Spiritual, psychological, and yogic insights from Hamilton, an iconic musical so applicable to our times.
Like millions of others over the 4th of July weekend, I watched – for the first time! – the Broadway hit musical, Hamilton. I knew it would be great, but had no idea how much it would impact me, and the many insights it revealed about my life and our world, right now. As the song from the musical says, “History Has Its Eyes on You” and me, as I’ll explain below.
Beyond the amazing music, acting, choreography, set, and costumes, so many themes, both personal and spiritual, emerged for me from this theatrical experience. It touched deep emotions and issues that resurfaced from this story about Alexander Hamilton’s life.
Just in case you don’t know, Alexander Hamilton was one of the “founding fathers” of the United States of America. He isn’t talked about as much because he was never a President (as an immigrant, he never could be), but his face does make the $10 bill due to being our first Secretary of the Treasury. His life was as fascinating as it was impactful on the beginnings of our nation – making a powerful story to convey through a musical, much to the surprise of many when it first debuted.
This is a bit of a different blog post than I usually write (and longer, too), and I have to admit that it swam around in me for over a week and I resisted. I avoided and was overwhelmed. It touched old pain in me, and also old patterns that I thought I had laid to rest long ago. I feel that by writing this, I’m helping to close those chapters again and put to rest my obsession for the last week and a half with this story.
I won’t be able to tell you the full tale, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth it. Here’s my insights that arose for me from watching it (with references to the songs so you can have some of your own experience).
Is it Destiny? Is it Determination?
Hamilton begins with a bit of personal history about how he grew up, which lays context for how and why he does what he does with his life. The first lines of the musical:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
His father left him when he was 10, his mother died two years later, he moved in with his cousin and his cousin committed suicide. Wow. What a painful beginning to life, and a testament to how he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, against all adversity. He immigrated to the United States from the Carribean to make a name for himself and contribute to the American Revolution.
His fervor for pursuing both his principles and notoriety were fueled by this spirit of surviving and thriving in him. It was principle, but also pride. His hubris took him very far in influence and the public eye, but also was his undoing.
He wondered why he had lived, when others around him died. It brings up a question of destiny vs. determination. Did he will himself to survive, even through a hurricane? It seems that both were in play.
We are often, in spiritual circles, playing with these ideas – of “creating your reality” or being affected by karma. Through Hamilton, we can see them both manifest; he survives through tremendous adversity that is out of his control – perhaps fate? – but clearly creates both his great success (as the theme of the song “My Shot” reprises throughout the musical) and his ultimate demise through insistence on speaking his full and complete truth.
His Adversary – and Flip Side of the Coin
Aaron Burr – Hamilton’s first friend in America, and eventual enemy – plays a pivotal role in the musical, and ultimately, in Hamilton’s life and death. Just as ambitious as Hamilton, Burr takes a very different tactic to work towards his goals: restraint. He tries not to ruffle any feathers, smiles, talks less, and tries to figure out what other people want from him.
Burr is stunned – and jealous – by Alexander’s meteoric rise to fame and power from sheer determination and deftness with the pen. But Burr sticks by his philosophy to “Wait for It.” He’s willing to be patient, bide his time, and trust that he’ll eventually receive the accolades he desperately longs for (and the woman he is in love with, too).
Raga and Dvesha, At It Again
At first, I thought there was merit in Burr’s patience. After all, it is a spiritual quality, no? But looking more deeply, as the musical progresses, I see that Burr is caught in the same egoic drive as Hamilton, but he is simply coming at his ambition from the other direction.
It reminds me of the yogic concepts of Raga (desire) and Dvesha (aversion). You could actually think of both concepts as desire, but Raga is desire expressed by attraction to what you want, and Dvesha as desire expressed as avoiding what you don’t want so that you can experience what you want. These concepts are two of the causes of suffering according to yoga philosophy, and understandably so. There’s never an end to what we could desire nor is there any shortage of what we’d like to avoid (especially during these COVID-19 days).
Hamilton’s life seems driven by Raga. It’s all about his desire for recognition, intellectual prowess, fame, position, and even his flirtatious and sexual distractions. He’s never satisfied – and more on that shortly.
Burr likewise is obsessed with what he wants (expressed later in the musical in the song, “The Room Where It Happens”) – attention, recognition, power – but his path is one of trying to avoid upsetting anyone or taking any risks. Dvesha runs his life, and he even believes it’s a virtue by convincing himself he’s just patiently waiting for it. But patience is only a virtue when we are able to practice non-attachment to outcome. True patience is trusting in the Divine, knowing that the result is in our highest good, no matter what unfolds. For Burr, in his own way, he’s never satisfied, either, no matter how long he “Waits for It.”
Contentment? Not Here!
One of the most emotional moments of the musical, that hit home in so many ways, was when Angelica, who becomes Hamilton’s sister in law, sings “Satisfied.” She, too, has Hamilton’s disposition – knowing she’s smarter than most others, and ambitious, too, she wishes for his sister, Eliza, and Hamilton’s satisfaction in their marriage, although she knows both Hamilton and herself will likely never be satisfied.
My favorite spiritual principle from yoga philosophy, which I return to again and again, is contentment – Santosha – and I can see how that lack of contentment wrecks havoc in the lives of Hamilton, Burr, and Angelica. It’s been a painful one for me, too, as my pattern from early childhood was to always be seeking more and trying to be more. Although, in a small way, it has brought me success, many years ago I recognized that this discontent as my driver (and the inner self-doubt that was it’s constant companion) caused me a lot of misery and couldn’t carry me to true satisfaction. Only through Santosha could I find peace and fulfillment in the present moment.
I can’t help crying when I hear Angelica singing this song. How many of us have suffered from the inability to feel Santosha – to allow ourselves to feel content with what is, rather than always longing for something else, something more.
George Washington’s Integrity
I know GW was a slave holder and not a perfect man, but here in the musical (and honoring his great contributions to creating our nation), I felt he was a holder of integrity, clarity, and vision. You could feel the power of his leadership. It never appeared self-serving nor dissatisfied, but clearly focused on the goal. He had a vision and sense of intent in his actions that was powerful, and if the historical figure indeed was similar, I can see how he was the perfect leader to carry these young colonies through the Revolutionary War.
Later in the musical and in time, Washington steps down from the Presidency as he refused to run for a third term. He knew when he had done enough, and was a peace with it – an expression, for me, of Santosha. Content with having done his best, he was able to let it go, trusting in the new process of the government he helped to create, and setting the example for a change in power.
I probably cried the most with the song, “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Such an intense and moving connecting between Washington and Hamilton in that moment, and it is carried forth as a theme through the rest of the musical. The importance of that phrase stuck with me, right now in our history of the world, and in our personal lives. I’ll get to more of that near the end of this post.
The World Turned Upside Down
The song about the final battle, the Battle of Yorktown, has the refrain “The World Turned Upside Down”. This one was really moving for me, too – such an amazing theatrical portrayal of the battle and the transformation our country and the world underwent through defeating the British and winning our freedom.
I couldn’t help but reflect on the state of our own world right now. For most of us, it really does feel like our world has turned upside down. Whether you’re looking at climate change, Black Lives Matter, our political system, or COVID-19, we’ve been met with surprise and shock and stun all year long, and it doesn’t look like it will let up. In every case, it’s really up to us to right the ship, on a new course. We can’t go back. For me, the song is a reminder that we’re in a challenging time and it’s up to us, just like it was up to the young Americans, to do something about it.
It also happens to be my favorite song in the musical. 🙂 Um, maybe?
[just have to mention a couple asides: though I don’t have any spiritual thoughts about it, the songs that King George sings are stellar and hysterical! And my favorite actor is Daveed Diggs, whose portrayals of Lafayette and Jefferson were the most fun and memorable for me.]
Loss and Pain
As if I didn’t cry enough through the first act, I was sobbing through most of the second act. So many losses – the death of his son through a duel, the death of his friend John Laurens (maybe in the 1st act?), the loss of the love of his wife after he cheated on her. The downward spiral that Hamilton seemed stuck in was painful to watch, right down to his own demise from a duel (another egoic trap – weren’t all duels?).
I find it hard to imagine that it wouldn’t touch on everyone’s losses in their life; the loved ones that have died, the hurt done to us, and the things we’ve done that have hurt others.
Hamilton made an extraordinary impact on the birth of our nation – but he also hurt a lot of people, too. The power of one person to build up or destroy. He’s a mixed bag. Most of us are, and fortunately not as extreme as he is. His wife forgave him, and carried on service to the country for 50 years after his death.
It’s humbling to consider how she turned her pain and loss into caring for the greater good, by standing up against slavery, raising funds for building the Washington Monument, and founding an orphanage in New York, which is still there to this day. And, of course, compiling his writings and telling Hamilton’s story for generations to come to learn from. We, too, can transform our pain and losses – even our mistakes – into growth and lessons for how to better care for others, our planet, and even ourselves. We don’t have to stay stuck in the sorrow.
Burr’s political career slowed after he killed Hamilton in a duel. I don’t know what happened to the actual Burr, but in the musical he realizes that the “World Was Wide Enough” for both Hamilton and Burr. This is a spiritual realization of sorts.
The truth is that there’s enough room for all of us to make a difference and fulfill our purpose. Each of us has something to contribute. It’s easy for us to get jealous or competitive with people who follow a similar path or career. But there really is room for us all, and not just room, but we’re all needed. Each of us has a role to play – Burr did, too.
It doesn’t matter if we’re the one getting all the attention or not – only the choices that we make in our lives and what we choose to contribute matter. What other people think or say is not just unimportant – it’s not in our control. But we can decide to write our own story.
History is Written by You
I mentioned earlier that the theme from the song “History Has Its Eyes on You” is woven through the second half of the musical. These young revolutionaries knew they would alter the course of history, and so they should be mindful of the choices they make.
We’re at a pivotal time in our world history right now, too. Each of us is contributing to what will be told a hundred years from now. It wasn’t just the founding fathers, but the collective actions of the American colonists – women and men – that changed our trajectory. We have those choices now, with the leadership of our nation, creating true equality, overcoming corona virus, and healing our planet.
We can learn from the stories we hear of Alexander Hamiltion and Aaron Burr. One was passionate, spoke out for the truth, but was never satisfied and hurt many. The other was patient and kept his thoughts to himself, didn’t offend, and didn’t take risks, but may not have lived up to his potential and likewise wasn’t content with his life.
Can we find the middle ground? We can discover how to speak our truth and be empowered from our own heart, rather than through putting down others. We can learn to wait patiently, trust in the Divine, and let go of our attachment to outcome. We can take action on what truly matters to us without expecting perfection, and let it be good enough. Like George Washington, we can do our best and then let it go when it’s time to step back.
You Tell Your Story
The musical ends with one of the most moving pieces, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” These are the things that we don’t have control over. At a certain point, we must surrender control to something greater than us, and simply do our best in each present moment.
I doubt anyone will be telling my story in a hundred years, and what does that matter? What’s important is our own stories we write of our lives. Every day, we’re telling our own story. Is it one that you enjoy, that you feel proud of? That’s meaningful to you? That has touched your heart and soul, and that of at least one other in this world? Your story matters, because it is yours. It’s your life, and you get to create your story.
You can change your own history, right now. We can’t control who tells our story, if anyone, after we die. But right in this moment, we can live our story. If you don’t like the story so far, you can start a new chapter right now. You are the author, and you can be who you came here to be. No one else can write it for you – you’re the only one who has the power to do so.
Take inspiration from Eliza Hamiltion, who committed to living her principles and making a difference, in spite of all the pain she suffered. Imagine if each of us did that. Our collective story can be one of healing, unity, and peace. And that’s a story that will be heard in a hundred years. Our History Has Its Eyes on You and Me.
Thanks for reading my insights from Hamilton. What impacted you from watching Hamilton? What spiritual themes did you see? I’d love to hear from you.
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