Mentioning the term ‘spiritual path’ is enough to make many people recoil. I can relate, since in my pre-meditation days, I associated any talk of spirituality with metaphysical, new-agey, flakey fools. I scoffed at anyone who was gullible enough to buy whatever it was the gurus were selling.
After I began to accept and apply the wisdom that the spiritual traditions offered, I realized the extent to which I had projected my assumptions and beliefs onto the word ‘spirituality’. I did the same with other words like truth, soul, or God, without understanding that these words, like all words, point beyond themselves. I eventually realized I could use words like ‘spirituality’ to help me describe and lead a life that felt meaningful and happy, regardless of how tainted and toxic they had become in other people’s imaginations.
I woke up from a dream the other night with the phrase, “we have to let our longing for happiness take us home” ringing in my head. When I reflected on it the next morning, I thought, if I had to summarize in one sentence what spirituality is all about, that wouldn’t be far off the mark. This would be in accord with the Buddha’s teachings that we should focus our attention on creating the causes and conditions for a happy life here and now, and that speculation on metaphysical questions often distracts and drains our energy from this endeavor.
For some people, this longing for happiness takes them very far from their physical homes. Surrounded by royalty and subject to intricate social protocol, the Buddha found that getting away was the only way he could authentically respond to his call. Others may not need to extricate themselves from their environment, only to make minor tweaks or adjustments in their lives.
Thich Naht Hahn said, “There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.” Although we would prefer if we could just arrive in such a wonderful place, happiness isn’t a fixed destination or a state to attain. We cannot find it though objects and people in the material world, as though it were a fixed abode that could be located with GPS. Rather, to live what the word ‘happiness’ points to is more about being able to work with the raw materials of life the best you can.
Think of it like surfing: if you seek to ride a wave, you have to work with it to let it carry you. If you resist or try to control too much, it will thrash you.
Some days, the ocean will provide one perfect wave after another, where merely hopping on your board will lead to ecstatic rides. Other days, the waters are choppy, and more skill and patience is required. And on other days, no amount of expertise will lead to a successful ride, and there’s nothing you can do but wait for conditions to improve.
For a surfer, learning to recognize which waves are rideable is an important and difficult skill. Each surfer must learn for his or herself, through trial and error, how to ride the waves. Nevertheless, there are technical manuals and masters who can advise you what to look out for.
Surfing shows that the power of the ocean combined with technical skill can lead to amazing results. Similarly, spiritual teachers have left behind tips to help us ride through life. Through wisdom, we can harness the energy flowing through and around us to create beauty, opportunity, and happiness for ourselves and others.
For instance, when difficult or unpleasant situations arise, it doesn’t help matters to curse the ocean (though it may provide temporary relief). There are ways in which we can make the best of ‘rough surf’, by observing emotions instead of reacting to them, practicing patience, and cultivating forgiveness.
Just as there are certain waves or ocean conditions where you should probably not attempt to surf, there are identifiable behaviors that don’t generally bring happiness. You might get temporary satisfaction from deception, distraction, or intoxication, but these types of actions usually set you up to get tossed and turned later on. Surfers must get into the wave instead of remaining on top of it, and with enough skill, when we dive into tough situations instead of avoiding them, we access powerful energies of transformation.
Learning these techniques leads to the ‘home’ within ourselves, where we’re honest and courageous enough to recognize when we’re deceiving ourselves and indulging in habits that only bring temporarily satisfaction, and see that happiness depends more on our internal disposition than on outward circumstances. It can certainly be tricky to remember this wisdom as we ride through life, and there’s no doubt that even the wisest among us will occasionally make mistakes, just as even professional surfers sometimes misread waves and fail spectacularly.
Like it or not, we’re all out on the water. These human bodies are our surfboards on the vast oceans of space and time, through which we can accomplish wonderful things. Let’s stop fighting each other about how the hell we all got out here and get on with the practical task of how best to ride these waves!