How A Spoiled Rich Kid Changed Himself And Became a Legend

“I know who you are and I know what you’re all about. But make no mistake, you will NOT bring any of that BS in here. If you do, you won’t be in here. This is a zero sum game. No second chances. Do you understand?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good, take a seat.”

As a senior in high school, I was incredibly fortunate to have an extraordinary English teacher who left an indelible mark on me. As I have looked back over the years, my perspective regarding why her impact was so seismic, altering the course of my life in ways I am still unwrapping, has evolved. It seems that about every ten years or so, I see something else, some new thing I hadn’t realized before. There is little doubt that she ignited my omni-present passion for writing. She introduced me to the writers that inspire and teach me to this day…

James Joyce, Eudora Welty, Saki, Joseph Conrad, Kate Chopin, Ambrose Bierce – so may more.

But I have come to realize that one book she shared with me, perhaps more than any other, was a harbinger of things to come in my own life. It took me decades for the realization to fully materialize. And maybe, who knows, I might see it all differently, yet again, ten years from today.

The story is that of a young man who was raised in a privileged, affluent family. His parents, seeking to protect their young son from the proximate horrors of the world, kept him completely confined to the family compound. There, they reasoned, he had everything – every delight, distraction, and education a young man could want or need. The expectation was that he would follow in his father’s successful footsteps as well as his family’s religion. To his loving parents, he seemed fine with this arrangement. But the day finally came, as it inevitably will with all young men, that his curiosity and longing for independence became to powerful for him to further ignore. He ventured out of the compound and into the surrounding city.

For the first time he encounters the beggars, the sick, the mentally ill, poverty, and death. The shock to his coddled mind is overwhelming. The carefully curated illusion iss at once shattered into shards of incomprehensible bewilderment.

Upon returning to the compound, his word view in tatters, he sees that his only choice is to leave the cocoon that has been his safe harbor his entire life – to go forth into the world of sadness, sorrow, and struggle, His earnest hope is that there might exist a pathway the led through the hopelessness, confusion, and misery. A path that isn’t only available to those born to wealth and privilege but to everyone.

He joins a religious group who believe that happiness can be achieved through asceticism, a rejection of the body and physical desire. He loses his desire for property, clothing, sexuality, and all sustenance except that required to live. He successfully renounces the pleasures of the world.

After a time however, he is wholly dissatisfied. The path of self-denial does not provide the truth he is in search of. He realizes that the oldest of the adherents have lived the life for many years but have yet to attain true happiness of any real measure. So he leaves the group and ventures on.

He decides to embark on a life free from the spiritual quests he has been pursuing, and to instead learn from the pleasures of the body and the material world. He meets a beautiful courtesan who entrances him. But she will not have him unless he proves he can thrive in the material world. She convinces him to take up the path of the businessman. His hones his skills and takes the beautiful courtesan as his lover.

Soon, he is a rich man and enjoys all the pleasures an affluent life can afford someone. He gambles, drinks, and anything that can be bought is his for the taking. Yet, he sees it all as nothing more than a game, caring not whether he wins or loses. The more he accumulates, the less it satisfies him, and he is soon caught once more in a cycle of unhappiness that he tries to escape by engaging in even more gambling, drinking, and sex. When he is at his most disillusioned, he dreams that his lover is rare songbird is dead in its cage. He understands that the material world is slowly killing him without providing him with the happiness for which he has been searching. One night, he resolves to leave it all behind and departs without telling anyone.

Sick with sadness that perhaps the world is but unhappiness, misery and death, he considers drowning himself in a river in his path rather than cross it. But there he encounters a man who tends the ferry. The man seems to radiate the peace and happiness that has proven so elusive. He inquires how the man was able to attain such a state and the man simply replied, “By watching and learning from river. When the water encounters obstacles, rocks, fallen trees, it does not resist or combat them, it simply flows around them, through them, with them, always in keeping with its true nature. – always being the river.

The ferryman agrees to allow our journeyman to work and live with him for a time so that he too can learn the lessons of the river – and he does. Just as the water of the river flows into the ocean and is returned by rain, all forms of life are interconnected in a cycle without beginning or end. Birth and death are all part of a timeless unity. Life and death, joy and sorrow, good and evil are all parts of the whole – the One.

Armed with all he has learned over the many years of his long journey, he finally leaves the ferryman and the river and sets off  into the forest alone. He sits down underneath a beautiful tree and vows not to to rise until he has assembled and integrated everything he has learned. He sits for 49 days when in one enlightening instant, the puzzle is completed. He sees the world as it really is. He understands the cause of suffering and how it can be defeated. He clearly apprehends the path to true and lasting happiness. The remainder of his life, his learnings become his teachings that he freely shares with all who would seek to live in the light. He is happy. He is at peace.

The name of the book is Siddhartha. The author is Herman Hesse.

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