I’d like to consider the topic of “spiritual progress.” For most of us, if someone asked how we felt about spiritual progess personally, we’d probably say something like “Well, I can look back and see that things have gotten better” or maybe “I don’t really see anything changing but I have faith that sitting or time or awareness or something will help.” Or maybe “Some things have changed but I’m still such a mess but I know I should just be patient.”
What does the phrase “spiritual progress” bring up? Doesn’t this immediately bring up a sense of what I’ve been in the past? A sense of what I have suffered, maybe. What has gone poorly. What I would dearly like to change. And then an evaluation of whether anything has changed or is likely to change in the future.
This is clearly memory – stored pictures, information, the whole autobiography. Is this clear? If you bring up memories of who you have been, how people see you, that these memories are only accessible because they are stored imagery. The picture of myself. The recorded 3D movie of myself.
As deeply ingrained as this story of myself is, as hard-wired as it seems to be to the emotions, to the sense of identity, we can ask the question of how accurate this picture is. Isn’t it true that painful experience tends to imprint itself into memory more strongly than mildly pleasant experiences? Isn’t it true that as we walk through our lives now, we usually only see small parts of what is going on at any time and so our memory of an experience – a walk down Central Avenue – is only based on a tiny amount of what was going on. And at that, it’s only a very inaccurate representation of what was going on.
Maybe I come away from an experience in which someone was critical of me and I’m feeling sad, depressed that once again I’ve alienated someone and that once again I’ve let it make me critical of myself, etc. But quite possibly at the time the person was talking to me, there was also the sound of some birds outside, or some cool wind, or some people walking hand in hand or someone with a sad look on their face. Somehow the mind only takes one part of what was perceptible and engraves that one part into memory. I didn’t perceive the other things.
And the memory of the person being critical of me. How much did I really hear accurately? Did I really hear where the person was coming from? If not, did I try to ask? Did I even hear what my concerns, judgments and resentments were?
After the fact, that evening of the next day, if the memory is brought up, how much of what comes up is really an accurate representation of what really went on? To me, a close examination of this shows that most of what is remembered is highly inaccurate, not representative of the whole of what happened in a moment and very inaccurate as far as capturing the part of the situation that memory is trying to capture.
Isn’t it true that after a while, our brain has learned to look for the same old things and to therefore find the same old things. And the rest of the world is not seen.
So coming back to spiritual progress, isn’t the idea of spiritual progress simply based on the picture of who I have been and the projection of how that picture ought to look in the future (even if the future is multiple life times away)? Isn’t it based on an assumption that the picture of who I have been, of what’s wrong with me, is accurate, reliable? That I “know” who I have been?
As I sit here in front of the computer, warmth of a heat lamp shining on the skin, body a little crooked in the chair, slight sensations in the arms, what is happening right now? This is a living question. It calls for in-touchness now. The idea of “progress” seems irrelevant. It takes the mind away from direct experience of the world as it is and into theorizing -–which seems like being asleep.
The heater clicking, fan humming somewhere. At the same time the mind is not discarded, shut off, ignored. It is open, silent and still, wondering without knowing in in-touchness. In a moment of wholeness the mind is not busy putting down recordings of who I am and what I will need to do about it. Wholeness is too large and unknowable to record.
The minute thinking dominates, the mind is filled with reviewing what I did, what I’ve been, what I should do, what will happen. When we talk together, this seems to be much of what comes out and we share our “strategies for spiritual progress.” But the questioning can come alive again and again, in the middle of this thinking dominated mind. Is there really any such thing as progress? Let me look right here. What do I mean by it? Is it anything other than a thought reaction to the whole memory story of myself?
Looking, looking, looking. Listening into the unknowable that is right here, letting the even the question drop into silence and yet continuing to listen, to be, beyond knowing.