Monthly Archives: April 2014

The boulder of Sisyphus and starting over, again

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sisyphus and his boulder: how it gets away from him just when he’s reaching the summit, it rolls down, and he has to start all over again.

I’ve been told that this is hell

A true punishment.

That there is no other reading, unless the task has a clear benefit, like the rock is actually the solar disk, or the kinetic energy released as it tumbles downhill is providing electricity to a small village.

But I think that every task, every activity has meaning.

Starting with those of daily maintenance such as washing dishes and brushing  teeth to the most grandiose ones of healing and governing and discovery, and passing through policing and farming and teaching and driving people or things places.

Many of these activities strive for goals that never completely come to fruition, or the successes are so small as to feel negligible. Other times success is so piecemeal as to appear hopeless: one reaches one student, heals one sick person, but loses another.

And no matter how successful one may be, at the end of the day: everything ends, everything dies.

So all we have is what we do and what we’ve done.

The first sutra of Patanjali says:

Atha yoga anushasanam.

It can be translated as:

Now the practice of yoga begins.

Atha, now, is both here and now. It is the only thing you can be sure of, as the past is gone and the future might not come. Atha implies preparedness, willingness, an openness to that which will be taken on.

Anushasanam is the teaching, the discipline, the exposition. I translated it as the practice. Practice requires repetition. It includes discipline, learning.

Yoga is translated as the union, the yoking: of mind and body, of yourself and the world around you, of your soul and something larger. Yoga is connecting.

This sutra speaks directly to fact that nothing is ever “done.” Every day we have to face our yoga mat, our desk, our classrooms, our families, our datasets, our clients, our blank canvas or page.

It’s a practice. A practice to connect, to become whole.

Sisyphus tells us that every day is new and every day we start over

In meditation, we are instructed to focus on a specific object, our breath, a mantra. When the mind wanders (which it will), there are no judgments, we simply note that we have lost touch and return our focus.

We’ve dropped the boulder and it rolled downhill, bouncing on every bump along the slope. But when we notice, we get into position and start pushing the rock back uphill.

We start over.

Starting over isn’t a punishment

It’s an opportunity. The heroism is in continuing, in not giving up. Not sitting down in the plain and crying because the boulder fell.

Not walking away from what we decided to do.

As Gabriel García Márquez said

When I finished one book, I wouldn’t write for a while. Then I had to learn how to do it all over again.

The hero, like Sisyphus, keeps trying, keeps pushing the boulder up the mountain, keeps starting over.

Atha means that here and now is anytime. Anytime is a good time to engage, to be willing to try again.


Sisyphus 101

Sisyphus, 1548-1549. Titian. This painting was one of a series of four (including Tityus,, Ixion, and Tantalus) commissioned by the sister of emperor Charles V to serve as warning to those who dared oppose him. The four mythological characters are suffering eternal punishment for opposing the gods. Ixion and Tantalus were destroyed in the 1734 fire at Madrid’s Alcazar Palace. Museo Nacional del Prado Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Sisyphus, 1548-1549. Titian. This painting was one of a series (including Tityus, Ixion, and Tantalus) commissioned by the sister of emperor Charles V to serve as warning to those who dared oppose him. Museo Nacional del Prado Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sisyphus now pursues, now pushes the stone that always comes rolling back. – Ovid, Metamorphosis

Like many, I was introduced to the myth of Sisyphus through the essay of Albert Camus, Nobel prize-winning author/philosopher and Resistance fighter. For Camus, heroism is defined by Sisyphus, fated to spend eternity pushing a huge boulder up a mountain only for it roll back down so he must start all over again.

A tragic hero of course, because Sisyphus is not ignorant that his effort is futile. But that perseverance in the face of futility is true heroism, even joy.

How did Sisyphus find himself in his predicament?

As Camus notes, it was because he dared to oppose the gods. And we all know how that works out.

Sisyphus didn’t just oppose the gods, he fooled death, and not once but twice.

So who is Sisyphus anyway?

Sisyphus was a busy guy. Stories about him can be found in works by Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, among others.

His short bio would mention that he was king (and maybe founder) of Corinth and owner of a resplendent herd of cattle. (More about the cattle another day.) He was married to Merope, one of the Pleiades.

He’s also known, of course, for carrying a massive boulder up a mountain, day after day, in the underworld.

When boulders aren’t just boulders

Robert Graves tells us that the name Sisyphus may to be linked to Tesup (or Teshub) a Hittite sun-god. So that boulder is a sun-disk; the mountain slope, the vault of heaven.

There had been a cult of the sun in Corinth. According to some, the city was founded by a descendant of the sun god Helios.

What made the gods angry?

Zeus abducted the daughter of the river god Asopus. The usual. When Asopus mentioned it to Sisyphus, he responded that he maybe knew something, which he would share if Asopus provided Corinth with a perennial spring. Once the river god complied, Sisyphus explained that he had seen a great eagle carrying the young woman to an island.

Asopus stormed over, but Zeus saw him and threw a thunderbolt, leaving him lame.

Zeus was not pleased with the meddling of Sisyphus, so he sent his brother Hades to carry him off to the underworld.

Sisyphus cheats death, take one

Hades shows up in Corinth with handcuffs. Sisyphus innocently asks how they work. The god of the underworld slips them on and before Hades can say, “check them out, nifty, right?” Sisyphus has locked them.

Hades is trapped and nobody can die. Anywhere. By any means.

Head cut off? No problem. Still alive.

Before long, this causes a bit of a mess. Ares, the god of war, is particularly inconvenienced. He sets Hades free.

Sisyphus cheats death, take two

Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, ~ 530 BCE. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen via Wikimedia Commons.
Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, ~ 530 BCE. Staatliche Antikensammlungen via Wikimedia Commons.

This time, Sisyphus planned ahead. He had asked his wife not to perform the proper burial rites, but instead to leave his body in the village square. She does as requested.

When Sisyphus arrives to the underworld, he tells Persephone about his wife’s shameful behavior and pleads to return to the land of living to chastise her. He promises he’ll be right back.

Persephone lets him go

But then he stays in the world of “water and sun, warm stones and the sea.” Years go by, the gods grow impatient.

Enter Hermes

The go-to messenger is sent to return him to the underworld. The gods have found an appropriate punishment.

According to Camus, the greatest sin of Sisyphus was his passion for living. His penalty was to do work which serves for nothing.

Camus recognizes that despair is inevitable 

The world is full of injustice. Tragedy. Accidents happen. All too often our best efforts are for naught.

Nihilism is attractive. Easy.

Camus insists that heroism is to be found in action, in the doing. In the not giving up.

Though he doesn’t mention the link between Sisyphus and the solar god, I find it adds an element of hope. If pushing the rock up the hill is akin to carrying the sun through the sky, doing it day after day has meaning in itself.

Can we ever know the impact of our apparently futile efforts?