By Nelle Oosterom
In spiritual life we often talk about following a path. We spend a lot of time wondering which path is the right path.
When I was a young woman in the 70s and 80s, the impulse many people felt was summed up in the phrase “finding myself.” We felt lost and believed we needed to find ourselves, find out who we really were.
I had no real identifiable path in those early days, other than the strong impulse to literally travel the world, which I did, as well as to be true to myself, which I didn’t do so well. I didn’t know much (although I thought I did) but I did know that I was suffering and that I wanted to be happy. In trying to be happy, I often made myself more unhappy and dug myself more deeply into my personal hole of misery.
Like most people, I believed the answer was “out there” somewhere. Thus the various spiritual paths I tried did not stick. It was not until I practised some yoga, which nudged me out of my head and into my body, and then encountered a meditation teacher in 1995 whose instruction was to “watch thoughts as if they are clouds passing across the sky” that something clicked. I realized then that my thoughts are not my identity, not who I am.
Then someone gave me a Jack Kornfield series of cassette tapes (yes, cassette tapes!) about the Eightfold Path. I listened to them over and over, delighted to learn there was a whole path of practice devoted to opening up to awareness, cultivating goodness, and ending self-created suffering. No belief or superstition was necessary.
It was like finding a treasure map. From this point onward, I felt that I was on a path that was right for me.
Looking back now, I can see that even when I was very young, there was always something in my heart that was leading me home. My true home. This is not particular to me but common to many people. I liken it to the way the salmon who has lived almost its entire life in salt water feels the urge to swim thousands of miles across the ocean and then travels upstream in fresh water until it reaches the spawning grounds from where it came. How does the salmon know to do that?
In the same way, how do we know to find our way home?
At first, all we know is that we are suffering and that we need to find a way to happiness.
We might ask ourselves: What is my path? How do I know this is my path?
One of the writers who influenced me in the 1980s was Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. One quotation from the book stuck with me for life:
“You must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.
“This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.
“Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path…A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.”
We tend to think of enlightenment as the end of the path. I think it is the beginning of the path. I think we all contain the seeds of goodness, of awakening, as well as the seeds of delusion. And while enlightenment means different things to different people, to me right now it means the realization of two things: One is that the seeds are already present in us. We don’t have to go looking for them. And two is that our work is to root out the seeds of delusion and nourish the seeds of goodness and wisdom.
To me, this is the path with heart.
Nelle Oosterom is the Chair of Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group. She was introduced to vipassana in 1995 and is currently enrolled in the Community Dharma Leader program at Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California.