The spiritual journey is not different from any other journey. At times we are busy with the path, with finding our way or losing our way, with the pressure to get there and impatience to arrive, the longing to put our feet up, and rest. But at other times we forget the journey itself and find ourselves completely engaged in watching those delicate flowers near our feet, the bird flying effortlessly over our head, the empty feelings in our hungry stomach, or the pleasure of falling asleep under a great tree. All of these are experienced in the present moment and are ‘pathless’. In other words all journeys are a dialogue between time and timeless, path and pathless, road and landscape: between travelling and being.
When we come to spiritual travelling, especially at the beginning, we may be inspired by a teacher or by the Buddha, enchanted by the prospect of liberation in this very life, attracted by spiritual powers and fruits. This often leads to a strong achievement orientation, a striving to succeed. And one will find all the support for this attitude from teachers and tradition. Teachers will check you and offer you ‘gold stars’ and incentives to go to the next stage. Co-participants in a retreat will wish you ‘good luck’, ‘success’. The teachings themselves will be presented as a stepladder. For example in traditional Buddhist teachings the Four Foundations will be framed consecutively, starting with body as a meditation object and ending with consciousness itself as object. There will be stages of meditative experiences, such as the jhanas or yannas. I remember in one of my early retreats being desperate to be able to clearly separate the sensations between one toe and the next, as a kind of measure of achievement. Strong sense of path will be found in all traditions – more in Burmese and less in Zen. But next to the Zen teacher who tells you ‘don’t sit for any reason! Sit just to sit!’ there will be another who rewards you for managing to sit all night. And even in a most directed teaching, our experience will certainly be mixed. We get up from a very achievement oriented striving meditation or exercise, and just feel the sense of being alive, the sense of the morning, the mood of lightness, the moments of not caring where exactly we are.
Of course there is an inherent contradiction in this because path is a concept in our minds, a direction that we choose and want, a desire, and a form. Whereas what we desire to achieve - awakening and freedom - is quite beyond path, form and concept. Indeed awakening is awakening from our habits of wanting, succeeding and achieving. ‘Truth is a pathless land’ said Krishnamurti, and indeed one cannot ‘get’ truth at the end of the journey – it is truth that ‘gets’ us. But we get lost in a pathless land. So how are we to solve this apparent contradiction? The Buddha’s teaching on this is quite clear: use path as long as you need it, and abandon it when you don’t. Desire for liberation is a wholesome desire, as desires go, and can bring us to valuable insights and practice. But don’t take it too seriously – it is no more than a good strategy. We bring to practice a directed mind that needs direction, and our practice is to direct it to a place where no direction is needed any more, nor relevant. We continually trick the mind out of its needs. The path, in other words, as the Chinese say, knows more than the one walking on it.
To some extent this happens naturally, by itself. As we practice, we become more and more friendly with the wild and wonderful surprises of the present moment. The landscape tends to take us over. As we progress, our consciousness and heart themselves learn to love the freedom of the open road, of going no-where. We may be in the midst of hard work getting somewhere, such as trying to calm the mind, concentrate and turn down the volume of the commentary in the mind, yet slowly the breath itself just invites us in to explore the territory hidden there. From that place the milestones on the road are just another interesting pile of stones. And sometimes very funny. The Buddha said that we don’t have to worry too much about getting there, because it will happen by itself, as long as we keep going and don’t get stuck. In the context of path, getting stuck would mean being attached to path when it is no longer fruitful. For example, we all know what it feels like to practice something diligently, but fail confront the self who is practicing or the dependence that is building on the practice or the natural freedom that the practice itself obscures.
Getting stuck can be stuck on path, obviously. But it can also be stuck off the path. Stuck off path, might mean of course that we are simply lost. We are not sure where to go, what to do next, how to practice, how to choose the next step for us, what we need to learn and what not, and who to listen to. Very often the answer in this case is to relax into the no-path feeling, lose ourselves in being lost, and discover the insecurity that lies behind all of that. Another place of being stuck off path could be if we have too much attachment to a non-dual open, pathless world of practice before we are ready. We hold the: “nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to be practiced” as a belief not an experience. In fact all the great non-dual teachers, whether Nisargadatta Maharaj, Krishnamurti, or the Buddha, all said that while there may not be a path, one needs to be very dedicated to awakening.
From the earliest age we both want to get somewhere, and we are in the pathless world of the flow of experience. As children we have an inner drive to learn, develop and discover the world, which is unstoppable. Ancient tendencies drive us forward to grow and know and become somebody. On top of that is education. Yet at the same time children just play, freely explore pathless territory and are somewhere on the boundary of the known and unknown. Let us be like children in our spiritual journey, making use of path trodden by many before, but playfully jumping off into the unknown at any time.