The marathon

I was back to the small Chinese village nested in the Himalaya, close to Bhutan. I wanted to spend some more time studying with Li Tzu, the Taoist master. The bus had dropped me off quite early at the only inn of the town. Because the room would be available only after 12 noon, I left my backpack and went to Li Tzu’s, hoping to have a nice hot tea with him. The sun was present in timid rays, and there was almost no one on the streets. The gate to the house of the Taoist master was never locked. I entered without making noise. I felt the scent of incense and complete peacefulness. I found Li Tzu on a small rug rolled out at the bonsai garden, performing complicated yoga poses. A black cat, named Midnight, which also lived in the house, was lying close by and watched it all lazily. I was greeted with a sincere smile and, without interrupting his practice, the Taoist master told me to help myself to tea. I went to the kitchen; on the stove there was a teapot with a delicious mixture of herbs and flowers brewing. I went back with my cup filled, sat next to him and said I could play soft music on my mobile phone to accompany his practice. Li Tzu said: “I thank you, but I enjoy the voice of silence. There is too much noise and sounds during the day. I do not want to miss this delicacy dawn provides.” It was impossible not to notice the difficulty of the yoga poses the Taoist master was practicing, particularly because of his age. He and the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, had been fellow students in a prestigious English university, when they were both young. I mentioned that while we were seated at the table having breakfast. Even though Li Tzu ate frugally and had a lean body, his features looked healthy and he conveyed tremendous composure. I added that despite being much younger, I was not able to perform any of those poses. He looked at me as if to a child and explained: “Tao teaches us that everything is possible. Tao comes from the sky, and we are under the sky.”

I told him I had not understood. I thought Tao was too mysterious. Li Tzu arched his lips in a discrete smile and said: “Tao is the road towards the light of the world; light is the achievement of the core’s plenitude, home of freedom and peace. The Path of the Tao is completed in exercising the virtues. Virtues flourish with the practice of good habits.”

“When you say, ‘I can’t do it’, you kind of accept the slavery imposed by bad habits. When you become aware that you can do absolutely anything, you are taking the most important step for liberation of the self. Laziness, mental weakness, addiction, emotional dependency, cultural conditionings, and all other shadows are dangerous prisons that increase our level of external dependence. Tao teaches us that ‘the less I need, the freer I am’. A good portion of our life is lived in ‘automatic mode’. We have to turn the button off so that we no longer take life for granted and modify our choices.”

“‘Is this the best word to be said’? ‘Is this a liberating thought’? ‘Will this attitude appease my heart’? ‘Is this the best I can give to myself and the world’? These are all always necessary questions. To change choices is to transform life; it is the limit between prison and freedom, the border that separates the streets of suffering from the garden of peace.”

I said that he was mistaken, because there is a huge distance separating discourse from practice. I told him that my girlfriend had invited me to go to New York to run the marathon. I said no because I knew I was physically unable to do it. The Taoist master remarked, amusedly: “You would certainly drop down with a heart attack way before you could see the Statue of Liberty.” He made a pause and then continued: “This a good example. For those who have never run, it will be hard to complete the race. However, if you set a training plan so that, instead of trying to transcend your own limitations at once, which can be dangerous and discouraging, you decide to expand your physical capacity little by little, you are likely to succeed. Start by walking short distances, then move to a jog; every day you increase the distance a little and, when you least expect, you will be crossing the finish line. If you can place your hands on your belly, soon you will reach your feet. If you can reach your feet, soon, if you are properly committed, you will be able to run an entire marathon. Yoga reminds me of that every single day. It allows one to transcend physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. After all, nature makes no leaps. Everything in the universe progresses at slow, but steady, relentless steps. Determination and patience are essential virtues to the travelers of Tao.”

“Good habits are practices that aid the self in the development of virtues, show the ability the person has to outdo themselves and their liberation from the conditionings of the world. For a good warrior, his skill with the sword is of no use if he is mentally weak. To believe in oneself is to spark the cosmic light that lies dormant within the self and use this power to go beyond oneself, overcoming hardships and presenting a new standard of behavior. Each one is a power-generating mill and an energy-receiving antenna, capable of capturing vibrations in the same frequency as those they emanate from. Therefore, each one is accountable for both their shield and wings, and for everything else that happens around them. This is how a bridge to the sky, the invisible side of life, is built. The stronger the bridge, the higher its capacity to support traffic between the two ends. This bridge is the Tao”.

I said that it wasn’t easy. Li Tzu looked at me patiently and explained: “No one said it was easy. But it is necessary for those who want to travel on the Tao road. To abandon bad habits does not mean just practicing exercise, eating healthy, quitting smoking or decreasing the intake of salt and sugar. In fact, this is the shallow part, even though taking care of the body without vanity is a need and an attitude of gratitude and respect for life. The depth in which good habits are acquired is an important step to move from the comfort of appearances in search of the peace of mind of the essence, in a journey of infinite transformations.”

“No wonder the wisdom of the Christian tradition is in full accordance with the Tao, in its teaching that we should choose the narrow gate of virtues, one that leads the walker to a difficult path, but with important evolutionary stops.”

I asked the Taoist master to be straightforward in his explanation. He was patiently obliging: “The best, more sophisticated habits are the simplest ones, as they are available to anyone.”

“Denying forgiveness is a spiritual stage still coarse. Learning to really forgive is an art. Oftentimes I see denying forgiveness an exercise of pride and arrogance. I also realize there is a lack of understanding of the full extension of the liberating practice of forgiveness. ‘I have forgiven Joe, I wish him no harm’, is a type of sentence often heard. Wishing no evil is the first stage of forgiveness, which is only completed when one wishes the best for the other. One must understand that in addition to being a wonderful exercise of humility and compassion, for being liberating they benefit everyone involved, no exceptions.”

“One must abandon the craving for domination as a practice of liberation. Fear is a treacherous shadow that instills within us the ancestral habit of controlling others because of the possibility of being subjected to evil of some kind. Freedom begins when we stop interfering or imposing our will on the choices of others. Hence, we are freer to take higher flights.”

“Not criticizing others. Deep down, we speak poorly about others when we want to divert the focus away from our imperfections. This is a very common habit and worse, tends to hide in the subconscious mind, therefore being difficult for one to get rid of. Pointing flaws out is taunting, and, there is no question, a bad habit. Concentrate all your energy on the improvement of yourself; this is a nice habit and makes a setting of many virtues.”

“Despondency and tears. Few habits are as hazardous for being so strongly infectious. Despondency is for the weak; regrets, for the ignorant. The hurdles shape the warrior; when the road is difficult to travel, the walker thanks for the lesson, changes the way he walks and goes on.”

“Among many, these are four instances of bad habits that we must change, but they are so common in our daily life we do not realize how ingrained they are within ourselves and the harm they cause. Changing our routine fills our sails with the winds of freedom and peace. Then, the boat sails the seas of existence.”

I asked him if there was any trick to help changing habits. The Taoist master arched his lips in a discrete smile and explained: “Meditation is wonderful for that.” I said that meditation was very difficult for the Western culture. Li Tzu furrowed his brow and rebuked incisively: “You haven’t even started and are already convinced you will not be able to do it?” I lowered my eyes, and he continued: “To meditate is silence and quietness. It is abandoning the concerns for the world in order to encounter yourself; To encounter yourself is to allow the invisible world to pervade your core, the universe to merge into your cells; it is the connection with the spirit itself that, when it occurs, allows the signs of the Path to be read. It is time to empty the jar of turbid water to fill again with clear water.”

“One must understand the addiction to be abandoned or, if that is the case, the good habit to be incorporated; take it to the ajna chakra, known as the third eye or Christ center, located between the eyebrows, and have it fixed there during meditation. Repeat mentally that you will cauterize that wound in the case of bad habits; or, for virtues that are still seeds to flourish, that you will allow a new way of being and living, by building a sturdy bridge between you and all the power that exists in the infinite.” He paused briefly and then added: “Our possibilities are unthinkable. After all, we are one.”

“The purpose of life is evolution. Period. Simple and sophisticated. Evolution in all planes of life, from matter to spirit, from atom to the stars, from selfishness to love. We move on as we expand our awareness and enhance our ability to love. In this evolutionary process, the germination of virtues is a safe path. This is what the Tao teaches us. Good habits, in addition to the well-being and lightness they provide, make possible a deeper commitment with small personal transformations which, ultimately, are the commitments we make with the world. Our attitudes are concentric waves propagating in the huge cosmic lake.”

I asked him what the good habits he admired the most were. The Taoist master did not flinch: “Cultivating good friendships and disseminating hope and joy wherever you go”. Next, I asked what bad habit he thought was the worst. Li Tzu replied straight off: “Stagnation, that stems from the mental vice that life is bad, and the world is hopeless. Aggressiveness, sadness, distress and depression are the most visible consequences, not to mention the huge collective shadows that nourish it.” He looked me in the eyes and completed: “The revolving motion of the planet keeps us alive; why should we be still? Each one has a driving force of life; when we move to light our inner flame, everything around us changes. Good habits change one’s life and, little by little, illuminate the world. This is the marathon of existence. All that does not move, rots.”

Kindly translation by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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