Fork in the Road of Spiritual Life

At the Heart of Paradox

Live at the empty heart of paradox.
I’ll dance with you there, cheek to cheek.
— Rumi

Anyone who takes his or her spiritual life seriously will, from time to time, dance at the heart of paradox. Along the path—any path—we inevitably run into forks in the road, marked by what appear to be contradictions and ambiguities. We hear an inspiring teacher or read a passage that radiates wisdom…only to read or hear something that seems to say the opposite–maybe even from the same source. Our points of certainty and uncertainty shift. Yesterday’s soul-shifting revelation is today’s enigma and tomorrow’s rubbish. And today’s rubbish turns miraculously into tomorrow’s revelation.

Sometimes it seems that every guiding principle we come across can be modified by “Yes, but…,” “Except when…,” or “On the other hand…” As detectives trying to solve the mysteries of the soul, these uncertain conditions can make us feel more like Inspector Clouseau than Columbo.

In my research for Roadsigns, I identified four major paradoxes that spiritual seekers tend to encounter, regardless of their faith, background or individual path:

  1. You’re on your own / You can’t do it alone. We all need help, from teachers, guides, traditions and companions. At the same time, we’re ultimately our own mapmakers and pilots; when it comes to decisions about our spiritual lives, the buck stops with each of us.
  2. Lose yourself / Improve yourself. They say it in different ways, but every teaching urges us to enlarge our identity beyond our body-encased personas: be humble, bury your ego, surrender your will, transcend your little self. At the same time, we’re urged to work on our emotions, our behavior and our bodies, to become the best little selves we can be.
  3. Escape the world / Embrace the world. We are told that the key to heaven, realization, nirvana, etc., is to rise above—or even renounce completely—our worldly desires and attachments. But there’s no escaping what we call “real life,” and even hermits have to eat, drink, find shelter and deal with the pesky monk next door. How can we be in the world but not of it?
  4. You’re already there / There’s a long way to go. We hear that we should stop striving for spiritual goals, because what we’re looking for is already here and what we want to become we already are. Then we’re told—sometimes by the same voices—to work for spiritual attainment with dedication and persistence. Strive to not strive?

Within each of these categories are the specific choices we grapple with as we reach for spiritual fulfillment, many of which contain paradoxes of their own. For instance, the apparent contradiction between teachings that say that desires are a streetcar to suffering and those that show us how to pray, chant or meditate to get the things we want.

Such ambiguities and uncertainties make the path a grand adventure: sometimes sublime, sometimes ridiculous; sometimes easy, sometimes arduous; sometimes smooth, sometimes bumpy; sometimes clear, sometimes murky. Regardless, every intersection offers an opportunity for accelerated growth, if we make the right choices.

When I’m asked how to navigate on this uncertain terrain, the word that comes to mind is balance. The spiritual path has been called a razor’s edge and a narrow ridge. When moving along such a slim line, what could be more important than a good sense of balance?

The importance of balance applies to how we approach spirituality as a whole. If you go to one extreme, you can be lazy or complacent. Swing the other way and you can become a religious fanatic or a spiritual zealot. Neither extreme fosters spiritual wellness. We each have to find our balance point, taking our spiritual lives seriously but also lightly.

Another important balancing act is between the need for autonomy and the need for guidance. To learn from others we need to be open and trusting, but if we’re too open and trusting we can become gullible, or easily bamboozled by bogus or exploitative teachings. At the same time, we need to be discerning without becoming distrustful or cynical. The balance point is different for each of us, and for each of us it might be different at different times.

How do we find our individual balance points as we attempt to do justice to both our worldly aspirations and our spiritual needs? Another balancing act. We need to use our heads–and also follow our hearts. We need to think clearly and reason rigorously—and sometimes stop thinking and listen for the still, clean voice of intuition. How much head and how much heart? How much intellect and how much gut? Again, the balance shifts according to our personalities and circumstances.

And sometimes we need to balance out our need for answers by suspending the quest for certainty completely. Some things simply can’t be known or predicted. If we can accept that and bow before the Mystery, surrender to it, embrace it and marvel at it, we can achieve what the poet John Keats called negative capability—”being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.” This pries us loose from entrenched ideas and assumptions, making room for the epiphanies and unexpected pathways.

It also opens the door to awe and wonder. Like children at a magic show, we are witnesses to cosmic hocus-pocus whose secrets we are not privy to. If we stop trying to figure out how the magician put the rabbit back in the hat, we can find delight in the unexpected. And, if we’re lucky, we might, in our innocent awareness, see that all those maddening paradoxes are not contradictions at all, but necessary parts of a perfect whole–and so are we.

Perhaps Yogi Berra was dancing with Rumi when he said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021