Meeting Procrustes


In part two of his essay, Shanti concludes after his deliberations with Procrustes that “Everyone of us is a unique expression of ‘Existence’.”

Theseus adjusting Procrustes
Theseus adjusting Procrustes to the size of his bed. Image provided by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Was it an interview or a wordless watching, my recent encounter with Procrustes? Anyway, it was very enlightening!

So intriguing, this man who measures everyone according to his own mind, his own precious values ​​and standards, only to stretch them or saw them to size until they fit exactly.

What is motivating such a man to be constantly busy doing so? Does he like it? Is it just a hobby or does it pay well? Is he self-employed without staff or is he an employee himself? In case he is, who is employing him?

There are so many questions, now comprehension and insight is needed. Here is my present understanding:

Most surprising to me is: he never stops. He doesn’t take breaks. It’s a real 24/7 job. Apparently, something very bad will happen when he goes out for a cup of coffee, takes a day off or enjoys a sabbatical. But what?

I often cycle and that is probably why the comparison with freewheeling arises: you shouldn’t do that for too long, because then you fall over. It is a necessity to keep pedalling, otherwise you will lose your balance. You have to continue putting energy into it!

That’s what Procrustes seems to be doing: continuously measuring everything and everyone crossing his path. And if no one crosses, he is searching himself until he comes across something or someone to pit his ruler against, keen as he is to find the differences, the friction. Guests conforming to his standards are the exception, so the majority qualifies for being stretched or sawn. He seems to have the greatest fun with that, with the ‘too short’ and the ‘too long’. After all, only then there will be stretching and sawing, Procrustes ‘his lust and his life’: his own words!

As I watch him for weeks, I notice my feelings towards him are softening. Something like condemnation is disappearing, something like compassion arising: what a hell of a job! What a life!

Now my judgment is gone and my heart is opening. Apparently he feels comfortable enough to tell me what moves him.

He turns out to be the child of an illusion, even though I understand that, logically, illusions don’t bear children.

Oh no? And what about nightmares, from which you wake up in a sweat and in complete panic? And what about that rope that you mistake for a snake and scares you to death?

So, yes, an illusion is also able to give birth to children, in the hope of a helper, a faithful servant who can support to maintain it.

This is enlightening to me. It explains the 24/7 nature of Procrustes’ constant work, his pro-active attitude to look for misfits, his relentless “pedalling” and his disgust of a coffee break. He has a job to do: to maintain an illusion.

But which illusion that might be, is, of course, my next question to him.

He is touchingly open, he trusts me and I understand him, even though he speaks without words: “We all share an illusion, a basic misconception, the delusion of separateness!” An illusion that we can only maintain by constantly rubbing against something or someone, seeking confrontation.

By opposing, we experience ourselves as something or someone else, as distinct, as an existing ‘I’ or ego, as different, as separate from the great ocean of existence, as a self-contained wave, a large or small independency, a self-supporter. Hence the need for continuous friction, as is the case with an adolescent who takes his time to rebel against his parents in order to break free and become an independent person.

It may be that simple: like an adolescent, we push ourselves off, we look for friction, in order to create a feeling of independence, and in that process we derive our identity from a ‘No’.

That is Procrustes’ job, to track down misfits, people who deviate sufficiently from his own measurements and his own values, in order ​​to create and maintain the illusion of an ‘ego’ through that very friction. After all, this illusion will fall over while freewheeling, hence the need to keep pedalling, to keep putting energy into it. If we don’t, who are we?

A wave, however beautiful, but imbibed namelessly in the great ocean?

Procrustes has a point. He scores by giving us a highly desired sense of individuality by constantly comparing ourselves to something or someone else, by distinguishing us from them, separating us from them.

That distinction seems to offer individuality: an ‘I’, distinguishable from a ‘you’, as smarter, more handsome, richer, stronger, ‘holier than thou’, or otherwise, if that fails, as less, dumber, bolder or, if necessary, more modest. However, to stand on our own in this way, we constantly need the comparison, the friction with the other, the opponent, in order to be able to push ourselves off against them and thereby confirm our own existence. Procrustes delivers that self-awareness to our home for free, as long as we continue pedalling and, by doing so, keep the mistake, the pretence going.

Is there an alternative, a different way in which we can experience ourselves as individuals, as distinguishable from the crowd, as more than a nameless wave in an endless ocean, but without having to constantly pedal, a ‘mindset’ in which we can go on freewheeling without ever falling? Has ‘existence’ already taken care of that from the very beginning?

With no more than a single fingerprint, we can open our mobile phone or pay for a cappuccino: it is that unique.

Our individuality doesn’t lie in our separateness, but in our uniqueness. Thís sense of uniqueness is the alternative to the illusion of an ego, an ‘I’ that constantly tries to prove itself in confrontation with something or someone else. In Zen, they call this your ‘original face’.

It’s there ‘from the very beginning’, even if it usually gets snowed in under the bombardment of “be like us, be like me.” But it turns out to be excavatable and subsequently experienceable. Friction with anyone and anything is completely superfluous now: after all, our own uniqueness, our ‘original face’ is naturally and obvious. Any comparison is folly.

Everyone of us is a unique expression of ‘Existence’.

Even the oncoming cyclists on the cycle path who do not give way and do not allow me free passage, are, just like me and however deformed we both may behave, bearers of a unique promise of existence.

That’s my confidence.

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Shanti is the creator and compiler of series, including Home in the Universe and 1001 Tales.

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