One of my partners in the advertisement agency managed to get a hold of me at the only inn in the small Chinese village where Li Tzu lived. Mobile phone and internet services were poor and intermittent because of the area, often assailed by strong winds. The message left at the reception was clear: I was to interrupt my studies on Tao Te Ching with the Taoist master and return home immediately. A well-known global organization had come to us, seeking to close a hefty deal. However, to best serve this organization, we would have to cancel all agreements we had with small and mid-size companies, that formed the bulk of our clients. The peace and happiness that I had from the studies, mediation and the practice of yoga, that I had started on that trip, disappeared entirely. I became tense, and could not make up my mind whether I should go or stay; whether to engage in a multi-million dollar deal that, depending on shifting interests of a global organization, could go south or make me rich; or not to accept the deal and keep on having the many clients that have been with us until now, many since the beginning. The partners were on edge, split in their decision. I even argued with one of them when I returned the phone call.
When I entered Li Tzu’s house, Midnight, a lazy and suspicious black cat that lived there looked at me with puzzled eyes, bristled and went to hide. The Taoist master, just by seeing me, even not knowing what had happened, did not think twice before stating: “Some event was not well taken in your core, and was powerful enough to take you off balance. Your energy exudes tension and maladjustment.” I confessed I was distressed and told him what was going on. He invited me in for tea. While I made myself comfortable at the table, Li Tzu brewed some herb tea. I told him I was sad to cut short my retreat and return home as requested by my partners. The retreat made me feel good. The Taoist master shrugged, as someone saying the obvious, and commented: “Each one will have their hurdles to face on the Path. What makes the pilgrim strong are the choices they make whenever they find a fork in the road. And they are many; some more simple, some quite complex. On one hand, the road of passion; on the other, the alley of love. At each choice, we write the journal of the journey; we define he landscape we will see next, the time it will take and how hard it is to cross that stretch.”
I wanted to know the reason why some choices are so complicated. Li Tzu replied with sympathy: “Choices are easy if they relate to apparently superficial aspects of our life; sophisticated if they imply significant changes. They are all important. They only become complicated if we still don’t know who we are. This prevents us from knowing where we should go. They are all simple when we know where we want to reach.” I disagreed by saying that anyone in my position would also be unsure and distressed to make such decision. That was a good opportunity, but the risks were not negligible. He disagreed: “Risks are part of life. Boldness is necessary.” I asked him if he was advising me to close the deal with the multinational organization. The Taoist master shook his head: “Absolutely not. Boldness lies in doing what few would. It lies in leaving when everyone thinks staying is better or staying when everyone thinks leaving is better. The choice is yours, and yours alone, because it is you who will have to deal with the consequences, and more, it is part of your learning process. Each choice works as the rudder of the ship on the journey of existence. The journey is individual, non-transferable, because on it one finds the magic of plenitude when fighting the battle of destiny. But it can lead to suffering if one fights the wrong battle.” I told him I had not understood and asked him to go further in his explanation; after all, he was a master. Li Tzu smiled with sincere humility and said: “I will help you whenever I can. However, do not forget that each one is their own perfect master, and the only warrior that can lead to victory.” Then, he opened a worn-out copy of the ancient Tao Te Ching, to chapter 33:
“He who knows men is wise;
he who knows himself is enlightened.
He who conquers men has strength;
he who conquers himself is strong.
He who knows when he has enough is wealthy;
he who perseveres has strong will.
He who does not lose his place is lasting;
he who lasts beyond his death is long lived.”
He asked me, after memorizing the text, to go to the meditation room and stay there with other people who were also studying the Tao. I returned by the end of the day, willing to talk and to have some guidance. Li Tzu asked me to go back to the inn, to rest, and to come back the following day. This went on for three consecutive days, on which I could not exchange ideas with the Taoist master. Anxious, I finally met Li Tzu and told him I was being pressured by my partners to return, demanding that I make a decision. The multinational organization would not wait much longer. He said: “Your time is the one that is right to you.” I said I had not understood. The Taoist master was didactic: “While it takes months for the tomato to ripe, it takes years for the avocado tree to bear its first fruits. With people it is the same. Each one has their period of maturation until a new idea is ripe, ready to be experienced. It is an internal motion of contraction, Yin, that should be enhanced to its limit to be complete, and then, in a constant process of mutation, should be expanded to the world, Yang. Both are equally important and essential. Hence, the importance of being patient with everyone, particularly with yourself.” He looked at me with kindness and asked: “Is your choice ripe?” I said it wasn’t, and this is why I was distressed. I said I did not think it was fair to make other people wait forever for my decision. Li Tzu partially agreed: “Of course we can’t postpone indefinitely a decision when third parties depend on it. This is bad, it is an act of domination. However, neither can we hasten it just to respond to the anxiety and the wishes of others. This is also bad; it is the permission we give to be dominated. Something or someone only has over us the power we grant them; we should not allow our choices to be interfered with. We must respect ourselves, being careful enough to keep pride, vanity and selfishness at bay. This is an elegant way to journey through life. This is liberating.”
On that day, when I returned to the inn, I called the agency. It was the partner with whom I had argued who picked up the phone. He was upset and spoke to me in a harsh tone. I was kind in addressing him and kept my tone composed. I was humble in asking them to wait one more week for my decision. To make things even easier, I gave them latitude even to exclude me from the partnership in the agency, which I would fully understand, even though I had made clear that was not what I wanted. I further explained that I still hadn’t made up my mind. He became gradually calmer and said he would wait. That conversation gave me an odd sense of peace, because I had faced, in a sincere, composed way, the fear that was tormenting me. For a few more days I continued with the meditation and reflection on the words of the Tao. Little by little, the ideas became clear like a winter morning in which we must wait for the sun gain strength to dissipate the mist that hides the landscape. Then, I told Li Tzu I had made a decision. Once again he invited me for tea. As soon as the Taoist master filled our cups, I said I was happy with the life I had. Even though I wasn’t rich, I had all I needed. I added that I had an excellent relationship with the old clients, who owned small businesses. Some had even become my friends. I did not want to trade that for an impersonal relationship that only took numerical outcomes into account. That was my choice. I asked him if I was wrong. Li Tzu sipped his tea and said: “There is no right or wrong. The choices one makes should be according to the life one wants to lead. Respect the choices of others as an honest way to have your choices respected, particularly by you. What is best for you is not necessarily what is best for the other, and vice-versa. This makes you understand what battle is yours, so you do not fight the wrong war”.
“The planet follows the yang motion of expansion. Everything seems big, and large corporations are more and more powerful. But don’t worry, because things flow as they should. When growth reaches its limit, the motion will change to a contraction, bound to the inner core. This is the yin. This is how the universal laws are applied. This is the essence of the Tao. In fact, some people have realized that and act accordingly. They have understood the beauty and greatness of being small. Then, they become huge because they are whole.”
“Understanding the difference between wealth and prosperity is a decisive step towards peace. Peace within yourself and, therefore, peace in the world. Many see wealth as prosperity. The border is not distinguishable to distracted eyes. Wealth is related to ownership of assets, to the idea that the more I have assets, the more I have power. A person spends an entire existence working hard to amass goods; then, they are concerned with protecting their goods not to lose them, as typically this would be considered defeat.” He looked at me with sweet eyes and asked a rhetorical question: “What’s the use of having more than one needs?”
Without waiting for an answer, he continued: “Prosperity is putting what one has to good use. There is nothing wrong in working and making a lot of money. This is wonderful as long as one puts it to good use. Money is a most important tool, period. However, it should serve a good cause. Always.”
“Even one who does not have a single coin to spare may be more prosperous than another who has a safe filled with gold. Prosperity also lies in the wealth of having a word of encouragement for someone who is afraid, or a hug for someone who is sad. To be sweet and kind is a sign of prosperity. No one is so poor that they can’t do that, but one must be prosperous to live like that.”
“A worker who receives a worthy salary that allows him to keep himself and his family with enough for a healthy life, and who is committed to the settling of virtues will have a loving household and a prosperous existence. Fortune is hidden in the state of plenitude, in the existential richness of life, such as peace, freedom, dignity unconditional love and happiness. The real treasure is immaterial and subtle, just like the spirit. Plenitude carries in it an unmeasurable power.”
He made a brief pause and continued: “The rich owner of the company where this worker works may even have a hefty bank account, but if he relates plenitude to money, he is poorer than his employee. Even though he tries hard to display power and joy in parties, mansions and a luxurious yacht, he is but a frail, sad, miserable person. He needs these ornaments and fantasies exercising pride and vanity in order to feel strong and good-looking.” He drank some more tea and went further in his reasoning: “On the other hand, that happy worker could have a co-worker with the same job and pay who could be sad, distressed, disgusted with his situation, believing he is unhappy for not having material wealth, but, in fact, what he lacks is immaterial wealth, prosperity. Conversely, following the same line of reasoning, there is nothing to prevent a filthy rich businessman from being prosperous. Suffice that he knows how to use his assets wisely, both for his individual well-being and to provide for the common needs of everyone. There are many ways to do it.”
“In short, prosperity is far from richness. It is related to personal existence and the tools innate to life. Money is one of them, and it is very good if properly used.”
“Each person is always before the perfect battle. It is the one fought within oneself, with the weapons made available precisely according to the learning needs of the person. This is the role each one should play in the masterpiece their life is. Beware not to forget about yours if you get distracted with the battle of others. Otherwise, you will fight the wrong war. Face yours with determination and strive to help others any way you can. Hence, prosperity will always be an ally. This is the good fight.”
He arched his lips in a discreet smile, emptied his cup and concluded: “Prosperity teaches that the less I need, the freer I will be.”
When I returned from China, I had a meeting with my partners. We were four. Because we could not reach a consensus, we decided to split up. One of the partners and I would keep the agency and the old clients. The other two partners would set up their agency only to serve that global organization, as required. The employees could choose with whom they would like to work for.
After some 10 years, the multinational organization decided to rescind the agreement unilaterally. The agency of my former partners still tried to be on the market, but it isn’t easy to get new accounts, particularly because of the size of their structure. They decided to shut down the business. Because they had made a lot of money over that period, they had become rich and could retire comfortably. One of them went to live in the beautiful mansion in the outskirts of Paris where his daughter lived. Later on, I came to know he was suffering from depression because he faced the closing of the business as a personal defeat. He became a person difficult to deal with. The other one put aside part of money he amassed to set up an NGO that operated in a suburb or Rio de Janeiro to train needy teenagers in the use of graphic design software required for those who want to pursue a career in advertising. He was a happy man because he could use his money and expertise to make other people happy.
For our part, my partner and I kept our agency operating, always with small contracts. We did not become rich but have some comfort in life. I still work a lot, and feel I am more serene and happy each day. I like to see how I could somehow help, with my expertise, the development of my clients’ companies. The friendship with their owners strengthened, and some even became family. A “common-unity”. However, the partner who stayed with me regrets the lost chance of becoming rich. He had become bitter. Whenever problems, which are unavoidable, arise, he regrets that he is not in Paris, like our former partner “drinking champagne at the Champs-Élysées”. He has forgotten that diamond rings do not always reveal the true power of those who wear them.
Today, when I see people mistaking wealth for prosperity, the lessons of Li Tzu come to mind. I recall that on that visit, when, with my backpack on my shoulders, I went to say good-by, the Taoist master asked me if my choice was ripe. I said yes. He then whispered one of the Tao’s deepest secrets: “The power over yourself grants you the strength of the world and the beauty of life.”
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.