A man on a walking journey comes to a river and there appears to be no way to cross. He walks up and down the river looking for a bridge or a ferry but he finds neither. As he sits down to ponder his problem, he notices another man approaching the river on the other side. When this man reaches the river’s bank, the first man shouts out, “How do I get over there?” After a long pause, the second man shouts back, “You are already over there.”
I believe it is fair to say that most people approach the spiritual path in a way similar to this story. I am here, I need to be there but there is an obstacle between where I am and where I need to be. This obstacle takes many forms. It can be a feeling that one is not demonstrating the riches of health, wealth and friendship that should be theirs once they reach spiritual enlightenment. It can be the inner turmoil of purposelessness, the aimless wandering of not knowing why they are here and why they have come. Their life on this side of the river appears to be crumbling but on the other side, things will surely be different.
Here is an experiment you can perform. Go out into a natural setting and choose a place to stand for a few moments. Look around and carefully take in your surroundings. Think too of the air you breathe and the temperature. Spend a few moments observing your internal experience, what you are thinking and how you are feeling as you inhabit this place. Now pick a spot about a hundred yards from where you stand and walk to this place. Again, take a few moments to study your new surroundings, notice the temperature of the air you breathe and the thoughts and feelings you are having in this new location. Look back at the place you were standing.
Is your experience in this new location all that much different from your experience in the first? Yes, your surroundings are different. But how different is your actual experience? If you had some problem from home that was bothering you in the first location, did you not carry this same problem to the new? Did moving from one location to another change the way you think of yourself? Do you feel more peaceful and empowered at one point than you do another?
You may conclude that there is little difference in the way you feel regardless of where you stand in this natural setting. You feel good everyplace because you are momentarily free from all the little rubs and problems connected with your daily and weekly routine. There is obviously more peace in this natural setting and this peace allows your attention to move into an expanded view of your life. If you could just stay in this place, your spirit would be free to soar to new heights.
Really? Let’s suppose you become lost in this natural setting. You hike through a stretch of forest and you come out into a meadow that is different from the one you expected. You retrace your steps only to discover that nothing looks familiar. For the rest of the day you continue your frantic search for the way out, but you do not find it. Night begins to fall. Are you still inspired by this place or does the safety, warmth and shelter of your home now seem to offer more freedom? Is it not easier to dream and aspire when you are not preoccupied with survival?
Crossing the river, in whatever form the river takes, cannot be the goal of our spiritual endeavor. If we affirm and accept that God is omnipresent, then we are confronted with these questions: Why am I not experiencing God right here and right now, on this side of the river? Can God possibly be more present there than here? If we are honest, we will admit that we are not actually seeking God. We are seeking a way to feel better about ourselves. We want more peace and freedom. And we are associating peace and freedom with something on the other side of our river.
The irony is that God is the peace and freedom that we seek, and we are immersed in God. Just as a fish will be no wetter a hundred yards from where it now swims, so we will be no closer to God on one or the other side of our river. Our spiritual quest for a greater abundance is, in practice, an affirmation of lack that can never be fulfilled on this side of the river. Like the proverbial carrot dangling from the stick, we take a step toward it and the elusive carrot takes an equal step away from us. We redefine omnipresence as everywhere but where we stand. Regardless of where we are, we never truly stand in God. There is always some perceived lack, some reason we cannot experience peace and freedom, some thing we need to acquire or resolve before we are entitled to declare our life a spiritual success.
I recently listened as a very wise man was asked what we should do to alleviate the suffering of the poor. My paraphrase of his response: Why would we assume that only the poor suffer? Doesn’t the evidence show that the wealthy suffer just as readily and as easily as the poor? He was right. The impassible river that seems to stand between us and our peace and freedom makes no class distinction. Both wealthy and poor flock to teachings that promise relief from the bondage they experience in their present life. The wealthy may, in fact, travel ten times the distance, shelling out great sums of time and money to find that perfect guru that will get them across their river. Yet they never find a satisfying resolution to their unrest.
Each life, with all its unique circumstances, is the perfect place to find the peace and freedom we seek. Is there some pending disaster looming on your horizon? Use it to prove to yourself that that which is in you is greater than that which is in the world. Release the mental and emotional turmoil you are creating and move into a place of peace and freedom. Do not make your inner experience dependent on the resolution of this condition. You are on the right side of the river to accomplish this. Bring your peace and freedom to your life as it is, and I believe you will find your life responds accordingly.