What if Sisyphus Had Befriended that Boulder?

Mar 23, 2013

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

Do you know the Greek myth of Sisyphus? Short version: Mortal angers the gods and is condemned to eternally push a boulder up hill every day, only to have the boulder roll down hill every night. Sound familiar?

I see this myth as a reflection of how we sometimes relate to aspects of our lives that we don’t like. For example, maybe there’s a co-worker or a loved one who you have a challenging relationship with, or maybe you have a long commute to work each day and you dread facing the traffic. Or maybe, you wish you didn’t feel discouraged, and you criticize yourself for feeling that way. It can be difficult to accept the way things are if people, situations or our own reactions don’t match up with our stories about how life is supposed to look and feel. For many people, the tendency is to push our way through. But often we end up right back where we started: at the bottom of the hill beside our boulder (our co-worker/loved one, our commute, our own feelings). And, usually, we just start pushing again.

A while ago I started to seriously (and playfully) wonder about Sisyphus. Wasn’t there some other way? Just because the Gods condemned him to pushing the boulder up the hill, did that mean that he had to be miserable forever? That seemed to be what the myth was teaching, but I just didn’t buy it. Because yes, it’s no easy thing to push a boulder uphill every day for eternity. However, I also know that no matter what our circumstances, we always have a choice about how we relate to what’s happening.

Sisyphus, according to the myth, can’t change the fact that he’ll be rolling that boulder up hill every day, forever. So, what if he was able to accept this – not in defeat and resignation, but because it’s the self-compassionate, pragmatic thing to do? And, what if having accepted it, he realized that he could form a different kind of relationship with the boulder? What if he got to know that boulder and discovered that it was his favorite thing about being alive because it was what he knew most intimately? What if he befriended it and named it Patricia?

I’m not kidding, though I am being playful, because that’s the whole point. When life seems impossible or discouraging to us, beauty, pleasure and humor are needed more than ever, and they are available, in every moment, courtesy of the creative spark that lives in each of us. This aliveness is our birthright, and challenging times can ignite it. That’s one of their gifts: They can wake us up to the sweetness at hand.

Here’s my retelling of a well-known Zen koan that speaks to this:

A woman traveling across a field encounters a tiger in the tall grass. She runs, and the tiger chases her. She reaches a precipice, grabs the long root of a vine and swings herself over the edge. The tiger sniffs from above. Trembling, she looks down. Far below, another tiger is waiting to eat her. Only the vine keeps her alive.Two mice, one white and one black, start to gnaw at the vine. The woman sees a ripe wild strawberry nearby. Holding the vine with one hand, she picks the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tastes!

The spark of spontaneity and clear seeing can cut through a sense of dread and illuminate a core truth about being human: whatever happens in any moment, we get to engage with it, alchemize it, and redeem it by finding what it has to offer rather than just focusing on what it seems to be taking away. We get to allow it to evoke in us a completely unexpected and fresh response. It’s up to us: Are we going to complain and freak out while the mice gnaw at the vine? Are we going to grab the strawberry? Are we going to do something else; something not mentioned in the koan? We always have a choice. And in that choice is power.

I’m passionate about self-compassion because I have seen how it helps people break the Sisyphus trance by recognizing their choices.The disempowering stories that we habitually tell ourselves are based on perception, rather than truth. As long as we continue to focus on what we can’t change about our circumstances, we won’t see our choices. And when we don’t see our choices, we won’t embody our power, playfulness and loving connection to life.

I wanted something concrete to help me and my clients remember that we always have a choice about how we relate to our experience. So, I decided to make a miniature Patricia. I told one of my best friends about it, and he wanted to make one, too. We got together one afternoon and created a spontaneous ritual. We each selected a chunk of manzanita. As we held them, we imagined that we were infusing the wood in our hands with all the stuff that we believed was wrong about our inner and outer circumstances. Then we sawed, sanded, smoothed and shaped our pieces of wood into small, boulder-like forms. As I did this, I had the sense that after infusing the wood with all of those shadowy qualities of existence, I was then accepting and caring for them. I found beauty in the grain, color and smoothness of the piece, just as it was. I saw doing this as a practice of honoring all parts of experience. Three years later, Patricia sits in my office, reminding me that whenever we notice that we’re in a Sisyphus situation, we get to revise and retell the myth. When we wake up to the alchemy of self-compassion, and stop focusing on what we are powerless to change, we see more clearly the beauty and possibility in this moment. Right here. Boulder and all.

As an experiment, see if you can allow for the possibility that maybe no one is to blame for things not being the way you think they should be. Maybe “the way things are” is actually an opportunity to wake up to your own power.

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