When I was a child, I was very messy, and it seemed like I was not related to the rest of my family. I remember thinking, Why do the adults tell me to clean up my room? I will just mess it up again. And why do people make their beds every day? they just mess them up at night and have to make them up all over again. At least there is a reason to brush your teeth at regular intervals.
At that time I did not know the myth of Sisyphus, the poor man who is in hell pushing a large boulder up a mountain, only to reach the top and see it go fast down the mountain to the bottom, then to have to go back down and push it back up again, knowing it will just fall down the mountain.
I’ve remembered this myth a lot, especially as a therapist dealing with people suffering from all kinds of things from depression to eating disorders to addiction. This metaphor is so apt for such suffering; the sufferer has the knowledge that life does not seem like that, it actually is exactly like that.
Read the full story: http://www.mythweb.com/encyc/entries/sisyphus.html
we, I included, only seem to remember him as that sufferer doomed to this repetitive task in Hades, however, in life, he wielded the ultimate power of stopping people from dying for a time.
Anyway, for better or worse, most of us just remember this man, seemingly helpless and powerless over his fate, doomed to this repetitive, exhausting task. I’m not sure what changes in knowing the whole story, but still, life seems to be the same as this image. We labor and sweat over pushing a huge boulder up a mountain, only to see it speedily fall to the bottom, and then, without question, we hurry down the mountain, and push it up again. And not just once, but over and over, much like we make our bed over and over, eat and digest our food and get rid of it and then eat again. Most of daily tasks of living involve repeating such things, with full knowledge that we will be doing it again. Same with even things that give people a “high”, like yoga or exercise. You leave the gym, feeling good, but knowing you will have to go back on the treadmill again soon, or back to the yoga class to repeat it all over again. Basically any activity will involve this, some that are pleasant, and some not.
This image is the image of the human suffering, or doomed to repeat over and over. However, there is something to be said for looking at this story from a very different point of view, and reframing it completely, mainly with the basic tenets of mindfulness.
What if you are doing that, but you are supremely focused on what it feels like in the moment to touch this boulder, to push it and see it get larger and heavier as you push it? What if you are looking at the mountain and the ground and observing the weather, the feel of the boulder on your hands, how your hands look as you push the boulder. and what if you are indeed, pushing it up the mountain with the knowledge that it will fall back down and you will start it over again, but it does not seem fruitless and you do not feel you are in a prison of your own making, but actually liberated in the doing of it, because you have realized that you do not care what happens to the boulder, you do not care how heavy or light it is, and you do not notice that it is a repetition, or you do not care, as you are excited to see it fall down the mountain, like a snowball you built up that has melted, but does not prevent you from anticipating the next snow fall with the excitement of a little child?
Do we imprison ourselves in our own suffering? Is the key to liberation simply our own mind setting us free?
I see this with dishes. If you simply notice the feel of the water on your hands, the sight of the leftover food sliding off the dish and watching the drain, feeling the air on your skin, does it matter if you will do the dishes again tomorrow and forever? If we live for the moment with full belief in the moment, and do not look back to the past, thinking of what could have been or what we could have done, and do not project into the future what we must be or need to be or have to be happy, have we not freed ourselves of the worst kind of suffering and pain, the emotional kind?
This is what the artist does. I take a piece of paper and rip it up and glue it on another piece of paper, or take paint on a brush and stroke it over the paper, and then repeat the motion endlessly. There is no final painting or work, there is no complete boulder. I start again every day, if I am open to the process I do not really care what the “product” looks like. In fact, it is indeed ephemeral, even if I see it in my studio the next day. I am on to the next piece of paper, doomed to repeat myself in some new way. Why are the most repetitive things in life, both considered like torture or to be soothing ways to heal from trauma? Emotional pain and suffering and relief from suffering are both in this image of pushing the boulder up the hill. How you feel about yourself, the boulder, the mountain and the environment inside and outside yourself is what makes the difference between doom and complete freedom. Yes, we either live and keep being disappointed, or we can die, or choose to be dead while living, or we can laugh in the face of life and death. There is a choice, the choice itself may be the only thing we have that will not disappear or disappoint. In the moment of the here and now, we have that small choice, and that may be all. Even if it is meaningless, the matter of choosing is of extreme and absurd importance…