All Paths Lead to the Same Mountain?

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:

  1. Get my finances in order.
  2. Pay off my debts.
  3. Save the down payment.
  4. 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.

4 thoughts on “All Paths Lead to the Same Mountain?

  1. I wonder if there’s anything to the idea that the “instrumental goals”, at least in this example, involve modifications to yourself to make you “better,” in order to then achieve the stated “intrinsic goal”. Other examples of intrinsic (instrumental) goals include losing weight (eating better and exercising), getting promoted (performing better and getting more involved in work), getting married (becoming financially/emotionally stable and meeting a compatible partner), etc. The intrinsic goals involve some sort of external reward or benefit in most cases, and the instrumental goals involve essentially improving ourselves to be made “worthy of” or able to accept that benefit. The “divide” between intrinsic/instrumental boils down to whether the reward or the self improvement is really what we’re after. To which you say, the instrumental, because they are most likely to bring joy regardless of the external outcome of the intrinsic goal.

    It feels like the instrumental goals, while technically possible to be pursued in and of themselves, almost require the intrinsic goal in order to really take hold. As you said, actually making progress toward goals like this is often a greater source of joy than achieving the “end goals” themselves– but I know I usually feel like the vague, often directionless nature of “instrumental” type goals makes them very difficult to achieve on their own. Having the intrinsic goal set out in front of us brings focus to otherwise vague instrumental goals. And in turn, successful completion of the instrumental goals either brings meaning to the intrinsic goal, or nullifies the intrinsic goal (to the point where it might be disappointing even) because what we were really after were the benefits of the instrumental.

    If we take that idea in terms of spiritual development or self-improvement, it makes sense that belief systems promote goals like “heaven,” “salvation,” “nirvana,” “enlightenment,” etc. Achievement of these intrinsic goals is, for all intents and purposes, impossible– people will always have room to improve on these “paths”. But striving toward them makes it possible to make headway on the necessary instrumental goals central to a given belief system, e.g. becoming more peaceful or humble or altruistic or merciful or knowledgable. In other words, having that goal in a spiritual/overall life sense sets the upward trajectory that makes us “happy” (to refer to your earlier post), but the joy we experience on those paths comes from the instrumental goals.

    Ok, I mostly repeated what you already said. Guess that means I agree. Good stuff!

    1. Thank you for the the kind words, and you bring up some great points.

      The fact that the intrinsic may not be worthwhile doesn’t necessarily mean the instrumental can just hang out there, since they get their worth from (ironically) the possibly worthless intrinsic.

      Messed up, huh? But life is like that — it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Or maybe it’s because our attempts to grasp life fail and what doesn’t stand up are our concepts. Life simply is.

      I’m fascinated by what you wrote about the goals making us “worthy” of receiving something and what this implies. I’m inclined to agree — at least in many cases, and I wonder if this “worth” is an implicit worship or waiting for a reward, even if one doesn’t believe in a higher power. Also interesting is the perspective it casts on the self.

      So here’s a question: are there goals that don’t involve self improvement?

      I think you did a lot more than summarize my post.

  2. Good point. Here’s something I find funny: imagine you decide to abandon goals and focus on the path, since it’s what’s enjoyable. However, when you focus on the path you turn that into a goal and make it capable of disappointing. So maybe instead of focusing on the path you could focus on the goal but then remind yourself it was just a prop once you achieve it.

    1. Very good point. But if we remind ourselves that the goal was a prop to begin with, does that make the goal less important, and hence the milestones less satisfying? I’m talking about the typical mindset, and not the existential/absurdist mindset that wouldn’t have a problem with a pointless/absurd goal.

      Another way of putting the question is this: why are goals important enough that we derive joy from mile-stones on the way to achieve them?

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