A few months ago, I wrote an article that compared the spiritual journey to a trip through a three-level tower. This month, I'd like to offer a second metaphor for the spiritual journey. Let me present it as a brief story, as I did before.
Once there was a group of people who lived in the middle of a forest.
Trees surrounded their village in every direction – trees so thick, in fact, that it was nearly impossible to travel very far through them. Because the forest was dark, it was difficult for the people to grow much food. Their existence was rather bleak.
Life went on for these people until there came a year with a great deal of rain. Food was hard enough to come by; now, the lack of sun made it even scarcer. Despite rationing what little they had, the people began to starve.
One night, a woman who lived in the village had a dream. In her dream, she saw a vision of a land with open, hilly fields and sparkling sun. Growing food in that land would be simple. And the place in her vision looked lovely. There were trees, but they weren't thick and dark like the ones she was used to. There were streams and lakes, and stretches of green grass. It was beautiful.
When the woman awoke, she had a sense that this was no idle dream. This land, she sensed, was real – and perhaps it wasn't far from where the forest ended. She began to ask people in the village about a place like the one in her vision. Unfortunately, no one had seen anything like it. In fact, no one had ever found the far edge of the forest. Those who had tried reported that the trees seemed to go on forever.
The woman decided that she would make the journey herself. She packed what little food she had, and set out walking through the forest. Soon she was crawling, slipping through thick vines and around fallen trees. It was an arduous journey. After a few days, hungry and cold, she began to lose her motivation. The forest here was as thick as ever. There was no sign of its end.
The woman stumbled ahead until she couldn't go on anymore. "This is hopeless," she said. "Perhaps this forest covers the world." She sat down and closed her eyes. As she sat, the vision of the bright, open land came back to her. She could see it with such clarity. She smiled, feeling her strength returning. After a minute, she opened her eyes – and for a moment, there was a flicker of something strange.
Just for a moment, the forest was gone. In its place was the land she envisioned. But then it was gone. She shook her head in confusion. "A trick of the eyes," she said.
With increased strength, the woman picked herself up and began her journey anew. The moss-covered logs didn't feel as daunting as before. The vines weren't as constricting. She plunged ahead.
But in time, she began to tire. A few more days went by, and the woman once again found herself feeling hopeless. Was this a pointless journey? Was it just a foolish dream?
Eventually, exhausted, the woman collapsed and closed her eyes. Within a few minutes, the vision of the sunny land returned to her. In her vision, she could see the fields so clearly; she could study every sparkle on the water. It seemed so real. She spent hours immersed in her vision. When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to find that it remained.
Here she was, on a hilltop. The forest was gone. The sun was shining. Her eyes were open. She looked around in wonderment, turning her gaze slowly so as not to disturb the experience. It was beautiful. But then slowly the sky began to darken, and trees began to fade into sight. In time, she was back in her forest.
"How strange," she said. "Perhaps this land is in a different direction altogether."
She sat down in the forest and made herself comfortable. Closing her eyes, she brought the vision of the bright land back into focus. Then, opening her eyes, she tried to maintain the experience.
She found that, with practice, she could remain in the sunny land longer and longer. She could walk the hills, and peer far into the distance. She could pick up blades of grass from the ground. Although the forest faded in and out, she was eventually able to stabilize the experience so that the darkness didn't return very much.
"This land is closer than we thought," she said, taking a last look around. "We can learn how to live here." Then with a shift of awareness, the woman brought back the familiar dark forest. Pushing aside a handful of vines, she began to retrace her steps back to the people in the village.
This story draws on a theme in A Course in Miracles. According to the Course, the spiritual journey isn't a journey to a worldly place. Rather, it's a journey to an inner experience. It might take a good deal of work to reach – and "hold" – that experience. But it is there for the finding.
One of the traps that makes the spiritual journey seem so long is that we often think that we have to get somewhere. But as the woman in the story discovered, we can open – at any moment – to what it is we're seeking. We don't so much get as allow.
The spiritual teacher Joel Goldsmith had a great comment on this. To paraphrase one of his lectures, Joel said, "On the spiritual path, we tend to search and search for God. But God is really searching for us. We simply need to slow down and let Him catch up with us."
The same holds true for so many other things in life. Love doesn't come to us when we attract the right person. Love comes when we simply open our hearts to it. Security doesn't come when we put enough money in the bank. Security comes when we open to the inner experience of security.
Peace, comfort, interpersonal connection – these are inner experiences that we can open to at any moment. We don't have to travel to find them. The "journey" to them is really just a releasing of everything else that we've placed in the way.
And that leads to the topic of work. I do find that there is a great deal of inner work that is required on the spiritual path. But the work is simply a releasing of inner blocks, and a wholehearted welcoming of the divinely-inspired experiences we seek. It is more of a reorientation than a journey.
To return to the story: What are the trees that surround us? They are our unloving thoughts, our attachment to familiar surroundings, our faith in the shadows rather than the light. When we reach a state of exhaustion (or simple willingness) we begin to release these things. For a moment at a time, we let them go, and clear a space for the brightness to reach us. We practice this over and over until the light becomes stable in our awareness.
That process is what A Course in Miracles – and many other spiritual and psychological approaches – are teaching us to do. It takes willingness, dedication, and practice to open our hearts and minds to the light. But we don't have to go anywhere to reach this place. It is ours, right now, for the accepting.