More than once, during my annual period of studies at the Order, I found the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the brotherhood, seated in a comfortable armchair on the veranda of the monastery. He loved that place, where he would reflect daily gazing at the beautiful scenery created by the mountains. Whenever I wanted to talk, I knew that almost always I would find him there in the late afternoon and, invariably, would be greeted with a sincere smile. On that day it was no different. I arrived with two steaming cups of coffee, handed him one and sat in the armchair next to his. Then, I started a conversation with the monk. I said that the studies of the Order were centered in self-knowledge as the path to the sacred, because we will find God nowhere other than in ourselves. I recited the famous quotes: “Know yourself and you will know the truth” and “Know the truth and the truth shall set you free”, of Socrates and Jesus, respectively, as the philosophical axis for the search. I added that the virtues were the tools that allowed me to move forward as they settled in me, making possible the liberation of suffering, this cruel jail without bars. The monk listened to me patiently, nodding his head in agreement. However, about my understanding of who I actually was, I said that at times I was very strict with myself; other times I was too lax. My difficulty in facing myself with clarity made my process of self-improvement more difficult. I confessed it felt as if I had been unable to move forward for quite some time. The Old Man arched his lips in a discreet smile and, typical of him, was straightforward in his advice: “Pay attention to the way you react whenever you are cross; when the world says ‘no’ to you. In our actions, we listen to our heart first, and thus reverberate in the light. We intend to offer our best. However, in our reactions, who speaks up are our shadows. This is when we reflect the still obscure face of the self. Our reactions show us the corners that have not yet been illuminated”. He made a pause and added: “Reactions perfectly mirror the self, because they show what we don’t want or are unable to see.”
I reasoned that it is common for us to react badly when we are surprised with petty, regressive attitudes that have no place on this planet. The monk shrugged his shoulders and said: “Nothing can be pettier or more retrograde than not respecting the choice of others. Each one according to the lessons they have learned, their level of awareness and loving capability”. I said we should not condone evil. He agreed: “Evil should be firmly stopped”. But he made a caveat: “However, the way to do it makes all the difference”. He took a sip of coffee and continued: “Oftentimes, I see people pointing out in others the difficulties that they have not managed to overcome, which is a ludicrous way of feeling better or postponing the unavoidable inner battle.”
“We demand from others a type of behaviour that, in fact, we don’t have. We ask for justice when, in fact, we yearn for revenge, because there is no concern with educating the other, but just in making him feel a pain similar or stronger than the one we felt. We prefer to segregate, rather than educate. So, there is evil just for the sake of it, an absurd way to make the collective shadows gigantic, rather than bringing darkness to an end”. He shrugged as if saying the obvious and stated: “As a matter of principle, in order to illuminate, one needs… Light.”
I said that we react when we are caught by surprise. We react out of impulse, without even thinking about it. The Old Man agreed: “Exactly. ‘Automation’ is the core issue. It speaks of our most primitive instincts, of prejudices, of cultural conditionings that shape us, of the social roles we have to play, of the wishes we have to own things, of our ancestral need of domination, of our yearnings for acceptance and approval. These are addictions so ingrained in us we do not realize how much they interfere in our choices, preventing us from being all that we can be. It is always possible to go beyond what we already know.”
“‘Automation’, driven by the power of the collective unconscious, sweeps our awareness under the carpet of existence. Then, we are annulled.”
He sipped a little more coffee and continued: “And that’s not all. It’s in our reactions that the shadows of fear, jealousy, pride, vanity, envy are manifested the most. They all stem from ignorance. Ignorance of not knowing who I am; ignorance that imprisons me in the jail of pain.” He looked at me in the eyes and said: “To know someone, deny him a wish. The ability to react according to virtues that have already flourished is the precise measure of one’s evolution.”
“At first, pay attention to every reaction elicited by adversity. Then, turn off the ‘auto’ button. Try to understand how you can react differently and better whenever the world says ‘no’ to you. That’s how we move forward.”
I remained for a while without saying a word, thinking about the possibilities for improvement provided by our reactions. I broke silence to say that a reaction could become a serious problem, depending on its magnitude and nonsensicalness, which are the source of sorrows and counter-reaction even more violent. On the other hand, a reaction could be a good master indicating changes I should undergo in my heart, my mind and my choices. The Old Man agreed but added an important caveat: “Be careful not to suffocate or deny shadows that prompt reactions. Do not treat them as enemies, but always as allies”. I interrupted him to say that it didn’t make sense. After all, are shadows good or bad? He was patient to explain: “Depends on how you relate with them. If you repress them, they turn into jealousy and delusion; if you deny them, they end up dominating you because they move loosely in yourself. Take good care of them and educate them. Shadows are a part of you. If you want to be whole, you will have to learn how to evolve with them in endless transmutations. They show wounds that bleed and hurt, and that need to be healed. Use the shadows as a tracker dog, but never as an attacking animal.”
“Beware of situations that make you aggressive or sad. In them, a treasure is buried; they are the point where transformation should occur, the starting point for evolution. Often times, in the search for the ‘perfect model’, we are more concerned with the outer image than inner improvement. Without the vital transformation of essence, the appearance will not be sustained. As a building without foundations, eventually that character will collapse into childish, depressive or violent attitudes. These stem from delusion, jealousy and denial one has regarding oneself.”
I asked him to go further in his explanation. The Old Man was didactic: “After denying our essence so much, after consistently refusing to listen to our heart, after closing our eyes to pulsating truths, we believe we will find plenitude through a character that is shaped according to social standards, rather than transforming ourselves into the person we were born to be.”
“At any time, out of pure love, life puts us before a mirror, but we stubbornly close our eyes. A sense of discomfort explains the character. When a costume is ripped because of a situation, the pain of being naked arises. However, the real personality that had been forgotten inside a fictional character must be revealed. We can decide to continue escaping from ourselves. Or we have the choice of rebirth. This will define if our suffering will continue or if we will heal.” He took another sip of coffee before adding “Reactions act as a diagnosis.”
I said that I had already seen terrible reactions. I even confessed I had acted like that a number of times, I only had to be honest with myself regarding some facts stored in my memory. I admitted it was pitiful to act that way. The monk reasoned: “It depends on how you face the situation. The painful reaction revealed through sadness, sorrow or aggressiveness is but a cry of the soul for a different understanding. It signals a soul that yearns for freedom, that needs to be itself. Not better or worse than any other, but unique and whole so that it is beautiful. It is a soul that can no longer refrain from flying, however comfortable is the cage. The essence of the soul are the wings.”
“Be far from guilt, so that you don’t stagnate. Guilt and stagnation nourish sadness and aggressiveness. Be responsible to correct occasional mistakes. More importantly, work hard to act differently and better next time. Have this commitment with yourself. This is how we connect with the Law of Infinite Opportunities and we leverage evolution.”
He drank the coffee left in his cup and added: “He who seeks the treasure of life in the world will remain lost and fragmented. Whole is he who finds it in his own heart. And then, illuminates the world.”
I became silent once again. I took advantage of the beautiful landscape formed by the mountains to reflect about all the words the Old Man had said. It all seemed clear, sensible and not so hard to put into practice. I was sure I would have no problem. Yes, I was ready. I told that to the Old Man, who looked at me and said nothing. It didn’t take long and another monk, Mateus, came by to say he had decided to prolong his stay at the monastery for another week. That meant I would not have a ride with him to the city where the nearest airport is located. I was scheduled to go back home in three days, and I became deeply annoyed. Because I was going to have a ride, I had returned the train ticket I had bought to the airport. I said that probably there were no more tickets available because of the high season. I insisted with Mateus that he should leave. I was harsh with him with a clear intent of making him feel my frustration. Mateus said he was sorry, but that for him it was important to remain at the monastery a few more days. He said he counted on my understanding, turned around and left. Cross, I turned to the Old Man, seeking support for my outrage. To my surprise, he was looking at the mountains and smiling. It was a smile of a roguish boy who had just seen a friend trip over his own feet.
Kindle translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.