How can you tell if you are on the right path? There are telltale signs, but before they can be acknowledged, a determination must be made regarding your purpose for treading a path in the first place.
Most people don't tread a path through the woods. Instead, they prefer to wander about at will, doing whatever they fancy. If this works for them, then they of course don't need a path out of the woods because they are content to remain lost and drifting about. They don't even know that they are lost, until one day the woods become hostile, perhaps they are unexpectedly attacked by wild animals, or the weather becomes threatening. Then, with no foresight to know which path leads out, they might frantically try one or another that goes around in circles, never escaping.
Perhaps, however, you have tried freely wandering about and doing as you please, and have discovered that doing as you wish has brought you nothing but discontent in the long run, and that now you are never satisfied. Then, and only then, will you begin looking for a path that gets you out.
You might follow this path or that path for a long time, many miles, to find that it doesn't take you anywhere. Then, if you are a fighter, you might try again, thinking that this one over there is surely the one for you, only to again become dissatisfied, perhaps after many years, and once again find yourself embarking on yet another path.
To cure our loneliness, we might try a path of relationship, or to alleviate our lack of confidence, we might embark into a career for credentials. Or, we might take various paths of religion to cure our insecurities. There are many kinds of paths.
Sometimes, however, we run out of time. Life only lasts so long, and we never know exactly how long. In addition, our energy to tread difficult paths lasts even less, and if we wait too long, we will end up permanently lost deep in the woods with no way out, both in this lifetime and the next.
And as we tread our different paths over a lifetime, we eventually get intimations about the paths, and whether they really offer a way out of our woods or not. And we discover an interesting thing; that the paths that were most enjoyable, where we had a good time and made many new friends, eventually circled until we found ourselves back in the same old woods with the same old problems, and nothing changed except for perhaps a little entertainment that could never sustain itself. We were just in a different section of the forest, but we weren't free.
Then one day, without warning, we might stumble across the right path, by accident, the path to complete freedom. But it is a difficult path, fraught with dangers, and thorns, and it is rocky not smooth, and not enjoyable at all, and we quickly leave this difficult path because we are not happy treading it.
This path is very narrow, and not scenic, so we quickly become bored with it. We need action, adventure, interesting things to do and see. We forget that we are not free yet, and we dive back into the woods to get off the difficult path and find an easier one.
If only someone was there to tell us that the difficult path is the one that grants freedom. Then we might have more of an interest to follow it, difficult as it is. But we can't be sure, so we continue to take the paths of least resistance, and enjoy ourselves, but the enjoyment turns out to be only one side of a coin that has suffering on the other side.
After many years and many paths, we might again look for the path that will take us out of our constant angst, which seems to be increasing. And although we keep blaming our discontent on the woods, we begin to realize that perhaps the forest is not the problem at all; perhaps we, ourselves are the problem.
So this time we are a little more open to difficult paths because we are learning that while easy ones seem to go somewhere, they in fact go nowhere, and the difficult ones do go somewhere, but they are not easy, and end up not at all where we expected them to go.
They go inward, toward ourselves, and this is the most harrowing discovery of all; that we can never escape the woods if we carry ourselves along. And that even within the confines of the woods is an escape if we can only have the courage to follow the path of greatest resistance to what our minds have told us mistakenly about freedom in the past. Our minds lied to us, telling us to seek happiness, and all we found was discontent. And our minds told us to make friends and to enjoy life, but all we found was constant disappointment.
So now we decide to take the rugged path, where we don't seek happiness any longer. Now we get serious. We decide to put up with "self-imposed discontent" to solve the "free-radical discontent" that seems to come out of left field and whack us constantly.
And the path is truly rugged. The mind does everything in its power to get us off this path, because the mind knows that its control of us, and our resulting dissatisfaction, is seriously on the line. And the mind desperately wants to keep control.
This path, unlike all the paths in the past, is different; it's terribly boring, and our initial instinct is to quickly get off of it. And it doesn't agree with our presumptions of what a path should be; presumptions that are but fairytales that the mind concocts to keep us incarcerated in our illusions.
We complain about this difficult path, about the teachers of the path, and we think that the path is no good for us, that we are above this kind of path, and that we know more than this path. We really don't have time to follow its boring, uninteresting landscape, and everything in our being wants to get off this path – it is the most awful thing that we have ever done. We are losing our friends, who think that we are becoming weird and distant, and we ourselves are becoming depressed and saddened, and feel that we are possibly the most terrible person in the world, because the path is giving us a good look at what we really are, and we are simply miserable.
And these are the signs, this self-effacement, humility, and humbleness, that we have finally found our path, the one that will grant us the total freedom that is our heritage.
E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center, www.SouthwestFloridaInsightCenter.com His twenty-nine years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers. Visit www.AYearToEnlightenment.com