“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck,” wrote Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The Eightfold Path always struck me as a bewildering exercise in circular logic—beginning where it ended, if on a different level, with a certain understanding and intention. All on your own, you were to glimpse the true nature of life, enough to motivate you to wish to perceive and live in a different way. But if a person could accomplish this kind of seeing and feeling following their own lights, I reasoned, why would they need to follow a path? Why would they need to practice the moral precepts, right speech, right livelihood, and all the rest? Wouldn’t they already innately understand the why and the how of that as well?
Go away on a silent meditation retreat or go camping in the wilderness or (for the artists and writers among us) attempt to express something true–anything that temporarily shuts down the ambient noise and light of everyday ordinary life. You will begin to understand. When you wake up under the stars or bend over your work table, you can sometimes remember perceptions and feelings that are usually buried under the known: that we are not meant separate from life, meant to be part of a greater whole. We can remember a special kind of feeling that is usually covered because it is more still than emotion–a willingness to open and receive life just as it is. I remember lying in bed in the dark on a silent retreat, waking up to a sound of a bell. I realized suddenly and simply that the sound was not separate from the silence, that each drew out the other, made each other known.
We wake each other. A friend who was a bell ringer on a silent retreat told me that he felt he wasn’t just waking others but himself and also the bell. We sound the depths in each other. We give the search for awakening the living material of our own lives. We bring the search to life. And when we embark on the quest (which can be just for a moment, for the space of a question) we join other beings, not just from contemporary times but from ancient times who sought a way to wake up. The path really is a circle.
I have never gone away on retreat or sat down to struggle with a piece of writing, expecting to feel as if I were with others. I usually go with the resolve to be lonely and self-sufficient, often thinking of that great American yogi, Henry David Thoreau, who lived alone for several years in a tiny cabin at the edge of Walden Pond: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. “
And yet, when we seek to know and live and express the truth, we are accompanied. The Buddhist scriptures describe the Buddha glimpsing “an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times.” He didn’t invent the Noble Eightfold Path. In his passionate quest for enlightenment, he rediscovered it. I picture the path rising up to meet him. May we all rediscover the way to truth. May we all wake up together.
I’m writing this near the ocean, an influence that inspires me to realize there is something we human beings have always shared. But what do you think? What does it mean to follow a path or a way?