Lessons From Stories: Siddhartha

Siddhartha had a goal, a single one: to become empty—empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow. To die away from himself, no longer be self, to find peace with an emptied heart, to be open to miracles in unselfed thinking: that was his goal.

The story Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, deals with the human ego, desires, needs, vices, and the attempt to overcome all of it. In this journey of self-discovery, Siddhartha learns the important lesson that to find himself, he has to go his own way. To make his own path through personal experiences. All the good and bad that comes along with it is his own, as is the wisdom he achieves.

Lessons

There Is No Permanence

He killed his senses, he killed his memory, he slipped from his ego into a thousand different formations. He was animal, was carcass, was rock, was wood, was water, and he always found himself again upon awakening. Sun was shining or moon, he was self again, swinging in the cycle, felt thirst, overcame thirst, felt new thirst.[…]Bu though the paths led away from the ego, in the end they always led back to the ego. Though Siddhartha fled his ego a thousand times, dwelling in nothingness, in animal, in rock, the return was inevitable since he found himself again, in sunlight or in moonlight, in shade or in rain, and again was ego and Siddhartha, and again felt the torment of the onerous cycle.

There is no permanent solution to the problem of human ego. Neither is there a simple solution to desires. The ego will always return and new desires will rise. We cannot truly be egoless or live without desires. We can only overcome these things in the present moment and then prepare ourselves for the next time ego or the cravings for desires show themselves.

This can overwhelm us in one sense because we know that by overcoming the ego once, we haven’t truly won. But there is also freedom in this notion because by losing one time doesn’t mean we are completely lost.

You Have To Find Your Own Way

You (Buddha) found the deliverance from death. It came to you from your own seeking, on your own path, through thinking, through meditation, through knowledge, through illumination. It did not come through a teaching! And—this is my thought, O Sublime One—no one is granted deliverance through a teaching![…]But there is one thing that the so clear, so venerable Teaching does not contain: it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself has experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard the Teaching. That is why I am resuming my wandering.

Buddha became Buddha by going his own way and finding his own path. So, just because we can recreate Buddha’s steps, it does not mean we will become him. Ideally, the point of seeking and self-reflection is to find ourselves, not to become someone else. There is a leap of faith involved in this by walking away from a set path that was successful for another individual and making our own way.

Slowly walking away, Siddhartha pondered. He realized he was no longer a youth, he had become a man. He realized that one thing had left him like the old skin that leaves the serpent, that one thing was no longer within him, a thing that had accompanied him throughout his youth and had belonged to him: the wish to have teachers and hear teachings.

The Importance Of Self Reflection

“There is only one reason, a single one, why I know nothing about myself, why Siddhartha has remained so foreign to myself, so unknown. The reason is that I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing myself! I was seeking Atman, I was seeking Brahma. I was willing to dismember my ego and peel it apart in order to find the core of all peels in its unknown innermost essence: to find Atman, Life, the Divine, the Ultimate. But I myself was lost in the process.”

We all have an inner voice that is always speaking if we listen. By following the directions of others, we can drown our inner voice. Too often we follow someone else’s instructions because it takes away self-responsibility and ownership and this comforts us.

If we listen to ourselves and then act upon that, then all the disappointments and failures of life result from our own actions. This possibility can overwhelm us, which causes us to go along with the herd instead. That way we aren’t alone in our mistakes. However, this also takes away our ability to live our own life.

Both thought and sense were pretty things; beyond them the ultimate meaning was concealed. Both had to be heard, both had to be played with, neither was to be scorned or overrated; and the secret voices of their innermost cores had to be listened to. He wished to strive for nothing but what the voice ordered him to strive for; stay with nothing but what the voice advised him to stay with. Why had Guatama once, in the hour of hours, sat down under the bo tree, where the illumination struck him? He had heard a voice, a voice in his own heart, which ordered him to seek rest under this tree, and he had not preferred castigation, sacrifice, bathing, or praying, eating or drinking, sleeping or dreaming; he had obeyed the voice. Obeying like that, not external orders, but only the voice, to be ready like that—that was good, that was necessary, nothing else was necessary.

By listening to others, we are molded. By listening to ourselves, we are created. Individualism is at the heart of Siddhartha’s decision. He believed in it so much that he was willing to turn his back on Buddha’s teachings and find his own way.

“I will learn from me, from myself, I will be my own pupil: I will get to know myself, the secret that is Siddhartha.”

Life Is In The Sensation

“But, I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my being, I, for the sake of a presumed meaning, scorned the signs and the letters, I called the world of appearances deception, called my eyes and my tongue random and worthless. No, that is past, I have awakened, I am truly awake, and today is the day of my birth.”

By trusting our own senses, we can strip away old values and find what we truly like and dislike. We cannot understand ourselves or the world through the teachings of others. We cannot teach the deepest understandings. We have to feel and experience them in our own unique way.

A Practice In Living in the Moment

But now his liberated eyes remained on this side, he saw and acknowledged visibility, he sought his home in this world, did not seek reality, did not aim at any beyond. Beautiful was the world if you contemplated it like this, with no seeking, so simple, so childlike. Beautiful were moon and stars, beautiful were brook and bank, forest and rock, goat and rose beetle, flower and butterfly. It was beautiful and delightful to go through the world like this, so childlike, so awake, so open to what was near, so without distrust.

Do These Three Things: Think, Wait, and Fast

“I can think, I can wait. I can fast.”

These are the three things Siddhartha can do. They may not seem like much. But, if we look deeper into the statement, we can see the value in these three disciplines. Thinking allows Siddhartha to find the best course of action. Instead of following the first thing that comes to his mind, he can dissect, poke holes in that line of action and come up with a better alternative.

Waiting is akin to patience. To gain the skill of patience is essential in navigating life. Patience plays a key role in attaining any goal that we set out for ourselves.

While fasting is summed up by Siddhartha in the following passage:

“It is very good, sir. If a person has nothing to eat, then fasting is the wisest thing he can do. If, for instance, Siddhartha had not learned how to fast, he would have to accept any service today, whether with you or someone else, for hunger would force him to do so. But now Siddhartha can calmly wait, he knows no impatience, he knows no plight. He can stave off hunger for a long time and he can laugh at it. That, sir, is what fasting is good for.”

And all three of these virtues come together and allow Siddhartha to be committed and disciplined towards his goals.

“If you toss a stone into water, it takes the swiftest way to the bottom. And Siddhartha is like that when he has a goal, make a resolve. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like the stone through the water, never acting, never stirring. He is drawn. He lets himself drop. His goal draws him, for he lets nothing into his soul that could go against his goal. That is what Siddhartha learned among the samanas. It is what fools call magic and what they think is worked by demons. Nothing is worked by demons, there are no demons. Anyone can work magic, anyone can reach his goals if he can think, if he can wait, if he can fast.”

A Mindset To Practice

“Certainly, I traveled for my pleasure. For what else? I became acquainted with people and places, I enjoyed trust and friendliness, I found friendship. Now, dear friend, if I were Kamaswami, then the instant I saw that my purchase was thwarted, I would have angrily hastened back, and time and money would indeed have been lost. But instead I had good days, I learned things, I experienced joy, I harmed neither myself nor others with anger or haste. And if ever I go there again, perhaps to buy a later harvest or for whatever purpose, friendly people will give me a friendly and cheerful welcome, and I will pat myself on the back for not having shown haste or anger.”

This mindset comes down to perspective. We can look at a loss as a loss and allow it to have an influence over our feelings and emotions or we can look at a loss as a lesson and become a better person thanks to it. We can force ourselves to look at the positives of a failed action and discover the successes. In this way, we remain in control of our attitude.

Importance Of Experiencing The Good And The Bad

Slowly, the way moisture creep into the dying tree stump, slowly filling it and rotting it, worldliness and slothfulness had crept into Siddhartha’s soul; slowly they filled his soul, made it heavy, made it weary, lulled it to sleep. By contrast, his sense had come alive; they had learned a lot, experienced a lot.”It is good,” he thought, “to taste everything that one needs to know. As a child I learned that wealth and wordly pleasure are not good. I know it for a long time, but I experienced it only now. And now I know it, know it not only with memory, but also with my eyes, with my heart, with my stomach. Good for me that I know it!”

As a child, Siddhartha attempted to overcome worldly desires and his own ego without actually having experienced these things. This is one reason he struggled with practicing and following Buddha’s teachings. How can he overcome something he has never experienced before?

True enlightenment comes through our own experiences. So, Siddhartha had to experience for himself vices such as greed, lust, and sloth before he could find a way to overcome them. And when he did, those lessons then became imprinted in his mind.

You Can Start Over Again

“Well,” he thought, “since all these so ephemeral things have slipped away from me again, I am now standing again under the sun, under which I once stood as a little child. I have nothing, I know nothing, I can do nothing, I have learned nothing. How wondrous this is! Now that I am no longer young, now that my hair is already half grey, now that my energy is ebbing—-I am starting all over again, like a child! I had to go through so much stupidity, so much vice, so much error, so much disgust and disillusion and distress, merely in order to become a child again and begin afresh.”

As we grow older, we become set into a form of thinking and acting. We come to believe that the person we are and the life we are living is how it will be. However, there is always an alternative. To start fresh again. This may require a great deal of humility as Siddhartha expresses. Siddhartha has to come to terms with the reality that he has gone the wrong way in life. Also, that he had given into vices which he had laughed at when he was younger. Acceptance is the root of all change. Siddhartha had to accept his failures and missteps in order to start all over again.

How To View Others

He now saw people in a different light, less cleverly, less proudly, but also more warmly, more curiously, more sympathetically.[…]He understood them, he understood and shared their lives, which were led not by thoughts and insights, but solely by drives and wishes.[..]Their greed, their vanity, their silliness had lost their silliness for him, became understandable, became lovable, became even venerable for him.

Everyone is just trying to make it through life with their own demons and insecurities. Some try to overcome them through overcompensating, which can cause friction with other people. Other’s project a certain image of themselves in order to satisfy their ego and pride.

In reality, we should look at these moments as reminders to check our own bad behaviours and actions instead of condemning others. We are all alike. We share the same basic emotions, desires and needs. So, it is easy to see why someone gives into their vices because we all have at some point in our lives. This is why Siddhartha leads with sympathy after coming to the understanding that all humans are one.

Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the insight, the knowledge of what wisdom actually is, what the goal of his long seeking was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think the thought of oneness, to feel and breathe the oneness at every moment, in the midst of life.

Perspective On Life

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these “times to come” are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life.

[…]

Therefore, I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me. I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it.

Great Lines or Quotes:

But be warned, you who thirst for knowledge, be warned about the thicket of opinions and the fight over words. Whether beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish, opinions are unimportant, anyone can follow them or reject them.

 

For, it seemed to him, thinking is recognizing causes, and that is the only way in which sensations become insights: they are not lost, they become substance and begin to radiate what is within them.

 

Everything not fully suffered, not fully resolved came again: the same sorrows were suffered over and over.

 

“Each person gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teaching, the farmer rice, the fisherman fish.”

 

“Writing is good, thinking is better. Cleverness is good, patience is better.”

 

“Most people, Kamala, are like a falling leaf, that wafts and drifts through the air, and twists and tumbles to the ground. Others, however, few, are like stars: they have a fixed course, no wind reaches them, they have their law and their course inside of them.”

 

“And now, Siddhartha, what are you now? I do not know, I know it as little as you. I am on the move. I was a rich man, and am no longer; and I do not know what I will be tomorrow.”

 

“Ah, Siddhartha, I see you suffering, but you are suffering pains that others would laugh at, that you will soon laugh at yourself.”

 

“Wisdom cannot be communicated. Wisdom that a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish.”

 

“I see his greatness not in speaking, not in thinking, but only in doing, in living.”

 

“I am Siddhartha! And there is nothing in the world I know less about than myself, than Siddhartha!”

Lessons From Stories: The Plague

The Plague is a story written by Albert Camus and it details the spread of pestilence in the city of Oran and the response of the civilians. The story stands as a reminder of the inevitable, death, which can linger in all moments but it is also a reminder of the decency, goodness, and selfless actions human beings can take in the face of such inevitability. 

The Lessons

On Life – Be Prepared For The Worst Case Scenario

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Rarely does anything happen in the world for the first time. Human history is rich and can be cited whenever a seemingly new event occurs. Yet, we are quick to forget the past, quick to forget what has happened and what has gone wrong in our timeline. The Plague concentrates on pestilence and on death in general as a reoccurring theme of life which is often pushed into some deep corner of the mind so that we don’t have to think about things that make us uncomfortable.

This uncomfortable reality was something the Stoics believed we should meditate on. One aspect of Stoic philosophy is that we should constantly think about what could go wrong in order to lessen its effect on us.

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. (Seneca)

The bad will always exist. That is part of life and that is part of nature. It’s better to confront this reality so we can be prepared instead of shying away from it which in turn amplifies the damage done.

How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

On Mindset – Hardships Are Opportunity For Growth

“However, you think, like Panelous, that the plague has its good side; it opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought?”

The doctor tossed his head impatiently.

“So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

A mindset that seeks growth and possibilities rather than a mindset that wallows in sadness, blaming the circumstances or other people. The latter leads nowhere but to further despair, while the former can help the person come out of hardship as a more capable individual.

On Character – Do Your Duty

“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

“What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave.

“I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”

To do your part in a crisis means to show common decency towards your fellow human beings. Common decency for the doctor means to do his job the best he can. Common decency for other civilians would be to abide by the health guidelines. It may also be to show sympathy and care, two elements that can easily be forgotten during a crisis because our own ego takes over and we come to think about ourselves first.

On Life – Attaining Peace

Torrou was swinging his leg, tapping the terrace lightly with his heel, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.

“Yes,” he replied. “The path of sympathy.”

Commonly sympathy is used for other people. We sympathize with our loved ones or our neighbors or maybe even strangers when we see them going through hardship. But we rarely sympathize with ourselves. When we make mistakes we respond to ourselves with harshness and judgment rather than sympathy. But in order to attain peace, that sympathy we show others must also be used on ourselves because we are flawed beings, imperfect, so the occasional mistakes are bound to happen.

On Character – Self Reflect and Think For Oneself

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

One way to fight against ignorance is to apply the Socratic method as demonstrated by Alain de Botton in his book The Consolations of Philosophy.

The Socratic method of thinking can help you examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of your own but those of the society you’re living in:

  1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
  2. Imagine for a moment that statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where that statement would not be true.
  3. If a situation is found, the definition must be false or imprecise.
  4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
  5. Repeat the process if new statement also has an exception.

A Reminder About The Nature Of Life

“Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”

Rieux’s face darkened.

“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”

“No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.”

“Yes. A never ending defeat.”

Tarrou stared at the doctor for a moment, then turned and tramped heavily toward the door. Rieux followed him and was almost at his side when Tarrou, who was staring at the floor, suddenly said:

“Who taught you all this, doctor?”

The reply came promptly:

“Suffering.”

Nothing lasts. Struggle is part of life. Defeat, which is death, is inevitable. There is suffering. Yet, we have a choice in how we act and respond to all of this. The character of doctor Rieux demonstrates this. Faced with this knowledge, he goes about his life still trying to help his fellow human beings.

Great Lines or Quotes

“Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile. […] that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.”

 

Thus, too, they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose. Even the past, of which they thought incessantly, had a savor only of regret.”

 

“The habit of despair is worse than despair itself.”

 

That a man suffering from a dangerous ailment or grave anxiety is allergic to other ailments and anxieties.

 

And to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

 

 

Lessons From Books: How Proust Can Change Your Life

In the book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton etches a narrative of self-help and self-improvement which he found in the works of Marcel Proust. Proust was a novelist known most famously for his work In Search of Lost Time, which spans seven novels and tackles themes of friendship, success, love, relationships, and much more.

At the core, the book tries to answer the question of what is the best way to live life? Although the answer varies from individual to individual, Alain de Botton puts forth some practical ways to live one’s life and of course, as Proust was one of the most influential writers, the book is also rich in literary advice.

The lessons:

On Life – Learn To Be A “Good Sufferer”

We suffer, therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. (Alain de Botton)

Life is hard and an important aspect of living is to be a good sufferer. You must be able to detach from grief and to understand why something hurts you or harms you.

Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our hearts. (Proust)

When we can learn from grief, then the pain subsides. In order to learn from it, we must accept it at first and not avoid it.

Perhaps the greatest claim one can make for suffering is that it opens up possibilities for intelligent, imaginative inquiry—possibilities that may quite easily be, and most often are, overlooked or refused. (Alain de Botton)

I found this to be similar to Jocko Willink‘s “Good” method of dealing with hardship.

On Life – Be Observant

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes. (Proust)

Daily life can seem mundane and unimportant. We are too busy living for the weekend or for the summer vacations that most of our life can drift by without notice. Which is why Proust emphasized searching for the unique or the precious in everyday life. This mindset requires one to be observant, to look at your everyday life with new eyes.

When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like Chordin. (Proust)

This is similar to Walker Percy’s idea of The Search which he explored in his novel, The Moviegoer. This can make the everyday special and unique.

Aesthetically, the number of human types is so restricted that we must constantly, wherever we may be, have the pleasure of seeing people we know. (Proust)

In the train rides or bus ride, while waiting in lines at convenient stores or walking around in malls, if we are observant enough we can find people we know and love because humans share similar features, traits, and habits.

For appreciating an object properly may also require us to re-create it in our mind’s eye.” (Proust)

On Writing – Be Original and Care Deeply

Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone. (Proust)

An artist should not have an obsession with continuing the style that has been going on but rather he or she should study it and then adapt it to him or herself instead of them adapting to the style. In order to do this, the artist must have faith in their own abilities.

It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull. (Proust)

Proust says that what makes something great isn’t the subject matter but rather the quality of care given to that subject. Cliches show a concern for the end product rather than the process of creation. The process of creation requires patience, attention, and care.

Remainder to myself: Write without care and edit with an abundance of it.

 

Great Lines or Quotes:

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. (Proust)

 

Everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensees. (Alain de Botton)

 

Those who love and those who are happy are not the same. (Proust)

 

When we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture-chambers or skeletons. (Proust)

 

Our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts. (Alain de Botton)

 

We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel’ it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so. (Proust)

 

To make (reading) into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it. (Proust)