There’s an expression that’s used to argue for the unity of spiritual paths: All paths lead to the same mountain
Maybe that’s true, maybe not. Maybe these different paths lead to different psychological places. Is the ecstasy of the saint the same as the Buddhist Nirvana? Do the depths of prayer correspond to the absorption of intellectual contemplation?
But does it matter? Maybe what matters is these paths lead to mountains, and the mountains (while different) are all better than the village many people are stuck in?
Maybe the benefit is not where these paths lead to, but where they lead out of.
Maybe the path never leads to a mountain. Maybe it does, but the seeker will die before reaching it. But if the path is beautiful, if a crappy village has been left, then the seeker has benefited from the path, and that is enough.
This analogy exemplifies a curiosity about the intrinsic/instrumental divide. Intrinsic things are those things which are valuable in themselves, while instrumental things are only valuable as means to intrinsic things. Yet there’s a paradox that comes through with a concrete example. Let’s say I’m trying to buy my dream house. There’s a long road (ha!) before me, and it goes something like this:
- Get my finances in order.
- Pay off my debts.
- Save the down payment.
- Buy the house.
Now 1-3 are instrumental goals towards #4, which is intrinsic. Yet, 1-3 can each provide a great deal of happiness simply because I believe that by accomplishing each, I am doing something good (approaching #4). When I finally reach #4, then what?
I may find out that #4 is a disappointment.
If so, I took more joy in 1-3 than I did in #4, yet #4 was the purpose for 1-3. 1-3 took their meaning from #4 a goal which in retrospect, was never worth accomplishing. Yet that does not change the joy I felt while accomplishing 1-3. Joy is joy, whether or not it was based on something “real”.
Indeed, when I think of disappointment, I find it hard to imagine any instrumental goals as disappointing. Rather, it seems disappointment must live in intrinsic goals.
Only the thing that gives meaning can disappoint. One can never be disappointed while serving the thing that gives meaning.
They say getting there is half the fun. Very often, getting there is most of the fun.
Which brings us back to the path.