Invitation to a Journey
by Eknath Easwaran
by Eknath Easwaran
Not long ago, a young forty-foot humpback whale on his way to Alaska became enticed by the lure of San Francisco. He veered off course into the bay, and once inside, instead of deciding he had made a wrong turn and retracing his wake, he chose to push on toward Sacramento. By the time I learned of his plight, he had worked his way into fresh waters and got trapped in the shallows of the Sacramento River Delta – a most uncongenial environment for any salt-water creature, but practically a bathtub for one used to thousands of miles of open sea.
Humphrey, as reporters dubbed him, immediately became a media sensation. Every day, news services carried updates on his predicament around the world, while hundreds of whale lovers flocked to San Francisco to help the Coast Guard try to rescue him. But Humphrey just kept swimming up blind alleys.
Finally someone hit on the idea of luring him back to the sea by the call of recorded whale songs. Humphrey began leaping joyfully, splashing great sheets of water to the delight of spectators, and churned toward the open ocean at a good thirty miles an hour. Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge backed up in both directions as fans got out of their cars to crowd at the rails and cheer. They paid handsome fines, but as one woman told reporters, “It was worth every penny.”
Something in all of us cheers when a captive creature breaks free. We are born for freedom, even if we don’t understand what that means or how to find it. Somehow we sense that we are not meant to spend our lives in the shallows of pleasure and profit. We are made for vast spaces, to reach beyond boundaries until, as an English mystic put it, we are “clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars” – born with intimations of a potential much, much grander than anything we can dream of in the day-to-day world.
While Humphrey’s story was unfolding in the daily news, we human viewers had the advantage of a higher dimension. We could look at maps, watch aerial views on TV, and see the scene whole: the narrow confines of the river delta, the broader bay, the narrow passage to the sea that Humphrey needed to find. To us it seemed so simple what to do. But Humphrey had no access to that higher view. All he could have known was that an interesting diversion had turned into a trap. It’s easy to imagine his panic as he found himself alone and boxed in, with no sense of where to turn for help from a situation he could not understand.
That is how I felt when I discovered meditation: as if I had been spending my life cramped indoors and just discovered the real world. Imagine living in one little room all your life! You would forget what the outdoors was like. Gradually you would come to believe there is no such thing; only your room is real. That’s why I identified with Humphrey escaping into the sea. Early every morning, while the rest of the world slept, I would open the door of consciousness in meditation, slip inside, and set about exploring the world within – a world I was making my own.
I like to imagine Humphrey free at last, charging out through the Golden Gate deaf to the cheers of earthbound creatures on the bridge above, into the open sea where he belonged. There’s not much to the continental shelf in northern California, and whales swim fast. Within a few minutes he would have been in mile-deep waters again, with half a planet of open ocean to roam in as he pleased.
Then, free to go wherever he chose, he must instead have felt a silent command: “North. Go north. Go home.” No details, no map, no companions, no guide, just a direction and a desire in response to an overriding imperative from within: go home. It is very much like that on the journey of meditation too.
Once you turn inward, the words of the passages urge you forward in response to a summons from the very depths of the heart. This need to return to the source of our being is nothing less than an evolutionary imperative – the drive to realize our full human potential. As Meister Eckhart says, “Whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, secretly Nature seeks and hunts and tries to ferret out the track in which God may be found.” Something deep within us must find expression beyond the plane of pleasure and profit; that is our glory as human beings.
Only from a higher level than physical existence can we understand this deep need to find our purpose and our place in life. Because this dimension is as real as the physical – nearer to us even than the body, as the Sufis say – we cannot help living in two worlds, the material and the spiritual. To live fully means being at home in both these realms, and that requires a way to bring the deep wisdom of the heart into daily life.
There are many reasons today why one might choose to meditate – health, concentration, reduced anxiety, deeper relationships, security, serenity, the creative resources for making a lasting contribution with your life. Meditation can help you attain all these goals – or, rather, it provides the path; you will need to do the traveling yourself.
But the path leads much, much farther – as far as you want to go. It opens onto a journey that is literally without end, since its goal is only the beginning of a fully human life. The journey holds challenges enough for the most daring adventurer, wonders and treasures that would make Marco Polo’s accounts of Cathay trivial by comparison. It is, without exaggeration, the adventure of a lifetime.