Not Clever To Be Clever

We wear out the shoe of samsara by walking on it, says Chogyam Trungpa.  This is a very radical statement and completely contrary to mainstream Western spirituality, it is contrary to how most of us would see ‘spirituality’ because ‘wearing out the shoe of samsara by walking on it’ does not involve living a special particular way of life, or engaging in specially-prescribed practices that are supposed to lead us in a ‘spiritual’ direction.

The point here is that ‘wearing out the shoe of samsara’ doesn’t mean doing something special – if we were to do something special (i.e. embark upon some sort of spiritual path or other, or take up some sort of spiritual practice or other) then the whole point of this is to avoid samsara, not to walk it! No special practices are needed in order to engage wholeheartedly in samsaric existence because samsaric existence is everything we do, everywhere we go. Even when we strive to avoid samsara this too is samsara – avoiding samsara is samsara, just as avoiding illusion is itself illusion.

Clearly, if I am engaging in some spiritually-prescribed activity then the purpose of this is to avoid getting tangled up in samsara and so what I’m actually doing here is ‘trying to find a shortcut’. The whole idea of a spiritual shortcut is very attractive to us, it is very attractive to us because: [1] we know that there is a wonderful pot of gold at the end of it (that’s what we think, anyway) and [2] we don’t have to go through the long drawn-out process of disillusionment that we would otherwise have to go through to get there. The reason we are attached as much as we are to the idea of a shortcut is because we like the idea of the prize at the end of the path, but we don’t like the journey. When we’re goal-orientated it’s always the goal we value, nothing else – everything else is (at best) ‘a means to an end’, naturally enough.

We don’t want to have to wear out the shoe of samsara because that isn’t a shortcut. Far from being a shortcut it is in fact the antithesis of a shortcut because we’re not trying to avoid (or escape) anything. What we are actually talking about here is the Long Cut, the route in which there is no avoidance at all, the path which doesn’t come with any special rules, the path in which there is no right way and no wrong way. A path which doesn’t come with any rules or directions actually isn’t a path at all of course and this brings to mind Krishnamurti’s famous saying ‘Truth is a pathless land’. Why then – we might quite reasonably ask – are there so many ‘spiritual paths’ or ‘spiritual practices’?

The answer to this is of course that we want to get straight to the goal without any time-wasting detours or diversions. We don’t want to have to make every single mistake going just so we can learn for ourselves; we want someone else to go ahead of us and make the mistakes for us so they can come back and give us a roadmap. This is an argument people often give to justify the role of a spiritual guide, guru or teacher – the guru knows all the pitfalls and so, if they tell us about them in advance, we won’t have to fall down them ourselves, and have to painfully climb out of each and every one of them, which is a very time-consuming business, as well as being no fun at all!

This doesn’t just apply to spiritual sects – it applies to mainstream religions too. Religions tell us what the right path is in life and then drill it into us from the earliest possible age; they don’t merely ‘tell us about it’ either, they make what they designate as being ‘the right path’ compulsory. To not follow the directions on this matter is ‘illegal’, that is made into a sin and sinning is the wrongest thing we could ever do! Again – therefore – the idea behind this is that it is all for our own good, even if we do need to be chastised vigorously along the way. It’s ‘for our own good’ because if we stick religiously to the path that has been laid down for us then we will find final redemption – our souls will be saved and that is all that matters in the end. Our souls will be saved and we will avoid the fate of eternal damnation, which ought to be incentivization enough for anyone!

Out of our fear of taking the risk that we will ‘make a mistake’ we follow some sort of system therefore, but the price we pay for this sense of safety is that we are no longer living our own life, and if we are no longer living our own life then we not living any life. There’s no other type of life for us apart from our own. The ‘officially-prescribed version’ of life is not life; the system we obediently follow has absolutely nothing to do with us (it has nothing to do life either) and so by following it we go astray; by ‘playing it safe’ we go the most astray we could ever go – we go the most astray we could ever go because we’re not living our own life. We’re not living our life but someone else’s idea of it (or ‘the system’s idea of what our life is / should be’).

‘Error’ (or ‘making a mistake’, has now been defined as ‘not following the guidelines for living life that we have been provided with’, but when we do ‘follow the guidelines’ we are going astray! This principle doesn’t just apply to religion and spirituality of course – it applies to us all – we are all following some sort of system or other (we are all being clever in the sense that we are ‘trying to avoid the risk of living life in the wrong way’). We are all (almost all) being clever and – as Gurdjieff observed – ‘It is not clever to be clever’! Cleverness means that when we try to ‘walk the spiritual path’ (or however we might want to put this) we apply our habitual cleverness to this task just as we apply it to everything else we have to do. The upshot of this is that we are trying to live our idea of what it means to be ‘a more spiritual person’ but that idea itself is a perfect example of our ‘damnable cleverness’.

To live our idea of anything is to live an inauthentic version of life, to live our (or someone else’s) idea of what life is or should be is to ‘go astray’. We’re ‘jumping ahead of ourselves’, we’re anticipating ‘what it is’ and so then we’re acting in accordance with what we think life is, not what it actually is, which can never be a thought or concept. Our idea of life can never be life because by the time we have the thought life is already moved on and so we have been ‘wrong-footed’. Obviously we are ‘trying to be clever’ here; we’re having a thought or idea about reality, we’re anticipating what’s going on (or what it is all about) so as to give ourselves the advantage, but what we end up with is unfortunately not an ‘advantage’ at all! We are so damn clever that we don’t see that it’s not clever to be clever. We can’t see that the optimum stance to have is ‘no stance’, we can’t see that the most advantageous angle to take is ‘no angle’…

This habitual / automatic cleverness of ours is not so easy to sidestep however. We can quite easily see that the system we are following isn’t helpful, and is in fact ‘putting us wrong’, but what happens next is that we immediately find ourselves trying to find ‘a system that will help us to become free from the system,’ a ‘way of escaping the system’. There is no way to escape the system however – all ways are the system! All attempts to sidestep that system are the system. Any deliberate or calculating response we make to the system is the system – truth is a pathless land, after all. There is no such thing as a strategy that will free us from our strategies, no such thing as a thought or idea that can free us from our thoughts, no such thing as a method or plan that will free us from the need to use methods and make plans and – this being the case – it is just not possible to escape from our own pernicious cleverness in any deliberate or intentional way.

It’s not clever to be clever, but unjinxing ourselves in this regard is not as easy as we might imagine, therefore. If there is ‘a way’ then this necessarily means that there is such thing as ‘making a mistake’ or ‘getting it wrong’. If there is such a thing as ‘God’s plan for us’ then they must also be such a thing as sin and we are naturally averse to that, afraid of that. We’re afraid of sinning, we’re afraid of ‘getting it wrong’. Our investment in ‘cleverness’ comes about because of our aversion to making mistakes, we could therefore say. And yet the good thing about making mistakes or getting things wrong is that this happens quite naturally and so we don’t have to think about it or plan for it in any way. We don’t need to have some kind of a system, some kind of ‘way’ to help us or guide us in making mistakes! If we did have a system to guide us in this way then the mistake wouldn’t be a mistake at all – it would be ‘on purpose’, we would be ‘proceeding according to the plan’, etc, etc. The way to become ‘free from samsara’ (or ‘free from illusion’) isn’t to have any sort of a ‘way’ or ‘method’ therefore, but simply to make the kind of ‘mistakes’ that we are naturally inclined to make, and then be prepared to learn from them. This isn’t a shortcut by any means but the thing about this – as we have already said – is that there is no such thing as a shortcut in life anyway. That doesn’t exist. All shortcuts equal ‘the system’ and the system is the very essence of illusion, the system is the very essence of samsara.