A cross chosen is not a true cross8 min read

Sometimes a new idea can change the whole landscape of endeavour, so to speak; everything appears in quite a different light. This applies in most fields of human activity, but in the case of spiritual endeavours it has some special overtones.

Take the case of doing certain jobs for the spiritual group. Naturally everyone would like to choose their job; someone good at adding would like to do the accounts, and someone good at gardening would like to help in the garden. But, as the Christian saying has it, a cross chosen is not a true cross. To do what one can do well where others can see it is an assertion of personality, and it has not much value as a discipline, though the group may get some benefit from it. (Even that benefit is usually offset by the unconscious arrogance of the expert, perpetually putting others right, or taking things off their hands to do them better.)

Reason-in-the-service-of-the-ego, or Mephistopheles, argues that it must be best to offer one’s service in a field where one can make a really significant contribution. But while there is a feeling T am making a really significant contribution’, training has not begun.

If all goes well, however, some students at least will begin to undertake things which they cannot do well – either at a suggestion from someone, or because they perceive a need. The accountant helps in the garden, perhaps enthusiastically cleaning the stones by scrubbing off moss that has been carefully cultivated for years, and appearing wantonly destructive; the gardener helps with the petty cash and gets the totals wrong, appearing . . . well, after all, where is the money going ? Training has begun. Not easy, but then no one ever said it would be.

The service is undertaken in a spirit of offering. For a time it may bring a sort of self-sacrificing joy, but usually it becomes a consciously performed act of dedication to an unpleasant or at least boring task. The performer sees his time out, and then quits with a feeling of‘ Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’

But if all goes well, the day comes when the landscape changes. Let me give a concrete example: the cushions, of two sorts, were kept in a large cupboard in one corner of the training hall. There were meetings of different kinds, with different arrangements of the cushions, so shortly before a meeting they were all brought out and arranged in four big piles against one of the walls. Then the arrangers could easily take them and lay them out. To make these preliminary piles was the job of one fairly new member of the sangha. It was also his job to put them away afterwards.

One day when a meeting had just ended, he was told by a senior that there was to be another meeting, of a different and unusual kind, in half an hour. He stood irresolute, and as the senior looked at him he said, ‘There’s no real point in putting them in piles just for ten minutes, is there? It will be just as easy for them to rearrange them from where they are – probably a lot of them will stay put.’

‘Have we something else to do?’ asked the other.

‘Well, could you tell me something about what came up in the sermon the other day, about the Buddha who lives for a thousand years and the other Buddha who lives for only one day?’

‘Yes, certainly,’ said the senior, ‘and there’s a Buddha who only lives for ten minutes’, and he began to pick up the cushions and stack them into the usual piles. The two worked together in silence, and in ten minutes the cushions were in their piles perfectly aligned against the wall in the bare hall. They stood back and looked at them, and the senior remarked, ‘He only lives ten minutes, but now his life has had its meaning.’ Then the other assistants came in and began to take them down to rearrange them.

The moment of looking at the cushions seemed to stand out in the mind of the junior – the cushions brilliantly clear, as if they had been in a shaft of sunlight. After that he did not feel impatient with small chores, or think ‘Is it really worth doing?’ He felt each time, ‘The Buddha lives only so long . . . now his life has been fulfilled.’ He felt the Buddha in himself.

And then, gradually, the feeling wore off. He could sometimes revive it by recalling that first moment, but slowly it disappeared as a living inspiration.

This kind of thing very often happens, and people on a spiritual path become familiar with it. Sometimes they get vaguely resentful, and even embittered. When they feel a stir of spiritual life in them, Mephistopheles whispers, ‘Remember how many times this has happened before, and remember how it all went off afterwards. Like a little drug, isn’t it? You feel better for a bit, but then it goes off and there’s a reaction and life is even greyer than before.’ There are those who, under the pressure of these insinuations, give up making serious efforts.

It can be a help to look at the same situation in other fields, and for some people a physical example is a good one to awaken a clear awareness of what is going on. My brother was a brilliant amateur golfer, also a fine teacher, who used to be pestered for instruction by a keen 15-handicap golfer with the besetting fault of moving his head several inches during the swing. My brother told me, ‘He won’t do the training to get a proper balance, because he thinks there’s some little secret which will do it all for him. Anyway, I am going to shut him up for a bit.’ He apparently directed him to fix a long wooden rod to the side of a shed in his garden, with a metal ring on the end, so that it would lightly press on the top of his head as he took a golf stance. He told him,

‘Now practise swinging, but always keeping that ring pressing on your head.’

There was silence from the golfer for several weeks; if they happened to pass he just smiled mysteriously and nodded. I learned that his golf had improved, because his head no longer moved so much.

But some weeks later still, there was a new development. My brother told me, ‘He has made another metal ring, just like the one on the stick, and he wears it inside his golf cap. He say it helps to keep his head still.’

I said, ‘But that’s absurd. The ring will move with his head.’

He said, ‘Not completely absurd. As a matter of fact, the feel of it reminds him of when he is in his garden with the stick. It does keep his head relatively still. But it won’t last.’

Sure enough, after a month, the golfer was back with his old trouble; perhaps his head was waving about a little less, but it still ruined his golf.

I asked my brother for his analysis, and he told me, ‘Well, it was only an idea. At the beginning that idea was associated with the stick, which really did keep his head still. But only in the garden. Then he tried the ring in his cap, and at first the pressure of it was associated only with the garden. So it did keep his head still a lot of the time. But of course, sometimes he moved his head from old habit, and now the pressure of the ring under his cap came to be associated with that as well. Soon it had both associations, and then it wasn’t any use to him any more. It was only an artificial means, only an idea. What he has to get is balance, which would keep his head still properly and naturally, but he won’t do the practice for that. He’ll keep wearing the ring under his cap though. They never give up any of these superstitions. It’ll be a good-luck charm, reminding him of the days when he did hit a few straight ones.’

In the same way a spiritual incident, or a text perhaps, can be a great inspiration for a time, but if it remains only an idea, the effect wears off. After that, to keep running it over in the mind is like the golfer’s metal ring – only a good-luck charm, without living effect. The ideas are not useless; they can be a great help, and for many an absolute necessity, in waking up in inspiration and energy. But to rely on these fixed things as a substitute for inner life will always lead to disappointment. They are pools, even lakes; whereas what is wanted is a bubbling spring.

© Trevor Leggett – Help No Help