Often in spiritual literature, you’ll find the image of a boat used to symbolize the spiritual path. The reasoning runs like this: Just as a boat is used to cross a river and is then left behind once the far shore is reached, so too is a spiritual system used to cross the “river” of self-ignorance and then abandoned when self-realization is achieved. Spiritual practice is a means to an end.
“We are having to learn [spirituality] by prescription, because we are not sensitive to whatever is natural in us,” says Swami Veda Bharati, author of a detailed commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Once you recognize your authentic Self, he notes, the “whole yoga practice will come to you.” At that moment, we no longer need the system and can “throw it away.” We can sail on, in other words, without our boat.
There are some teachers who pooh-pooh the idea of a specific spiritual process altogether. The late Indian sage J. Krishnamurti, for example, uttered the famous dictum “Truth is a pathless land.” These teachers maintain that a system—any system—is actually an impediment to a successful river crossing. Why? Because each one—no matter how comprehensive at first glance—is inherently limited. When we’re looking at the world from the deck of any spiritual boat, we’re seeing only the view it affords us and not the fullness of what’s really there.
But many teachers are in favor of a system, especially for beginners. It’s like a map to an unfamiliar city, they say—without it, we’d wander around lost and confused. An established process shows us where we are and where we want to go. It points us in the right direction and may indicate some of the detours and dead ends we may encounter along the way. Just as a map tracks bus routes, a spiritual system gives us the means—by way of a time-tested set of practices—to arrive at our hoped-for destination.
So does a system have value or doesn’t it? Tradition has an answer. In the early stages of spiritual practice, some kind of procedure is most certainly indispensable. As our practice progresses, as Bharati notes, we learn to listen to and trust our own inner voice. Then a system becomes less essential. In the end, all systems drop away—we step out of the boat—and we continue our journey “without means” (anupaya), in the realization of our authentic Self.