A reflection by Ben Koch, Managing Editor
In his brief spiritual memoir titled A Confession, prolific Russian author Leo Tolstoy (of War and Peace fame) evokes an old Eastern fable about mortality. Here’s how he summarizes it:
“…a traveler who is taken unawares on the steppes by a ferocious wild animal. In order to escape the beast the traveler hides in an empty well, but at the bottom of the well he sees a dragon with its jaws open, ready to devour him. The poor fellow does not dare to climb out because he is afraid of being eaten by the rapacious beast, neither does he dare drop to the bottom of the well for fear of being eaten by the dragon. So he seizes hold of a branch of a bush that is growing in the crevices of the well and clings on to it. His arms grow weak and he knows that he will soon have to resign himself to the death that awaits him on either side. Yet he still clings on, and while he is holding on to the branch he looks around and sees that two mice, one black and one white, are steadily working their way round the bush he is hanging from, gnawing away at it. Sooner or later they will eat through it and the branch will snap, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveler sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish. But while he is still hanging there he sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the bush, stretches out his tongue and licks them.” (p. 21)
The metaphor here is laid out in such painful detail that the situation of the poor traveler is almost comical. It rings of an old Monty Python skit. The purpose of such elaborate description, though, is to ensure that neither the traveler nor the reader find any gleam of hope of escaping their inevitable end. Sound harsh? It would be crueler, still, to continue focusing only on those “drops of honey” (believing that life is the pursuit of material pressure) at the expense of taking a broader view of true context and fate.
Facing and accepting our own finite existence in a particular body-identity sounds like a simple realization, yet it’s one that few of us grasp beyond an intellectual level. Our egos are masterful salesmen, perpetually spinning schemes on how we might avoid, delay or at least disguise our desperate situation. Consumer culture is the ultimate illustration of this fruitless cycle. There are numerous names for it. Buddhists call that perpetual search for bigger, better pleasures samsara. The 20th century called it a rat race. But Tolstoy is not critiquing capitalism here—this isn’t sociology. It’s about a personal, spiritual crisis point in which we have finally come to realize the futility and desperation of our stories, so that we may open to bigger versions of ourselves not dependent on the values of the ego.
For Tolstoy, this realization spurned a long, dark period in which he flirted constantly with suicide, yet simultaneously seemed to stoke the creative fire which gave us his masterworks, including War and Peace. I recently heard poet Billy Collins state in an interview that all poetry is about one of two things—love or death. So honestly confronting mortality can be an impetus for great creativity.
Yet we could easily discuss this in a traditional religious context—Prince Siddhartha, for example, was inspired to seek enlightenment by this very same realization, and it led him to Buddhahood, a state of consciousness beyond all suffering and attachment.
Whether taking a creative or spiritual approach, the great wisdom masters of either path have shown us that a truly heartfelt confrontation with our own mortality can be a powerful source of transformation.