The Alchemist came highly recommended by a few people. As per my protocol, I wait until I’ve heard a book mentioned three times before adding it to my reading queue. I also have a confession to make. When I first read the book description prior to purchase nearly removed the book from my cart. “A testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to your heart. Great...I thought. Another book about “following your dreams”...
The “follow your dream” narrative get’s a little old. Perhaps this is the Buddhist in me but I prefer to find happiness in my current situation. I don’t need to be climbing Mount Everest to find profound purpose in life. Little did I know that the book would end up mildly supporting my personal view in the end but it suffices to say that the description nearly lost me.
There were so many good quotes from this book that I decided I’d start with the quote, then my analysis. This format doesn’t allow much in terms of flow, but I feel it more closely resembles my notes and inspiration.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
“Everyone seems to have a clear idea about how other people should live their lives but none about his or her own.”
It’s so easy to look at the life of another and see what we’d do differently in their shoes. I think Jesus said it best in his Parable of the Mote and Beam.
“Everyone ends up believing the world’s greatest lie, that at a certain point in our lives we lose control of what happens to us.”
I don’t fully agree with this point. I don’t think it’s so much that people start to believe in a lie that they can’t control their destiny. Rather, as time goes by, they missed the opportunity of their youth or made other limiting decisions they regret. It’s never too late to start a dream, but as you get older you make decisions that do further limit your freedom to pursue your personal legend. For example, the main character’s father; wouldn’t it be rather neglectful of him to up and leave his family in pursuit of treasure? The young boy, on the other hand, has few responsibilities and can more easily pursue his dream.
“Everyone when they're young knows what their personal legend is.”
A thought similar to this rings true for me. As a child, I felt as if I was closer to my true self than I ever have been since. It wasn’t that I knew what I wanted out of life. Rather a feeling of being true to myself and fully in the moment regardless of activity.
He was learning a lot of new things, some of them were things that he'd already experienced that weren't really new but he hadn't perceived them before. He hadn't perceived them because he had become accustomed to them.
There is a scientific reason why this occurs. We would become quickly overwhelmed if the brain paid attention to every sensation and experience. Evolution has wired our brain to ignore what is not necessary. That said, when you allow your brain to drive on autopilot exclusively, you entrench yourself deeper in your path, thoughts, and actions. Practicing awareness is bringing back select focus to the present things that we've become accustomed to and in the process, we often learn much about ourselves and the world.
“I left my father and mother and town castle behind, they've gotten used to my being away and so have I. My sheep will get used to me not being there too.”
When deciding if he should pursue his personal legend, Santiago hesitates because he fears his sheep can’t get by without him. Here’s the sad truth: we overestimate our role in the scheme of things. We then use this reasoning to justify not making certain decisions. In reality, the worldly tasks we view as so important will get by just fine without us and we need to do what we can to position ourselves in a way that allows us to better pursue our personal legends.
“Did you see the tapestries hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that took the master gardener 10 years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”
When tasked with holding a spoon and not spilling the fluid it held, he missed the scene of the castle. This felt symbolic of our life, we’re so caught up in our daily life. Our work, kids, day to day drama, etc; that we forget to take a look of the world around us. Did we notice the beautiful garden that our neighbor planted? Did we notice the vibrant sunset this evening? What are we missing while we focus on our tasks?
“I don't want anything else in life. But you're forcing me to look at wealth and horizons I've never known. Now that I've seen them and now that I've seen how immense my possibilities are I've going to feel worse than when you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish and I don't want to do so.”
To me, the character of the shop owner is perhaps the most interesting in the book. I think he represents our fear of leaving our comfort zone. But something else he said made me think. When asked why he never made his sacred journey he responded something to the extent of, "Because hoping for the journey gives me the strength to keep going." This was a line that I could relate to. Sometimes I look to a plan in the future, or a dream, as a method to make it through life. If that dream was realized, would I have a reason to want to be here anymore? I don’t yet know what to think of this revelation but I felt there was some insight there worth investigating.
“We're afraid of losing what we have. Whether it's our life or our possessions or property. But this fear evaporates when we realize that our stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.”
I've always really liked the Yoda quote, "Train yourself to let go of all you fear to lose." The Jedi philosophy always preached the dangers of fear. We need to take a step back and appreciate that everything has a life it's own that we have no control over.
The boy was becoming more and more convinced that alchemy could be learned in one's daily life.
Lately, I've started to notice a simple truth in the way Japanese traditionally approach their craft. They always put all their heart and soul into every task and a constant striving for mastery of their craft. They take great pride in what they do no matter how simple. At one point the boy askes the alchemist if he can learn to turn lead to gold. The alchemist replies, ”I'm an alchemist simply because I'm an alchemist.” He grew where he was planted. Alchemy can be the way that we approach life.
“Go back to watching the caravan!” The boy went back to contemplating the silence of the desert. ”Everyone has his or her own way of learning things. His way isn't mine and mine isn't his.”
At one point a man training to become an alchemist that Santiago was traveling with get’s upset after the boy insists he learns much more from the dessert than from the man’s books. The boy concludes that each person has their way of learning and their own path to the truth.
“Why do you want to know about the future? If good things are coming, they will be a present surprise. If bad things are and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur.”
How much suffering do I inflict on myself by trying to understand the future?
“The secret is here in the present, if you pay attention to the present, you can improve on it. And if you improve on it what comes later will also be better.”
Furthering the above thought, the only day you can do anything is today. You can’t do something tomorrow because tomorrow never comes. So why worry about what tomorrow brings? The present is the only way to impact the future.
“It's not what enters men's mouth that is evil, it's what comes out of their mouths that is.”
When Santiago is invited to the Alchemist’s tent the Alchemist offers the boy wine which is typically forbidden under Muslim law. The boy accepts but asks why he has wine if it’s forbidden? Many times in the New Testament, Jesus reprimands pious religious figures for their strict observance to the law when they don’t have their hearts in the right place and don’t care for their fellow man.
“In those times, the masterwork could be written simply on an emerald, but men began to reject simple things and to write tracts, interpretations and philological studies.”
Again my thoughts are brought back to modern religions and the Sadducees and Pharisees in Jesus’ time. The truth is simple but we often make if far more complex and in so doing we often lose the truth.
“Love never keeps a man from pursuing his personal legend. If he abandons that pursuit it's because it wasn't true love.”
When Santiago meets a beautiful woman in the desert oasis he states his desire to stay. Both the woman and the Alchemist prompt him to pursue his journey. While I do believe that sacrifice does need to be made in relationships in regards to personal desires, there is also a value of having personal dreams that give you purpose outside of a relationship. As partners, you need to do everything possible to enable the other to fulfill that dream. There’s a certain amount of independence that needs to exist to pursue one’s goals in a relationship.
“My heart's afraid it will have to suffer.” “Tell your heart, that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.”
I’ve likely taken years off my life stressing about things beyond my control. The worst part is that the fear is far worse than how the events panned out. Even if the real scenario ends up in the worst-case scenario, living it out in your heart over and over is as if you’ve experienced the worst many times.
“When you possess great treasures within you and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.” “You taught me the language of the world.” ”I only evoked what you already knew.”
I think this is the same concept as teaching a concept like mediation. A new practitioner of meditation will squirm and wonder why they need to pay attention to their breathing or the bird outside. Until they have a moment, a personal satori, the deeper meaning will be hidden to them.
“Lead, copper and iron have their own personal legends to fulfill.”
This line coming from the Alchemist is powerful. Despite having the power to turn lead into gold, he doesn’t view it as necessarily the right thing to do. There is purpose and beauty in things as they are, even in imperfect or less valuable states. Why do we seek to change them?
“He saw that the soul of God was his own soul.”
The religious might call it the Holy Spirit that resides in all men. The spiritual take it to mean that we share a soul with the universe. But to take this quote in an even more down-to-earth way, I think that by becoming more aware of the nature of our being we can view mankind in a more loving and inclusive light as we realize the common human soul.
“When I'm eating that's all I think about, If I'm on the march I just concentrate on marching. If I have to fight, it'll be just as good a day to die as any other. Because I don't live in 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. You'll see that there is life in the desert.”
As the boy continues his journey he continues to run into individuals, like the caravan leader, that state how being present is a treasure all it’s own.
“Should I understand the emerald tablet?” The boy asked. “Perhaps, if you were in the laboratory of alchemy this would be the right time to study to understand the best way to understand the emerald tablet. But you are in the dessert so immerse yourself in it! The desert will give you an understanding of the world. In fact, anything on the face of the earth will do that. You don't even have to understand the desert. All you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand. And you will see in it all the marvels of creation.”
Santiago did make it to the pyramids, only to suddenly understand that the treasure was back home, under a tree he used to raise his sheep near. Despite finding his treasure, I believe the greater treasure was invoked by interactions with characters such as The Alchemist and the caravan leader who inspired insight into the power of being present and the treasure each object and being hold within. We don’t need the chest of treasure. We don’t need to turn lead to gold. The real treasure is within everyone and everything if we have the patience and open heart to see.