To refresh your memory, Zeus punished King Sisyphus for cheating death twice by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. His punishment is now synonymous for all the tedious and seemingly futile tasks we face in our lives; or even more broadly interpreted as being caught up in the same mental struggles over and over.
Recently, however, I have noticed a new meme about Sisyphus emerge both in leadership and mindfulness groups online. Possibly inspired by the lyrics in Andrew Byrd’s song, Sisyphus, people commonly ask why didn’t Sisyphus just let the rock roll down the hill and walk away.
Sisyphus peered into the mist
A stone’s throw from the precipice, paused
Did he jump or did he fall as he gazed into the maw of the morning mist?
Did he raise both fists and say, “To hell with this” and just let the rock roll?
When I first saw this meme, I nodded in agreement–100%. These existential struggles that we carry around, not to mention the much more mundane challenges we face in trying to grow or sustain our organizations, are often a boulder of our own creation. Habits of our mind that hold us back or create conflict and frustration. Yes, I could just choose to put my effort elsewhere–done.
Yet, recently, midway through a three-week meditation retreat, and caught up with a familiar but frustrating habit of mind, however, a new interpretation emerged. If Sisyphus, or we, were to just walk away, there would be an immediate sense of relief–yes. But guess what…a new boulder and new hill would soon arise somewhere else in our work and life. What both Sisyphus and these modern boulder-rollers have missed is that there is in fact a way to release ourselves from this suffering.
If we look again at the Seven Factors of Awakening, there is a pathway to work with the difficult challenges we and our teams will inevitably face. The seven factors bring the difficulties of the boulder into sharper focus and when those difficulties are truly understood, then, and only then, can we walk away. In this case, we will work with the seven factors in a bit of an unorthodox way.
- Step 1: we need to bring mindfulness to the Sisyphean task that is the source of our struggle.
- Step 2: instead of struggling against it, or seeking an escape (distraction, food, social media, another task, we can choose to stay with the with sustained energy. Energy that is possible now that we have engaged mindfully with the task and have committed to be with it.
- Step 3: we get curious about the struggle, and about the task. Using the power of our investigative mind, can we see the challenge in more detail that we did before? What can we notice about how we are relating to it? Are there parts of this challenge that are more interesting than we thought?
- Step 4: Allow the mind’s attention to become collected, while also stilling the mind. Stay with the work, don’t allow yourself to get distracted, set a time if you need to. This is the moment where you can shift the dynamic of the challenge. Don’t let up. Keep looking–what else can you notice that you missed before when caught up in stress, doubt, and anxiety?
- Step 5: Don’t expect anything from this experience and cultivate some perspective. Expectations are the dirty fuel that keeps the boulder rolling back up the fill. We want this task done a certain way, or we want it done now, or we want it done with less effort, or we wish the task didn’t need doing at all. Guess what? Here it is, and here you are. If you can let go of all those other expectations, your mind will settle down, and…
- Joy will arise. That’s right, this is what everyone gets excited about when they talk about the flow state. Flow can seem mysterious. Or it can be attributed to highly talented individuals, musicians, artists, or athletes. Or it assumes it must be a desirable activity for flow to arise. Nope to all of that. The joy that arises from flow, can arise from any task or activity when the mind is collected, curious and still.
Now, you have transformed the boulder, that Sisyphean task, into something can be worked with more easily. You are in a position to learn from it, to build a new skill, or to master your procrastination or aversive mind in a new and fresh way. And, finally, you can walk away and the boulder won’t roll, out of control, down the hill onto your unsuspecting colleagues, customers or family members.