Since getting more involved with the Center for Sacred Sciences, I have had an opportunity to explore more the use and dangers of goals in spiritual practice.
They have a clear focus on selflessness (realizing no “I”) and use this as a lense to view a wide range of traditions and practices. It brings a great deal of clarity to the field of mysticism, how the different practices work together, and where they ultimately lead.
The danger is of course that the idea of this goal comes to the foreground and eclipses what is happening here now. We may be so fixed on this idea that we are blind to what is, and the details of whatever practice we are engaged in. It may prevent the sincerity neccesary for a spiritual practice.
Other traditions and teachers often emphasize the practice and play down the goal of selflessness, although it is there of course. And they do so exactly because an attachment to goal can become a hindrance, and because all we need to focus on is the practice. The rest will take care of itself, especially if we work with a good teacher.
But there is also a complementarity between the two. The first gives the big picture, a direction, and a way to sort out the various practices. The second – sincerity – allows us to focus on what is, here and now, and engage more wholeheartedly in a practice as it unfolds in the present.
Map and terrain
This is where the map and terrain analogy can be useful.
The map is the outline of the process and the eventual goal of realizing selflessness. And the terrain is what we need to walk through and explore to arrive there.
It is helpful to stop and take a look at the map occasionally. But if we get transfixed by the map, we won’t get anywhere. And if we walk while keeping our eyes on the map, we are likely to stumble.
Most of the time, we just need to place one foot in front of the other, and be present to what is. But if that is all we do, if we never look at or recall the map, we may wander aimlessly.
So both are neccesary, although the walking is what gets us there. The map is only a tool.
And “there” is of course right here – with what is already present, only now realized as selfless, as having no “I” anywhere.