Siddhartha: Part 2

In Part 1 I reflected on Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha, as a journey about the challenge of becoming an individual. Only by realizing our individuality—what it is to be a self connected to but distinct from the collective—do we become fully human, and make our unique contribution to humanity and the evolution of our species.  Our protagonist had undergone an awakening. But before continuing with the reflection I want to take a moment and say something about individuality: it is not individualism.

The latter is based on the assumption of separation from the whole. It’s me against the world, and in its contemporary capitalist expression, that world is perceived as competition, and possibly hostile. The self is separated from other humans and from the natural world. Eco-logic, knowing oneself to occupy a niche in a larger ecosystem, is replaced by ego-logic. Eco-logic knows that community and individuality exist in a complementary relationship: they are not the same and yet one cannot exist (authentically) without the other. I am both an offspring of the eco-system, and to the extent that I thrive, I naturally serve the health of the whole.

In the realm of humans the default pattern is towards collectivity. This is because in the evolution of our species, as with other animals, we learned that to stray from the herd was very dangerous. You’d get picked off by the sabre tooth in a heart beat. We also learn growing up in families the dangers of non-conformity. Because the first imperative is to survive we will find a way to fit in: conformance through contortion of the self. Add  trauma to the mix, and we may spend a lifetime unconsciously scanning the environment, feeling into what is demanded of us from the collective. This is what Jordan Peterson is railing against. And those who are apoplectic in their critique of him rarely realize that their disdain is an expression of a (collective) postmodernist meme. Jordan Peterson, by the way, is probably expressing a kind of totalizing theory of classical liberalism. Even though he is ostensibly a champion of the individual, this too may be little more than an expression of a modernist meme. (Even so-called rugged individualists may be merely oppositional, which is just another way of ceding greater power to the collective ideology).

Back to Siddhartha. He came to his senses. This involved an appreciation of the world of multiplicity—not as illusion as he had been taught by his religious teachers—but as a manifestation of the One. Reality was not hiding behind appearances, the appearances were the Oneness itself shining forth through infinite centres.  (And those centres are not illusory. There is a sovereignty to individuality). He had never felt so alive or so himself ever before. But he also felt loneliness for the first time in his life, even though he had been lonely his whole life. It was the loneliness of having separated himself Reality for the sake of his “spiritual path”. Takeaway: the spiritual path that focuses exclusively on the “unity of all” to the neglect of multiplicity and diversity  will usually cost you your unique self. What is called “spiritual” is too often a false flight to unity, where we are not required to suffer the anxiety of self-definition.

Siddhartha Finds Love?

Siddhartha meets Kamala, a courtesan, who is willing to teach him how to be with women. But he needs to be able to court her, and in order to do this he needs money. Kamala lines him up with a wealthy businessman, and before long Siddhartha is managing the estate with great success. His discipline as a samana (ascetic) had taught him to remain detached from both his successes and failures, to engage in his transactions with other for no other reason than enjoyment.

He also becomes a great lover. But interestingly, he does not yet give his heart to Kamala and she knows it.

Kamala says to him, “You are the best lover I have seen. You are stronger than others, more supple, more willing. You have learned my art well. Sometime when I am older I want to bear your child. And yet, dear, you have remained a samana; and yet, you do not love me. Am I not right?”

So this is not love per se, it is the acquisition of yet another skill to add to his considerable repertoire. This giving of one’s heart to another is a delicate art. A woman less wise than Kamala could have confused Sidhdartha’s attentions with love itself. We can go through relationship after relationship believing that we have opened our heart to another when in truth it is still under wraps, still being carefully protected from heartbreak.

Trauma and Its Impact on Relationship and Spirituality

Nowhere in Hesse’s book will you find any mention of the impact of trauma on the capacity for love or on individuality. Nowhere, in fact, in any of the great spiritual traditions will you find a mention of psychological, emotional, and physical trauma as it relates to the spiritual journey. Likewise, I have never come across indigenous wisdom that includes any mention of the negative impact of prenatal or early childhood failures of love. This is a gift of psychology in the modern era, which began with Freud.

The insight that Siddhartha had not yet given his heart in love is important. One could say that he didn’t actually care about Kamala, just about what she could provide him with. He didn’t actually see her. In the domain of relationship, or we could call it relational intelligence, Siddhartha is in kindergarten, freely and innocently taking from Mother/Teacher whatever she has to give. It is my experience of many gurus that they are likewise relationally children, taking from their followers more than they are giving. They do not see the other as others. And partly this is due to the fact that the “other” actually doesn’t exist in their worldview. Only the One is true. It is all the One playing with itself, and if this sounds like masturbation, it’s because it is—only it is spiritual masturbation. Or if they are Western teachers who are popular, they do not see the other as other because their own narcissism (originating with childhood trauma) means that they everything and everybody is merely a source of confirmation a) that they are real and b) they are valued.

If we were raised in families in which a parent was not adequately parented, s/he will get that parenting from the child. The child will spend a lifetime fleeing relationship for fear of being used up and spit out. It places an unbearable burden upon children who are parented by deprived parents, and this burden shows up as anxiety. Anxiety, in turn, is what happens when we’re required to bear too much responsibility too soon.

The corollary, as it relates to the theme of these posts of becoming an individual, is that unless we get this cleared up, we will never be an individual. We will eternally be seeking that which we didn’t get, and twisting ourselves out of shape in order to get it.

I’m not saying that Siddhartha was secretly contending with trauma, but I am saying that it’s not surprising that he has acquired all of these apparently spiritual gifts and competencies, but he is as yet unable to love. It is not surprising because it is highly probable that the seeking after all of these other gifts is a substitute and distraction from the main event. This is ultimate goal, being in relationship in such a way that we can see the other for who they are and let them be, without using them, without trying to change them, and without ambition for them. Simple, pure care of the other is difficult to realize.

As Rilke put it,

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks…the work for which all other work is but preparation.

Disillusionment and Pulling Up Stakes

Before long, the ways of the world crept into the bones of this holy man. He became indolent, spiritually sleepy, resentful, arrogant. He was becoming one of these people and yet felt both contempt for them and envy. Contempt because he deemed himself to be their spiritual superior. Envy because they seemed, for all their simplicity, to actually love. Death crept into his bones. At age forty, he reviewed his life, all the moments when be felt alive to a calling, when his life felt on purpose. This was not one of them. Once again, it was time to leave behind everything, this time his riches and his lover, and leave.

I’ve written about it elsewhere, but it is perhaps this nomadic capacity, the willingness to get up and go when the Spirit says go that is the hallmark of the spiritual life and the hallmark of the true individual. Whereas most of us become possessed by our possessions and attachments, a teacher like Jesus, for example had “no place to lay his head”. This is what the religious (institutional) teacher Nicodemus secretly wanted from Jesus. Jesus tells him that the person born of Spirit is like the wind, you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. How attached are we to what does not bring life? Have we made a contract with death? Are we secretly resentful of life? Do we feel as though life has betrayed, but truly we have betrayed life in our unwillingness to move on?

The Awakening

Siddhartha leaves and falls asleep by a river, secretly watched over by a monk. When he awakes, it is with the sacred mantra “Om” on his lips. He had never been so afraid in his life, so raw, so alone. But now, he felt truly alive. The monk turns out to be old friend, Govinda, who had remained a samana and a disciple of the Radiant One. Siddhartha had left both of them behind once before on his nomadic journey. It is unstated, but it is clear to me, that Siddhartha had chosen the more difficult path of becoming an individual.

This theme of falling asleep and awakening is constant in spiritual literature. It seems to be built into our nature that we forget who we are and what we’re about. We lose alertness, gratitude, purpose, and slip into hypnotic trances engendered by a world that seems to be committed to sleep. It is a mystery, but we can say that it is part of the rhythm of our spiritual and psychological life. Without sleep there is no awakening.

The Ferryman and the River

Siddhartha finally meets his true teacher, who had been waiting for him ever since their first meeting many years before. He was a simple ferryman, quiet, unassuming, content. He does nothing special, exhibits no special gifts, except a capacity to carefully listen and care about his passengers. Siddhartha goes to live and work with him.

It is now that the ferryman reveals his own teacher. It is the river who teaches him, speaks to him, reveals to him the mysteries. The river, that “long, brown god”, whispers “Om”, to him all day long and gives him wisdom.

The river has 10,000 voices. It is the voice of all beings whispering “Om”, the nature of what is always arising, here and now. Time, he realizes, with its past, present and future is an illusion, or at least it is not absolute (which Einstein also realized). “The river is always everywhere at once, at the ferry, at the rapids, at the sea, in the mountains, everywhere, at the same time, and that it only possesses a present, without any shadow of a future”..

Kamala goes to look for the Radiant One, who is on his deathbed, with her (and Siddhartha’s) son, but dies on the way, bitten by a snake. Siddhartha finds the boy and realizes that he is his son. He takes the boy home to care for him, but the boy is terribly unhappy living this simple life. But Siddhartha refuses to let him go back. After all, he has finally found his son. The ferryman reminds Siddhartha that the way of love means letting go and letting be. Finally, when the boy escapes, Siddhartha ignores the advice of his enlightened friend and goes after him. But the river speaks to him: it laughs at his willfulness, at how Siddhartha has forgotten how his own father needed to let him go when he was a boy, and at how Siddhartha’s desire to protect his son from suffering was not in his son’s interest. Finally, Siddhartha learns what loves means—to let the other be.

A Final Visit with His Friend Govinda

In a final meeting with his friend Govinda, Siddhartha teaches him a few things: 1) To distrust words and concepts: they reduce the totality of reality (The Mystery) to a partial truth necessarily, and that we are each the presence of the Whole of It, saint and sinner, enlightened and foolish, ; 2) to stop seeking, for seeking above all may keep one from seeing that is all here, right now; 3) we are not evolving from a state of imperfection toward perfection; it is, we are, already Perfection manifesting in various forms, ways, and roles; 4) that to love the world, everything and everybody, and to accept everything and everybody just as they are is the only goal, all other is mere ambition and an exercise of the will.

My sole concern is to be able to love the world, not to despise it, not to hate it or myself, to be able to look at it and myself and all beings with love and admiration and respect.

Unity and the individual are not opposites. They are complementary forms of Reality. Neither can exist without the other, and both are true. But to stay true to oneself, as did Siddhartha, is the only way to be a true expression of the Whole that is living us and that is never separate from us—even when we are asleep, frightened, contracted, conformed, in a false unity.  Words…



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