Last night, I met with an old friend. At a certain point in the conversation he brought up the book “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse. And he said,
“You know I still have the copy you gave me…”
I had no recollection of this, but he reminded me that I had presented him with my own copy of the book nearly a decade ago. This was a copy I had first purchased 20 years ago when I was still a teen. And over the next few years, I would re-read the book more than seven times. I asked him if he still had the book with him and he immediately went to get it.
He brought it back and handed it to me. I held the little blue book in my hand, felt its weight, ruffled its pages. It felt strange. Not like a book but like some living creature. Holding it in my hand felt like holding the hand of a friend. Feeling it’s surface and ruffling through its pages felt like stroking the cheek and ruffling the hair of a loved one. I instinctively brought the book to my chest and pressed it there for a moment.
“Hello, old friend…”
I opened to the very first page and there was a note I’d penned when I was only 18.
That was the gauntlet that had been laid down twenty years ago. I barely could remember writing it. But as I gazed at the words, all those memories came rushing back: the deep despair, the yearning to be free, the hopeless confusion, the emotional turmoil, the burden of expectation, the sense of dread for the future, the craving to know my destiny, the frustration of not knowing who I was.
And I reflected on what I feel now: no despair, no yearning to be free, no confusion, no emotional turmoil, no sense of burden, no feeling of dread, no frustration about who I am.
What has changed?
The expectations in my life haven’t diminished, they have increased significantly compared to when I was a teen. Back then I was responsible only for myself. Now I have a family, little children to take care of and parents who are growing old.
My future hasn’t become any clearer. In fact, back then, the possibilities had been limitless. The options for me to pursue any kind of career or lifestyle had been wide open. Now, my future is just as uncertain and yet the options are more limited.
What am I destined to do in my life? This question has become meaningless. I have no expectations of what I must do or achieve in this lifetime. Water will find its level if allowed to flow unimpeded. My only occupation is to clear those obstructions that impede the natural expression of my being. What I will “become” is a moment by moment revelation that I’m happy to discover as I go along.
It’s like reading the book of my life. Like any good book, I savor the story. I have no desire to ruin the fun by skipping to the end. Whatever the narrative arc, whatever the plot twists to come, however climatically or anticlimactically the story ends, none of that matters to me all that much. This book is strongly character driven. It’s the characters that I have come to love so much.
Most importantly of all, I STILL don’t know “who” I am. Yet, I have no desire to know. I have a name, a personality and a role that I play as protagonist. That is sufficient. The desire to be a “somebody” holds hardly any appeal for me now.
So what has changed? It would seem, both nothing and everything.
I reflected on that boy who stood separated from me by a gulf of twenty years. And I crossed that chasm and became him for a moment. I tried to envision his exact life, his circumstances, his moods, his thoughts, his frustrations, his yearnings and for a moment I BECAME him again. I felt what it felt to be him.
And it felt no different. It was the same self unchanged by the passage of time. Yet, there was something else there: beside him, behind him, above him, beneath him, around him and within him at all times like a toxic black cloud of oppression seeping into his mind, his veins, his bones, his heart and making him think, feel and act according to its own bidding.
Fear was what was making him run away from himself, from the moment, from his home. Sent off on a fool’s errand each morning only to return exhausted and empty handed each night, his will utterly spent. Working him like a puppet chasing after this and that, promising him great peace, great comfort, great joy, great love, great understanding as his reward if he only did its bidding. He must prove himself worthy. But all he could prove was his unworthiness. And instead of being rewarded he was punished. Punished with great turmoil, great suffering, great sorrow, great loneliness, great confusion. So, he tried even harder to prove his worth.
Standing within him, as him, I can see the black cloud, I can see his mind struggling to comply and I whisper to him,
“look at it”
At first he doesn’t hear me. So, I repeat in a still small voice
“Don’t look away from it. Look at it”
He has never looked at it head on. He has never faced the black cloud of his fear. He has always looked away from it. He has always been driven by it.
He hesitates and turns to look, then turns away immediately in horror. No, he cannot! Absolutely not!
“Look at it. Don’t be afraid. Look at it”
He faces it more fully this time and the dark cloud grows darker and more menacing in response.
“Keep looking at it.
No matter what.
Keep your eye on it always.
No matter what it says.
No matter what it threatens.
Let it speak but never respond.
Just look at it.
IT CANNOT TOUCH YOU.”
He does as I tell him. He looks at it for days. He looks at it for weeks. He looks at it for months. He looks at it for years.
I see him cross the gulf between us, never taking his eye off the black cloud. And as he arrives at the other shore, the cloud is swallowed by the chasm of time…
Still gazing at those words, I understood.
I closed the book. I looked at the book cover and the bronze statue of the inwardly smiling Gautama. And the words appeared in my mind,
“Am I holding the book of Siddhartha’s life?
Or is Siddhartha holding the book of mine?”