Lessons From People: Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse was a poet and a writer who wrote many great works, including Demian, Steppenwolf and most famously Siddhartha. His works mainly concentrated on the need to become an individual and gain self knowledge. He was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.

The following are lessons taken from his essays which range from a wide variety of topics such as psychoanalysis, Anti-Semitism, to his thoughts on individual writers, painters, and intellects.

Lessons:

Find Joy In The Everyday Life

There is a state of urgency associated with being alive because we don’t know how much time we really have. So, there is this need to do as much as possible as quickly as possible because tomorrow is never guaranteed. However, Hesse speaks against living like this. He calls that kind of life a hurried life, which he considers to be an enemy to a joyful life.

But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most as the most important object of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.

A hurried life would be the kind where you are always focusing on the next thing, on the big projects and goals. Always jumping from one thing to another. In this manner, life goes by without us realizing it and we’ve missed out on appreciating the time we were alive. 

Even leisure is hurried in this way of living. We are more worried about how many shows we can watch, how many things we can do, how many bucket list items we can cross off instead of appreciating each individual thing.

The motto of a hurried life is:

As much as possible, or fast as possible.

But this only allows for quick dopamine hits instead of actual pleasure.

Hesse’s formula for joy:

Moderate enjoyment is double enjoyment and don’t overlook the little joys.

What are little joys?

The play of colors in nature or in a painting, an appeal in the voices of storm and sea, or in man-made music, as long as beneath its surface of interests and necessities the world can be seen or felt as a whole, consisting as it does of interrelationships from the curve of a young cat’s neck to the variations of a sonata, from the touching eyes of a dog to the tragedy of a poet, an interconnection of thousandfold riches of relationship, correspondences, analogies, and reflection, out of whose eternally flowing language their hearers derive joy and wisdom, entertainment and emotion—just so long will man again and again triumph over his ambiguities and be able to ascribe meaning to his existence.

It’s good to remember Hesse felt this way prior to the internet. Now, this hurried life has been kicked into overdrive and we can spend every minute of our day jumping from one thing to the next.

An exercise in moderation: Don’t have to be the first in line to a premiere. Don’t have to jump on the news show trend, wait a few weeks and see if you still want to. Instead of reading book after book, or skipping from song to song, think about why that piece of art makes you feel the way it did, whether it’s good or bad.

Know Your Why

There are two things associated with actions: the what and the why. The ‘what’ of an act is usually simple. If you want to start a business, the product you want to sell is the what. Often times figuring out the what is the depth of our understanding behind our actions. But the ‘why’ behind our actions is a lot more significant.

For those high qualities, tasks, and goals which you ascribe to the poet, that loyalty to himself, that awe in the face of nature, that acceptance of unusual self-sacrifice, that responsibility which is never satisfied with itself and gladly pays the price of sleepless nights for a successful sentence, a well turned phrase — all these virtues are the hallmarks not only for the true poet. They are the hallmarks of the true human being per se, of the unensalved, unmechanized man, of the revert and responsible human being, no matter what his profession.

The why should be related to the observation of life, to emotional sensibilities, to stand against something, to say something of value, to be free, to find solitude, to improve oneself, to dedicate oneself to a cause higher than yourself.

When the why is pure, the what becomes valuable.

Personal Refuge 

When we think about relaxing and decompressing, images of beaches or resorts come to mind. We look at them as a utopia that will provide us with refuge. However, Hesse doesn’t believe in this kind of refuge because no matter where you go, you are there. There is no perfect utopia for you to go to because your thoughts/emotions/feelings go with you. Thoughts influenced by others, emotions stirred up by loss or pain, feelings of loneliness or needing solitude all disturb whatever outer utopia you have in mind. 

But we need a refuge, a place of solitude that will allow us to disconnect from the outside noise and to simply concentrate and focus. 

Leave, O World, leave me in peace!

Ideally, the perfect solitude or refuge should be our own inner state. You, yourself, must be your refuge. Your thoughts must be clear so you can find comfort within them. You shouldn’t have to distract yourself from yourself. You must achieve harmony within yourself.

Hesse achieved a stable inner self through meditation, journaling, and by communicating truthfully with himself. Essentially, you have to have a desire to create an inner refuge and then work relentlessly upon yourself so that you can make this refuge a reality.

View People Without Desire

The eye of desire dirties and distrusts.

It is almost natural to view others through the lease of desire because we often start relationships in order to gain something for ourself. So, even prior to actually communicating with the person we wonder if they will like us, if they are arrogant or humble, if they will respect our work and so on. In doing so, we don’t truly connect with the individual because we have already created a picture of who they might be and how they act and think.

In order to have a genuine connection with someone, eyes of desire must be closed.

What is required then is for us to stop seeing people as useful or boring or strong or weak. Only by stopping such desires do we see who the person is and come to appreciate them regardless of how they can benefit us. This way, the quirks or mannerisms or characteristic that we might find annoying at first become a unique quality of that individual. The things we appreciate and like about someone become even more valuable.

Seeking Suffering

Just suffer, my son, just suffer and drain the cup to the dregs! The harder you try to avoid it the bitterer the drink will be. The coward drinks his fate like poison or medicine, you must drink yours like wine and fire. Then it will taste sweet.

Acceptance.

Being alive comes with pain and suffering. It’s better to make use of suffering by seeing it as a challenge to overcome than it is to try and avoid it. Suffering is there for us to grow physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. By trying to avoid it, we only harm ourself.

And so my condition and radius of experience was this: On one hand endurance of great sorrow, on the other a conscious striving to master this sorrow, to achieve complete harmony with fate. This was approximately the judgement of my consciousness, or rather a first voice audible within my consciousness. A second voice, fainter, but deeper and more resonant, put the matter differently. This voice (which like the first one I heard clearly but far off in my sleep and dream) did not call the suffering wrong and my vigorous mental struggle for perfection right, but rather meted out right and wrong to both sides. The second voice sang of the sweetness of suffering, it sang of its necessity, it had no interest of mastering or eliminating it but only in deepening and illuminating it.

Why He Admired Goethe

He (Goethe) did not content himself with little goals, that he sought the greatest, that he erected ideals that could not be attained.

On Getting Old

Growing old is one of the universal fears. Hesse overcomes this fear by viewing aging as just another question life asks you and it is your new responsibility to find the appropriate answers. Now, as you age, the set of questions you face in your youth or adult life change to:

Can you be patient as you age?

Can you age gracefully?

Can you find joy in what has happened?

And many more.

It’s all about your mindset. You can be young and full of life, but a negative mindset can kill you. At the same time, when you’re old, you can focus on the negative, the things you used to be able to do, the people that you used to have around you and let it weigh you down or you can see it as another challenge, another question of life and focus on finding the answers. 

Old age is a stage in our life, and like all other stages, it has a face of its own, its own atmosphere and temperature, its own joys and miseries.

On Writing

Write poetry because it is a practice to sharpen your skills. Poetry forces you to come up with new analogies, similes, metaphors. Additionally, use poetry to clarify your thoughts and experiences. 

Novels, on the other hand, can be viewed as models for life and how to act. 

Almost all the prose works of fiction I have written are biographies of souls.

The focus is on the individual and his relationship to the world and himself rather than on plot, or creating suspense and so on.

An eager longing, a will to devotion, born of misery. And these are the prerequisites of everything great.

Any work, but especially creative, requires truth, accuracy, charm and neatness. Don’t overlook the details and the minute. If you are a careless writer, then the substance of the work can be questioned. You allow corruption into your work by being careless and overlooking the details. 

Respect for the material is what the author ought to feel, not the reader.

Poem: The Present

Moments past,

Take with it future hope,

Leave behind present guilt,

Chaining you to your judgement.

But each moment is renewed,

Like the passage of a stream,

The present need not be tied to the past,

As a new set of eyes or ears or a new breath or thought can unchain the present from what has been.

Past judgements left in the past,

The now, gives birth to new possibilities,

Which open new paths,

As the present allows for you to be born again.

Lessons From Books: The Power Of Myth

 

Joseph Campbell was a world-renowned teacher and mythologist. He spent much of his life studying and dissecting myths from all over the world. It was his belief that myths can act as blueprints for our lives by acting as a navigational tool. In the book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell sat down with the journalist, Bill Moyers, and discussed everything from the importance of mythology to why one should follow their bliss, to the meaning of life, the purpose of life and even topics such as nature, sin, morality, marriage, rituals and many more practical topics.

The following are a few lessons picked from the book.

Lessons:

On The Importance of Myths

Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.

Myths typically have a beginning, middle, and end. This complete picture can then act as a guide for us to follow as the hero deals with many failures and struggles. These can be as relatable as having to leave home and finding your own path in life, to managing the ego, or understanding harmful relationships, or maturing from naïve thinking, and so on. 

A heroic journey teaches us what is possible. What sacrifices to make. How many obstacles and failures we must overcome in order to reach our goal. More importantly, how we aren’t alone in our struggle. We can avoid certain hardships and/or emulate heroic decisions in our own life.

Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being divine.

Answers to most of our problems and concerns are already out there. It’s just a matter of finding them.

Stay Optimistic In The Darkest Of Times

One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.

The transformation is only possible if we are willing to listen to the voice. We might not like what the voice has to say. The transformation might require us to confront our own issues, belief systems, ideologies, things that we have based our identity on.

Sometimes it is more comfortable to stay in the darkness. It may require a great struggle to move towards the light. This is where individual choice matters and personal ownership comes into play. 

Take Action

God must have known very well that man was going to eat the forbidden food. But it was by doing that that man became the initiator of his own life. Life really begins with that act of disobedience.

Our life begins when we take actions based on our own judgment. Our judgment may contradict the beliefs of other authority figures in our life however, this disobedience then allows us to claim both the success and failure in our life as our own and so creating our own way. 

One of the great challenges of life is to say “yeah” to that person or act or that condition which in your mind is the most abominable.

How To Live

Follow your passion:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

Nurture experiences:

People say that we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Find your internal meaning, rather than seeking external meaning for life:

There’s no meaning. What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.

How To Improve Your Character

Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That’s why it’s good to be able to put yourself in a situation that will evoke higher nature rather than your lower.

Situations that will evoke our higher nature are often those which make us uncomfortable. They challenge our beliefs, our relationships, our commitment, and our mental fortitude. 

Life also tests our character, but it does so on its own accord. At random. So, instead of waiting for life to create challenges for us, which we might fail, it’s best to take responsibility and seek situations that make us uncomfortable so our higher nature can get more repetitions and be ready for the randomness of life. 

Listen To Yourself

If the person insists on a certain program and doesn’t listen to the demands of his own heart, he’s going to risk a schizophrenic crackup. Such a person has put himself off-center. The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for.

In order to be an individual, we have to listen to our own individual voice. This can be scary because that voice may go against what others have told us our entire life. However, it’s in the pursuit of our own individual needs do we come to live our own life. Otherwise, we are basically matching the steps of those who have come before us and living a life best suited for others. 

Different Parts Of Life Require A Different You

The tradition in India, for instance, of changing your whole way of dress, even changing your name, as you pass from one stage to another. When I retired from teaching, I knew that I had to create a new way of life, and I changed my manner of thinking about my life, just in terms of that notion — moving out of the sphere of achievement into the sphere of enjoyment and appreciation and relaxing to the wonder of it all.

What has helped us in the past may not help us in the present and could be outdated for the future. Actions, habits, belief systems, and relationships all fall in this realm of thinking.

We must constantly die one way or another to the selfhood already achieved.

The very thing that has had a direct impact on our past success can become the new barrier. 

To evolve out of this psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a death and resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey — leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.

Have A Private Place

This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

A place to decompress. A place to organize our thoughts. A place to plan future actions. A place to unpack experiences. A place that can keep us sane. Too often we delve into our phones, or computers when it is time to take a break. Instead, we need to deep dive into our own minds and spend some time observing ourselves. Through such a measure, maturity and growth can be achieved. 

How To Read

Sit in a room and read — and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. This realization of life can be a constant realization in your living. When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don’t say, “Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did” — and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. But when you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such poem — but he hasn’t said anything to you.

Commit to a line of thinking and let go. Every now and then we have to allow another person to lead us. Allow their words and thought processes to influence our own. This is a way to go deeper and find true value instead of staying on the surface and jumping from one line of thinking to another, from one writer to the next, and being unable to recall anything of substance. 

How To Become An Individual

[In Thus Spoke Zarathustra] Nietzsche describes what he calls the three transformations of the spirit. The first is that of the camel, of childhood and youth. The camel gets down on his knees and says, “put a load on me.” This is the season for obedience, receiving instruction and the information your society requires of you in order to live a responsible life.

But when the camel is well loaded, it struggles to its feet and runs out into the desert, where it is transformed into a lion — the heavier the load that has been carried, the stronger the lion will be. Now, the task of the lion is to kill a dragon, and the name of the dragon is “Thou Shalt.” On every scale of this scaly beast, a “Thou Shalt” is imprinted: some from four thousand years ago; others from this morning’s headlines. Whereas the camel, the child, had to submit to the “Thou Shalts,” the lion, the youth, is to throw them off and come to his own realization.

And so, when the dragon is throughly dead, with all its “Thou Shalts” overcome, the lion is transformed into a child moving out of its own nature, like a wheel impelled from its own hub. No more rules to obey. No more rules derived from the historical needs and tasks of the local society, but the pure impulse to living of a life in flower.

Accept Fate or Chance

This is a matter of being able to accept chance. The ultimate backing of life is chance — the chance that your parents met, for example! Chance, or what might seem to be chance, is the means through which life is realized. The problem is not to blame or explain but to handle the life that arises. Another war has been declared somewhere, and you are drafted into an army, and there go five or six years of your life with a whole new set of chance events. The best advice is to take it all as if it had been of your intention — with that, you evoke the participation of your will.

Life can be absurd and random. It can feel as if we have no control over it. However, the perspective of acting as if what happens in our life is what we intended can give us a sense of control. We don’t have to dwell on the pitfalls, instead we can make the best of a bad situation. We can bounce back into forward motion quickly instead of questioning fate or chance which will keep us stagnant. 

Also, by accepting fate, we get to live in the present. Instead of fighting the present moment because it doesn’t align with our past hopes, we can experience life as it is and live with awareness and attention.  

Think Positive

Ramakrishna once said that if all you think of are your sins, then you are a sinner. And when I read that, I thought of my boyhood, going to confession on Saturdays, meditating on all the little sins that I had committed during the week. Now I think one should go and say, “bless me, Father, for I have been great, these are the good things I have done this week.” Identify your notion of yourself with the positive, rather than with the negative.

Our internal dialogue influences our state of being. We can be overly self-critical and live with too much shame or guilt depending on how we talk to ourselves. This darkens the experience of life. Instead, self love needs to be administered. Ultimately we need a balance so we don’t become delusional or inflate our ego too much. But often we lean further towards the negative than we do towards the positive. 

Great Lines or Quotes:

You have to learn to recognize your own depth.

When you follow the path of your desire and enthusiasm and emotion, keep your mind in control, and don’t let it pull you compulsively into disaster.

You don’t understand death, you learn to acquiesce in death.

Freud tells us to blame our parents for all the shortcomings of our life, and Marx tell us to blame the upperclass of our society. But the only one to blame is oneself. That’s the helpful thing about the Indian idea of karma. Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.

I don’t think there is any such thing as an ordinary mortal. Everybody has his own possibility of rapture in the experience of life.

Love is the burning point of life, and since all life is sorrowful, so is love. The stronger the love, the more the pain.

Going through a ritual day after day keeps you on the line

When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life — well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.

Do not pluck the mote from your enemy’s eyes, but pluck the beam from your own. No one is in a position to disqualify his enemy’s way of life.

Poem: The Choice

Impulsive,

following the first thought,

the first desire,

the first pleasure.

 

Confused,

thinking that is what you are thinking,

that is what you want,

that is what you need.

 

Man being god,

he like the all-knowing sits above and watches,

observes the animals going about their business,

animals that are full of thought, desires, and pleasures,

who are constantly acting on impulses,

but He watches and observes,

You watch and observe,

the real you isn’t the first to act.

 

Breathing in heavenly air,

shrouded in stillness,

clear sight, clear mind,

choosing what you act upon,

the choice is godlike,

the choice is man,

the choice is you.

 

Poem: Reflect On The Self

Eyes only for the bad leaves a darkened heart,

seeing, watching, consuming all that is wrong.

Eyes only for the good leave an ignorant heart,

overlooking, bypassing, ignoring the realities of life.

 

To neither be dark or ignorant,

to neither be cynical or idealistic,

rather, be aware of the self which is all of that and more,

through awareness, decency follows.

 

Eyes turned inwards,

peering into the shadowy pockets within as orbs of light shine and dim,

eyes outwards looking into the mirror,

the reflection shows all of mankind,

the shadow and light within mirrors all of mankind.

 

Consume enough hate and you’ll become hateful,

consume enough fear and you’ll become fearful,

consume enough goodness and you’ll become good,

consume enough knowledge and you’ll become intelligent.

 

Reflect on the difference and you’ll become different,

reflect on the similarities and you’ll become similar,

reflect on yourself and you’ll be one with mankind.