate Bahia through all its bricks. Whether it was the Carybé paintings scattered around the walls, the Maria Bethânia songs playing in the background or the acarajé served as a starter at a lunch full of tasty dishes. Jonas had the kindness and endearing informality of the Bahian people. That evening, at the Elder’s request, I had planned a visit to a Candomblé ceremony. I had made the contact through a friend at an Umbanda group I always attended in a Rio de Janeiro. Although they are different religions, they have some characteristics and followers in common. Jonas suggested taking us to another place where there would be a similar ritual, except that he was the babalorixá’s cousin. As I only had one indication, all the monks agreed that we should go along with Jonas’ suggestion. So we did. We took part in a beautiful ceremony, full of renewing energies. The change seemed right to me. Day after day, the script I had drawn up was replaced by the suggestions of the Bahian monk, and nothing remained of the original. Although the Elder was always kind to everyone, Jonas became his main interlocutor during those days. Little by little, the hours became unpleasant for me. To top it all off, I discovered that Jonas had offered to fill the vacancy in the Order to teach a course on Epictetus’ Echyridion during the next term of study at the monastery, the same one I had been waiting for and preparing for for several years. I began to understand Jonas’ true intention behind all his hospitality and kindness. At that moment, I had no doubt that my chances were slim.

From then on, despite accompanying the group everywhere, the days became bitter and dull. Nothing delighted me or had any flavour. I lacked desire and joy. There was impatience left, to the point where it irritated me to see everyone smiling happily and praising the great suggestions Jonas offered. I felt smaller by the minute. It got worse when I saw him talking to the Elder. Every time they exchanged words, the devil hugged me.

The day before we left, when we were alone and I didn’t make any comments, the Elder’s acute sensitivity led him to ask me: “Why have you chosen to wander through hell for the last few days?”. Dignity prevented me from complaining or pointing out Jonas’ sneaky intentions. I disguised myself and, without lying, simply said that I was worried about some problems. The Elder nodded and commented: “Most of our problems are nothing more than mistaken mental creations, born of emotional imbalance, disbelief in our own abilities and a habit for interfering in the will of others, as if this were fundamental to happiness. We get caught up in dark emotions, usually stemming from fear, which reduce our potential to think and limit the scope of our vision. We create dependencies that not only prevent us from walking, but also rob us of the lightness of life. The reason for so many problems is that we have a factory of them running at full steam inside us.” He shrugged and muttered: “The devil does nothing to receive visitors. We’re the ones who invite ourselves in.” And he left.

Now, despite all the respect and affection I had for the Elder, how could I possibly be satisfied with the situation? The competition for the place to teach the course had proved unfair. Jonas seduced everyone with his hospitality and daily demonstrations of kindness and competence. Everyone was charmed by him. The years of study dedicated to preparing me to qualify for the Enchiridion  would be overshadowed by a mere illusionist trick played on me by my competitor. He had made me insignificant in the eyes of the other monks on that trip. He was dishonest.

At the last lecture, in the packed Castro Alves Theatre, without telling anyone, the Elder decided to change the subject. He decided to talk about heaven and hell: “Contrary to what many people believe, they are not places we travel to after death. They are the ways in which we choose to live our lives.”

After the initial surprise, with a few doses of discomfort, common when faced with a reality that, although intimate to us, we are reluctant to admit, he explained: “When the reasons for my existence focus on my victory over others, I buy daily tickets to travel to hell”. He paused before clarifying: “A relevant issue is the difficulty we have in understanding the different types of battles that characterise this senseless struggle. The race for admiration, applause and approval from other people for something we do is one of many examples of the stubborn desire to convince the world of our worth. When we dedicate ourselves to imposing the superiority of our reasons, to planting the flag of our truth as the right one, to emphasising the knowledge we have without further ado, we are in fact waging a war to show ourselves to be bigger or better than someone else. The struggle to impose our will on someone else’s opinion is born of intrinsic insecurity and imbalance, as different modalities of the same dark battle.”

He noted the audience’s discomfort with his words, but didn’t stop: “We all make frequent trips to hell. To deny it is to lie to yourself. The reason is simple. We are conditioned to this behaviour. We live as if we were in a race to get ahead of the person next to us. When the mentality is still crude, getting ahead means being more important.”

He paused deliberately for a rhetorical question: “However, what is really important?”.

Silence. All that could be heard was people shifting in their seats in the face of their discomfort. He continued: “Love is the most important thing, many would say with wisdom. However, is the existential model I have chosen for myself helping me to love more and better?” He paused for us to concatenate the idea and continued: “Peace, some would say, full of reason. However, has the way I live given me the serenity I need?”. He was silent for a moment and then teased: “Happiness, many would say without a chance of being wrong. However, have I been happy or have I numbed myself with moments of euphoria?”. After a few seconds of silence, he said: “To be healthy, others would suggest. But is living in eternal conflict, tension and anxiety a healing factor or the cause of new illnesses?” He frowned and said: “Everyone knows the answers. Just as we know what’s really important. But we never remember to ask the question.” He gave a resigned smile and reminded us: “The devil thanks us for doing his job”.

People looked away from each other, as if those words laid bare their souls. For a moment, I thought that the Elder was ready to take away everyone’s sleep that night: “The mythological figure of the devil is the symbolism of evil in the fall of the angel who didn’t know how to deal with his own shadows. The devil doesn’t manifest himself in others to disturb us; he is intimate to us and we call him to dance with every dissatisfaction we allow to settle in us. The good thing about this truth is that the angels are also intimate with us and are on hand to offer us another outlook in the face of any annoyance.”

The Elder clarified: “It’s not the others who are the problem. They never are. The problem is our difficulty in dealing with other people’s choices when they differ from our own. If someone’s attitude has aroused some annoyance, it’s my problem to stop it getting to me. It will show me how much I belong and the part of me that I haven’t yet mastered. This is where what really matters begins: it’s all about the fight I have with myself. Heaven or hell is established in my ability to filter and elaborate on the emotions I feel. Angels or demons are defined by the clarity of the lenses with which I see myself and observe the world. Nobody else has the power to determine where I walk, whether in the gardens of heaven or in the aridity of hell. I lose this power when I insist on interfering in the will of others; I become dependent on them, and this is where the devil celebrates. I conjure up noisy days and tumultuous relationships. I suffer. Like a fallen angel, I lose my wings and descend into hell. I can’t complain. Only I can clip my wings. Why do I do that?”

He smiled and asked about the previous question: “Do I do it because I’m afraid of flying?”. He answered: “I don’t think so. I do it because I haven’t learnt to see the beauty in life. Since I don’t see it, I think it doesn’t exist. Yes, hell gets bigger the more I disbelieve in the true beauty that is in me. I am led to believe that there is no possibility of love, happiness, peace, freedom and dignity without certain actions from other people. I feel incapable of achieving the plenitudes, that are the great beauty of life, through my own efforts. The world is the school, we are the workshops”.

He frowned and explained: “Since we are all destined for high altitudes, the story that I have to overcome others to achieve true power begins to make sense. Instead of conquering myself, I set out to subjugate the will and desire of others. As a symbol of this absurd victory, in pursuit of the sensation of going higher, I need to climb over someone. Then someone else. Even if I climb on top of everyone, I won’t be able to get off the ground. In the end, even after overcoming everyone, I’ll succumb to myself and, exhausted, I’ll realise that I’ve gone nowhere. I’ll just sink into the hell I created for myself. I won’t have any love, peace or happiness left; I won’t know freedom or dignity”. He shrugged and asked: “What kind of victory, truth and power is this?”.

Then, when the audience’s discomfort reached its peak, the Elder reminded them that the ability to regain and maintain the serenity of the days also belongs to us: “The angels are also intimate to us, because our essence is made of Light. The secret lies in learning to see with the eyes of the soul. They open the gates of heaven within us.” Realising the questions on people’s faces, he explained: “The eyes of the face show us the appearances of all people and the physical consequences of their choices. This makes defects and imperfections stand out, making problems seem more abundant than solutions. The eyes of the soul, on the other hand, reveal the essence that animates matter, the truth behind a person’s movements. Their intentions, reasons and perspectives. We will perceive their difficulties, feel their anguish and understand their pain. Instead of judging, merely condemning the disastrous consequences of actions, as we usually do, we start to observe and learn. This makes us sympathetic, not out of moral impulse, but on a higher level, we move forward through keen perception and sensitivity. We’ll realise that it’s often us who don’t know or can’t act in a better way. Empathy flourishes. We then admit that we can’t demand a perfection that we don’t have to offer. Compassion emerges. Frustration gives way to understanding; irritation fades away to patience; resentment turns into forgiveness. Forgiveness is a beautiful way of loving and has the power to free us from suffering. To suffer is to live in hell”.

He took a sip of water and warned: “There are many ways to dance with the devil”. At this point, he looked at me and said to the audience: “One of them, a very common situation, is the projection of the evil we do towards the intentions of others. Although we know very little about ourselves, we believe we know everything about other people’s wills and desires; the tricks and subterfuges they use to get their way. We end up as prisoners of our own trap, spending our days wrapped up in the suffering, anger and frustration of situations that may never happen.” He paused before closing with a piece of advice: “Don’t worry so much about other people’s devils. Pay more attention to educating your personal demons; in the course of your life, they will do you more harm than the dangers of the world.”

At the end, we went to the airport. Each monk would return to his own city. When he said goodbye to me, Jonas said that he had only learnt the night before that I was a candidate to teach the Enchiridion during the next period of study at the monastery. He said that when he found out, he withdrew his candidature because he thought I was better prepared for the job. He also said that he would sign up to attend my classes because he admired me so much. I just smiled and hugged him. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even know what to say to myself.

When I said goodbye to the Elder, as we exchanged a tight hug, he whispered: “We were both in Salvador last week. We visited the same places with the same people. However, we enjoyed different landscapes and had different company”. He paused so I could allocate the idea and said: “Have you understood the scope of creation and the power that each of us possesses as the creator of our own reality? From now on, make good use of this lesson so that your visit to hell won’t have been in vain”.

Then the good monk left with his slow but sure steps.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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