Life in the Foothills
Q. At end of all retreats everyone shares the highlights/meaning of their experience. It's always been interesting to me that 80-90% of the comments are directed to unresolved psychological issues, not existential issues. I was especially interested in the issues some of the senior practitioners were still struggling with after a decade or more of practice.
A. You're right about the psychological vs existential. It's ever thus in 'spirituality'-- the personal motivation. 'Religion' has a wider compass than 'spirituality', involving more obligations, commitment towards non-personal aims and contexts, but of course individual struggles are still at the heart of it, and it's easy to lose direction. Those who seek, or even know to seek, something beyond the personal or cultural are very few. One could say the first obligation on a path of Knowledge is to perpetuate the awareness that there is such a path; ie. to know for knowing's sake, to love for love's sake, to be for being's sake. Alternatively: 'work for the sake of the Work'!
However, one can view these psychological struggles compassionately, even as they are mistaking the goal, by an analogy with the way a seedling instinctively turns to the light, even growing horizontally under a paving stone until a small crack allows it to try to straighten up. Perhaps, as well as an attempt to get rid of suffering and achieve happiness, there is a human instinct in our essence prompting the necessity to clear away personal obstacles and neuroses which are lenses distorting the view of true seeing. (I once called this instinct the creative imperative.) The calm still mind of meditation is a prerequisite, and people sense this, and therefore meditation is entangled with personal struggles --at this stage.
The error (original sin) is not to know there is more, mistaking the goal of it all, or getting stuck in the foothills instead of striking out to ascend the mountain with its finer air and crystalline structure. I think the job of a teacher is to assist others with these struggles (repetitious for sure), but at the same time never to lose sight of the mountain or cease reminding of it. At every stage, there is always further to go. Even long-term practitioners may get inured to life in the foothills, so the mountain becomes unreachable and ever receding -- a mythical Mt Hood hidden in cloud, the peaks of Yosemite floating wraith-like in morning mist.
Ascending the mountain is undoubtedly effort of a different kind.
I think that the first step is remembering its real presence and turning in that direction. Waymarks, guides may appear as needed.
Q. I appreciated our talk about the oral transmission and the personal contact. As always, it 'turned me in that direction' again. I remembered something about how very personal, non linear and mysterious this path is. How whenever I try to land on some 'cloaking' or form, it twists and turns and shows itself to be 'the foothills , and I remember something about the possibility of a mountain!
Our chat made me remember how I love this oral tradition and how it slowly reveals itself through life, circumstances, way marks, and guides of many guises.