If a ladder represents our life, the rungs of our ladder represent our breakthroughs. Have you had one lately?
Sometimes we think that we have arrived at the top rung of our ladder. Nothing else needs to be done. All we have to do is hold on and hope no sudden wind blows us off.
And sometimes we become scared of the heights and want so much to climb down! But when we look below, all our old rungs have disappeared. Oh no.
Or maybe we are young and exuberant, bored to death and can’t wait to climb to that next rung. But try as we might, we remain stuck on the same rung only thinking that we are moving. It’s funny how we can never think out or plan our rungs. If new rungs come (real ones), they come as a flash, as an insight, completely divorced from our regular intellectual pursuits.
As we look back on our particular ladder of life, whatever it is, there is usually the acknowledgement that new rungs have always been preceded by a change in heart. Without that change in heart, our new quasi rungs more than often represent only a variation on the same theme where instead of standing on that new rung, we were merely dancing around on our old one. If our new rung is nothing more than what we aspired to in our heads, then true change never results, only preconceived change. Something we imagined.
We might think that we have to give up old familiar rungs in order to climb higher, but it doesn’t work that way. That would be an agenda of giving things up in our heads to get somewhere other than where we are. This is a sign of discontentment. Only when we are satisfied with our rung, when we completely accept what we are and where we are, does that new rung appear. When our hearts are still attached to the old rungs yet we force ourselves to climb up to that that new one, we would just have to climb back down in time.
If we see ourselves striving for a new rung and then acquiring it, that is not a true new rung. That is a pretend rung, a temporary stance that will quickly seek it’s own level, which is the lower rungs.
A new rung, a true one, is experienced only when we find ourselves mystically standing on that new rung, and notice that all the rungs below have lost a little of their interest for us without our trying in any way to change that interest. We have new things to do now. We now leave our playthings behind, no different than a child leaves his or her toys in the toy box while the child finds new meanings to their fledgling experience of life. It‘s not that we dislike the old rungs or want to get rid of them, it’s just that the passion has dimished, never to return in some ways.
When we are still and quite, when our mind slows down its frenetic pace and takes a rest, then we get hints and intimations about that next rung. Or after we experience a trauma of some kind where our mind can’t comprehend what’s happening or keep up with it, some kind of life changing incident; a debilitating illness, a loss, something that shocks us off our perch. Then a new rung can magically appear.
And when we first stand on that new rung, looking back at the old one, we wonder how we could have been so confused, so unseeing, so opinionated, so proud and self-assured, so callous to all that is happening around us in this measureless universe. But, alas, after we sit on our new rung for awhile and get used to it, hints about the next rung filter softly into our consciousness whispering for us to climb a little higher. “Come on,” our new rung says, “take a chance and leave that all behind“.
Part of us, however, wants to remain where we are. Climbing is so much trouble, so dangerous, scary, and we are just getting used to our new perch. So many will climb no higher. This is the top of their ladder.
But once in a while, there are those rare ones who can easily let go of each rung as they climb it, and as they let go, the climb is not even noticeable.
The danger is that each rung has it’s own capacity to trap us on its safe resting place where we can again go to sleep, and sometimes we fall so fast asleep that we can no longer let go. We rationalize that this is it, that there is nothing more. And we believe ourselves.
But even then, there are those times when a sudden insight into yourself and what you are doing with your life moves you higher, seemingly without your involvement. To understand in a flash, to know for certain that one’s life has been going down a dead end track can be traumatizing - all the rungs below us suddenly collapse and we fall face first to the ground. It can be as if our ladder itself no longer exists, and we find ourselves lost to everything, everyone, and we suddenly become terrified.
Rather than remain with this emptiness and fear, an emptiness and fear that is the hidden gateway to the freedom of the true sacredness inside of us, most will blindly grasp the first available rung that comes along. Then, instead of saving themselves for good, which means seeing through the illusion of ourselves and the illusions of life, we again embrace the illusions of a quasi sacredness of second hand knowledge and books that cement us to our new rung, probably for the rest of our lives.
The truth escapes us once again - the truth that all things change regardless of how secure our rung seems to be. That life, if viewed realistically and objectively, is loaded with stress of all kinds. And behind all of this change and stress, nobody is there, except just a thought, a phantasm, a bubble in a stream that can burst at any moment.
When we think that things do not change for the worse and then get blindsided when they do, the ladder gets heavier. When we think that life is endless fun and pleasure, and then find ourselves in an earthly hell, our ladder gets even heavier. And finally, when we think that there is someone behind it all, our selves separate from the sacred that must take responsibility for it all, then our ladder really get heavy.
So what rung are you on? What takes up every waking moment of your consciousness? That’s your rung. Can you go on to the next? Or does that rung you stand on have your number. Has it convinced you that you now know everything?
For people who are materially inclined, their ladder is comprised of simply getting more - more money, more things, more friends. For people who are spiritually inclined, their rungs consist of authentic changes in character, shifts in consciousness.
When we are stuck on a particular rung, what keeps us from moving is the attachment we have with that rung. We become relaxed and secure to the point that any movement at all threatens our comfort zone. New rungs are risked usually only after one of those psychological ah ha moments, or when a radical change takes place in our circumstances.
Attachment is what keeps us from moving. For example, if that first rung represents the world to a spiritually inclined person, the next rung would float above the world just a little bit. This means that when we are on that second rung, we don’t turn our backs on the world, or on our friends, it’s just that we suddenly may have seen something that was previously out of sight. Maybe we saw in a flash of insight that the particular job we are doing is a little dishonest, or that we have become self centered in our interests to the point of rejecting others.
That flash of insight is our next rung. Once we really see what we are doing without the fog of attachment and habit patterns hovering over us, without the justification of doing whatever is necessary for our own pleasures and not caring about anyone not in our immediate family or group, we can never go back to the old rung in the same way.
Something has changed, something has shifted. And the old pursuits of worldly accumulations change to a pursuit of something else. Not quite so tangible, a little more difficult to explain where we suddenly see ourselves in a different light.
If we had previously thought of ourselves as primarily a business man, a teacher, a politician, now we see ourselves still much the same but the “Primarily” shifts from primarily a business man, teacher, or politician to a religious person. This is the rung that many people perch on for life, a new direction where helping others, being a good person overrides any inkling to accumulate worldly bounty for ourselves regardless of the pain it might cause others. We begin to acknowledge others. We begin to see that there is more to life than only the apparent external things.
As this change takes place inside, and as we become comfortable on our religious rung, occasionally there is another one of those ah ha moments where the next rung is secured.
This new rung is loftier than the old rung where we may have thought that our particular religion and way of life was superior to everyone else’s, a carryover from when we were totally caught up our competitive worldly existence on rung one. Now a certain confidence arises where we have the courage to follow what we feel in our hearts. Our hearts become our authority, even though we still follow the tenets and beliefs of our religion, a certain level of true freedom begins to take place as we begin to touch the sacred itself, rather than the representation of the sacred that we have had to rely upon in the past.
This new rung, however, is not quite as comfortable and cozy as the old one. We find that we cannot become quite attached to this rung as we had with our old rungs because we now see our true potential instead of a smug belief that we know.
And we find ourselves sincerely caring for others in our hearts, not just our immediate group and family, but for all of humankind that is no different from us in our daily struggles within existence. Life, which we at one time thought was a lark, now begins to reveal its realities.
So on this rung, instead of following our religious tenets and laws, we find that something quite unique is happening inside where we truly love others regardless of their circumstances, outward opinions or what they stand for. We have now reached a point of the potential of truly loving our neighbors because we see, maybe for the first time, that underneath us all is the same sacred ocean, and the different waves on top are mere ripples that come and go.
The next rung may be when we acknowledge, through a flash of insight, that our minds continue to be clogged with insensitivity and self aggrandizement, and we have a long way to go before we are truly holy. It’s not as bad as it once was, but still unsettling. This is where we might surrender to that which is greater than we are, and allay all our thoughts and volitions to just sit quietly in the presence of that which is sacred.
This is where the rungs become quite lofty, where we begin to let go of our attachments to ourselves, and our rungs. Where we no longer hold on as tightly to our ideals and opinions and instead surrender to that which is greater, trusting that the wisdom of the sacred will instill in us the insight to cut through our remaining delusions.
At this stage, on this rung, we might understand in a flash, that all our thinking and discerning has been no more effective than a mosquito trying to bite an iron ball. We have changed in our hearts, but we know that the change is not the product of anything that we have done or accomplished. In reality, it is the effect of letting go, of direct seeing, of letting the sacred ease into our being as we relaxed our ambitions into its presence.
At this rung, as we see that we can really do nothing, we may actively pursue practices that help us let go and simply bask in the presence of that which is greater. We might begin seriously practicing meditation or contemplative prayer, practices which at one time were so boring, but now instill such love and peace in our hearts that we could not imagine being without the stillness and contentment they offer us.
Standing on this rung, admitting that we do not have all the answers and seeing that the questioner is no less than sacred itself, no longer are there any questions - only the absolute. This rung now becomes the true religious quest, no longer involved with accumulation of any kind. A letting go to the extreme where emptiness of all we ever thought we were ushers in our true selves.
So this rung involves a private, solitary quest, concerning the deepest and most serious question of all - a question that all the books and sermons could never adequately address for us. This is standing at the threshold of being face to face with the sacred.
This is standing on a ladder that never existed. We were always there, we never needed a ladder, but in our confusion, never realized it.
E. Raymond Rock (anagarika addie) is a meditation teacher at:
http://www.dhammarocksprings.org/ and author of “A Year to Enlightenment:
His 30 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.
He lived at Wat Pah Nanachat under Ajahn Chah, at Wat Pah Baan Taad under Ajahn Maha Boowa, and at Wat Pah Daan Wi Weg under Ajahn Tui. He had been a postulant at Shasta Abbey, a Zen Buddhist monastery in northern California under Roshi Kennett; and a Theravada Buddhist anagarika at both Amaravati Monastery in the UK and Bodhinyanarama Monastery in New Zealand, both under Ajahn Sumedho. The author has meditated with the Korean Master Sueng Sahn Sunim; with Bhante Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia; and with the Tibetan Master Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder, Colorado. He has also practiced at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the Zen Center in San Francisco.