I intend to write this reflection in two parts, tracking the spiritual progress of our protagonist, Siddhartha, and then riffing on some possible meanings for our own spiritual journey.
I must be one of the very few who had never read Herman Hesse’s classic novel, Siddhartha. It’s based (sort of) on the life of the Buddha. But clearly it reflects Hesse’s love affair with Eastern spirituality and how it informed his own journey. It is set historically when Brahmanism, with its central focus on the priesthood, the worship of Indo-European gods, and strict ritual observances, was shifting toward Hinduism (560-480 BCE). The new Vedic scriptures (the Upanishads) preached the oneness of the universe and was more philosophical and mystical—i.e. less “religious”. While still polytheistic, it acknowledged one, single supreme God. Eventually, this form of religion left India and morphed into Buddhism in its multiple expressions. Hesse uses the language of Hinduism, Buddhism, along with Taoist philosophy.
Leaving Home: Really Leaving Home
The stage is set when our protagonist, Siddhartha, feels himself to have outgrown Brahmanism, the religion of his mother and father. He concludes that his parents had already imparted their wisdom, “poured their abundance into his expectant vessel; and the vessel was not full, his mind was not satisfied, his soul was not at ease, his heart was not contented.” The sacrifices did not offer happiness. Why sacrifice to all the minor gods, when the True, and Only One, the Atman, was found within?”
A couple quick observations: If, as I believe, Siddhartha’s deep spiritual curiosity is a normal human impulse, how does it get expressed in contemporary North American culture? Typically, it doesn’t. Our educational systems are steeped in materialism—the belief, backed up by the authority of scientific orthodoxy, that life can be reduced to matter. Or, if the parents want their children to have some religious education, Roman Catholic schools are the only option. When said child becomes a young adult and heads off to university, what’s on offer there is either really bad (fundamentalist) Christianity, watered down (progressive) Christianity (not much meat on the bone there, in terms of exploration of the inner life) or a mishmash of new age spiritualities and self-appointed gurus. Under these circumstances, a young man or woman is wise to steer clear of most offerings.
But I do wonder if this (in part) accounts for a surge in both depression and anxiety in this population. To deny our inner nature and to confuse our outer expression of self with the totality of reality (the vast realm of inward and invisible) is to cut ourself off from an eternal reservoir of vitality. Something, we intuit, is missing. I also wonder if the psychedelic renaissance among young people is a natural and intelligent response to this growing spiritual crisis. The challenge with psychedelics is that without a trusted guide of some spiritual heft, these medicines are potentially themselves an ego-fest.
In Siddhartha we find a young man prepared to leave everything to do deeper into this spiritual nature. His struggle, all spiritual struggles, will be with the wily ego, the outward manifestation of the Self that is constantly tempted away from individuality toward the collective that comes by identifying with family, religion, friends, vocation, ideology, role, status, power, etc. (Note, this expressions of collectivity are not “bad”. Rather they are necessary, but transient, houses for the self, meant to shelter for a time, and then to be left. Spiritual stagnation occurs when we refuse to leave.)
Siddhartha leaves his mother and father. His father blesses his son, but it’s a reluctant blessing, given only after he sees that the son has already left. The son never returns home, not to visit, not for birthdays, not to take care of them in their old age. He does so without a trace of guilt. How different things are in contemporary culture. It is as though we are bound to be loyal sons or daughters for a lifetime.
A client shared how her aging and frail mother let her know in no uncertain terms that she, (my client), was failing in her duties and obligations to be a “good daughter”. This led to an interesting and clarifying conversation with her mother. My hunch is that this training in loyalty and allegiance, this learning to be what the parent needs the child to be, starts early and is a set up for life. It is a reversal of the natural order of things, a shift away from the purpose of parenting—from “pouring life wisdom” into the children and sending them on their way to creating ties that bind for a lifetime.
There is an alternative, and that is for parents to realize that the job is time-limited: keep the lineage going, magnify the inherent beauty and radiance of the children for this relatively short period of stewardship, and then release them into the world to shine their light. Off you go. You may return, of course, but never out of a sense of obligation. That would be humiliating.
There is no mention of childhood trauma in Siddhartha, but when this is added to the picture the contemporary family situation becomes even more unnatural. Children who were never loved and/or were abused nevertheless feel compelled by guilt to bind themselves for a lifetime to the very ones who abused them. There seems to be an unconscious hope that this undying, and reluctantly offered loyalty, will finally earn them the love and respect that they never received as children. This rarely happens.
On Being a Samana: The Path of Disenchantment
Siddhartha begins his journey into individuality by dismantling his ego, taking up the life of the ascetic, turning away from wealth, the caste system, wealth and prestige. He sees through the illusory nature of the world. “None of it was worth the trouble of a glance it was all a lie, it all stank, it all stank of lies, it all gave the illusion of meaning and happiness and beauty, and was all unacknowledged decay. The world had a bitter taste. Life was torment.”
The reader will no doubt recognize features of the life of the samana in the adolescent who awakens to discover the limitations and integrity gaps of his own parents. S/he sees hypocrisy everywhere, except perhaps in her peers, who likewise see through the conventional values of the world that is on offer. This is a formative moment in the development of the inner life: the choice is to flirt with (and potentially succumb) to a life of despair, believing that even at this early stage of life s/he has seen life as it really is, or with some wise guidance, accept these limitations realizing that the many (and true) faults that they are seeing, nevertheless do not exhaust the totality of reality. The adventure is in discovering life in its full depth and mystery—but not giving all one’s life energies in unconscious adolescent opposition.
This was also the subject of Colin Wilson’s most successful book, The Outsider. He tracks existentialist poets and philosopher’s into their despair. Each one has seen the world as it is and it stinks as far as they are concerned. Many end up committing suicide or becoming hopelessly alcoholic. Wilson criticizes them for their lack of discipline in not harnessing their will to help them see through the false world and its hypocrisies and into the underlying beauty and majesty of life—of not realizing the ultimate value of life.
Siddhartha was looking to rid himself of all traces of self, to self-empty so that perhaps the Real, the True, the One would have space to rise up and shine from within. He emptied himself of all ideas, of all desire and appetite, to learn to concentrate and meditate himself out of existence. After years, he realizes that he is not much better than a drunk who tries to alleviate the pain of being trapped in his ego by drinking. How different, then, is this life of renunciation? The life of the samana, of self-denial is falling short. When he tells his elder samana that he is leaving, the elder flies into a rage. This is the surest sign that you’ve joined a cult, by the way.
Siddhartha’s realization on the samana path is that even the strictest spiritual path may be little more than a form of spiritual by-passing, a temporary means of alleviating suffering by removing self from the scene. But the denial of self is still centred on self, and still leaves one isolated in one’s desire to escape the solipsistic madness of the compulsion to refer every experience back to the self.
You see this self-referential loop everywhere. For example, on a contemplative forest walk, you are asked to observe a budding leaf. But when you report back your experience, it’s all about how the dynamics of the young leaf reflect some aspect of the emerging life within you. Not the end of the world. But the trick is to let the leaf be the leaf, without self-referencing, and to get lost in the mystery of life—to be taken (out of self) and into the Great Mystery, letting go of the need to control experience (which is fear of the loss of self). This localized manifestation of the Mystery that is doing the observing, (the “I” of your “me”), will either return, or not, but either way, this on again, off again, nature of existence ceases to be a source of anxiety—even when it applies to the self.
If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Challenge Him
He even meets a revered Buddha, the Radiant One. But in the end, he gently challenges the revered teacher. The challenge is simple. The Buddha gained enlightenment not through doctrine, but through direct experience. Now he is teaching his doctrine, and Siddhartha is not seeking after knowledge. Doctrine, no matter, how perfect, no matter if it is focused purely on alleviating suffering, cannot save the soul. No teacher can confer the gift of true wisdom which must be experienced directly.
At this point, Siddhartha takes his leave from his dear and loyal friend, Govinda, who decides to become a follower of the Radiant One. This leave-taking from family, friends, religion is the cost of becoming an individual.
To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day. Thou canst to then be false to any man” (William Shakespeare).
It is a rare spirit who possess the courage to remain true to him/her self, when there are so many others out there who seem to have grasped a deeper truth. Why not follow them? Why not raise ourselves up, at least intellectually, to a higher ideal? To hold to our own truth, when what we are feeling, thinking, desiring seems less noble than the ideal takes courage. But we can get lost in ideals. When we lose the capacity to accurately assess where we actually are, and who we actually are, in favour of somebody else’s ideal, or some spiritual ideal, the “I” has slipped once again into the “me”, and we have lost our self.
It takes trust that the Mystery that is living in us, through us, as us can only be revealed to us as we accept that where we are at and what is arising in us is where we need to be. To live with courage means trusting that little voice telling us “not this, not now, not for me, not true for me” is the one to follow.
“I must judge, I must choose, I must reject. O Sublime One, we samanas seek deliverance from the self. Now, if I were one of your disciples, O Venerable One, I fear it might occur that my self would find repose and be delivered only seemingly, only deceptively, but that it would actually live one and develop further—because I would have turned the Law, my adherence to it, my love for you, and the monastic community, into my new self!”
Siddhartha relinquished teachers. How ya doing with that one? So many of us spiritual seekers bounce around from workshop to workshop, from teacher to teacher, from book to book, from therapist to therapist, guru to guru, imagining that this will be the one. Siddhartha was learning the Life itself, and direct, open experience of what is, is the primary teacher.
Siddhartha Comes Home to Himself and Feels Loneliness
Now Siddhartha has an awakening experience. But note that this is just one of many awakening experiences. We have new awakenings at every new stage of our journey. Awakening is a path, not a final, absolute stage of consciousness. This awakening is to the beauty of himself. He had been trying to escape the self, he now realizes, because he was afraid of himself.
He looks around at the world and everything is as it is: “Meaning and essence were not, somewhere or other, in back of things, they were in them, in everything”. We might say that he has awakened to phenomenology. This is not a world that distinguishes between a “thing in itself” and what we see, between “mere appearances” and the hidden essence of things. The essence is right there before our eyes. It’s shining out everywhere. Blue is blue. Mountains rise up. Leaves sprout green on trees.
Siddhartha’s awakening could be described as a shift from scorning multiplicity in favour of the unity of all, to seeing that the multiplicity is as ontologically valid and real as the unity of all. This privileging of unity over multiplicity is a feature of contemporary new age spirituality as well. In this renewed acceptance of his variegated, unique self, a self that could finally see the world as it is without self-referencing, Siddhartha discovers a new and terrifying reality. He is becoming an individual.
And with true individuality, comes loneliness. Having left his father, renounced his intellect, his status as a Brahman, his religion, his ascetic lifestyle and having walked away from the Enlightened Teacher, who is he? What’s his role in life? What are the rules? To whom does he belong? What identity can he rely if called upon to identify himself? He has shed, snakelike, identity after identity, role after role, rule after rule. What was left? He was finally awake, more himself than ever. But terribly alone, and he felt it. “For years he had been homeless, and had not felt it. Now he felt it. Up to now, even when lost most fully in ritual concentration, he had been his father’s son, a Brahman, a man of high rank, an intellectual. Now he was only Siddhartha, and nothing more”.
I remember this kind of awakening myself, in an ayahuasca ceremony. In tears I let completely down. The words on my lips were pathetic, but true and beautiful. “I’m just Bruce. That’s it. I’m not special. I don’t know anything. It’s just me. Take me or leave me. But this is the truth.” I felt more myself than I ever had, I was in a state of profound self-acceptance. This precisely the condition that we had to escape, very early, when we discovered that this self was unacceptable, unworthy, shameful. We needed to find a “better” way to fit it, adjust, conform. T’he “I” became the “me”.
There comes a moment on this life journey, to the serious seeker who has let go of everything for the sake of feeling and living from the very heart of reality, this kind of sobering solitude. Gone is the desire to identify with a role, to trot out credentials, self-promote, or to be anybody—other than true to oneself and in relationship with a world of staggering beauty. And part of this loneliness is the realization which Siddhartha felt in his bones, that there is no going back.
But the journey is not yet complete, not by a long shot. In Part 2, I continue with Siddhartha’s saga, and our own, as pilgrims in and through this Great Mystery.