What is the true spiritual path?
We have a marvelous ability to sum up bodies of knowledge in easy-to-use packets, and we use the word “is” to express this: “____ is ____.” When you move to a new city, the first time you need to visit the post office you have to spend time looking up its location. Once you’ve done that you can fill in the blanks: the post office is on Vine Street. Now you can use this handy little bit of knowledge to save time the next time you want to mail a package – you won’t have to repeat the search. And, you can give it to someone else so they won’t have to look it up for themselves.
What about when the post office moves? You’ll have problems when you try to use your out–of–date information. Maybe you told your friend the post office was on Vine Street, and they were planning on stopping there while rushing to an important meeting. When they arrive, they find a “Closed – moved” sign on the building and are now in a jam because, after they make the extra trip to the new location, they will be late for their appointment.
Or, what if the post office address is actually on Fourth Street, but the customer entrance is around the corner on Vine Street? Now we find ourselves in a peculiar place – our definition is quite usable even though it is literally incorrect.
Let’s create a new mindfulness technique: replace the word “is” with the phrase “can be treated as if it were”.
I started doing this for unintuitive-sounding statements from quantum physics, such as the finding from Young’s double-slit experiment with light that a photon can be in two places at once. Using ordinary thinking, this is impossible – if it’s in two places at once, it has to be two separate things, right? But the problem goes away when you use the new magic phrase. “The photon is in two places at once” becomes “the photon can be treated as if it were in two places at once”. Since we’re no longer worried about what photons “are”, only how they can be measured, we’re free to move ahead and use these two–places–at–once photons.
How does this magic phrase work? When we say “____ is ____”, we’re no longer aware of the current reality of the thing and are only seeing a mental image. Very useful since we don’t have to think about it whenever we use it. But now that image becomes a kind of blind spot, so, depending on how emotionally invested we are in our definition, when faced with evidence that it’s not completely correct we can have reactions like denial, anger or disillusionment. However, if we let go of the word “is” and say “can be treated as if it were”, we can still use our image without getting stuck in it. The post office is literally on Fourth Street, but can be treated as if it were on Vine Street. Sometimes light can be treated as if it were made of particles, sometimes it can be treated as if it were a wave.
We can also use this new phrase to escape the trap of ideology. If we’re no longer troubled by what things “are” and instead focus on how they can be used, we’re free to dance with our world.
Now we can benefit from deeper concepts and ideas that we may have simply dismissed earlier, such as religious doctrines. For example, the statement “Such-and-such is the only True Path” becomes “Such-and-such can be treated as if it were the only True Path”. Statements like this are common in spiritual traditions, and while on the surface they seem to be absolute claims to unique legitimacy, our new phrase frees us to look deeper and be inspired to use them as calls to complete involvement. As my root Zen teacher Taizan Maezumi Roshi once said, “If you put 10% effort into the Way you’ll get 10% results; if you put in 50% you’ll get back 50%; but if you put in 100%, you’ll get back 1000%.” The point is to be wholeheartedly pursuing the path while you are on it, not arguing whether or not it is the only way.
When meditating, use meditation as if it were the only spiritual path in existence. And the next day, when attending Mass, be present for it as if there were no other way. Here we find one of the keys to the wisdom of mindfulness – we can extend this full involvement to everything we do. Be 100% involved with driving, doing the dishes, or entering data in the computer, and you will get back 1000%.
Use each path as if it were the only True Path and you won’t have to worry which is the real True Path. When doing any of them, at that moment it is the real True Path.