Putting aside the path

The Buddha referred to his spiritual practice as a ‘maggo,’ which means both a way (as in method) and path (hence “ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo” is often translated as the Noble Eightfold Path). That people prefer to use the word path is understandable, as spiritual endeavor is often presented as that which takes us from one place or condition—a state of suffering born of the mind’s default wiring towards fear, greed, agitation, suspicion, etc—to a journey's end where greater peace is available; the tools provided by mindfulness, virtue and insight can be viewed as goal oriented, as they cultivate a state of mind where unnecessary suffering as ceased, while ingrained greed, hatred and delusion are disempowered to a point where they hold no sway over our intentional actions.

The Buddha even used a analogy of the dharma being like a raft that allows us to follow the spiritual path when it reaches treacherous shores and large expanses of water; the dharma is a vessel that provides us safe passage, only to be put down when we reach that far shore of ‘non-agitation.’ The message seems to be that there’s something wrong with where we are; we need to get to somewhere else.

Alas, thinking in terms of a path with progress and ultimate goal can, in fact, undermine its deepest values. If we believe that the present moment is somehow less valid than where we’re heading, or that we’re presently devoid of the qualities and states we desire for happiness and security, we unwittingly create an obstruction to opening to what is available to us here and now. The material world outside spiritual practice approves of overtly goal-oriented self-help schemas, as they inscribe us, the subject, as lacking something vital. This is the underlying engine of capitalism; there is something wrong with you that must be fixed, either by purchasing something, or becoming someone different, or getting someone else’s stamp of approval. It’s the mindset of accumulation and acquisition.

But ‘Maggo’ also means 'way' or 'method' and supports a present-oriented concept of aimlessness and openness to whatever arises, a practice that is free of constantly reviewing one’s efforts in terms of a distant terminus. In other words, we can put aside the need to know where we stand in relation to anything else, any target, and open entirely to present conditions as they express themselves to awareness, working with ‘just this.’ Letting go of that distant shore—where everything will be easy and we can no doubt relax as bright shiny people, free of all fetters and agitation—is an important practice. It allows that which is really happening now to present itself without the filters of expectation or disappointment. (Such as, “Oh no, I’m still struggling with fear or resentment.”) Work with what's present.

Of course, setting aside the idea that we are heading somewhere can create a sense of pointlessness and frivolousness to one’s practice: Thoughts of ‘The world outside is fucked! my life needs to be repaired! I’m damaged! What good is this?’ might arise. WIthout an aim we can wonder why we bother. And fighting these questions only gives them more emphasis. Rather we can even open to what lingers behind them: the fear that we’re ‘unlovable and won’t be okay unless we constantly improve ourselves in the eyes of others.’ Seeing what lies beneath our spiritual agendas, being able to soften these felt states of unease, allows us to fully relax into what’s ‘just now’ and immediate, which is truly the ultimate goal of the dharma in a nutshell.