The Fifth Labor – Cleansing The Augean
version, spring 2016)
fifth task, the cleaning of the Augean Stables, illustrates the paradox of the
one and the many. It is by far the most famous of the twelve labors, but in a
somewhat cursory search I have not found anyone who appreciates the humor or
who has even take a stab at what it means. This is a shame, since it is
downright funny as well as highly instructive.
was irked that Hercules had succeeded at every task he set him, since he really
meant for him to fail. He wracked his brain to conceive of a truly impossible
task, and came up with a good one. He demanded that Hercules clean out the vast
Augean Stables in one day. King Augeas had owned 3000 oxen for 30 years—the
biggest herd in all of Greece—but had never had his stables cleaned. The cow
poop was mountainous, obviously, and it was constantly being replenished. By
the time you’ve cleaned up one pile, a hundred more are lying steaming on the
deck. Anyone who tried to simply shovel it out would never come to the end of
it. Thus the job would not only be impossible, due to the huge amount of filth,
but wading in shit would degrade and humiliate Hercules too. Obviously another
strategy is required.
had to use his brains. He thought for a long time. Then he made holes in the
front and back walls of the stables. Next he dug channels from two nearby
rivers and diverted them through the stables. In no time the water had flushed
out all the muck, and the stables were fresh and clean.
refusing to wade into the muck, Hercules never got his feet dirty. Afterward,
Augeas refused to pay him the fee he had promised, and the disappointed Eurystheus
refused to count it as a legitimate task, claiming the river had done the work,
of the moral here is that a lot of things are fun at first, but it’s important
to take care of the after effects. If we ignore the consequences of our
behavior, garbage piles up, and once it gets deep enough we seldom have the
heart to deal with it. We might hope it will just disappear, but it doesn’t. We
have to bring pressure to bear on it.
not just any pressure: it has to be intelligently and creatively conceived.
Much of the charm of this labor is that Hercules comes up with a solution no
one else could imagine.
thinking is like fresh running water: it keeps rushing forward, sweeping away
all impediments to its progress. If it is directed to a problem, it can solve
it almost effortlessly.
this labor is helped by visualizing it. Imagine looking down a corridor in a
huge barn, with a line of the backsides of cattle on either side. The oxen are
eating hay and defecating continuously, and the accumulated pile reaches to the
rafters. The smell is almost visible it is so strong. You look down and see you
are carrying a small manure rake; compared to the pile it is no more than a
fart in a windstorm. You realize immediately that the stuff is being generated
faster than you can possibly take it away. To address it one item at a time
would be utterly futile.
on the problem, you come up with the clever idea of knocking out the far door
and diverting two pristine streams through the front. Voila! Rudimentary
plumbing is invented, and all the crap is quickly swept away.
what does this symbolize? In English at least, bullshit is even today a common
term for lies and falsehood, and the term is quite vivid protolanguage for
communicating the loathing we feel when we have been deceived by charlatans.
Apparently assholes are assholes, whether in 2000 BCE or 2000 CE. Even many
animals use their feces as a form of derogatory comment. Moreover, our own mind
plays us false at times. Bullshit can be both internally and externally
generated. We are full of shit, and the public arena is likewise full of shit.
Oxenshit doesn’t have quite the same ring, so we call it bullshit if only for
the poetry of it. In any case, one of the most critical tasks of a spiritual
life is to get the bullshit out of your way.
vivid imagery! Like the braying pundits of propaganda television and radio, we
can conjure up an endless line of assholes spewing toxic filth, their
hairpieces resembling oxen tails swishing over their filthy, unwiped maws. The
oxen are content to mindlessly consume and excrete the fodder they have been
served by their master’s lackeys. They don’t care what havoc they wreak with
their excretions, they just know they have to be faithful and obedient or their
sustenance will stop being doled out to them.
sincere person might spend a lifetime shoveling up the mess, refuting lie after
lie, but then what is accomplished? As soon as one lie is nullified, ten more
have been launched. Only an inner blast of light that neutralizes it all at
once, that treats it as one single situation instead of millions of separate
ones, can conquer this tenacious problem. The proper way, then, for us to
overcome the challenge is to convert from a materialist view that treats each
problem separately, to a unitive, spiritual vision that solves all dilemmas
simultaneously. Dr. Mees offers us this:
The Labour teaches that
the dirtiest work can be performed without losing face and in a dignified
manner and that to the spiritual man no activity is degrading. Considered in
its analogical implications the Labour shows that the Holy Ghost alone is able
to effect a cleaning up of Ahankaric dirt within the soul. No amount of
“psychological shuffling” (which is only “spadework”) can bring the same
in the form of bullshit or horseshit is endless and perennially renewed. It
can’t possibly be dealt with piecemeal—that would take forever. The only
solution is to call up a spiritual flood that cleanses everything.
Bhagavad Gita treats the same subject in a somewhat less colorful way.
Horizontal life is described as a proliferating tree, in which “many branched
and endless are the reasonings of them in whom reason is ill-founded.” The
solution is not to painstakingly cut off every leaf or twig, but to go to the
root and sever the whole business in one fell swoop.
requirement Eurystheus laid down was that if Hercules failed to complete the
job in a single day, he would have to remain in the service of King Augeas and
clean his stables for the rest of his life. This implies that if one gets
caught up in dealing with horizontal activities there is no end to them. They
keep renewing themselves. You either dispense with them in toto, all at once,
or you stay stuck. Realization is not the product of a series of linked steps,
but a wholesale quantum leap to a new orientation.
confronted with an endless series of lies, it is difficult to hold fast to
truth. Without refuting them, they are likely to steer you (pun intended) away
from what you know into muddy waters. If we don’t have a firm grasp of who we
are, we can be led astray by the convictions of others, not realizing that their
ideas are likely to be self-serving propaganda masquerading as facts. As
Machiavelli was well aware, most people have an innate sense of justice and
fair play, and they assume others are observing the same parameters. It is easy
for deceivers to take advantage of such people, because they will tend to give
them the benefit of the doubt. If you dress up your selfish motives with
high-sounding verbiage, and keep it coming, you can fool most of the people
most of the time.
well remember a bully in my high school who had a novel technique for beating
people up. As he punched, slapped and smacked you, he would insist, “I’m not
hitting you! I’m a nice guy. I’m not doing anything to you! What’s the matter
with you?” Where you might stand your ground and fight back against simple
punches, the tirade invariably threw you mentally off balance. There is a
deep-seated urge in us to respond and correct the falseness of claims made
against us. So, as our outrage rose up at the obvious lies, you would get hit
three more times before you took cover.
so-called conservatives have adopted this bully gambit very successfully. As
they cheer on the raping and plundering of the public treasury, they insist
they are the only patriots in the room. Anyone who tries to stand up to them is
labeled unpatriotic, or worse. Civilized people are always tempted to refute
the false claims, and as they waste time trying to establish truth in those who
care nothing for it, these “patriots” make off with whatever they can grab. As
long as multiplicity is the norm, with opinions supplanting facts, they will
always be several steps ahead of the law. Absolutist vision is necessary before
we can call a thief a thief.
stables were so full of shit that the stench pervaded the entire region.
Decoders of mythology in the Age of the American Empire can certainly get a
picture of what this means. Influential leaders of a nation have either an
inspiring or a poisoning influence on their whole domain. They “set the tone”
so to speak, for everyone far and wide, not just in their personal state of
mind but in business relations, the arts, education, so many places. Bullshit
at the center of the stables of power produces hostility among people, distrust
in business, and bitterness and resentment in education and the arts. Such is
the perfume we, like Hercules, are forced to inhale.
present the United States, in company with most of the nations of our planet,
has been nearly destroyed by thieves and thugs who use bullshit philosophies to
keep honest citizens at bay. We are now facing the dismaying task of repairing
the damage and restoring some kind of functionality. If it is done bit by bit,
as seems politically inevitable, it will take forever. However, that is the
current strategy. Shoveling shit at close quarters, you can’t help but get it
on you, meaning that by fighting evil on its own terms and with its own tactics
you become corrupted yourself, as history well demonstrates.
ancient Greeks are using Hercules to counsel us that a wholesale rejection of
the evil ways is necessary. Without a change of heart, we are doomed to
continue to replay the same degrading scenario over and over. Those of us who
live here can watch the bullshitters torpedo every sensible program with
hairsplitting protestations and diversionary tactics. Meeting their insatiable
demands is as daunting as cleaning the Augean Stables with a pitchfork. We have
to find a way to get to the root of the problem instead.
the numerous apt examples of this Herculean task from modern life, let’s look
at the worldwide drug war. Prohibition is a proven failure in combating drug
abuse, and yet it is ineluctably appealing to law enforcement and politicians,
who make very good livings off it. It promotes extreme violence in smugglers,
and the artificially high prices drive users to commit additional crimes to pay
for their habits. When military pressure is applied in one area, the business
simply moves elsewhere. Yet even in a limited region the effort-to-result ratio
is astronomical. The whole mess looks exactly like millions of steaming heaps
of manure, and no amount of additional effort will sweep it under the rug.
tragedy could be quickly ended by legalizing and regulating drugs, thus
stripping out all the illegal profits. The legal profits could then be used to
treat addicts and rehabilitate smugglers, not to mention helping make life in
the world enjoyable enough so that recourse to drugs is not the only available
way to be happy. Severing the tree at the root causes all its pernicious
ramifications to wither.
usual, we don’t want to necessarily view this labor solely as an external
matter, or it will lose its spiritual efficacy. The teaching here is definitely
about spiritual or mental life also. Most mundane tasks must still be
accomplished one step at a time, and enlightenment does not give us a pass on
taking care of ordinary business the old fashioned way.
own soul is polluted with similar filth as the halls of government. We deceive
ourselves as much or more than the government or any corporation does. Renewing
ourselves bit by bit could be accomplished in just about an infinite number of
years. Advaita Vedanta, and apparently Greek wisdom tradition also, directs us
to an instantaneous or at least a very rapid transformation. We must open
ourselves to the cleansing flood of spiritual connection, like Hercules digging
trenches to the two rivers to direct them where they were needed. Letting in
the flow then renews everything at once.
to my arcane reference book, Sacred
Mythoi of Demigods and Heroes, cited earlier, the two rivers, Alpheus and
Peneus are named after sons of the god Oceanus, and they may be viewed as
standing for involution and evolution, the twin aspects of a balanced spiritual
life. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine the Greeks knew of it, but Vedanta
also has two parallel rivers of prana, vital energy, that are to be united into
a single stream of kundalini energy to overcome all obstacles and attain
enlightenment. The fifth labor works well as a pictorial image of how this
might look from inside the body. No matter how you frame it, our spiritual
progress depends on not simply plodding ahead step by step, but on seeking and
finding creative solutions.
image of the accumulation of the garbage over a long period of time is also
significant. King Augeas didn’t take care of his effluvia for his whole life,
believing it was his “royal prerogative” to ignore it. Spiritually, we have to
be willing to deal with our own shit, meaning facing the stuff we’d prefer to
avoid, that we’d rather pretend was someone else’s mess. We have to clean out
all the samskaras, the wrong conditionings, we have piled up over the years,
because they stink up the atmosphere. They plop out in front of us and we walk
right into them, bogging us down and causing us to slip and fall into the muck.
We could go into therapy and address them one by one, but that would take more
than a lifetime. Alternatively, we can attune with the Absolute and vaporize
them all at once, which leaves us some time yet to really live well.
[Psychedelics as fast acting cleansers]
conquering the Hydra, this is the other labor for which Hercules did not get
credit, because he had tried to get paid by King Augeas for it, and because he
hadn’t actually done any dirty work. Payment for spiritual services is at least
unethical, if not downright deceptive, and it certainly corrupts anyone who
imagines there is a connection between spiritual wisdom and remuneration. And
it’s true that we cannot do this job without the assistance of Fate or the
Divine, the aspect of Oneness.[?] Still, Hercules deserves full credit for
discovering the only solution that could actually work. Spiritual seekers
should be after results, real transformations, not fame or fortune. The two
Kings’ denial of his achievement was little more than resentment that Hercules’
spiritual progress could not be derailed.
curious that the two labors that “don’t count” are quite similar. Both the
Hydra and the cattle produce an endless series of problems: either you cut off
a head and it grows back, or you sweep up the mess and it falls right back on
the floor. Both the shit and the Hydra’s blood are toxic or noxious. With one
you have to cauterize the root and with the other you have to call down a
righteous river. Either way, the solution includes not getting caught up in
details but invoking a Zen-like lightning bolt.
known some people who could’ve used the veiled advice of this labor: those who put
off doing something important until they got their life in order. Of course,
life is never orderly, never certain, and they waited so long for the “right
moment” that the opportunity faded away. A couple of my friends thought they
should delay having children until they were on an even keel, and wound up
completely missing the joys and lessons of parenthood. Some people postpone
their dream trip until after retirement, and by then they are too old, or dead.
Most of us fritter away our life on petty necessities when we should be writing
that great novel or spending time with friends or volunteering on a project. We
put our life on hold just like King Augeas put off cleaning out the stables,
and so the inertia builds up, making a breakthrough more and more daunting.
one of those “divine coincidences” that happen from time to time, I ran across
a passage from St. Theresa de Avila while I was editing Nataraja Guru’s An
Science of the Absolute (in Vol. III, p 25). Theresa compares four stages of spiritual progress in the form of
prayer with different ways to water a garden plot, and her third stage will
look familiar. While it is virtually certain that she knew nothing of Hercules,
the parallel with the fifth labor is astonishing and instructive. Then she goes
one step farther. Let’s close with this, since it is gentle and sweet, in
contrast to the heavy-handedness of the Greek myth:
we read St. Theresa's “Four Degrees (or Stages) of Prayer.” To follow the broad
features of our own idea of structuralism, as we can easily recognize, we read:
may say that beginners in prayer are those who draw the
water up out of the well; which is a great labour, as I have said. For they
find it very tiring to keep the senses recollected, when they are used to a
life of distraction….
Let us now turn to the second method of drawing it which
Owner of the plot has ordained. By means of a device with a windlass, the
gardener draws more water with less labour, and so is able to take some rest
instead of being continuously at work. I apply this description to the prayer
Let us now speak of the third water that feeds this garden,
which is flowing water from a stream or spring. This irrigates it with far less
trouble, though some effort is required to direct it to the right channel.
now the Lord is pleased to help the gardener in such a
way [with rain] as to be, as it were, the gardener Himself…. The soul does not
know what to do; it cannot tell whether to speak or be silent, whether to laugh
or to weep. It is a glorious bewilderment, a heavenly madness, in which true
wisdom is acquired, and to the soul a fulfillment most full of delight.
In this state (i.e.
the fourth state) the soul still feels
it is not altogether dead, as we may say, though it is entirely dead to the
world. But, as I have said, it retains the sense to know that it is still here
and to feel its solitude; and it makes use of outward manifestations to show
its feelings at least by signs.
How what is called
union takes place and what it is, I cannot tell. It is explained in mystical theology,
but I cannot use the
proper terms: I cannot understand what mind
is, or how it differs from soul or spirit.
They all seem one to me.
(St. Theresa of Avila,
The Interior Castle, tr. J. M. Cohen,
Penguin edn., London.)