On the Reality of Sisyphus


(FRUITFUL Misunderstandings) Don't all great pursuits start this way? (Image sourced from Tara Brach's Facebook page.)

(FRUITFUL Misunderstandings) Don’t all epic pursuits start this way? (Image sourced from Tara Brach’s Facebook page.)

It’s very likely that the great majority of people who pursue Buddhism as a non-native discipline stumble onto the tradition in the spirit of misapprehension demonstrated by the cartoon above.

I certainly did. On the one hand, my initial foray into the Buddhist way of looking at things was motivated by an earnest desire to liberate myself from suffering. On the other hand, I believed that that liberation lay in transforming myself into whatever pale imitation of the Dalai Lamai I was capable of achieving.

(My fondest hope then: turning into some enduring embodiment of ineffable serenity while cracking the occasional pithy witticism. It strikes me as hilarious now that my main conception of the Dalai Lama was born out of watching Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi.)

Mr. Miyagi: "Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything." Daniel: "Ever catch one?" Miyagi: "Not yet."

Mr. Miyagi: Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything. Daniel (impressed): Ever catch one? Mr. Miyagi: Not yet.

The actual path has been radically different and completely unexpected—and for those reasons, significantly harder. So much of it has been about accepting things as they are and accepting myself as I am, which is tremendously challenging because it’s not how human beings are designed (a massive yet existentially validated claim that I refuse to elaborate for the time being). And what happens when you do something that’s against the design is that you have to keep doing it again, and again, and again without falling into the delusion that you’ve gained some kind of mastery out of sheer repetition. You gain some semblance of competence, yes, but never mastery.

And if there’s one thing that frustrates my achieving and striving egoic self, it’s Sisyphean tasks of any kind.

I often feel like I'm the one in the background running after his breakaway rock...

I often feel like I’m the one in the background running after his breakaway rock…

On bad days—of which there are many—it lends to a kind of immobilizing despair.

I'm sure he's building a pyramid on the peak. To bury himself in after.

I’m sure he’s building a pyramid on the peak. To bury himself in after.

Fortunately, I have the writings of those who’ve trod the path before me: luminaries like Tara Brach, Pema Chödrön and Jack Kornfield, who—while remaining steadfastly honest about the mind-bogglingly difficult nature of the challenge—have lightened the journey with much compassion, gentleness and humor. If I keep trying, it’s because they reassure me that there’s value in trying. On bad days—of which there are many—their reassurance is all I have to go on.

It’s enough.

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