Li Tzu, the Taoist master, infused the herbs in the kettle. I had just arrived in the small Chinese village at the foot of the Himalayas. Sitting at the kitchen table, we were watched by Midnight, the black cat who also lived in the house. The soft sound of a Tibetan mantra and the scent of incense helped to keep the peaceful atmosphere of the house and its residents. We talked about how to keep control of ourselves without losing our sensitivity, and to continue with a serene posture when the world seems to collapse around us. We also talked about how good it is to be close to a person like that when we feel distressed and lost before the tangled situations that cross our existence. I said that anxiety was the main contemporary illness. Li Tzu explained: “The origin of anxiety is fear. We wish to control the events of the world, those which are beyond us, which we have no control over. Because it is impossible, we become dependent on random events. We suffer while situations are unresolved. We project disastrous consequences that, most of the time, will never happen. We are eroded little by little. Being one of the species of fear, it grows and accumulates within us. It somatizes into illness and causes emotional imbalance. This will keep happening as long as we maintain the thought pattern we have been conditioned to.”
I questioned what would be the way to reverse the pattern. He went further: “The Tao Te Ching teaches that we have to go to the origins of suffering to understand that it is unnecessary. The effects stop when we put an end to the cause”. I pondered that his words were simple, but not clear enough. Li Tzu continued: “I am not talking about an accident that can happen by the simple fact we exist. I am talking about the disasters we cause within us by our lack of understanding of life.” He filled our cups with tea and continued: “Three are the causes of suffering. We disconnect what needs to stay connected; we stop an inevitable process of transformation; we run away from fear instead of dissolving it.”
Once again, I asked the Taoist master to be clearer. He was always thoughtful: “We have been conditioned to think that we depend on world events as determinants of happiness, peace, dignity, love and freedom. This is the pattern that needs to be reversed.” He took a sip of tea and pondered his own words: “I am not talking about being insensitive to life around us. There is no light without compassion, mercy and softness. These are virtues indispensable to the plenitudes of life. However, we have been educated within a mental process that makes us addicted. We always need someone to do something or a certain situation to happen so that we can feel good. Thus, the suffering will never end. We look outside for the solution that only exists inside ourselves. A dependency that we create by getting our minds used to think in the wrong way. I see people too connected to the news of the world and distant from the events of the soul. The lack of connection with oneself makes everything seem confused, rushed and with little sense. At first it may seem selfish, but it is just the opposite. The greater the internal connection, the greater the external understanding.”
“The planet is in constant rotation, because movement is one of the pillars of life. Everything changes because evolution is an inexorable cosmic law. There is no stopping this flow. Accept that, at least for now, accidents will happen in ways that we cannot prevent because they are reflections of the planetary psycho-sphere, which is still very dense. Remember, the world vibrates at the level of its inhabitants and we are one of them. Do you understand where we can act effectively?” he asked and pointed to his own chest.
“Since we have enormous difficulty in dealing with the inconstancy of life, with the unforeseen, with events beyond our grasp, we will suffer by insisting on a mistaken mental pattern. We continue to search desperately for stability in the things of the world and we deny to look for it within ourselves. We become heavy from carrying so much worry and suffering. Everything around also becomes contaminated.”
“When we imagine that we might lose something that gives us pleasure, comfort or security, we suffer. By reversing the meaning of life, we feel insecure about the threats ahead and anxious about not knowing what tomorrow will be like. So we fight to make things stay as they are, so nothing changes, not even in us, going against the inevitable universal transformations at all levels of existence. Like a hypothetical dam, we block the inevitable flow of transformations. To keep flowing, life will press the dam until it breaks”.
“We should perfect the spirit to learn from difficulties. Understand the need for change as an essential part of the evolutionary process, even if it takes a while to find the right explanations. Accept that they need to happen all the time. Inside and outside of you. When we oppose life, existence loses its taste and leads us by force.”
“Ultimately, we grant power to fear instead of understanding that it is useless. We play socially accepted characters in search of approval; we follow models rather than the audacity to be authentic. We accumulate more than is reasonable out of fear of possible difficulties. We live more in remorse for past mistakes than in gratitude for the opportunity to do differently and better in the present; we fear the uncertainty of the future when we have today in our hands. If we pay attention, we will realize that the difficulty in forgiving consists in the fear of changing, not only the intensity, but the way of looking and loving. Fear has become a god for contemporary societies. We offer our lives on the altar of this dark divinity”.
I recognised the meaning of his words, but I asked for a solution. The Taoist master took another sip of tea and explained, “We think that the root of fear is in the world while, in truth, its seed has been planted in our minds and spreads a little more each day. No doubt there are dangers out there. However, none so evil as losing oneself. When that happens, it is like leaving a child in the jungle at the mercy of the beasts. He emptied his cup and concluded: “The mistake lies in running away or trying to protect oneself from fear when one should dissolve it in the air”.
I joked that I would like to meet this magician. We laughed. I wanted to know how to dissolve fear. To have that power would be marvellous. Li Tzu was didactic: “Virtues, consciousness and wisdom are the three vertexes of the sacred triangle. Sacred as everything that perfects us. They are the instruments that pack the song of life in the dance of eternal evolution. They must be played in harmony and to the fullest possible extent, a little more each day”.
“Virtues are the different attributes of love, starting from humbleness to purity, passing through goodness, sincerity and justice, among many others, which we have already spoken about so much. Consciousness is the refined perception of oneself and of everything around. The understanding of who I am, of who I still need to be and how this is paramount in my relationships. Wisdom is the concomitant exercise of virtues and consciousness. A serene understanding of the movements of life and the opportunities to flourish in every moment. Wisdom is expressed through each of our infinite choices. Thus, we draw the sacred triangle.”
“Fear is a disease arising from a mistaken mental pattern. Healing occurs in the exercise of lightness and faith”. The Taoist master asked me if I knew the meaning of these precious virtues. I told him that lightness was linked to detachment, not only from the material aspect, but above all from emotional unnecessities. Everything I need is inside me, but I only perfect myself through the relationships I have in the world. The problem is that we always desire more than we need. Then a little more, like mythological modern Sisyphus who can never get the stone to the top of the mountain. Thus, nothing completes us. This has an unbearable weight and aggravates fear by the sense of powerlessness it brings.”
“Otherwise, the less we need, the lighter we will be,” I said. Li Tzu agreed and added on the need for lightness: “Fear is in proportion to our dependencies. The smaller our existential vices are, the greater the power we will have over fear”.
We emptied our cups. Li Tzu, always delicate, refilled them. Then he said: “However, it is not enough. Faith is an indispensable ally in the battle against fear. Faith is a virtue that is very badly understood because its meaning has been distorted over time.” He looked at me with curiosity and asked, “Do you know what faith is?” I answered that faith is different from belief. To have faith is not only to believe in a higher power that enlightens and protects us in accordance with our requests and desires. Faith is the consciousness that we are an inseparable part of the universe and that it inhabits us. We come from the same beginning, from a single explosion, we have the same atoms. We are interconnected since before time existed. The energy that moves the stars is the same energy that moves me. Faith is to make this energy flow in and through me, transform me and manifest itself in light. Like the stars, I concluded. The Taoist master nodded his head in agreement. However, he added an important explanation: “Faith is the virtue that makes the harmony between you and the universe. In what way? Do your best every day; be careful to do a little better tomorrow and you will lack nothing. This is the Law of the Way. You will have light and protection as you perfect yourself. This practice grants an unshakable kind of courage known as faith. Lightness weakens threats; faith dissolves fear.”
I asked how I could deepen my understanding of the Laws of the Way. Li Tzu reminded me, “Remember the sacred triangle. Virtues, consciousness and choices dialogue with the Way and its Laws all the time. No question will remain unanswered”.
That conversation happened many years ago. I remembered it when one of my daughters called me for a chat. She had attended law school. She was a lawyer in a good firm and all her present friends were also in that legal circle. It was the air she breathed and her source of livelihood. I had already noticed something different in her behaviour. She was more introspective than usual. Her, out of all people, that was so cheerful and communicative. I never considered introspection a problem, just a valuable phase that precedes a good expansion. I waited. However, I was startled when she told me she was thinking of quitting law school. She wasn’t happy with the way she was living, she explained. Her difficulty consisted in giving up almost ten years dedicated to a specific study, as if she were throwing away everything she had lived through. A waste of time and money, described the feeling. There was also a lack of understanding of herself. Her friends were sincerely excited about the lifestyle they were practising. They talked of plans to set up their own law firms, others planned to join the judiciary. They were excited about their careers, while she felt more out of place and discouraged every day. Why didn’t she feel like them? She wanted to understand her problem.
Out of force of habit and taste, I arranged for us to talk in a coffee shop. I had already emptied a cup when she arrived. She gave me a tight hug and I noticed a rebel tear in one of her eyes. She masked it. Then she told me about the moment she was going through. She talked a lot. At the end, she declared it was time to make a choice: to go on or to start again. There were pros and cons to either decision, she pondered. She made a point of showing that she had thought a lot about the matter. She said she was interested in doing a Master’s in Literature, in the area of Editorial Studies. She had always had a love affair with books. It was a difficult choice because it was angular. It would change the course of his existence. He claimed that in Law he had managed to climb many steps in her career, achievements that would be left behind. Worse still, without the certainty of what was to come. She suffered a lot with this impasse and confessed to be indecisive.
I joked that I would only speak after another cup of coffee: “That’s my price”. She laughed and went to get it from the counter. On her way back I told her: “There is no such thing as indecision, only fear”.
She looked at me as if she did not understand. I explained: “You have already made the choice. Fear does not allow you to take hold of it. It takes you away from yourself. This is why you suffer”.
It was as if Li Tzu was sitting at the table with us. I could almost see him with his soft smile and serene gaze as i spoke to my daughter, “When we abandon our dreams and gifts, we disconnect a part of ourselves. We become less than we could be. This process makes us suffer because it takes us away from our essence. Furthermore, you are interrupting your process of transformation. This also causes pain.”
I had the feeling that the Taoist master was smiling at me. She interrupted me to remember the excitement that was contagious to her colleagues in law, but did not involve her. I argued: “You must understand that your evolutionary journey is different. No one is the same as anyone else. This makes us unique and that alone makes us beautiful.”
“Suffering arises when, by default, we project our lives mirroring the success of others. This mental conditioning is like a software, installed in ancestral factories, that has always malfunctioned. Yet we insist. We wait for something that will never come. As a method, it is useless because of the singularities that involve each person.”
“Changing the standard is understanding that, just like all people, you are not the same as anyone else. Neither better nor worse, just different.”
“We interrupt evolution when we stubbornly follow a path that is not our own. Something vital within us also shuts down. A pattern that manifests itself in suffering. The solution lies in not denying your own originality. Walk in a way that only you know.”. I took a sip of coffee and suggested, “Understand who you are, observe your tastes, expand your abilities, what keeps you enlightened, believe in your perspective, especially when it shows things no one else can see. Be intense, but be light. To be whole you have to have faith in yourself. Create your own pattern of being and living. Only this will lead you to the plenitudes.”
She told me it wasn’t easy. As an editor, she would have a much more restricted job market in terms of opportunities than a career as a lawyer. She would also earn a lot less. I asked her: “Which is more important, being rich or being yourself? I took a sip of coffee and told her: “One thing does not cancel the other, but it is necessary to set up a scale of priorities. These are choices that define one’s destiny in the near future.”
My daughter revealed her fear of not even getting a job after her Masters in Editorial Studies. I was honest: “It won’t be easy. However, have faith in yourself, this is equivalent to having faith in life. Do your best every day without losing your lightness. In this way, do not doubt or feel afraid, life will protect and illuminate your steps”.
Then she wondered whether it was past time to make such radical changes. Perhaps it would be better to accept the choices she had made in the past, because it would be a waste to throw away so many years of studies. I advised her: “Now you return to the discourse of fear. Remember, nothing is lost, everything is transformed. This was one of the valuable lessons left by the French alchemist.”
“Everyone, at some moment, gets lost on the paths of existence. We become stronger when we return to the road of life, the one that leads to our own soul, where we will meet the soul of the world.”
“For the rest, fear has never been a good counsellor. It makes us walk in the opposite direction to the truth that dwells within us. It drives us away from love and leaves us in darkness by disconnecting us from our own light. We grow weaker every day.” I took another sip of coffee and continued, “It is never too late to change and be whole. Every day is a good day to get to know who I am, all that I can become and discover the endless magic that life has in store for me. The only revolution of existence happens within us. It is the personal evolution of virtues, of awareness and of choices. Each of us sets our own limits.”
Not by chance, one of my daughter’s work colleagues entered the cafeteria. Elegant, beautiful and polite, she greeted us kindly. A very pleasant girl. Excited, she said she was going to a hearing and asked my daughter if she wanted to accompany her. It was the trial of an important lawsuit, much talked about in the newspapers. There was a sincere animation in her voice. For a fraction of a second, I had an exchange of glances with my little girl that didn’t need any words. “Be virtuous and listen to your conscience. Whatever it is, it will show you the best choice. Not for me or for anyone else. Only for you.” That’s what I would have said and that’s exactly what she understood.
After refusing the invitation, they said goodbye. We were alone again. My daughter winked, in a jovial and cheerful way that had not happened for a long time, and said: “No two stories are alike. Save for farce or plagiarism, both are ordinary tragedies. Literature teaches us that.” Then she said she would go to the office. That same day she would resign and enrol for her master’s degree. She had a smile on her face that only the most beautiful poetry could translate. She gave me a kiss and left jumping up and down like a girl who has just passed a hard test at school.
Like a madman, I smiled alone as I watched Li Tzu dance across the coffee shop tables. I waited for the feelings and ideas to settle down. Silently, I thanked the Taoist master, emptied my glass and left.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.