Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Reflections from The Alchemist



"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6:21

As a business blogger, I don't often read fiction. However, I couldn't resist picking up Paulo Coelho's mega-bestseller The Alchemist after hearing so much about it from friends.

In the story, Andalusian shepherd boy Santiago journeyed from Spain to Egypt to realise his dream of unearthing untold treasures. Footloose and fancy free as a young shepherd boy would be, our traveler's search for meaning was both serendipitous and pre-destined. Infused with metaphysical elements, it traverses both the spiritual and supernatural.

Along the way, Santiago meets characters like Melchizedek the mystical king of Salem, a gypsy fortune teller, a kindly crystal merchant, a scholarly Englishman, a lovely Arab girl named Fatima, and a 200-year-old alchemist. Each played an instrumental role in shaping his knowledge, wisdom and emotions in the pursuit of his personal "holy grail".

Our hero's journey takes him from the verdant pastures of Andalusia to the Spanish town of Tarifa and across the Gibraltar Straits to the buzzing African port city of Tangier. This is followed by a long trek across the Sahara Desert to the sprawling oasis of Al-Fayoum and the great pyramids of Egypt. Besieged by crooks, bandits and warring tribesmen, our protagonist's adventures (and misadventures) refined his character while distilling the true essence of his heart's desire.

Part fantasy, part parable and part self-help novel, The Alchemist has its share of fans and foes. Personally, I found the novel richly illustrative of our life's journey, with themes and memes that resonate deeply with my heart.

Allow me now to share some of these thoughts with you.

Evolving Purpose and Dream
Labelled as his "Personal Legend", the pursuit of love and meaning by Santiago is one that many of us can identify with. Buffeted by trials, tribulations and temptations, our hero switched course several times during his journey, modifying his mission along the way.

I believe this is similar to many of us. Think back 10 or 20 years ago. What did you set out to do then and where are you now? What circumstances have led you to veer from your path? More importantly, does your original dream still matter?

People Shape Your Path
To achieve his goal, Santiago drew heavily from various folks who contributed towards his eventual success. While some had ignoble intentions and caused him considerable harm, others helped him out of somewhat sticky situations.

I am a consummate believer in the idea that the road one takes in life is heavily molded by the people whom one meets. Our encounters with people - both good and bad - have a strong impact on what we feel, how we think and what we do.

Everything is Pre-Ordained
The Arabic word Maktub meaning "It is written" defines how everything is pre-destined and determined by God. In the novel, this term was repeatedly used as a reminder to Santiago that he shouldn't resist the natural order of things.

While I'm not one who subscribes to a fatalistic irreversible view of life, I believe that there will be times when we have to surrender to divine forces rather than to struggle against them. Things happen for a reason and we do have to embrace these encounters even if they appear to be unfavourable. What's important, however, is to learn from these experiences and move on - just like Santiago did.

Unified Nature of Things
The "Soul of the World" in the novel depicts a universal and spiritual force which defines all things. It shows the inter-connectedness between all things, and describes how the world functions in a Zen-like principle of balance and harmony. By communing with nature - the sun, wind, sands and animals - Santiago was able to discern more deeply.

In our contemporary context, this universal flow is seen in the various laws of nature and culture. We have to understand the rules that define how we live, what works, and what doesn't. Occasionally, it also makes sense for us to spend some quiet time alone with nature and God, diving deep within to search for the true answers to life.

Transformative Experiences
As Santiago ventured from place to place, he was robbed, attacked, loved, mentored, and challenged. Each encounter stretched him mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, transforming him from a wanderlust-driven shepherd boy to a man with a mission (albeit a loosely defined one).

Isn't this also true with our lives? Every day, we stumble across myriad large and small encounters at work, at home, and at play. Each experience molds the way we think and feel, and changes our original beliefs and intentions.

The Journey IS the Destination
The most significant theme is the notion that one's "treasure" may eventually be less significant than the process one takes to achieve that goal. In fact, the twist at the end of the book made it clear that what we're looking for may be closer to home than what we perceive (ie 远在天边,近在眼前 in Chinese).

In life we often spend a huge amount of time planning for the future, dreaming of a lofty goal at the end of the road. While doing so, we woefully neglect the present, especially the people whom we love and who loves us. Perhaps we should simply pause and savour what we have, relishing each day, hour, and person whom we choose to spend our lives with.

Staring Fear Squarely in the Face
Time and again, Santiago faced numerous obstacles and challenges. Overcoming cheats, robbers, and warring tribesmen was our hero's order of the day. What's more, he had to battle internal insecurities and anxieties related to his inadequacies as a shepherd boy.

This universal lesson is one that should be etched into our hearts and minds. The only way to accomplish anything great is to be bold enough to face up to one's fear. Quieten the naysayers and the voices of doubt that assail you, and rope in family and friends to embolden your heart for the challenges ahead.

Gaining By Losing
Finally, it was clear that Santiago's eventual success did not come easily. Losing his sheep, money, gold, and even health, Santiago had to "restart" all over again in strange places with strange people. What's more, our protagonist had to battle the pain of separation from his loved ones, sometimes with the possibility of never seeing them again.

As the saying goes, the only way to gain something is to lose something. In our lives, there may be times when hard decisions which could result in a loss of career, money, or relationships need to be made. If we're prepared to lose everything and start afresh, however, we may stumble across wondrous new opportunities that can enrich us immensely, often beyond what money can buy.

Before I end, let me quote some of the memorable "verses" from The Alchemist for your reading and reflection. Would also be great if you can share your thoughts on this magical book. 

“This is what we call love. When you are loved, you can do anything in creation. When you are loved, there's no need at all to understand what's happening, because everything happens within you.”

“We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.” 

“I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now.”

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” 

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

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