I ran into the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, by chance, outside the walls of the monastery. He was coming from a walk in the nearby forest. Because it had rained in the previous days and now the sun had reappeared, the morning was perfect for picking the mushrooms that grew around the oak trees. Probably that evening we would have his well-known soup. I had gone out for a smoke. As usual, the monk was in a good mood, a perfect balance between cheerfulness and composure. He greeted me with a sincere smile, showed me the basket filled with mushrooms and mentioned that picking had been good. He made no comment about the cigarette. As he started to move toward the gate, I said I had resumed smoking so that I would not commit suicide. He made only a concise remark: “How tragic, isn’t it?” And continued. After a few steps, he stopped, turned and said: “I will be in the mess hall.” He winked as if telling a secret and said: “I was told a cup of coffee is perfect after a cigarette.” And moved on. I followed his slow but steady steps until he disappeared behind the walls.
I smoked the cigarette until almost no butt was left. The attitude of the monk annoyed me, I thought he was inconsiderate to my pain. My mind was filled with disorganized ideas, none powerful enough to cheer me up. I went to the mess hall to meet the Old Man. He was seated at the far end of the huge communal table. Alone, he seemed distracted with his thoughts; before him, a cup of coffee, a generous slice of oat cake next to a thick slice of a delicious local cheese. I arrived on the offensive. I charged him with being insensitive, with belittling my suffering. Not even the possibility of me committing suicide had moved him. The Old Man looked at me with sweet eyes, signaled with his chin for me to sit next to him, stood up and went to get me a cup of coffee. Then, he sat down and said: “Drama is for the weak.” He made a brief pause and continued: “Each one has their problems, in the precise measure of the lessons they need to learn, no more, no less. Do not waste time with pointless regrets and useless acts. Instead, take the chance that has been offered to learn and transform yourself.” He sipped some coffee and continued: “Furthermore, you don’t have to behave like a teen caught in mischievous act. You know all cigarette-related hazards and are fully capable of making your own choices. Believe me when I say I do not reproach you. Smoking outside the monastery is a right you have, and no one has anything to do with that. Therefore, do not be uptight. I do not smoke because I don’t like it and I want to enjoy my time in this existence healthily; this is a way I have to give thanks and respect the universe for the chance of being here. Another reason for me not to smoke is not to lose my sense of taste. Not having the pleasure of tasting good food is bad; losing the zest for life is even worse.”
Next, he brought to my mind that we were members of the Esoteric Order of the Monks of the Mountain, EOMM, and this name was not for the mere fact that the monastery was located on top of a mountain, but because the Sermon on the Mount was the core axis of our studies. This valuable philosophic legacy has the depth one is willing to dive into. He looked directly into my eyes and recited by heart a small excerpt: “‘Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost his flavor, wherewith shall it be salted?’ You lose the meaning of life.”
Without acknowledging that, in fact, I had felt bad for having been caught smoking, I said I had not understood the connection between that excerpt and the current point my life was at. The Old Man was patient: “In the physical plan, salt is the main seasoning of food. Like everything in life, balance is necessary. A well-seasoned dish is more flavorful; with too much salt, it is inedible; without salt, it is bland and devoid of any gustatory appeal. This is a perfect metaphor for the spiritual sphere: the salt of life is the disposition, endurance, joy for learning, personal improvement, sharing of virtues that little by little we develop, the beauty of the Path, with its flowers and thorns. For perceiving the universe’s love and wisdom moving within ourselves, both in the construct of a better world and the shaping of the master we will one day be.” The balanced use of salt is necessary both in the kitchen and in life: if it lacks, we lose the will to face the quest and get stuck in the swamp of despondency and distress; if it is excessive, we will be hampered by the fog that prevents the best gaze, leading to the edge of fanaticism.”
“To be the salt of earth is to share the joy and hope that we keep alive within ourselves; it is to set oneself in motion convinced that we carry the entire power of the universe in our soul, because we can already feel it, and this power is manifested through our choices. Walking free and in peace is the example that will season the world.” He nibbled a bit of the cake and continued: “Not being the salt of the earth is the other side, a dark face of existence. It is like getting lost on the Path, to be astray, disconnected from oneself, imprisoned in the dark room of immobility and unreasonable fear.”
“One should bear in mind that when the lecture was delivered, salt was used to preserve food. It is no different in the spiritual plane; we are accountable for keeping alive life’s worthy principles, light’s noble values, the divine core of being, which reveal, in everyday actions, the sacred that is hidden in all things; it is finding beauty in everyone. To be the salt of the earth is to keep the most beautiful dreams despite the hardships innate to the Path.”
I tried to hold back tears but could not. The Old Man patiently waited for me to stop crying and cracked a joke: “Taste your tears, they are salty.” I laughed while sobbing. He continued: “Suicides tend not to warn about the act of despair and darkness they will commit. However, those who feel helpless and, ultimately, need attention, tend to use this childish gimmick.” I acknowledged that I did not know how to handle my problems. He suggested: “Speak up, externalize all your feelings, all your pain, all the facts that oppress you.” I asked if he would help me. He was sweet and honest in his answer: “I don’t know if I will be able to help him. I only know that you, more than anyone else, has the power to help yourself. All the light you need lies dormant in your core. You must activate it. When you speak, you will listen to your own voice, your reasons, set the tone of your emotions and the senselessness that is fueling you. This is an excellent exercise. You will also realize that when you transfer to others responsibility for your happiness, you will be postponing and relinquishing the power you have over your own life. This will prompt you to understand who you actually are and the transformations you must undertake in yourself. Only then life will really be modified.” I wanted to know if there existed another method, so that I would not be so exposed. The Old Man nodded: “Yes, meditation is another effective way to reach the same results. The choice is always yours.”
I confessed I felt somewhat embarrassed to expose my blemishes and concerns. The monk furrowed his brow and said: “Simplicity is the virtue of accepting ourselves the way we are, with no subterfuges, personas or fear. Simplicity is the power of transparency, a powerful tool for the necessary transformations of the self.” He paused for a moment, and added: “If you want, I am here to listen to you.”
I immediately started to vent my afflictions and torments. I explained how unhappy I was with my professional life, and how unbearable my love relationship had become after many years. As one could expect, I blamed my partners and my girlfriend for my pains. I accused them of stubbornness in continuously acting improperly, each one in their own way, with their motivations and deficiencies. I spoke until tiring. The Old Man refilled our cups with coffee, stared at me tenderly and said: “You can see the shortcomings of others very accurately, can’t you? How about your own hardships? I have not heard a single word about them. Passing to others responsibility for your own happiness is a tricky but tempting shadow. It is so easy to blame others or regret our lack of luck to justify our suffering. Whenever we fall in this trap, we give up the salt of life.”
“They are like they are supposed to be, with their pains and pleasures, each one with their quest with the level of awareness and capacity to love at that moment. No one has to change in order to fit into our wishes or needs. You do not need anyone to be happy. To understand this idea is the first step to allowing yourself the wings of freedom. However, we cannot forget that personal relationships are essential as workshops for the improvement of the self, because the difficulties and disappointments caused by the world are effective tools used in the process of evolution, because they set us in motion and make us reinvent ourselves, always with a different, better way of being and living. The huge difficulties and weaknesses of others will prompt the understanding of what virtues still lie dormant within you and need to flourish, like the mushrooms need rainy nights to germinate at dawn. The other is necessary so that you can spark and share all the light that exist in you, because what you can’t share you don’t have or you are not. Hence, blessed are the frustrations! To realize that is to build a garden of peace where previously there was a battlefield.” He smiled and completed: “Within your heart.”
We remained quite some time without uttering a word. I broke the silence to say I was a weak person. I admitted I did not have the strength to overcome the barriers that appeared in my life. The Old Man furrowed his brow, as he used to do when he became more serious and said: “The salt of the earth has its origin in self-knowledge. This is the source that nourishes all power, it is the root of the magic of life.” He paused briefly and then continued: “The more a person actually knows himself, the stronger he becomes. The opposite is also true, delaying the journey of the person with landscapes of illusion, excuses and whines. Lack of success can put an end to a dream or be a powerful fertilizer to propel it; the choice will always be yours.”
“Accepting who you are, with no subterfuges or lies but with the responsibility and endurance to improve, grants you the power to change all around you, as you change yourself. The most effective method to overcome the hurdles of existence is the shaping of virtues in the self. The virtues are elements of light that will dissipate darkness; they show that the tallest walls may be as high as a chalk line drawn on the floor.”
He arched his lips in a discrete smile and listed some possibilities: “Humility and simplicity to accept we are yet to be perfect, and therefore cannot demand perfection from others; compassion regarding hardships and limits of others; mercy to embrace the world and put an end to indifference; purity and justice to stop evil; delicacy, kindness and patience at any and all times; courage, hope and faith to move on; love to illuminate all dark corners you find.” His gaze became distant for a while and he added: “The possibilities of using the virtues as tools for one to outdo oneself and evolve are endless.” He looked me in the eyes and suggested: “Invent yours, Yoskhaz, and be happy. Do not waste the salt of the earth!”
Next, the Old Man excused himself, saying it was time for his meditation. Before leaving, however, he drank all the coffee from his cup, shrugged his shoulders, and said, unassumingly: “Always drink it all.” At that time, I did not understand this last remark. I remained seated in the mess hall for I don’t know how long a time. Only then I noticed, for the first time, that all the cups of the monastery had a heart engraved in the bottom, visible only when they were empty. I smiled. Then I laughed out loud, started dancing around the table and blessed the Old Man for his healthy madness. I realized that if I went to the core of myself, and emptied it of all dark conditionings, ideas and feelings, I would see what I had never seen before, my heart. There is the power of life; from there comes the salt of earth.”
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.