The Spiritual Journey

Martin Aylward

The image of a path or journey is used in many different spiritual traditions,  but nowhere is it as central as in the teachings of the Buddha. He referred to his whole approach to life as a path – the Noble Eightfolod Path – and as such, as something to undertake, to follow, to develop. Dharma is something to practice, not to believe in, something to explore for oneself.  The Buddha’s last words were an injunction to “tread the path’ (sampathetha) with diligence.” Our journey in Dharma is one where our own discovery of the territory of our inner life is primary, guided by the invaluable of aid of a road map; the Teachings of those who have gone before us into the depths of human understanding and liberation.

When I look back over the path I have followed for almost twenty years now, I see many twists and turns; sunlit avenues that I have skipped through blissfully; dark, tangled places that have been difficult to pass through. Places where I have longed to linger, places where I wished I could be anywhere else but there.


The recapitulation of looking back on our progress on the path can be very useful. It is sometimes only in looking back that we have a true impression of the transforming power of the path we have walked. Often we wonder about the power and potential of our practice. We may find our daily morning meditation lacking in concentration, we may find ourselves still caught in familiar patterns of reactivity, and in the grip of a doubting mind state we ask ourselves what use is my practice? Is my meditation really deepening, really benefiting me? Look back though on where you have come from. What is different about where you are standing now in life, to where you were at the beginning of your journey? What has changed in your inner landscape as you have walked the path? In reflecting like this, we see the ways in which we have transformed, the ways we have walked away from old ways of being, and have journeyed towards freedom. We see how things that used to bring out reactivity now don’t have a hold over us, we see the fruits of our letting go.

While we can reflect on our journey so far however, and it can be an important way to remind ourselves of our motivation to practice, the road ahead always remains mysterious. However much we consult the map of Dharma Teachings, no reading of the descriptions of the path can substitute for walking the ground, seeing for ourselves, treading the path diligently. We cannot know what awaits us at the next corner.

I would never have guessed when I attended my first meditation retreat that it would set the course for the rest of my life. I had no idea that everything I took for certain could be called into question. I began Dharma practice in India in 1989, and as the truth of the teachings resonated so deeply with me, and I found what I learned confirmed in my own experience, I found myself on a path that revealed my mind to me in a way I had never known before, revealed my habits, my fears, my patterns of reactivity. It was a painful shock to see how out of control my life was. It was a rude awakening to see into my posturing, my endless struggle to feel OK, to be liked, to avoid discomfort and difficulty. And in the stark light of these shocking insights, I found myself deeply committed to walking this ‘path of light’, of shining the light of awareness on whatever I found within. That passion, and commitment, is what still animates my practice, what still ‘lights my fire’, eighteen years later.

But if this practice is a path, and the terrain of course is always changing, how does our practice itself change in emphasis and focus?

What I take to be my dharma practice now is very different than it was eighteen years ago. The passion for meditation is certainly still there, but the engagement with the rest of life, with communication, relationship, finances, ethical dilemmas, the stuff of meeting life in all its complexity in each moment, has filled in what were certainly gaps in my practice when it was all about retreat. 

Nothing deepens one’s concentration, one’s sharpness of attention and one’s sensitivity to subtle sense contact, like a meditation retreat. At the same time though, nothing tests the mettle of our retreat-honed refined mind-states like the maelstrom of our everyday lives.

The Buddha spoke consistently throughout all his teachings about Freedom (Vimhuti) and Awakening (Bodhi). These are the real measure of our practice. This path we walk on, this journey we make, is one of Freedom and Awakening. 

Sitting or walking, silent or engaged, here is the question that reveals the authenticity of what we are doing: Is this way of meeting life right now contributing to Freedom and Awakening?

If we inquire into this sincerely and find that actually, no it is not, then even if it has the trappings, the feel, is surrounded by the culture, of Dharma practice, then it is not the path the Buddha invites us to take. And if the answer, as deeply as we can listen for it, is yes, then it does not matter what this moment looks like, it is not important whether it looks like practice or not, whether it looks or sounds Buddhist. It is the Way of the Buddha.

The path of Freedom and Awakening is our hearts journey. May it meet with deep success in each moment. May our path be well lit and peaceful, (even though of course it cannot always be.) May our journey be swift. May we walk lightly, appreciating all we encounter along the way. May our journey be limitlessly fulfilled.