Return to Sisyphus

Sisyphus seemed to keep coming up today: once, when I was pointing a friend to an earlier post of mine, and another time, when I was preparing a short preamble to my Zen group’s discussion of a chapter of Shunryu Suzuki roshi’s book, Not Always So. This post is about the latter, though it clearly resonates with the former.

Our group has taken to studying a chapter of the book each week, and each week someone in the group takes a turn to summarise and reflect on the chapter for the benefit of everyone in the group. The chapter I am speaking on is called ‘Walk like an Elephant’, where Suzuki roshi speaks of the need to walk like an elephant rather than gallop like a horse when practising. He advises slow and deliberate progress, putting one heavy foot ahead of the other, instead of jumping around trying to find instant answers.

This galloping or jumping around looking for the ‘best’ way to enlightenment, happiness, or whatever the ultimate goal is, for him, merely ‘sightseeing Zen’, or what another friend once described as ‘spiritual tourism’. In other words, rather than stopping and looking at ourselves and our own culpability in the cultivation of our self-images, we leap around looking for figures of authority to absolve us, be they religious teachers, lay mentors, therapists, parents, God. This is true even for those seeking the ‘Zen way’; or to paraphrase Alan Watts, the desire for no desire is still desire. If we practise for the purpose of gaining enlightenment, we have missed the point of practice.

With the metaphor of sightseeing and tourism, I am reminded of an earlier post on learning to appreciate being ‘on the way’ somewhere, rather than being focussed in the ultimate destination. This is one of the paradoxes of Zen that has been coming up over and over again in our discussions over the past few weeks — the more you try, the more you lose the moment, the further away you are from the goal; but if you give up on the goal, how do you know you are getting there?

This is where the myth of Sisyphus comes in. The point is not not to have a goal, but not becoming complacent and attached to the goal. Traditionally, the myth of Sisyphus is used to describe the meaninglessness of modern life, especially the repetitiveness of factory-like work, the futility and hopelessness of pointless labour. For me, the myth of Sisyphus describes Zen practice; well, mine anyway. Many readings refer to Sisyphus as the absurd hero, the one condemned by the gods to an eternal lack of fulfilment, the result of his hubris at keeping the King of Hades in chains in an attempt to defeat death. Camus, however, sees Sisyphus as the existential hero, as one who is happy because there is no higher existence beyond the pushing of the rock.

What is the goal of enlightenment but an attempt to come to terms with our mortality (to stay it?)? The lesson of Sisyphus is how to be content with the repetitiveness of our existence for only then do we stay our mortality. Returning to Suzuki roshi, if we don’t see death as an end to life, then there is only practice, he says: ‘It started in the beginningless past and will end in the endless future’.

Practice entails moving away from the concept of linear time. We often think of the present as an accumulation of the past events, karma, intentions, and the future as being built from what we do now. In non-linear time, reality is in this moment; past, present, and future becomes defined by the present moment, not the other way around. The power relation is altered, as is the accountability for the experience of the moment. Sisyphus pushes the rock not because he needs to get to the top of the mountain; he pushes the rock even though he knows it will only come down again. Is it Sisyphus who is pushing the rock, or the rock that is being pushed by Sisyphus? The distinction is subtle. When we practise, who is practising? Is there an ‘I’ who practises? Or is there only the practice, of which the ‘I’ is merely a part?

What is the meaning of life? That was — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. … Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent) — this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the cloud going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.

— Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)


One Response to Return to Sisyphus

  1. Pingback: Knowing when to give up, Part I « A Question of Mindfulness

%d bloggers like this: