“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” So ends Albert Camus’ famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus sees the myth of Sisyphus as a parable about the absurdity of life and how even in the face of drudgery we must all decide that life is worth living and carry on. I agree with Camus on this point, yet we might ask, how can he be happy? Is there a mechanism or a practice through which this happiness can be attained? Surely it can’t be resignation? Resignation is not happiness, though perhaps acceptance may be a first step.
The key for my own understanding of how we might imagine Sisyphus happy lies in another tradition, far removed from either Greek mythology or European Existentialism. It lies in a little-known spiritual practice attributed to Qiu Chuji, the founder of the Dragon Gate lineage of Daoism in China called “the Heart Polishing Stone”. (Note: I’ve heard this called both moxinshi 磨心石 “heart polishing stone” and moxingshi 磨性石 “stone for polishing one’s inner nature”, but the meaning is essentially the same.)
Qiu Chuji was the youngest student of Wang Chongyang, founder of the Complete Reality or Quanzhen school of Daoism. Each of Wang’s seven main disciples founded their own lineages with Qiu’s becoming the most well-known. Today it is one of the two main schools of Daoism in China.
The early Complete Reality Daoists (Qiu and his fellow disciples) lived a fairly austere lifestyle. They wandered like clouds through the mountains of China, practicing various forms of meditation and giving teachings to those they met along the way. Qiu became well known later after being summoned to see Genghis Khan in what is now Afghanistan. He travelled with a group of disciples and the journey there and back took three years. When Qiu arrived, the Khan asked him if he knew the secret of immortality. Qiu replied that there was no secret and went on to explain the Daoist view of life. Qiu engaged in a series of twelve in-depth conversations with the Khan and Ghengis was apparently so pleased with Qiu that he put him in charge of all Daoist temples in China.
Qiu’s lineage, Dragon Gate or Longmen is named for the Longmen caves where he spent many years practicing meditation and cultivating the Dao. It may have been during this time that the practice of the Heart Polishing Stone was developed. To “polish the heart” is another way of saying to ‘refine one’s character”. Just as many a father has given their children menial chores as a way to “build character”, we might view the myth of Sisyphus through this lens. Perhaps Sisyphus’ perceived punishment was actually an opportunity? Perhaps Sisyphus was given this seemingly meaningless “chore” to do to refine his character?
The practice of the Heart Polishing Stone involves a physical practice, but like much of Daoist practice, it involves both the mind and the body. They are seen as one unified whole. The main practice involves carrying a heavy stone up a mountain and throwing it down, only to walk back down and pick it up again. One can immediately see the similarity to Sisyphus’ punishment, yet this isn’t a punishment. This is a vehicle for self-transformation. As the stone rolls down the hill it gradually becomes rounder and smoother. As we continue the practice, the rough edges of our own character become smoothed out as well. This is a meditative practice which also provides ample opportunity to building a strong foundation in the body. This type of mind-body practice is called the “dual cultivation of life and inner nature” in Daoism.
In Chinese the heart is called xin. Xin contains aspects of both thought and emotion and so is often translated into English as heart-mind. Meditation in both Buddhism and Daoism is sometimes likened to “polishing the mirror of the heart-mind” so that it reflects reality clearly and accurately. This is another way of ‘polishing the heart”. In the Daode Jing, the most foundational text of Daoism, we find allusions to this polishing. In Chapter 4 we are told to “blunt our sharp edges, untangle our knots, dim our brightness, and unite with the dust.” We can easily read this as advice on polishing our heart-mind or refining our character.
Daoism views human nature as inherently good. There isn’t an idea of original sin. We are born into this world with an inner nature which is naturally pure and good just as it is. The world shares this nature too. It is good and pure and whole, just as it is. As we grow and develop, this inner nature may be obscured by what we are taught or experience. If we have a rough life, full of conflict, we may begin to think that’s how life is for everyone. We may begin to project our inner turmoil onto the world around us and view it as a living hell. If you’re not familiar with this view of the world, simply spend a day on social media.
The project of self-cultivation in Daoism is one of return, a return to our true nature. This is spoken of throughout the Daode Jing as well as later scriptures and meditation texts. So, we might think of that heart stone as one that is originally smooth, like a river rock or highly polished gem. As life throws things our way, our heart stone may become chipped and fractured. We may develop a rough exterior and sharp edges or even a sharp tongue. We may need to spend some time in the rock tumbler of self-reflection and meditation in order to return to that smooth inner nature we were born with.
So how do we imagine Sisyphus happy? Perhaps the part of the myth that has been forgotten is the part where Sisyphus figuratively hits bottom. The part where he falls into despair until he is shown the key to this practice. Just as Mr. Miyagi gave Daniel LaRusso the key to ‘wax on wax off’ and ‘paint the fence’ in The Karate Kid, perhaps one day Mercury flies down to explain the key to Sisyphus. Or perhaps through repetition and practice of “the heart polishing stone” he comes to realization on his own. When our perception of the world changes it seems as though the world itself has changed. Perhaps when Sisyphus sees things in a new light, his whole world transforms as well, and his personal hell is revealed to be a paradise, radiant, and bursting with life, just as it is.