Watership Down and Journey to Ixtlan

I believe that we shape our destinies through our choice of thoughts and actions.

I also believe that living this way is difficult but worth striving for.

Still one of the most influential books I've ever read
Still one of the most influential books I’ve ever read

And then there’s the self-awareness problem. How many of us can foresee the outcome of tomorrow embedded in the decisions we make today?

Here are two of my favorite takes on this eternal dilemma The first is a quote from my favorite book by Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan. This quote has been part of my refrigerator art for more than 30 years and I read it often.

In a dramatic tone, Don Juan stated that well-being was a condition one had to groom, a condition one had to become acquainted with in order to seek it.

“You don’t know what well-being is, because you have never experienced it,” he said.

I disagreed with him. But he continued arguing that well-being was an achievement one had to deliberately seek. He said the only thing I knew how to seek was a sense of disorientation, ill-being, and confusion.

He laughed, mockingly and assured me that in order to accomplish the feat of making myself miserable I had to work in a most intense fashion, and that it was absurd I had never realized I could work just the same in making myself complete and strong.

“The trick is what one emphasizes,” he said. “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

The amount of work is the same. That’s the concept that blew me away when I first read those words in my middle twenties. Been doing that work in fits and starts ever since.

Here’s the second instance of choice in action from one of my favorite books of all time, Watership Down by Richard Adams.
Watership Down cover
For those of you not familiar with this seminal fantasy novel, Watership Down is a place in England, the destination for a group of rabbits who are refugees from their original burrow. Like all refugees, they are seeking a new home, a place to live in peace.

One of the ways that Adams enchants is by describing the world from the point of view of these small creatures. They have their own spiritual system, their own myths, and he even sprinkles in rabbit terms for items in our daily lives such as hrdu-du-du for car (which sounds like the high and low sounds of an engine when you first turn it on) and raka which could delicately be described as rabbit pellets.

Anyway, our small band of heroes have a ton of adventures which culminate in their having to defend their new home from a rival burrow led by the biggest villain of the piece, General Woundwort. (Isn’t that a great name!)

The hero rabbits are led by a wise soul named Hazel. On the eve of what will be the climactic battle for control of Watership Down, Hazel tries to reason with the General, pointing out that there was plenty for all and no need for killing.

The following is a description of General Woundwort’s reaction to Hazel’s suggestion, and it is, I think, one of the best descriptions of how our choices dictate the course of our lives. By the way, you need to know that Hazel was wounded and is now lame.

At that moment, in the sunset on Watership Down, there was offered to General Woundwort the opportunity to show whether he was really the leader of vision and genius which he believed himself to be, or whether he was no than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate.

For one beat of his pulse the lame rabbit’s idea shone clearly before him. He grasped it and realized what it meant. The next, he had pushed it away from him.

The sun dipped into the cloud bank and now he could see clearly the track along the ridge, leading to the beech hanger and the bloodshed for which he had prepared with so much energy and care.

“I haven’t time to sit here talking nonsense,” said Woundwort. “You’re in no position to bargain with us. There’s nothing more to be said.”

If you haven’t read these books, may I recommend them to your bedside table?

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