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An Alternative Myth of Sisyphus : Bearing the Unbearable
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, where it would tumble downhill from its own weight, before he has to push it uphill again. It was deemed the most dreadful punishment possible. As existentialist writer Albert Camus (1913-1960) describes it, "that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing." What was his misgiving? It was his intense hatred of death and passion for life. Similarly, in Buddhism, our attachment to life and its pleasures and aversion to death and pain keep us bound to the cycles of rebirth. Being unenlightened, we drift from life to life, striving but not accomplishing anything truly worthy. Thus are the delusions we carry from life to life is our heaviest burden, our biggest rock. We are Sisyphus!
In his celebrated essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus" (http://stripe.colorado.edu/~morristo/sisyphus.html), Camus writes, "I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments... he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock." Indeed, when we overcome obstacles in life, we can only become stronger. But for what do we become stronger for, if life throws us one rock after another to roll? Is it worth the trouble? Or are we choicelessly condemned like Sisyphus to suffer? What is the real purpose of toiling routinely, day in day out, as we advance towards death, day in day out? This is the time to stop and reflect - the hour of mindfulness! We need a purpose... and the Buddha suggests seeking Enlightenment through training our mind, so as to be able to be unconditionally happy irregardless of our situation.
Perhaps, it is the desire for the punishment to end that truly punishes Sisyphus, not the punishment itself. Sisyphus can rise above his suffering only through mindfully embracing his situation, to bravely face the First Noble Truth that his life is aplenty with dissatisfactons, and yet be motivated to take his rock up each time. The lesser the motivation he has, the more he suffers. If one has to suffer, let him do so graciously, without increasing his suffering. The rock does not cause Sisyphus' real suffering - it is what he places upon the rock. An "ounce" of unwillingness can only make the rock an ounce heavier. If we cannot rise above the rock of suffering in our lives physically, we need to do so mentally. When the rise and fall of your happiness is dictated by the rock of suffering in your life, it wins. When its burden becomes inconsequential, you win. Mind over matter! At the end of the day, it is just a rock - yet also a tool to Enlightenment and a personal hell to bear.
In the Sallatha Sutta (Discourse of the Arrow: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/canon/sutta/samyutta/sn36-006.html), the Buddha taught that when a spiritually untrained person experiences pain, he suffers in two ways - both physically and mentally. It is as if he is shot by two arrows. But a trained person who experiences pain feels only the physical arrow (which is unavoidable as long as we have a body). Why shoot yourself with the second arrow? As a well-trained person does not harbours aversion to physical pain or attachment to its opposite state (pleasure), he does not furthers pain through futile resistance or yearning for otherwise. The inevitable physical pain from the first arrow comes from your past karma. The optional mental pain from the second arrow comes from your present karma - from your choice of attitude in the moment, of how you interpret being hit by the first arrow. The trained mind abides in equanimity, knowing both physical and mental states of pain and pleasure only rise and fall. As everything passes, there is no point or need to be hung up on the fleeting.
In the myth, Sisyphus' punishment is forever. In fact, it is his eternal hell. However, the Buddha tells us that suffering in hell is never eternal, even if it feels tormentingly long. It too, will pass, as sure as your negative karma will burn up. Yes, there is justice, there is hope. As Shunryu Suzuki Roshi aptly puts it, "Hell is training." Whether in a physical or mental hell, if your rock wears out before your will, you triumph over your suffering. Any existential punishment we experience in Samsara (our world of prevalent suffering) is only as "eternal" as you will it to be. As Stonepeace said, "You have forever to break free of life and death. But if you take forever, you are forever trapped." In the mean time, may we be strong in bearing the "unbearable", in making the best of the worst we face.