A good friend of mine loved to talk about the great poem Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy. He knew it by heart, he quoted different passages to illustrate different situations. Every time, he made me wonder whether I was living life to the fullest.
The poem talks about the obstacles Odysseus had to face on his long journey to Ithaca. However, the main theme for the poem is to remind readers to enjoy the journey of life. You may think there’s a goal you must reach in order for you to be happy, but in reality, the path you have to walk to attain that goal will make you smarter, stronger, and ultimately, you will have learned that every obstacle was a blessing in disguise. You will learn happiness is to be found along the path, not at the end of it.
Us, as yogis, we hear this reasoning all the time: be present in the moment, listen to your breath, and release everything else. This teaching might take a whole life to sink in (I wouldn’t know, since I can’t yet even start to grasp it…!), but in the meantime, one learns patience and tolerance. The spiritual journey we yogis walk is a constant source of challenges as well as limitless lessons.
I like to go back to this poem every once in a while. I spoke to a class of young undergraduates the other day, and I told them there is not one single definition of success. That they should name theirs and don’t let anybody define it for them. I love how the poem says that you shouldn’t be afraid of any obstacles as long as your thoughts are positive, and as long as you remember it’s you yourself who created these foes.
Be confident, and true to yourself. You will arrive to wherever you need to arrive.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
C. P, Cavafy
Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard