What is the most difficult step on the spiritual path? It would be easy to assume that the first step, the decision to know the Divine, would cause the most difficulty. After all, it is like getting in a boat that you’re not sure of on a sea you’ve never sailed to reach an unknown destination! The most you may have to go on is the knowledge that others have set sail, reached the destination and assured you the journey was well worth any difficulties along the way. While the beginning may conjure up many fears, starting off on a journey is also usually filled with excitement, anticipation and the joy of discovery. As with most literal travels, we imagine reaching the destination as a joyful event, a time to celebrate and bask in our accomplishment. But what if the last step you needed to take would put you face to face with the most terrifyingly powerful lion you could imagine?
Few spiritual writers reach the heart so ably as the beloved 13th century Sufi mystic and poet, Jelaluddin Rumi. Among Rumi’s beloved parables was the story of a man who heard a rumor about a magnificent lion. The man determined that he would see that lion no matter how difficult the journey. After spending a year enduring every hardship a traveler can encounter, the man finally reached the lion’s territory. He spied the lion at a great distance, but he suddenly lost his desire to go any closer. Mesmerized by the sight, the man stood frozen to his spot, unable to move either forward or back.
Soon the man found himself standing among a group of people who were unable to gather the courage to step into the lion’s presence. But there was one person present who knew the lion intimately. He told everyone watching that they could confidently come into the presence of the lion if they approached in love and tenderly stroked him. But the man went on to warn his listeners that any evidence of fear would be quickly and roughly rejected. The lion tolerated no fear, seeing it as an insult to his true nature.
Those who had traveled over great distances and endured many challenges along the way suddenly realized the steps they had already taken were ‘vanishing footprints’ compared to that last step. As Rumi pointed out, “It takes immense faith to take one step toward the Lion in the presence of the Lion.” This is not to say that removing the veils that keep us from seeing the Lion is a simple undertaking, but the last step symbolizes a ‘point of no return.’ Why?
Rumi used the last step to symbolize surrender to the Divine. Surrender is often misunderstood, and for that reason often avoided. Many mistake it for surrendering our will to God. For most of us that type of surrender means loss of control and the destruction of our identity. But what Rumi meant was the surrender of the false self that we created to distance ourselves from Divine oneness. The false self depends on a thought system based on duality and separation to exist. It uses the body and the world that we project to convince us of our individuality and keep us in a constant quest for specialness. It’s impossible to remain attached to the false self and reclaim our identity in oneness as the true Self.
As many spiritual seekers have found, gazing on the lion from a distance and embracing him are two extremely different things. How do we take that last step? Rumi tells us it will only be taken by “those who have washed their hands of their own life.” But the life he’s speaking of is no more than an illusion; we give up something that has no value to gain a priceless treasure. The issue is getting to the point where we understand what the exchange is actually about. If we rush to the lion’s territory clinging to the trappings and desires of this world, the Lion will remain a fearful sight. If we’ve used the journey to divest ourselves of one useless attachment and belief after another, we will exchange perception for vision and see the Lion as it truly is. Only when we let go of this world and once again become love (and this is not the same as being loving) can we recognize that we live in a universe of Divine love. Then the moment we set eyes on the Lion we’ll run to it as swiftly as we can because we’ll know we’re embracing love itself.
How can you ever hope to know the Beloved
Without becoming in every cell the Lover?
And when you are the Lover at last, you don’t care
Whatever you know or don’t—only Love is real
Lee & Steven Hager are the authors of several books exploring the dynamic synergy of science, spirituality and gnosis including The Beginning of Fearlessness: Quantum Prodigal Son and The Gospel of Thomas: Where Science Meets Spirituality. To learn more, they invite you to visit their website: http://thebeginningoffearlessness.com or follow on Twitter @LSHager