The Pathless Path
Dr. Stephen Fulder
Most of you reading this would acknowledge that you wish your life to be going somewhere. You are not particularly happy when nothing moves, and are driven by the quest for truth, for a better life, for a spiritual realization, for liberation or for happiness. And most of us, when asked, would describe this life as something of a journey; we intuitively feel we are on a journey, even if we spend most of our time sitting on the side of the road. But have we examined what this idea really means? Do we know where we are going? Are we going somewhere? Do we know when we lose our way and when we find it again? Are we given a path or do we make it with our own feet? And if it is easier to tread the path made by other’s feet, what is the price we pay by going down that road? Indeed does a path exist in life?
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 for the pleasures of arrival 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 hear or read and be inspired by a teacher or a teaching 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-travellers will wish you ‘good luck’, ‘success’. The teachings themselves will be presented as a stepladder, for example stages of meditative experiences and states of consciousness. Very often the spiritual journey is marketed as a stepwise journey: ‘ The xxxxxx training stage 1’. Sometimes the carrot that leads you on is closeness to the guru, moving up the hierarchy, sometimes it is promise of higher levels of realizations.
Spiritual striving may be quite helpful in the beginning, getting us going from our natural tendency to sit in front of the TV and let life pass us by. But it bears a considerable cost and if we continue with it, it may hinder us on the path. It may close us in beliefs about the path, the guru, the next stages, etc., which prevent us from realizing truth within us. It may bring us to doubt and crisis or even psycho/spiritual collapse (spiritual emergency). So we must ease up, especially as we progress. 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.
If we look closer at the issue of path, we find an inherent contradiction, 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, beyond 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 how can we travel without a path? 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. To illustrate this, the Buddha describes a situation. A man is standing on one shore of a turbulent river and wants to get across to safety and calm on the other shore. And there is no boat. So what does he do? He builds a raft and on his own he crosses to the other shore. Then, the Buddha asks, would it be sensible for the man, thinking that the raft was very useful, to hoist it on his head and continue the journey carrying the raft? No. One needs to abandon it when reaching the other shore. So with all spiritual teachings, stepladders, paths, hierarchies, and so on.
In other words, we bring to our journey a directed mind, and our practice, whether meditation, body work, yoga, tai ch’i, breathing, music dance or whatever, is to direct it to a place where no direction is needed any more. To some extent this happens naturally, by itself. Because even in a most controlled step by step teaching, our experience will certainly be mixed. We may be in the midst of hard work getting somewhere, such as trying to concentrate on the breath, when suddenly the breath itself just invites us in to explore the territory hidden there. We get up from a very achievement-oriented striving 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. 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. From that place the milestones on the road are just another interesting pile of stones.
We can easily get stuck on the path. But we can also be stuck off it. . Stuck off path, might mean 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 Ramana Maharshi, 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. 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.