“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” -Albert Camus
To be human is to ask what it means to be human. Yoga, along with other serious spiritual traditions, offers us a way to act and live this question. They do not, however, give us the answer. Finding the answer is not the point. In fact, the uncomfortable truth is that there is not even a guarantee that there is an answer at all.
I was in a pretty dark place when a friend recommended I familiarize myself with the 1942 work of French philosopher Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus. According to Greek mythology, after angering the gods, Sisyphus’ punishment was to roll a boulder up a mountain every day. Every day the boulder would roll back down and he would have to start all over again. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that life is absurd, chaotic, and void of meaning. Camus affirms that we can still be happy through the meaning we assign to our lives.
I have noticed two not-helpful ways of dealing with the question of meaning(lessness). The first is our tendency to subscribe to someone else’s belief systems. We seek our salvation anywhere from the cult of consumerism to a fundamentalist approach to religion or atheism to extreme and radical political ideology. We allow ourselves to buy into it like we buy processed foods. When we think about it, it is really bad for us. In order to maintain our belief system, we just don’t think. This lack of thinking makes us susceptible to becoming instruments for terror. Great atrocities have been committed by those who viewed themselves as merely carrying out the will of someone who did a good deal of thinking that went unquestioned.
The second unhelpful way we might cope with our (possibly futile?) search for meaning is to become apathetic and nihilistic. If life has no inherent meaning (meaning that has been handed to us by some external force), we assume that nothing we do matters. At best, we could be total jerks, and at worst we could destroy ourselves, others, and our environment. We argue our behavior is justified because it lacks inherent meaning. If everything is ultimately meaningless, then nothing we do really matters, right? Yeah, except for all of the suffering that it causes. We can believe that it doesn’t have inherent meaning, but it sure feels real enough.
What Camus is offering is akin to what Yoga and any other wise traditions offer their practitioners. The idea that perhaps there is another way.
Camus’ Third Way.
The outside observer would look in horror at Sisyphus’ predicament. In fact, if Sisyphus were to really consider the situation he was in, the anguish he might feel could very well drive him mad. Instead, Sisyphus cultivates an ability to live entirely in the present moment, accepting it for whatever it is. He does not judge it as bad or good. He does not ruminate on the injustice or the unfairness of his life, nor does he bother to hope for things to be anything other than what they are. His is a continual practice of awareness only of what is present in the moment at hand. It is through mastering his thoughts, focusing his attention, and abiding only in the present that Sisyphus finds happiness.
Hope is often hailed as a virtue, but I disagree. Hope is a delusion. It takes our awareness out of the present moment and places it on our idea of how we think things should be, as if we who are so very good at creating crises and not so very good at solving them would know. Genius and creativity can only happen in the present moment. The precious few answers we have to the great questions of life cannot be remembered, nor can they be dreamed up. They are experiences that can only arise if we are able to be present enough to allow them to.
Sometimes we become so caught up in the dailyness of life that we forget we are really living. Time goes by in a whirlwind. There are other days that our awareness of life infuses us and everything we do so much that we experience almost a sense of transcendence. We believe we may well be held in the palm of the Divine itself. Still, there will be other days that the only reason we take our first step in the morning is because we sense it is our duty to do so. Another war. Another environmental crisis. Another mother’s child dead in the streets. Another day living with the uncomfortable truth that this world may well be all there is, and we are ceremoniously destroying it.
We fray, we fracture, we fragment, and we go on. We do our practice. We do not attach ourselves to its outcome. We imagine Sisyphus happy.