It was late afternoon. We were seated in the station, waiting for the train that would take us back to the small village at the base of the mountain that houses the monastery. We had gone to a larger city not too far away, to visit a young lady who was undergoing cancer treatment in a modern hospital. As usual, the Old Man, as we affectionally called the oldest monk of the Order, seemed amused with everything around him. The movement of people going back and forth, the stores, the joy and sadness of arrivals and departures; the heartfelt hugs, the smiles and cries of meetings and separations; people who were alone. “This station is the world abridged”, he said without looking at me, knowing that I was observing him. I said I thought odd that he found beauty in everything and everyone. “You must practice seeing beyond the appearances, the shapes and, particularly the illusion. To be enchanted with the essence is necessary. The Master taught us that ‘the eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light,’” he quoted an excerpt of the Sermon of the Mount.
I claimed that the practice was quite different from the theory. I used the sick young lady we had visited that day as an example. The doctor had not given any assurances about the success of treatment, and her future was unknown. To make things worse, she lived as if she had a sharp knife against her neck, just about to cut it. “We all have it. We just don’t know the time and the type of the blow. The blades have different aspects: accidents, catastrophes, murder, unexpected diseases, whether of short or long course; addictions and sadness which are variants of unconscious suicide; the variable, inconstant and relentless counting of the illusion of time.” He paused briefly and added: “By the way, did you realize how happy she was?”
I said it was just make-believe to cheer up her family that loved her, as no one can handle well that situation. The monk shrugged his shoulders, as if I had not understood anything, and said: “I spoke with her at length. Her disease made her reflect about death. This changed her sense of living, as her awareness expanded. There was a change of values. Situations that were left aside, feelings that lay dormant, and forgotten or postponed commitments emerge with strength and power, and become important. Things that had always been urgent came to be perceived as irrelevant. Everything changed. Sometimes, the disease of the body is the medicine of the soul. For some, it is the most effective healing method. Have no doubt that the happiness and peace she feels are sincere, and she likely has never felt like that, at least to such a degree.”
“Difficulties and disappointments can abate and exhaust our force, or teach us precious lessons for improvement and strength to fight the next good fight that will always come. One way or another, the Universe always conspires in our favor, and it is up to us to understand and take advantage, and not to disrupt or regret. In each situation, whether of victory or defeat, pain or delight, life always offers a cup filled with poison and another filled with honey. We decide from which to drink.”
I said that perhaps the spiritual gains the young lady had received would be of no value, if she only had a short span of life ahead of her. The Old Man shook his head, somewhat annoyed, before speaking: “It does not matter!” And before I could utter a word, he continued: “Don’t you realize this fresh look on life is an eternal inheritance, an immaterial treasure she can take in her luggage for the next stretch of the Path? This gain is real! Have you forgotten the journey is endless? The disease was only the cauldron, but it could have been a separation from the husband or being fired from her job. The important thing is that she added the essential ingredient: love for everything. Then she stirred with the spoon of wisdom given by the expansion of her consciousness. Presto! This is the magic of transforming lead into gold. This is the alchemy of life.”
Only at that moment I realized I knew some people who became better, more interesting after painful situations of divorce or bankruptcy. They saw the sky turn black, faced the terrible storm, and survived to reinvent themselves and fly higher than they thought themselves capable of before the hardship. As if he knew my thoughts, the Old Man commented: “Defeat or victory, regardless of the apparent tragedy or joy, is defined by the width of your gaze. It is a choice of the soul. Sometimes, only in defeat one achieves victory.”
How so? I confessed I had not understood. Very patiently, the monk explained to me the obvious: “To gain not always means to win; there are two true and hidden aspects in this statement. The first is that one does not achieve victory winning at any cost. One must take the unavoidable road of dignity, or nothing will be of value. The other stems from the reverse logic: to lose does not always mean defeat. While the desperate person cries for the tragedy, the wise thanks for the wings.”
Seeing my astonishment, he gave some examples so that I could understand: “For the person who is ill, the closeness to death may provide the infinite dimension of life. When that happens, happiness and peace are indescribable. One loses the body but gains the soul.”
“How often being away from the loved one was not the chance for you to be closer and to know yourself? You may lose the other, but you gain yourself.”
“Being fired from a job that gave you the illusion of stability may prompt the development of your gifts and talents, so that you reach the dream hidden within yourself, eliciting all your personal and professional potential that lay dormant. You lose a job, but you gain the world.”
“These are the miracles of life. The necessary transformations allow the best that dwell within you to flourish. To that end, oftentimes a strong pressure from the earth is necessary for the seed to blow up and germinate.” He paused briefly, looked me in the eyes and said: “Happiness and peace will never be a material condition, but a philosophical decision to learn, transmute, share and move on.” At that moment the train came into the station. I was still bewildered, trying to make sense of the words when the Old Man, with a roguish smile, pointed his chin to the wagon and said: “It is time to leave, Yoskhaz. Or you’d rather stay?”
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.