On inadequacy, wisdom & seeking

A small amount of inadequacy is perhaps an important feeling to have from time to time. It helps in keeping you grounded and gives you something to strive for. There are instances when overcoming it is a mindful process. But when you dispel that feeling inadvertently by doing what you were supposed to do for a sufficiently long time, there erupts a sense of small serendipitous joy in recognition of how far you've come.

The latter happened to me the other day when I was flipping through some old books that I had read in high-school. The pages contained underlined words—words whose meaning I didn't know at that time. I used to revisit them after my reading sessions—looking them up in the dictionary and later writing them down so that I could remember them. I recall feeling inadequate whenever I encountered convoluted words and expressions. But when I looked at them now, the words seemed simple. I smiled at my gone-by naivety and inadequacy.

If you ever want to feel inadequate, I suggest you read philosophy. It is abstract and tough to comprehend.

After exploring modern philosophy to the extent that I felt I had some answers, I was happy to have put an end to my search and consequently the inadequacy that ensued. But I was advised to not ignore the ancient schools of philosophy when developing my thought process. It seemed like a sensible thing to do. So I picked up Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

It is a story of a man named Siddhartha who is discontent even after having all that he could wish for. He seeks knowledge and enlightenment and is bothered by the fact that the scriptures and the wise people around him are unable to quench his thirst.

And where was Atman to be found, where did He reside, where did his eternal heart beat, where else but in one’s own self, in its innermost part, in its indestructible part, which everyone had in himself? But where, where was this self, this innermost part, this ultimate part? It was not flesh and bone, it was neither thought nor consciousness, thus the wisest ones taught. So, where, where was it? To reach this place, the self, myself, the Atman, there was another way, which was worthwhile looking for? Alas, and nobody showed this way, nobody knew it, not the father, and not the teachers and wise men, not the holy sacrificial songs!

He thinks deeply about how can he solve this problem and eventually decides to move to the forests to live the life of a Samana—the ascetics.

A goal stood before Siddhartha, a single goal: to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of wishing, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow. Dead to himself, not to be a self any more, to find tranquility with an emptied heart, to be open to miracles in unselfish thoughts, that was his goal. Once all of my self was overcome and had died, once every desire and every urge was silent in the heart, then the ultimate part of me had to awake, the innermost of my being, which is no longer my self, the great secret.

While he learned how to let go of the self, he realised that the practices ultimately led back to the self. He felt that although he was improving his thinking, learning the art of fasting and becoming more patient, the quest for knowledge was still not satisfied. He was going in circles.

When he was with the Samanas, he came to know of the existence of The Illustrious One—the Buddha. Still looking for answers, he felt that the Buddha might be able to add some perspective to his path to salvation. Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment.

He went to hear him preach and ended up admiring him for his demeanour, calmness and the clarity with which he spoke. He agreed with his teachings but he decided that he will tread his own path instead of becoming one of Buddha’s disciples.

I have not doubted for a single moment that you are Buddha, that you have reached the goal, the highest goal towards which so many thousands of Brahmans and sons of Brahmans are on their way. You have found salvation from death. It has come to you in the course of your own search, on your own path, through thoughts, through meditation, through realizations, through enlightenment. It has not come to you by means of teachings! And—thus is my thought, oh exalted one,—nobody will obtain salvation by means of teachings! You will not be able to convey and say to anybody, oh venerable one, in words and through teachings what has happened to you in the hour of enlightenment!

There is a timeless truth in this statement—something that was eye-opening. While knowledge can be disseminated, wisdom always comes from experience.

It holds true not just for spirituality but other aspects of life as well. I have found that being taught by someone has caused the least amount of incremental growth in my understanding for almost all matters in my life. Teachers can show the path but they can’t be the destination. I have rebelled at the idea of instruction being the core of learning. It has not inspired the same confidence in me as spending time in solitude with my thoughts has. It has always been the intrinsic curiosity, the consequent search and examination followed by discourse and assimilation that has made a substantial difference.

The importance of experiential wisdom and the kind of insights that it helps one uncover should make us reorient the central theme of our lives to having as many different experiences as possible. One can uncover the hidden truths and the fundamental answers simply through being.

Siddhartha then has an awakening where he realises that while he has always sought to understand the self, all his endeavours have been focused at freeing himself from the self. Hesse brings out his literary genius to draw a simple comparison to illustrate his point:

When someone reads a text, wants to discover its meaning, he will not scorn the symbols and letters and call them deceptions, coincidence, and worthless hull, but he will read them, he will study and love them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I have, for the sake of a meaning I had anticipated before I read, scorned the symbols and letters, I called the visible world a deception, called my eyes and my tongue coincidental and worthless forms without substance. No, this is over, I have awakened, I have indeed awakened and have not been born before this very day.

Siddhartha then moves to a town to live a normal life. He becomes a merchant and learns lovemaking from a woman named Kamala. He immerses himself in the worldly pleasures for years only to become nauseated. He ends up questioning when did he last experience happiness. This is a turning point in his life and he decides to move on while leaving everything behind.

Towards the end, Siddhartha lives a simple life by the river with a ferryman. He learns to listen to the river for it holds a lot of answers. Multiple incidents cause him to think and react in different ways but the river humbles him.

Hesse emphasises the point around experiential wisdom through Siddhartha’s choices that have led him to live extremely disparate lives. He sees and experiences every living condition that a human possibly could ranging from the life of basic subsistence with the ascetics to one of extravagant riches as a merchant. And it is in his final phase that he is able to uncover what he was after.

Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the realisation, the knowledge, what wisdom actually was, what the goal of his long search was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think every moment, while living his life, the thought of oneness, to be able to feel and inhale the oneness.

The understanding helps him appreciate everything that forms the essence of life. This is later on substantiated by a profound statement that says:

The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided. Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness, roundness, oneness.

This essentially extends to the concept of continuum and how labels or discrete positions depict an inaccurate picture of most situations in life. Things can never be black and white—they are various shades of grey.

Hesse ends with some brilliant thought-provoking pearls. The one that resonated the most with me is as follows:

When someone is searching,” said Siddhartha, “then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.

It is a wonderful take on desire and how it is key to our unhappiness. We fail to appreciate the present and feel gratitude for what we have amidst our arbitrary search for whatever we want. The important takeaway is that being free, open and having a positive attitude towards new experiences is how one can be mindful. It is how we can increase the chances of discovery—of finding things that we might not be looking for but might exactly be what we need at that moment.

I am yet to fully grasp and internalise the realisations that this book enabled me to have. I have read and reread parts of it a few times and each attempt reinforces the feeling of inadequacy of my understanding failing me. I know it will take time and maturity to appreciate this text in its entirety and I am willing to patiently wait for that to happen. I hope to look back at the book some years down the line and smile at my current inability to comprehend things. But till that happens, even with whatever little I could gather—this has been a great read and I would highly recommend it to everyone interested in understanding life.

If you wish to read it for free legally, here is a link ~ Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse.


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