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Esteemed Reader: January 2014

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Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

There's a story about a young man with spiritual aspirations. In the story, he is frustrated with his state of being. He notices that inasmuch as he spouts fine words about lofty ideals, when truly tested he inevitably succumbs to the most basic impulses. Though he knows generally how to work on himself, he becomes distracted by attachment to known comforts and loses his determination. Impelled by the irritation of this perception of himself, and seeking a source of courage to relinquish the known, he begins to search.

He reads books, and tries varied practices with little result. After many abortive efforts he has a second realization: trying to change himself from himself is like a dog chasing its tail. He sees that he needs help from someone or someones with knowledge who can give him guidance from beyond the ken of his habits and predilections. Thus begins a journey that leads far from his home, in search of teachers or schools that will guide him in his quest for freedom.

The young man meets gurus and sages, adepts and renunciates, some surrounded by adoring disciples, others alone in the forest or in caves. They either try to persuade him to follow them, or tell him he isn't ready to inhabit their rarified world and send him away.

Out of hope and money, and with holes in his shoes, he finds himself one morning at dawn walking along a waterfront. In finding himself, he feels the sand under his feet, and looks out at the vast ocean, the sun rising above its edge. The waterfront is empty of people but for an elderly man holding a reed fishing pole dangling a line into the water. The young man says good morning, and the older man hellos in return without looking up.

As he walks past, the young man hears a murmuring voice behind him. He looks back to see the old man's lips moving with some kind of mantra or prayer, and beads silently passing between the first two fingers of his free right hand in rhythm with the sound.

Struck by some kind of inspiration, or impelled by desperation, he turns and walks back to the fisherman.

"Father," he asks, "can you give me directions?"

As the fisherman looks up the young man sees a distant gaze, as though the person looking is located somewhere far behind the bright, dark eyes. There is a silence in the gaze that seems to place the young man on a scale and weigh him.

Finally, the fisherman answers. "Where is it that you are going?"

Heartened, the young man comes closer. He tells his story including everything that led him to this point. The old man listens, looking out to the horizon of the sea. Sometimes the fingers pause in their working of the beads, as though to give fuller attention to the young man's tale.

As the narrative reaches the present moment, the young man pauses, remembering the question.

"I am going home but to a home I sense I have never been. I have always believed that my true home is where I am going, not where I am."

The fisherman says nothing for a long time.

"You want freedom from your limited sense of self; to see reality— yes?"

"Yes, that is what I want."

"Then come here."

The fisherman puts down his pole and beckons the young man to sit beside him.

"Look into the water."

The young man bends down and peers into the sea.

"What do you see?"

"Um... water, foam, sand..."

"Look closer."

He get closer, his nose almost in the water. Just as he catches a glimpse of the reflection of his face screwed up with concentration, he feels a strong hand on the back of his neck and his whole head is plunged beneath the surface of the water.

Frightened, the young man struggles and kicks, but the old man's powerful grip holds his head submerged. Lungs bursting, he feels the imminence of drowning and death. Just as he is about to give up and inhale the sea water into his lungs, the old man pulls his head out of the water.

Spluttering and coughing in the sand he begins to recover; he is at first bewildered and then angry.

"You dangerous and vile old man. I came to you for help and instead you try to kill me! What kind of enemy of humanity are you? A demon or simply a murderer?!"

"Be quiet and sit down," the fisherman answers calmly.

The young man hesitantly obeys, sitting some distance from the old man, out of reach of his iron grip.

"What did you want just now? What did you want more than anything?"

The young man didn't hesitate. "I wanted air, of course!"

"Yes," replied the fisherman, "and when you want to see reality as much as you wanted air just now, you shall have what you seek. Until you arrive at that singleminded certainty, no knowledge or practice or help will be of any use you."

The fisherman and the young man leave the story here.

—Jason Stern

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