On Talking Straight
As a mystic who was raised with a healthy dose of skepticism, I’ve often shied away from outright references to the transcendent. I’ve generally felt more comfortable and less, um, show-offy, by employing oblique references and metaphor, trusting that those who know what I’m hinting at will get the hint, and that those who don’t won’t take offense at the apparent poetic spasms.
Not too long ago I had a little life-changer when a colleague (thanks, Colin) turned me on to Daniel Ingram, a contemporary western teacher of Buddhism, who also happens to be an emergency room physician, which for some reason I find pleasantly congruent to teaching Buddhism. Ingram makes it a point to talk about the development of consciousness in terms more concrete than I’ve seen elsewhere. He encourages individuals interested in such things to honestly assess their position and trajectory, and to practice accordingly.
I believe it was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who suggested that if you have not started down the path towards enlightenment, it may be better not to start, but if you have already begun walking, there’s nothing to do but put your head down and go. So to speak.
Ingram echoes this sentiment, suggesting that there is a threshold in the development of the mind beyond which it is impossible not to be moving inexorably towards what is generally referred to as enlightenment.
As I currently understand it, this shift is like a meteor falling into a descending orbit around a star, in that once you’ve crossed that point, your destination is fixed. Past that point, there is no escaping the evolution, which can be kind of a bummer when one finds oneself living in a culture that doesn’t necessarily recognize contemplative practice as an essential or even valid aspect of one’s daily life. Additionally, there may be moments when you are completely unaware of this gravity, and may even orient yourself such that the pull becomes more painful than it needs to be, or when you (through lack of practice) draw out the process, including the very uncomfortable parts.
This is an instructive perspective, but what is most striking to me about Ingram’s work is his emphasis on straight talk. He makes a compelling argument that, contrary to the prevailing western mores, obfuscation or intentional vagueness – even modesty – can be restraining forces for a culture hoping to promote genuine spiritual development. This should not be confused with an endorsement of boastfulness. Rather, for individuals seeking instruction and inspiration in pursuing these lines of inquiry, it is helpful to be clear about what exactly we’re pursuing, how exactly to go about it, and who exactly to trust as guides and teachers. To paraphrase Ingram, fuzzy intentions produce fuzzy results.