Because the spiritual journey is possibly the most arduous path in life, I think it wise to pause momentarily and study the life cycle of the salmon, for the journey of self-fulfillment, self-realization, and mastery is, as the Katha Upanishad warns, "sharp like the razor's edge."
A flash of silver, a swirl of bright water, a female salmon flexes her tail against the swift current as she propels herself to a small gravely bar just under the surface in the headwaters of a Pacific Coast stream. Again a flash of silver, then another, and another as other salmon press against the rush of crystalline water, each seeking the exact spot to which their inner drive to spawn impels them.
Suddenly, from somewhere in the shadow of trees overhanging the tiny, clear stream, there comes a large, magnificent male salmon of metallic luster; he swims alongside the female with powerful undulations of his body. They touch, and the female immediately turns on her side and fans the gravel with strong beats of her tail.
She continues spraying gravel into the current until a shallow depression comes into definition, after which she begins depositing reddish orange eggs, hundreds of them, as the male squirts milky-white sperm into the water. The cloud of sperm, enveloping the eggs as the current carries it downstream, fertilizes them as they settle into the shallow "nest."
Having spent themselves to ensure the essence of their existence, their offspring, the female covers the nest just as she excavated it, with powerful strokes of her tail against the gravely bottom of the stream. Now she and her mate, having fulfilled the inner purpose of their lives, swim into deeper water and rest.
Only now, exhausted from their long and difficult journey up rivers and streams from the Pacific Ocean and from their final passionate act of spawning, are they quiet enough for an observer to see small patches of the white fungus that has already begun to invade their bruised and battered flesh. As the fungus grows into their bodies, the life force, which has for so long served them well, begins to wane. They grow weaker and weaker, until the last cells in their bodies die and their now-spent carcasses are washed against the shore, where they will recycle into the atomic interchange from whence they came.
But in the gravely stream bottom an opaque egg is secreted as the salmon develops inside. In time, the baby salmon hatches and struggles out of the gravel into the open water of protected, hidden places in the stream. Here it grows until it is time to leave the stream of its origin and venture forth into life. It can go only one way--downstream to larger and larger streams and rivers until at last it reaches the ocean, all the way beset by increasing numbers of distractions to explore and dangers to overcome.
Salmon from all of the various streams and rivers mingle in the ocean, where external things affect them in common, such as ocean currents, in what might be called a pool of commonalty. It is therefore impossible to view salmon in the ocean as discrete populations because they behave as an aggregate individual with no visible affinity to a particular river and stream.
Only after some years at sea will the inner urge of individual salmon dictate that it is their time to spawn. This inner urge will drive the adult salmon along the Pacific Coast to find the precise river they had descended years earlier, and in so doing, the aggregate individual will differentiate into identifiable populations, each with its own affinity to a particular river. Once in the river, they will again differentiate as discreet subpopulations, each with its own affinity to a particular stream within the river system.
A salmon can only return to the gravel in which it was deposited as a fertilized egg if it knows where it is going and when it has arrived. Its objective is to reach a particular place in a particular stream within a particular time to deposit either its eggs or sperm, after which it will die.
As each salmon approaches a river, it must make a critical decision. If it selects a river other than the one it descended, it will not reach its destination, regardless of all the other choices it makes. If, however, it swims into the same river it once descended, it is on the correct course--until it comes to the first fork and must again choose.
Regardless of its immediate choice in the lower reaches of the drainage basin, the water is deep, polluted, relatively warm, and its current placid. Here the salmon swims easily, comfortably in the wide river among all the other fishes and river life, where there is much to distract it from its appointed upstream journey.
With time, however, it begins to feel an inner restlessness to go against the current, to seek its home waters. Each time the salmon comes to a fork in its journey, it must make a choice and must accept what the chosen fork has to offer and forego the possibilities in the one not taken. In this sense, each choice is an inescapable consequence of the other choices already made. Each time it chooses the correct fork, the salmon finds that the water, confined within an ever-narrowing channel, is flowing progressively swifter, purer, and colder than the water from which it has just come.
As the streams' banks become more confining, the salmon finds its focus on its destination becoming sharper and more urgent and the channel less and less crowded as those lacking sufficient determination drop by the wayside. Now the distractions of youth and the obstacles in the streambed, such as large boulders and low, swift waterfalls, are as nothing, so focused has the salmon become, so clear is its determination, so urgent is its inner need to arrive at the particular spot within the designated time. When the salmon reaches this state, its focus is so concentrated that it finds the current's force diminished against the internal power of its life's spirit, its inner drive to reach its place of origin.
Thus in youth the many traveled seaward to become in aggregate the one. Although most died either on that journey or at sea, the rest confronted the external commonalties that helped to shape their lives. Then came the time of maturity, when the compelling inner drive to spawn, to achieve their life's purpose, caused them to separate into smaller groups of like-minded individuals. Many more died on the upstream journey of individuation, which reached its climax with the act of spawning, after which each fish died, returning to the Great Mystery from whence it came. But some of their offspring will live to swim the same gauntlet of decisions when their time to spawn arrives.
Our lives have a thread in common with that of the salmon, because every decision we make determines where we are, where we are going, and where we will end up, which fits well a verse from the Hindu Upanishads:
A man is what his deep, driving desire is.
As his deep, driving desire is, so is his will.
As his will is, so is his deed.
As his deed is, so is his destiny.
Our stream in life is the collective thinking of parental, familial, peer, and social pressures--the external commonalities. Like the young salmon, which goes downstream with the current to the ocean, we often accept, with little conscious consideration, the route of least resistance embodied in the collective social thinking that dominates our time. In contrast, Albert Einstein foresaw a different way and boldly grasped it. "I soon learned," he said, "to scent out the paths that led to the depths and to discard everything else, all the many things that fill up the mind and divert it from the essential."
In this thought, Einstein touched on the esoteric meaning of a symbol used by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras to instruct his pupils about choice. The symbol can be likened to the stem of a stream where it divides equally into two forks, one going to the right, called Divine Wisdom, and one to the left, called Earthly Wisdom.
Youth, personified by a pupil walking the path of life in tutelage under Pythagoras, symbolized by the central stem of the stream, reaches the point where the path divides. If the pupil chooses the left-hand fork and follows its dictates of the lower human nature, he or she enters a span of folly, dissipation, and thoughtlessness that inevitably results in his or her undoing. If, on the other hand, the pupil chooses the right-hand fork and follows its dictates of the higher human nature, he or she, walking hand in hand with integrity, industry, and sincerity, will reunite with the immortals of the celestial spheres.
Although most salmon die and become part of the sea, a few survive and begin swimming against the current to fulfill their life's purpose. As people mature, most will drown in the ocean of mass thinking or silt-laden, polluted waters of materialism, going always with the current, seeking their sense of value through the acceptance of others, who are themselves drowning in mass thinking. Today, for example, the lives of so many people are consumed in feverish activities and rampant distractions that they are exhausted virtually all of the time.
A few, however, like Einstein, will chart their course against the current, driven by an inner need to find the "still place within," where spiritual fulfillment can emerge naturally. They will dare to risk the unknown of continual change and fight their way upstream against the current of fearful, self-centered thinking embodied in the present social paradigm. The Buddha's term for meditation, patisotagami, fits perfectly into this upstream journey of spirit because it means "going against the current"--the mass conditioning, which has resulted in the rampant materialism and global destruction of our times.
As the stream narrows, these few will find themselves increasingly at odds with the thinking of the general populace in our morally troubled society, for the narrower the stream becomes, the purer and loftier become the ideals, the fewer the people of like mind does one find. "It is not that we love to be alone," wrote Henry David Thoreau, "but that we love to soar, and when we do soar, the company grows thinner and thinner until there is none at all. . . We are not the less to aim at the summits though the multitude does not ascend them."
If you are courageous and true to the calling (literally "vocation") of your spirit, the main obstacle you encounter will, for a time, be a growing sense of isolation as you face the mounting criticism of those who do not understand and are frightened by the changes they see in you. But if you dare to reach the place where spirituality puts materialism in perspective, you will find your focus so concentrated, your faith so strong, that what to others seems like a Herculean effort becomes to you increasingly effortless as you are learning the difference between what is truly valuable and what is valueless. If you then take the time to look back, you will find, as author Carl Perkins did, that "if it weren't for the rocks in its bed, the stream would have no song."
The journey of consciousness is an ascent up Mount Wisdom, an ascent that grants us the grace to live life as it is meant to be lived. Below the summit, the mountain is crisscrossed with paths, while at the bottom are the beginnings of two routes. One is wide and inviting, a path of self-will that says "yes" to the ego and, at first glance, is the obvious one to take, whereas the other is partially hidden, narrow, and tortuous as it wends its way among rocky precipices.
Whosoever chooses the wide path is opting for a life of least resistance, but soon finds it coiling back on itself as it shrinks progressively until it disappears altogether in the impenetrable vegetation of the mountain's slope. The narrow path, so difficult at the outset, becomes gradually wider, smoother, and easier as it ascends the mountain, for this is the path of spiritual discipline that guides the traveler with increasing ease and delight to the pinnacle of life's essence and fullness.
"What is the path?" the Zen Master
Nan-sen was asked.
"Every life is the path," he answered.
As you discard the valueless, including what others think of you, you will hold ever more lightly the valuable, for you will learn that true value lies in the gentle touch of sharing, not in the death-grip of ownership. Value lies in the freedom of detachment from the material, not in the shackles of its possession. Value lies in keeping your own score in the way you live your life, ignoring all those in the prison yard who cry foul as they rattle their chains while screaming they are the appointed umpires. As you want less and less, you will find you have more and more. To be "poor" out of choice is to consciously embrace your chosen level of material simplicity and, in accord with that simplicity, hold hands with freedom, leisure, and spirituality.
To hold fast to the spiritual journey requires the utmost courage, for the time will come when in your soul the purple darkness of night will temporarily snuff out your guiding light. It is during this time of spiritual blindness that you must allow yourself to be guided by the invisible eyes of faith.
©chris maser 2001. All rights reserved.