February 2011

Fellowship of Friends

What am I getting?

A few years ago, in a traditional restaurant in Kyoto, I started an “accidental" conversation with an American-born teacher of the Shinto Way. He was pleasant and open, and had a measured way of focusing his attention on me which was not intimidating or out to impress.

At one stage in our encounter I asked, “What’s the point of what you do? What do you get out of it?" His response to my somewhat blunt question was interesting. He said, “What do I get out of it is a very Western concept. Why should we get anything?" Our friends at other tables were waiting; we were summoned to different parts of the room, and didn’t speak again.

After more than twenty years in a Fourth Way school with what I believe to be a conscious teacher, it is interesting for me to re-ask the question. “What am I getting out of it? Has my time in the school been spent constructively, has real spiritual development taken place, and has it been what I hoped for when I joined?"

Pondering on what the Shinto teacher said and discussing it with various other students of the Fourth Way, the question might well seem to reflect a form of spiritual capitalism where we make certain efforts and payments, and hope to get something else in return—a soul, immortality.

So what is, or has become, different? Has anything changed? Is there any difference between me and the fine, committed teachers whom I work with? What about my students? Those enthusiastic young folk who are entering life and need to pass English exams to enter university, to practice as doctors in New Zealand or emigrate to Canada?

One thing is clear: life in the Fourth Way is a permanent work-in-progress, no matter how far you go along the path. Nobody is going to give you a slap on the back, a graduation cap, and a diploma. It is clear from those who have traveled the path before us that one can always go further, refine and develop consciousness to an ever greater degree. The Law of Octaves applies to our work as much as it does to all the other machinations of the universe, and we are either moving up or moving down, with little time to tread water. To quote the proverb, “He who hesitates is lost."

My original aim when I joined the School was to spend one year studying the Fourth Way in order to acquire enough knowledge to last me the rest of my life – and that was 23 years ago! Do I now have what I suspected was missing then? I think the ultimate, honest response would be, “Yes, seventy percent of it." I think my time in the School has enabled me to develop a mature understanding of the universe and its functioning and has increased my level of consciousness. I can be present to much of my own life as it unfolds, rather than feeling like a helpless passenger on a runaway train. The continued effort to control negative emotions has been a vital key to developing more profound human relationships, and has wrought some fundamental changes in my reactions to external stimuli, making them less automatic, less mechanical.

The efforts to be present have led to a more vivid experience of the world around me, leading to a deeper understanding of art, music, and literature. There have been a couple of occasions only when I have experienced the certainty of having a soul, but the taste of that is impossible to communicate and the reader will just have to take my word for it.

This essay opened with the question, “What do I get out of this work?’ Any answer can only be verified through the final shock of death. So if I am asked where I am going, I would respond that I’m not absolutely sure, but I feel that I have more idea of the meaning of our brief human existence than I had before, and at least have been present to a good part of the journey.

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