In the gradual warming of the spring sun, I sat in my backyard underneath a twisted apple tree, reading. I was content in my recently purchased home and new marriage, feeling that I had finally arrived in a life I had chosen for myself. The apple blossoms were just starting to burst, and the tree offered the perfect canopy. It was idyllic, the perfect backdrop for a life-changing event to unfold. Hollywood doesn’t like to show this sort of drama; it’s much too mundane. There wasn’t going to be birth or death, no melodramatic lover’s quarrel, no tornado barreling past. Rather, it was a simple moment when a story came into my consciousness, shaping my language, my experience, and the trajectory of my life forever. One story, from one book, read in one regular day under an apple tree, and I was forever changed.
I was newly learning about Zen through a book called Nothing Special by Charlotte Joko Beck and it had been a pleasant read so far. Then I read the chapter titled “Sisyphus and the Burden of Life.” In it, Beck tells the ancient Greek story of Sisyphus, a man who had managed to cheat death twice, angering the gods. As a result, he was sentenced for eternity to push a giant boulder up a steep mountain, and each time he reached the top, it would tumble back down to the bottom and his journey would begin all over again. Sisyphus was to be locked forever in an endless struggle of pushing the boulder up the hill and then watching with heartbreak as it rolled back down. Often, in retellings of this story, we are made to think of him as a victim, being done to, a man without agency or a hope of changing his circumstances.
Many of us can likely see ourselves in some version of this cosmic struggle, trying to hold on to the good stuff and feeling defeat when we find ourselves not where we want to be. For me, at that moment under the tree, it seemed that for my whole life my eyes had been trained to the top of some mountain, believing that if only I could reach one more milestone or achievement, I would have finally made it. There I was, at the top of a mountain, as I sat under that apple tree feeling like I had arrived, but it was only a matter of time before I found out that the house, marriage, safety, and security of feeling that I had arrived with were fleeting and all about to disappear. I was at the precipice, right before the first of many dramatic tumbles I would take down the hill in my life.
I recall the philosopher Camus’s essay about Sisyphus in which he suggests he is teaching us about the absurdity of living and that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” as he surrenders himself to the chaos of life. Yes, perhaps when the hurt and resentment pile too high and our lives collapse under the weight, we can just choose happiness. There is power in this message to be sure, that one can simply choose to be happy in the face of whatever comes our way. But Beck’s interpretation of the story was something different, a message I had never heard before. She was suggesting that it’s not simply a matter of choosing to be happy in the face of suffering, but rather resetting the whole game the gods have set up for us. Instead, she suggests that we can use our free will to not get caught up in the hope of reaching the top or reeling in the disappointment of the boulder falling back. Rather, we can consider that, “Like Sisyphus, we are all just doing what we’re doing moment by moment. But to that activity we add judgments, ideas. Hell lies not in pushing the rock, but in thinking about it, in creating ideas of hope and disappointment, in wondering if we will finally get the rock to stay at the top.”
And with those words, the story took hold of me, becoming a constant companion in my life—a support asking me to stay with the moment, to avoid projecting too far in advance about how I thought things might be or should go. And instead, I could see the inevitable ups and downs of life as just that—life. No slight to my husband, sons, or father, but in that moment, Sisyphus became the main man in my life. A voice on my shoulder, a wedge in my thoughts, and the fuel that helped me make it through another day. On the days when it feels hard, like the boulder will never reach the top, I catch myself calling the burden “heavy” and instead remember that this is merely a judgment, a clever attempt at trying to escape my life by thinking that it could be anything other than what it is. I tell myself, “This is it,” and I remember this is my life right here and now, everything else is supposition.
Sometimes I imagine Sisyphus in my ear as I prepare Christmas dinner or plan a special night out with my husband. I hear him say, “Be careful, this will never go as you planned, enjoy the preparation as much as you enjoy the thing.” And then sometimes my anxiety tells me to be steady and careful as I push the boulder up the hill, but then Sisyphus gives me that look, and I remember that I am not in control of the boulder; I merely have this moment to revel in what is—will I choose suffering or joy? Sometimes I look at my husband or my children and feel a certain arrogance that I know them so well, that I have arrived at some knowing about them, and then Sisyphus pulls me aside and begins his intervention, reminding me that, “the boulder is about to fall, you can never fully know them. Will you get curious or sad this time?” Sisyphus allowed me to let go of the idea that things are good or bad, or that they should be one way or another. Through this story I have found a freedom unparalleled to anything I have ever known.
Here I am speaking about this all as though I have figured it out, a great irony to be sure. Sisyphus has been a great companion to me for nearly fifteen years now; we have grown comfortable with one another, cajoling and nudging each other along through life. But, perhaps the gods saw my arrogance, because one day the boulder fell further down than it ever had before, and when I went to push it up in my usual way, its weight had doubled. The global pandemic came knocking at my door and everything I thought I knew about living was upended. The weight of caring for my three young children, of being isolated from my ill father and mother, both in need of care and support, of shuffling the complexities of daily work, feeling burdened with decisions way beyond my expertise, and of losing all my social support, left me feeling crushed. Silly Rachel I thought, Sisyphus has been telling you there is no comfort to be found in the illusion of knowing, and now here you are, reeling in the shock that once again you are a beginner in life.
As the world spiraled off into waves of chaos and confusion, I sat at home and realized that I could either wallow in sadness at the bottom of the hill, or I could try to embrace the uncertainty. Sisyphus was asking me to stay with the not-knowing, to resist judging, and to get curious about the uncertainty unfolding in the world and in my life. My art was a place that the pandemic couldn’t touch, a private world where I could practice being in the unknown, feeling like a beginner again, and surrendering comfort. As the days of lockdown and uncertainty droned on, I began to intentionally design a creative process that would have me invoking beginner’s mind and relying on Sisyphus to be my coach, reminding me to stay in the moment and let go of judgment.
To do this, I needed to ask my brain to take a back seat. This was not a time for my art to be cerebral or planned out; I needed to let go of thinking and just be. I began playing around with trying to paint my emotions and respond to what was happening around me through poetry, but it all felt too comfortable. I needed to replicate the disorientation that was happening outside my walls inside my art. One day, I turned on some music, started to move, and began to make marks on paper. I used ink, pastel, watercolor, pencil, or whatever I felt compelled to use in the moment. I tried to let each mark be an extension of the movement that my body was doing in response to the music. This sometimes resulted in messy scribbles or scratches, and other times soft colors melting into one another. I then cut up collage papers, attaching bits and scraps of pictures and words to it. It all felt new and somewhat uncertain. I didn’t know where it was going, but I knew that was the point.
I kept with this process, just moving, making marks, attaching remnants, and in time, I could see a sort of translation taking place. The music was evoking something in me—movements, color choices, and attractions to textures. I had no idea what the movements were about, which nerve the song was touching inside of me, or where any of it was going. Sisyphus looked at me and gave me a wink—staying with all this uncertainty was right where I wanted to be. I decided to see if I could create thirty mini abstract pieces using this process. But I also wanted to acknowledge the raw emotions that they were born from, the context of chaos and uncertainty I was sitting in. And so, once each image felt complete, I would offer it a response through a poem. Together each abstract piece and poem was my attempt at staying curious with the emotions I was feeling as I leaned into the unknown.
Today, I have seventeen images hanging on my wall, each with a corresponding poem. I haven’t reached my goal of thirty and, as I write this, I am still in the midst of the pandemic. I didn’t think it would go on for this long, and I thought my project would be finished by now. “Ha-ha,” says Sisyphus,“here you go again, don’t forget, this is it, this is your life, be careful, you might miss out on it with all that thinking.” Sisyphus and my creative practice came together during a disorienting time of my life, helping me to stay with the now, to become aware of what I was feeling, and to let go of the desire to name, judge, or cling to any illusion of control I had. Amid the uncertainty, mark by mark, I stayed with it. What more could I do with a moment?
From Creating Stillness by Rachel Rose, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023 by Rachel Rose. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.
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