A Nobel Laureate’s advice for troubled souls.
The fictional notebooks of Harry Haller, aka Steppenwolf, reveal the brilliant but troubled mind of a man on a journey of integration — integrating his dark, animal aspects into a fuller version of himself and integrating as a spirited individual in the maddening bourgeois world of Weimar Germany.
Harry’s path, his battle to reconcile freedom and connection, contains lessons for any seeker.
Nothing is more valuable in such a journey than a sense of humour. Only with this tool can a seeker practice acceptance, equanimity and surrender with consistency.
Only humour — the splendid invention of those highly talented but unfortunate individuals who are frustrated in the pursuit of the highest ideals, figures bordering on the tragic — only humour (possibly the most original and brilliant of humankind’s achievements) can accomplish the otherwise impossible feat of uniting all spheres of human life by bathing them in the iridescent light of its prisms. To live in the world as though it were not the world, to respect the law but to remain above it, to have possessions ‘as if not possessing’, to renounce things as though it were no renunciation: — all the things asked of us in such well-loved and frequently expressed words of wisdom can only be put into practice through humour. (59)*
Only with a healthy sense of irony can Harry reconcile the opposites that populate the world without fusing with one extreme or the other. This calls to mind Greg Goode’s ‘joyful irony’, an attitude of freedom from suffering and from literalism. Humour frees the mind from expecting the world to conform to our concepts of it or the words we use to refer to it.
The challenges of opposition and contradiction lie as much within Harry as they do in his external world. His feat of re-assembling himself is not a simple one of uniting light with dark. He has countless dimensions, and his character traverses the full range of each of them. Harry is a community of selves.
Harry is not made up of two characters, but of hundreds, of thousands. His life, like that of every human being, does not oscillate between two poles only — say between the body and the mind or spirit, between the saint and the profligate — but between thousands, between innumerable polar opposites. (61–62).
The thing is to shun identification with any passing state. Define yourself by any mix of fixed characteristics, and you suffer each time one or more of them goes absent. But see each personality as a costume of cheap material, and you’ll happily enough let it go for the next when the time comes.
…the ability to die, to slough off one’s skin like a snake, to commit oneself to incessant self-transformation is what leads the way to immortality. (66)
What is the snake in Harry’s case? If the skins to be sloughed are his oscillating character traits or costumes, what is he? He is what holds the entire costume wardrobe. Beyond that, perhaps he houses the stage and all possible sets as well. He may hold the world. Complete openness breaches the skin and includes freedom from all the vicissitudes of external circumstance. And this is the path of the great spiritual sages.
Instead of making your world more confined and your soul simpler you are going to have to include more and more world, ultimately the entire world in your soul as it painfully expands, until one day, perhaps, you reach the end and find rest. This, in so far as they succeeded in the venture, is the path taken by Buddha, by all great human beings, some knowingly, others unconsciously. (67)
Someone so open, untied to any moment’s content, can immerse themselves in the present completely. Knowing the transience of all detail and embracing every internal and external aspect of experience, they can give themselves wholly to each moment. Confident that they can embrace anything that arises, they needn’t concern themselves with the future. Harry observes this quality in his unpredictable guru, master and soulmate, Hermione.
Anyone knowing how to live for the moment, to live in the present as she did, treasuring every little wayside flower with loving care and deriving value from every playful little instant, had nothing to fear from life. (121)
Harry has long considered killing himself, but in the end, the world sentences him to life, to experiencing all it sends his way. He is to attend to it, but from that empowering ironic perspective that combines the child’s playfulness with the parent’s wisdom. Life’s details may be nonsense, but only through them do we experience life’s meaning. In the language of another tradition, we only reach Nirvana through Samsara.
You must learn to listen to life’s damned radio music, to respect the spirit that lies behind it while laughing at all the dross it contains. That’s all. Nothing more is being asked of you. (236)
Instead of taking his own life, Harry must die in each moment to make room for the next. With luck, he’ll learn to respect Experiencing — the spirit behind each experience — without getting caught up in the fuss that it often contains.
We hope he can, with humour, bear the vulnerability of opening his soul to the world. We wish Harry luck in holding the whole world but holding it lightly.
Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse’s stories are drenched in spiritual meaning and laced with deep themes of self-discovery. Although The Glass Bead Game is considered his opus, I recommend Steppenwolf, Demian and Siddhartha as the best places to start exploring him.
All citations refer to page numbers is Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.
Bring true love to your relationships by first loving yourself.
Don Miguel Ruiz, a Toltec sage, is most famous for The Four Agreements. I draw here on another of his works, The Mastery of Love, which focuses more on relationships. I found it full of wisdom that reaches deeper than my relation to others, shedding light on the most important relationship — mine with myself.
Don Miguel sets out early the central role fear plays in most lives. Its purpose is as a warning system, and in our youngest days, it works as intended. But then…
Life as a child raised by human parents contorts and over-sensitises our emotions. A behavioural heritage of upbringing across generations culminates in today’s parent injuring the child’s emotional body. The child loses trust in others as well as faith in her own worthiness of love. She learns that she is not good enough and so tries to craft and project an image of a different self who deserves love. She then mistakes this fear-generated image for herself and judges herself against an ideal of perfection.
The fear of not being good enough for someone else is what makes us try to change, what makes us create an image…. Soon we forget who we really are, and we start to live our images. (25)*
Fear encroaches on every aspect of life. It wears many masks and leads us to don them in our relations with others. In addition to our disguises, we coat ourselves in armour. No longer trusting, open, generous and unjudging, we impose conditions on relationships, hoping rules will protect ourselves.
Anger is nothing but fear with a mask. Sadness is fear with a mask. Jealousy is fear with a mask…. Love is unconditional. Fear is full of conditions. (49)
The initial breakthrough in our path out of this cycle is to realise that we are in it. This can happen in countless ways. Therapy, reading, body work and mindful relationship are a few examples. We glimpse the truth, spotting our masks, relational rules and expectations. We allow ourselves to experience the discomfort that our disguises and armour are designed to avoid. Each insight is an off-ramp from the path of fear to the path of love.
If you catch yourself in the track of fear, just by having that awareness, you can shift your attention into the track of love. (53)
Each off-ramp of truth leads to a connector between the paths of fear and love. That connector is forgiveness. To heal ourselves, we see the truth; we forgive ourselves and others; we love. Forgiving sheds the weighty burden of resentment. Forgiveness doesn’t free the forgiven but the forgiver. It washes the septic poison from our original emotional wounds so that love can perform the final healing step.
That is the healing. Three simple points: the truth, forgiveness, and self-love. (113)
Our false image of self is in continual conflict with reality. Because we’ve defined ourselves as something we are not, we feel pain when the world reminds us of the disparity. Our impulse is to recoil and cling to our fear-generated self-image, but our glimpses of truth and our forgiveness remind us of an alternative. We can view the pain as a reminder from the world of who we truly are. Then, we can accept and love that — not as a grand commitment and theoretic shift, but one moment at a time. Gradually, our self-image and reality realign, which is to say that our self-image dissolves, revealing unfiltered life.
You have to accept yourself and love yourself just the way you are. Only by loving and accepting yourself the way you are can you truly be and express what you are. (59)
This wholehearted acceptance and expression of self, abiding in vulnerability and openness, is the only love we need. Yes, the love we need can only come from ourselves. Embracing our own heart, we can now truly love others without expecting them to complete us, without demanding they give us something they can’t. By accepting ourselves, we allow ourselves to accept and love them as they are. Yet no one can any longer hold us hostage for love.
If you open your heart, you already have all the love you need. There’s no need to go around the world begging for love… (67)
Our false self-image erodes. We accept each aspect of ourselves as it arises. This self-love helps us bear our vulnerability while keeping faith in our wholeness. We accept others and the external world for what they are. Now our lives rest in love. From this fresh perspective, we realise that life is and always has been made of love. We recognise, waking from the dream of our false self and its fear-filtered interpretations, that we are Life. Life dreams every dream.
From the Toltec perspective, everything we believe about ourselves, and everything we know about our world, is a dream…. The real us is pure love; we are Life…. When you see the Dream from this perspective, and if you have the awareness of what you are, you see the nonsense behavior of humans, and it becomes amusing. What for everyone else is a big drama, for you becomes a comedy. (22–23)
The dream changes, but it carries on. Dream is how Life experiences itself. Your personal dream continues, but your character within the dream now recognises itself as a character, realises its world is a dream. And that transforms life.
When you awake, you cross a line of no return, and you never see the world in the same way. You are still dreaming — because you cannot avoid dreaming, because dreaming is the function of the mind — but the difference is that you know it’s a dream. Knowing that, you can enjoy the dream or suffer the dream. That depends on you. (120)
Don Miguel’s work excites me, because it unites Native American shamanic wisdom with non-dual traditions from the East. It has its own beauty and its own cultural form of collective unconscious symbology. And it has been a great help to countless dreamers.
All citations refer to page numbers in Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Mastery of Love: A Practical Guide to the Art of Relationship.