The Path Through Pathlessness

“Neurotics are people who refuse to suffer,” said Carl Jung, referring to people who will engage in all manner of mental analysis, obsession, and delusion rather than actually experience painful feelings like grief, disappointment, and loss.  Most of us are trained to think more than we are trained to feel or sense, and life serves up all kinds of opportunties to think neurotically–trying to think their way past the experience of being lost, not knowing which way to turn, suddenly losing interest or momentum.  I’ve experienced this as a writer, getting stuck working and reworking a few paragraphs rather than forging ahead into the unknown.  I’ve experienced it in the much larger project of seeking the best way to spend a life.  What should I do next?  What should I do so can I connect with reality in the most complete and vibrant way?

I’m thinking of these things because my daughter is home and debating about what to do after her senior year of college.  But this state of facing the unknown–and trying to paper over the feeling that brings with all kinds of fretful thinking–is pervasive.  When are concentrating on work, when the writing or studies are flowing along, say, or when we are meditating or practicing yoga or running or otherwise concentrating, we may feel as if we have left our cramped ordinary lives for a much larger world.  But what happens when we leave that special state?   As much as I thought I would never say such a precious-sounding thing,  I’m beginning to realize that what we call a spiritual path or practice–and what we call life–really is a journey.  A journey includes the call to adventure, the call to go find a better, larger world, and sometimes a refusal of the call to enter a new world.   And after the initial marvel of it, it includes the need to scope out the territory, to find allies and guides, and also enemies.

Sometimes (often) neurotic (habitual) thinking is the enemy. Thinking cannot bear the suffering of being lost and finding a way.  I once read somewhere the word “lost” came from a Norse word that means to disband an army (readers are welcome to confirm or deny).   After we enter the special world, whether it’s morning meditation or a university, there comes a time when we must wander defenseless, not sure what comes next.  The body might be willing to be here now like good old loyal dog but the head can be very unwilling or incapable of focusing on what on the present moment.  It wants to skip ahead and think about the future, or think about what might have happened if only this happened and that didn’t happen.  It might think everything would be better if there were scrambled eggs instead of granola or be restless and worried, or angry, or full of doubts.  In other words, here we are seeking out a better, larger life and the head still wants to behave in the habitual neurotic way, running the show, filling every space.  This has to be accepted.

The body seeks to protect us from being defenseless against a river of suffering that doesn’t seem to stop with me.  It seems to stretch back in time, that was inherited with this body from our ancestors.  It can be very frightening to think of facing and potentially expressing this much suffering (even for people whose ancestors were not savage Vikings).   Thich Nhat Hahn has said that suffering and ignorance live in every cell of our body.  It can be very frightening to feel that there is so much potential to hurt in us–even if you don’t worry that if you let it out you could go, well, Viking.

From a Buddhist perspective, all kinds of understandings and truths live coiled in us like icons waiting to be triggered or (to Thich Nhat Hahn) seeds waiting to be watered.  When someone or something triggers an icon or seed of hurt or anger, a seed of anger or hurt will manifest in consciousness as the mental formation of anger.  A formation is anything that is created by many conditions coming together.  It can be a physical formation, a sensory formation, mental formation.  As conditions arise that trigger these formations, the world we experience is created.  There are moments when we sense this, especially moments when we are in between things, moments when we feel lost.  This state can be extremely disillusioning.  It can be like scenes in the movie The Matrix where Neo wakes up to the way reality is artifically generated.

How can we relate to such a state? What ally or guidance can help me–beyond the pale and repetitive mirage of thought?    According to the Buddhists, the first steps on the path towards waking up are understanding and intention–we have to own the nature of reality and we have to resolve to be free in the midst of it.   How on earth can we do that?

“But just as suffering is present in every cell of our body, so are the seeds of awakened understanding and happiness handed down to us from our ancestors,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh.  “We just have to use them.  We have a lamp inside us, the lamp of mindfulness, which we can light anytime.  The oil of that lamp is our breathing, our steps, and our peaceful smile…”

I don’t have such a peaceful smile, but I take his point.  We can try, even for a minute a day, to glimpse what is really happening.  While we are walking or eating or doing or not doing anything that puts us in that “in between” place, we can embrace what is arising–including neurotic thinking and the hurt or anger or fear that is under it–intending to investigate its true nature.  What can carry us forward is the intention and understanding that there is bound to be more–that there must be more tobe discovered about reality than what is contained in our usual thoughts.

How can we be sure of this?  According to discourses found in both the Theravada and Chinese Buddhist canon,  the Noble Eightfold Path was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha  during his quest for enlightenment. The scriptures describe an ancient path which has been followed and practiced by all the previous Buddhas. The Noble Eightfold Path is a practice said to lead its practitioner toward self-awakening and liberation. The path was taught by the Buddha to his disciples so that they, too, could follow it.  But isn’t it amazing to consider that he discovered it in this very body, in this very life?  I mean, the seeds of enlightenment are in each of us.  The way isn’t up and out of this mess that our life can sometimes seem, but down, down, down under the thoughts and into the heart of it.


5 thoughts on “The Path Through Pathlessness

  1. Hello Tracy! I have been following your blog for a while but believe this to be my first comment. As a fairly recent college graduate not unlike your daughter, the issues that you raise are near and dear to my heart. I particularly appreciate your discussion of how our culture emphasizes superficial happiness, contentment, and certainty, mandating that mature individuals should be able to somehow leapfrog over difficult emotions and periods of deep uncertainty, for example. Meanwhile, those unwilling or unable to suppress these internal contradictions are labeled uniquely neurotic.

  2. Hello Kaitlin! I just read your blog and I admire your search. I think it is true that our whole culture is aimed at leapfrogging over difficult emotions and contradictions–including by intellectual analysis, as you write about in your blog. There is a push to define things and, worse, people; yet in our hearts we know there is something undefinable about us, contradictions that cannot and should not be solved. In one sense, I can be described by race, gender, etc.and in another way I cannot be defined–there is something very real about me that slips through the net of analysis, that could have lived at any time, in any body. I think it can be revolutionary in a very deep and personal sense to be with uncertainty, to deeply allow ourselves to not know who we are or what comes next.

    So thanks!

  3. Appreciate your personal experience and thoughts on this subject. This is essential understanding for spiritual growth. It’s again the three poisons. Desire, Aversion and Ignorance. May confusion itself dawn as primordial wisdom. Rest in don’t know.

  4. Beyond all our thoughts there is something more, and I think that it is grounded in relationships, all sorts of relationships. We don’t always take time to think about those relationships and they are more than the ones we have with our family and friends.

    We can certainly begin with a thought, but don’t all our thoughts drive the quality of our relationships, and how we experience the world? How we live in the world? Our relationship with nature is one place to begin or with something else you dearly love, certainly people. We are all interconnected, perhaps even more so now, as we read each others words.

    Words do have a life of their own, they shape our lives, they interconnect us in wonderful ways. Isn’t this why writers love writing and why we use words to express ourselves, why we love poetry, good plays, and good writing in which we form a connection with one another.

    I’m sure that I have more than 300 books in my library here at home and at some level there is a relationship with every single word in every single book, or even in the words I am typing now, hopefully making a connection with all of you.

    In Buddhism, this concept of our interconnectedness with life, all life, reality itself, out of which our lives arise, is called Dependent Origination or Dependent Arising, pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit. Dependent Arising is a tough concept to wrap any mind around, unless you know and have the right vocabulary, unless you have devoted time and energy to understanding Buddhism and its beautifully symbolic and complex language, its words.

    For now, let’s simply say that it is a reality of mutual interdependence and one that tells us, we are intimately interconnected to everything else in life, with one another. Tracy mentions the Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. He calls this concept interbeing, in his book, The Heart of Understanding, where he teaches that “To be” is to inter-be, and that “we cannot be alone, exist alone without anything else.”

    In Christianity there is a similar concept, it is found in a marvelous Greek word used by the early church fathers and mothers, to describe the mystery of the Trinity. It is the word, Perichoresis (peri-kor-es-is). Perichoresis is an ancient term in Christian theology, which refers to the indwelling of the Trinity, of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are so intimately connected within their unity as one that there is an indwelling between them all. And that this indwelling is shared with us, in and through Christ, in the Paschal Mystery of Christ as the Incarnate Word, the Word Made Flesh.

    How appropriate is this? I can’t imagine living without words, can you?

    Let me go back to the wordless beginning of things, ultimate reality perhaps, to the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā–Nirvana, emptiness. I’m struggling for a good image or a metaphor to use in this dialogue, and it’s hard for me to find one. This is why I love to write poetry, because poetry for me is a transformational and transcending language.

    Perhaps it would help, as a Zen Master might, to have you visualize the emptiness of an empty cup, the space that is empty, the space that can be filled at any time, by anyone, by you, by God. This space, this emptiness, can be seen as the pure and infinite potential of all eternity, out of which all reality arises in a universe of infinite possibilities, or even of a given intimate moment within eternity, now in this present moment, in these words, and in the spaces between each word. You may also visualize it as an empty cup, a cup that is ready to receive new wine or hot Jasmine tea.

    What I’m trying to say, with all these words, is that sometimes we simply need to let go of all the words, all our images, all our thoughts, to even become lost. Becoming lost is a good thing, a needful thing. Because in doing so, we can develop a whole new language, like an artist does when they are creating, be it a new symphony, a beautiful painting, a poem, a play, or a photograph that takes your breath away and leaves you speechless. I love that feeling of speechlessness, of emptiness, of being empty and ready to receive the next new thing. The secret I think, is in understanding that each moment is the next new thing, it is both empty and full of infinite potential, a newness that is born out of every moment. I ended a poem once with these words.

    “we are the poet and the poem out of which each moment arises”

    I know this is a truth, one born out of my own thoughts and life if nothing else. I love this dialog, and the many gifts that it brings to discover such moments, to discover the newness of a moment.

    Thank you Tracy, for all your thoughtful and creative words. Words that arise from a single point of emptiness and words that help us to shape life we live into a new language. Words that help us to breathe together as one body, with one breath, in one spirit even. There is something very sacramental and spirit driven, inspired, by such a dialog. It is an indwelling where we do dwell within one another, Perichoresis.


  5. Thank you for this inspired offering, Ron. It is very beautiful and useful. Perichoresis, what an extraordinary concept, a sacramental process or exchange that is taking place constantly–inwardly and outwardly. As I read this post, I thought of the phrase “In the beginning there was the Word.” Into the cup of emptiness comes what we are prepared to receive.

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