I’m not sure how I missed reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (Hilda Rosner translation) in high school, but I did. It’s one of those enchanting books I wish I would have read earlier!
If you are unfamiliar with the story, I encourage you to read it and soak in its many wonderful messages about life. I have no intention of recapping the story here, but instead want to use parts of the story to illustrate one path out of addiction.
Siddhartha is a man on a mission, on a journey to the center of Self, to a place where Self is merged into unity, or the All. On his way to enlightenment he has many interesting adventures, including a period of time where he hangs out with the beautiful Mistress, Kamala.
She played with him, conquered him, rejoiced at her mastery, until he was overcome and lay exhausted at her side. She enticed him into the world of the ordinary, a life of attachment.
The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also that vice that he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish – acquisitiveness.
Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden.
I find it interesting that as Siddhartha descends deeper into his attachments, Hesse beautifully describes addiction.
He played the game as a result of a heartfelt need. He derived a passionate pleasure through gambling away and squandering of wretched money….He won thousands, he threw thousands away, lost money, lost jewels, lost a country house, won again, lost again.
He loved the anxiety, that terrible and oppressive anxiety which he experienced during the game of dice, during the suspense of high stakes.
He loved this feeling and continually sought to renew it, to increase it, to stimulate it, for in the feeling alone did he experience some kind of happiness, some kind of excitement, some heightened living in the midst of his satiated, tepid, insipid existence.
And like so many who suffer from addiction and relapse to numb the pain and despair of an insipid existence, Siddhartha too experiences the consequences of his actions.
And whenever he awakened from this hateful spell, when he saw his face reflected in the mirror on the wall of his bedroom, grown older and uglier, whenever shame and nausea overtook him, he fled again, fled to a new game of chance, fled in confusion to passion, to wine, and from there back again to the urge for acquiring and hoarding wealth.
He wore himself out in this senseless cycle, became old and sick.
An insightful lesson
For those who struggle with addiction, and their family and friends forced to endure a life on the edge, there is an insightful lesson in the story of Siddhartha.
I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew.
But it was right that it should be so; my eyes and heart acclaim it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again and to awaken refreshed again.
I had to become a fool again in order to find Atman in myself. I had to sin in order to live again.
For someone who reaches enlightenment, it’s strange imagining Siddhartha sitting by a river thinking about suicide. But he does.
And in the pain of the moment,
He understood it and realized that the inward voice had been right, that no teacher could have brought him salvation.
That was why he had to go into the world, to lose himself in power, women and money; that was why he had to be a merchant, a dice player, a drinker and a man of property, until the priest and Samana in him were dead.
That was why he had to undergo those horrible years, suffer nausea, learn the lesson of the madness of an empty, futile life till the end, till he reached bitter despair, so that Siddhartha the pleasure-monger and Siddhartha the man of property could die.
He had died and a new Siddhartha had awakened from his sleep. He also would grow old and die. Siddhartha was transitory, all forms were transitory, but today he was young, he was a child – the new Siddhartha – and he was happy.
So often when addiction is the problem we believe heading off to treatment is the answer. No doubt treatment can be helpful and at times life-saving. But this story is a powerful lesson in how change, even the most challenging of changes, are possible when we access what is already inside us. Atman. The All.
To much knowledge had hindered him; too many holy verses, too many sacrificial rites, too much mortification of the flesh, too much doing and striving.
Too much treatment, too many self-help meetings, too much reliance on evidence-based practices and medications. Too much action. Sometimes, the path of no-action, the path of contemplation – of sitting, listening, and just being is the path out of addiction.
Neill Dass says
I really enjoyed reading this piece because it really identifies the issue of addiction within. I have read the Hindu version of Siddhartha as a child with my family. My parents have always taught me that the power to change is always within our souls, which is what this story entails. Addiction occurs in many forms and I think that it ultimately the own individuals choice to live within or outside the path of addiction. The path can have burdens or helpful agents to help that individual with addiction but that individual has to find within themselves to change.
I remember reading this book in high school and not understanding a word of it then. Now that I’m a little older and have a experienced my own life struggles and the struggles of my brother’s addiction, I can appreciate the story of Siddhartha much better. This article made really good references to the book that perfectly highlighted the comparisons that can be made between Siddhartha’s life and the life of an addict.
Pierce Nusbaum says
I was required to read this book in my junior or senior year of high school and I loved it. I was very intrigued by this book when it was given to us, however I didn’t process all of the information when I was reading it. It wasn’t until after high school, I read Siddhartha again and I could truly enjoy it and appreciate it. I really liked this article because of the relationship it makes between Siddhartha and addiction. For the longest time my father drank and in my opinion was an alcoholic. Growing up I didn’t really think much of it but as I got older I started to realize that he had a created his own addiction with alcohol. It wasn’t until recently that he stopped cold turkey. I still don’t know where he came up with the strength and courage, but I’m guessing that most of it came from the support he had from me, the rest of our family, and his own will to be healthier. I know it was a struggle for him, but he had the will to change. I think his particular situation relates to this story. Every person makes their own choices in life and they can always make the choice to change. Addiction can be a cruel thing, and can be a very negative thing in one’s life. In the end it is up to that person to find it the power within them to change for the better.
Jasmine Gruenstein says
It’s very interesting to read about the book and character of Siddhartha. I have found that most people think of addiction of something that can only have negative consequences, but what you’ve presented here is completely opposite of that. I agree that addiction can be a path that leads to spiritual healing or the bettering of the self. I would even argue that most of us experience addiction in some form but those with addictions that are stigmatized are the ones most easily recognized as ‘those people’. Once we make it something that is not othered it will be easier to help each other and admit to ourselves where we ourselves are affected.
Sometimes I feel that I am on the same path as Siddhartha. This cycle of addictive behaviour is familiar to me. I have been going round and round struggling with nicotine for 20 years. I search for strength and courage to quit then find myself finding other vices to sabotage my recovery. This pattern has repeated many times. I realise to finally be able to kick my habit I will need to find that inner strength and happiness within myself. I can’t wait to read this book. It may be just what I have been searching for.
I’m very excited to read about Siddhartha’s path. I feel we have a similiar experience. I have been dealing with a nicotine addiction for 20 years and keep experiencing the same patterns over and over. When I have the courage and strength to quit I find myself sabotaging my recovery. Sometimes it feels that my vices have no end. I know that the true path to change is found within one’s self. I look forward to reading some inspiration that may enlighten me.
I hope reading it helps you. Addiction is among the absolute best teachers in life, savor what you learn, and continue to embrace the truth that you really can change your life!
Dessa Salavedra says
Awesome read. I love the book Siddhartha that is why when I saw the title of this, I just had to read it and it was awesome. It gave me a new insight and a whole new meaning to addiction. The incorporation of sentences from the book is perfect and gave me a whole new outlook of what Siddhartha was when I read it back in high school. I am currently reading a book called Tweak and although the author describes what he felt during the times when he took meth, I just couldn’t connect and imagine what it would be like if I were in his shoes. However as I mentioned earlier, reading this made me understand about addiction a little bit more and what people may have to go through while battling addiction. Thank you!
John Fitzgerald says
Dessa, thanks for the nice comment!