Of course, by engaging in meditation, prayer, chanting, service, or any other spiritual practice, you’re not literally walking a path. But the image of a path is useful because, as with all metaphors, it helps expand our understanding of what’s going on. It is often difficult to know what spiritual life is asking of us; speaking of it as though it’s a path helps alleviate some of that confusion.
I have been deeply touched and affected by path as metaphor. The subtitle of the Choose Your Metaphor book/blog/project is “walking the one path that goes by many names” (which was inspired by the Rig Veda’s saying “Truth is one, but the wise call it by many names”).
If you’re seeking to climb a mountain, it doesn’t matter what the path is called. The path is the path, regardless of what label we put on it. Problems would arise, however, if one became attached to a particular name and fought against others who wished to call it differently.
Just as mountain paths may appear to lead in vastly different directions, but ultimately converge at the summit, each religion is a different path that lead us to the same goal (that also goes by many names- heaven, nirvana, moksha, liberation, etc.).
Even within each religious path, there are many sub-paths. For instance, in Hinduism, there are four main paths of yoga: karma (action), bhakti (devotion), jnana (wisdom), and raja (meditation). These are all valid approaches to achieve the ultimate goal of union (yoga’s literal meaning) with God, even if the practitioners of each path engage in vastly different activities.
It’s not only Hinduism that employs the imagery of the path: it shows up in every religious tradition. It is a perfect example of an ‘outer’ phenomenon that people around the world in different cultures have observed to describe inward processes.
In Islam, for instance, the very first sura of Koran asks God to “Guide us in the straight path, the path of those whom Thou hast blessed.” Muslims repeat this sura over and over again in daily prayers; it’s one of the foundational elements of their faith.
The metaphor implies that, like on an actual path, there are many directions we can choose in life. Daily life presents us with many temptations and diversions that may lead us into trouble. Fame, material possessions, undue preoccupation with physical pleasures– these are all ‘dead ends.’
By contrast, the ‘straight path’ leads to our true goal, for which nothing will substitute: God, paradise, peace (the literal meaning of Islam), nirvana, or whatever else you want to call it. Walking this path leads us to live our life in such a way where all our thoughts, intentions, and actions are properly aligned with the divine nature latent within us.
But what does that mean exactly? How can I recognize this divine nature? How do I go about putting what it asks of me into action? This is what Choose Your Metaphor is all about!
For me, I can actually gain insight on this if I observe how I write. My creative practice is, in many ways, a microcosm of my spiritual practice.
Nearly every day, I sit down with an intention to work, but it’s only a matter of time before I find myself fidgety and distracted. After a few minutes and a few good sentences, it’s difficult to maintain the concentration and discipline needed to continue. I go to research if Judaism uses the metaphor of a path (so far no results… anyone have any ideas?) and the next thing I know I’ve stumbled off onto facebook or some other distraction. I frequently wander down these other paths, despite resolutions to stay on track.
Similarly, I try to remind myself as frequently as possible of my deepest intentions and aspirations (mealtimes are great opportunities for this- see my ted talk). And yet, temptations arise. The demons of judgment, self-indulgence, lust, anger are perpetually lying in wait, ready to exploit the slightest loss of resolve. It’s frustrating, because my temptation to follow these empty paths is not dissuaded by the fact that I’ve been down them before and have seen that they lead nowhere.
This is why Muslims pray five times a day, or why Buddhist teachers stress the importance of daily meditation practice. It’s so easy to get sidetracked that we need fixed times and structures that allow us to reconnect with what’s truly important.
But falling prey to distraction isn’t always a bad thing: sometimes it’s only by stepping off the path that you know where it is.
With both creative and spiritual aspirations, I find it remarkable how no matter how many times I’ve lost my resolve, the voice of inner wisdom always pipes up and says, “hey! you’re going the wrong way!” This is the inextinguishable spark of divinity within us, our inherent Buddha nature.
Locating, strengthening, and listening to that voice is the purpose of spiritual practice.
When we’ve taken our teachers’ advice, followed their practices, we realize what Hafiz meant when he wrote, “all your ideas of right and wrong were just a child’s training wheels to be laid aside when you finally live with veracity and love.” Living with veracity and love: that is the straight path, and we all have an inner compass that can help direct and guide us to walk it.
Of course, the potentials for getting lost in self-deception are infinite; this is why we need to keep checking in with our teachers to make sure we’re really being honest and haven’t just tricked ourselves into thinking that we’re going the right way.
Reflecting on Buddhist usages of the path, click here for read part 2 of this post.