We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
The Journey without Goal
My spiritual master liked to say that our path to enlightenment is a journey without goal. Therefore you are embarking on an endless journey. It is endless because every goal you may feel you have accomplished simply opens the gateway to yet a further territory that you have not explored. So there is never a final destination.
He also said that your teacher is never going to congratulate you when you become enlightened. Because there is no finish line, there are no final congratulations.
Throughout our lives, the world sets goals and standards for us that we strive to achieve, and judges us as successes or failures based on whether or not we accomplish them.
But it is common even for successful people—once they have reached their goal—to feel that it wasn’t quite what they wanted. There is an underlying sense of dissatisfaction, a gnawing feeling that there must be more to life than their accomplishments. So the journey continues, new goals are set, which lays the ground for further success or failure, and further dissatisfaction down the road. It is simply another endless journey.
At heart, then, is the spiritual path so different from a worldly path, if it turns out there is no final goal for either?
To walk on a genuine path of awakening, you need to accept this as being true right from the beginning. You embark on the journey knowing that it has no real end, and that no goal you attain will give you permanent satisfaction. Yet at the same time you discover, more and more, that there are tremendous feelings of inspiration and humor and joy in the journey without goal that can only happen when you stop fixating tightly on an end result. And the more you experience this, the more you realize that you are not living for the destination, but for the journey itself.
Here is one way you might take the teachings and make them into a goal. My teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, described the path in this way:
“Spirituality is cutting through hope and fear, as well as being the sudden discovery of intelligence that goes along with this process.”
He also said that to be a master spiritual warrior is to live beyond hope and fear altogether. With these teachings, he seems to be asking us to see the direct connection between our hope and fear, and the importance we assign to all the goals we set for ourselves in life. He also wants us to perceive how much we feel is at stake.
When Chogyam Trungpa taught, an underlying message was always present: “If you really want to understand spirituality, lighten up a little!” Reading such a statement, you might fixate on that goal and say to yourself: “I will move completely beyond hope and fear. I will lighten up!”
And, of course, this would miss the point.
Rather than trying to proclaim the total eradication of hope and fear as a glorious finale for all your spiritual efforts, it is more useful to look at the pervasive presence of hope and fear in your life right now, and see what this might have to teach you.
Journeying as a Human Being
When you look directly and honestly at your life in this way, you inevitably witness your discomfort with your experience. There is an inherent tension in being human. This is not to say that we are walking around totally uptight all the time, but that at a very deep level, there is an inner conflict embedded in the very fact that we are alive, and we cannot escape it.
The tension is the conflict between our endless longing for happiness, and the finite condition that we find ourselves in as mortal humans. Despite an unquenchable thirst for the complete fulfillment of your desires, you must also continuously face the painful facts of life such as loss, aging, illness, and death—which remind you again and again of the limitations of being human. We could invoke the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who observed that our life in the world is nothing but an endless desire to live and an endless dissatisfaction with living.
On one hand, the tension is inescapable. On the other, the tension is noble. There is real nobility in it; there is nobility in the fact that this is what you are faced with if you are honest about life at its deepest level. Indeed, the Buddha himself referred to this tension as the First Noble Truth of life. He called it, “the truth of suffering.”
From a conventional point of view, just to say this, to acknowledge the truth of it—is threatening and even a bit shocking. It is threatening because we live in a world where this kind of honest conversation is rarely engaged. In fact, there is a sort of ongoing conspiracy of silence that prevents us from talking about this. Instead, we keep compulsively busy in our determination to ignore the whole subject. As the poet Pablo Neruda wrote:
“If we were not so singleminded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.”
It is very, very difficult for any of us to look deeply at the things that create our underlying tension without turning away.
Because you are human, you long for happiness and hope arises. With awareness of your limitations—and especially your awareness of the certainty of your death—fear arises. And as the poet Philip Larkin memorably wrote, “This is a special way of being afraid/No trick dispels…”
Because this tension is always there, you experience hope and fear, all the time. This alternation between the two is a pendulum that swings back and forth continuously in your life. There is no one in this world who does not experience this. For this reason, it’s not hope itself that is the problem. It’s not the fear itself that is the problem. Rather, the real source of your pain is the way you struggle with them. Consider your experience. You try to get rid of the fear and enshrine the hope; you try to banish the uncertainty and fortify the comfort and security. But your struggle to hold onto one and get rid of the other just makes the problem worse.
This is the shifting ground you stand on when you tell yourself you want to be “enlightened” or “liberated”—or any such lofty aspiration. The shiftiness is not the result of some deficiency in you. It is built into your existential predicament. You must begin just where you are—where all of us are—as a creature trapped in the net of hope and fear, struggling to break free.
Jean Paul Sartre lamented, “Man is a useless passion”. Having spent his life looking deeply at the tension I’ve been describing, this was Sartre’s conclusion. His compatriot, Albert Camus, added, “Life is absurd… The only serious philosophical question is suicide.” Yet neither of them took their own insights so literally that they killed themselves or even threw up their hands in despair. Instead each lived with passionate engagement in political resistance or social revolution and his generation’s cultural and intellectual life.
The Buddha looked at the same tension, but came to a different conclusion. He recommended that—in order to be a genuine human being, as shifty and full of suffering as we are—we take a different course of action. He recommended that we journey without a goal.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner