Walking the Pathless Path

In the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert gives up her entire way of life to spend a year traveling the world, finding spiritual enlightenment along the way. Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert’s character in the movie version out this week, apparently found enlightenment of her own through the role, revealing that she has become a practicing Hindu.As Joan Ball asks in a Guest Voices post, “Is it possible to live a life of deep, transformational faith without dropping everything and hitting the road?” In your tradition, what is the aim of the spiritual journey?

Sometimes a lesson has to be repeated for thousands of years, not because it wasn’t learned the first time but because new people arrive on the scene. The lesson I’m thinking of was Siddhartha’s, a prince on the Nepalese border of northern India. He dropped everything and hit the road, becoming the original, or at least the most famous, dharma bum. He traveled from master to master with his begging bowl, seeking enlightenment. As Gautama the monk he became impressively austere. Instead of a loving wife, a warm bed, and feasts he tried the opposite:  solitude, sleeping by the wayside, and whatever scraps of food he could beg for.

It’s still an appealing choice, because we equate austerity with virtue.  If the stress of a chaotic world is too much, perhaps harmony lies along a different, quieter, more solitary road. But the moral of Siddhartha’s tale led a different way.  Leaving home didn’t bring enlightenment, nor did austerity, poverty, starving his body, or trying to force his mind to be still. Instead, Siddhartha became someone entirely transformed — the Buddha — when he hit upon a new road, the one called “the pathless path.”

The pathless path isn’t a straight line; it doesn’t even lead from point A to point B.  The journey takes place entirely in consciousness.   A mind overshadowed by fears, hopes, memories, past traumas, and old conditioning finds a way to become free. This sounds impossible at first. How can the mind that is trapped by pain also be the tool for freeing itself?  How can a noisy mind find silence? How can peace emerge from discord?
The Buddha offered his answer, which is a variant on an even more ancient answer from the seers or rishis of Vedic India: transcend the personal mind and find universal mind. The personal mind is tied to the ego, and the ego is forever swinging from pleasure to pain and back again.  But if you look at awareness when there is no pleasure or pain, when the mind is calm while simply existing, a fascinating journey begins. You have made the first step on the pathless path.

Which is not to dismiss the other path, the one that takes you away from home into a retreat, ashram, meditation center, or holy place.  They have their own atmosphere; Seekers have stopped there for a long time; therefore, the mind can breathe a different kind of air, so to speak, an air of tranquility and peace. When you arrive at such a place, two things usually happen. You soak up the peace, enjoying the contrast with your busy life at home. But at the same time you notice how loud your mind is, how much chaos it has absorbed.  So these holy place cannot do the work for you. They can only suggest what the pathless path is about.

The inspired Indian poet Kabir points a finger at all spiritual travelers:
There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word.
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something, it is not true.

These lines don’t deny the worth of spiritual journeying, but they tell us that there is no substitute for first-hand experience. Where you go to find it is irrelevant. In reading about Buddha’s life, or Gilbert’s story we may still be tempted to believe that leaving one’s present geography and associations is the key to self-realization, when in fact the path is entirely within consciousness, and the environment is the extraneous scenery. Nevertheless, the journey is always unfolding   in our current life and surroundings right now. The true seeker after truth discovers, sooner or later, that truth has been seeking us  all along.

Published in the Washington Post On Faith