The Seeker’s Dilemma, or: The Territory and Its Maps

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” wrote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In some religions, the impossibility of speaking about the Absolute is acknowledged through the prohibition to represent it through images, speak its names, etc. However, the awareness that the territory is ultimately unknowable often goes along with attempts to create maps of the inexplicable. This is why the deities that sit at the cusp of various belief systems are usually attributed a gender and a skin color (among other qualities). Much to the detriment of all those who do not conform, these attributes become the default requirements for power and prestige within the community. Creating maps of the Universe is useful, but it is also fraught with pitfalls—and the quest for personal power, the ego’s ultimate temptation, is the most dangerous of them all.

So, how are seekers to talk about the Absolute they are striving to realize? We create maps, of course. However, serious seekers who are not keen on accruing power and prestige know that their maps are only provisional; they are both deeply individual and culturally negotiated; they will also require continuous adjustments. This process of refinement will continue till the day when even the map that is closest to our heart dissolves with a bang, leaving room for whatever Is—and nothing less than that—to explode into our consciousness. On the other hand, when maps lose their processual nature they become “traditions;” at this stage, enlightened teachers are usually on their way out. What follows is a bureaucratization of belief and the creation of hierarchies. This is when spirituality turns into religion as a political system.

The fundamental challenge of the human condition is that, even if our maps end up robbing us of opportunities for spiritual growth, we need them to make sense of our world. This is why so many people turn to religions that, instead of fostering their personal explorations, trap them in a maze of dogmas and blind beliefs. While vilified in the Bible, poor Thomas had it right: never believe anything you cannot experience first-hand. And if you do have spiritual experiences, ask yourself what pre-existing belief system is speaking through you. How does your experience confirm or challenge received knowledge? What does “authentic” really mean to you—are you willing to break new ground for yourself, or do you think spiritual experiences are “authentic” only when they are validated by a tradition?

Of course, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Your life is yours to live; regardless of the choices you make, you will eventually reach your destination. What will put you on the fast track, however, is the awareness that your map is just that—a navigation tool that may become more or less flexible even as you strike your unique balance between experience and belief, and between personal discovery and received knowledge.  

Photo by Daniel Mingook via Unsplash