On Balancing Horizontal and Vertical Spiritual Development

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Republished from Theravada meditation teacher Kenneth Folk:

“One way to model spiritual development is by comparing it to a computer hard drive. A hard drive is a device for storing information in a digital magnetic format. The first hard drive was introduced by IBM in 1956. It was as big as a washing machine. Since then, hard drives have gotten much smaller, but still use the same basic design: a spinning platter that contains information and a moving head that reads and writes information to the disk. Think of a record player.

Hard drives, though, unlike unlike record players, can have more than one platter. So, we have a vertical spindle and horizontal platters. We can think of the mind as being structured like a hard drive with multiple platters. Everyone has access to the first (lowest) platter, but in order to develop and stabilize access to the platters above the first, a certain kind of awakening is required. Although some folks awaken spontaneously, most people will have to deliberately cultivate this awakening through practices like meditation and contemplation.

Using the hard drive analogy, we can see that there is the potential to develop both vertically (up the spindle to higher platters) and horizontally (adding new information to the platter(s) we already have access to. One way to increase your level of “enlightenment” is to move up the spindle, opening up new platters. Another way to increase your “enlightenment” is to flesh out the platters you already have access to. In fact, developing and retaining a healthy balance between these two axes of development is, I will argue, an essential aspect of awakening.

Most people in the world do not engage in any kind of targeted contemplative practice and will therefore not ascend beyond the first platter. Should we then say that they are completely unenlightened? Perhaps, although most of us know people who seem very wise even though they themselves would admit that they have no firsthand experience of spiritual enlightenment. The situation gets even more complex for people who have moved up to at least the second platter, in which we must concede that they have indeed tasted some measure of enlightenment. And yet some folks at the first (“unenlightened”) platter may have levels of wisdom and social and emotional maturity that make them appear more awake than some nominally enlightened folks who have opened up the second platter.

The ideal, of course, would be to have high levels of both vertical and horizontal development. In such a case, we would have access to multiple platters as we ascend the spindle and at each level we would have fleshed out the platters; we would then be awake AND wise, insightful in both the Buddhist sense and the psychological sense, kind and compassionate, socially and emotionally mature.

It’s interesting to note that the information on each of the platters as you ascend the spindle is essentially the same as the information on all the other platters. All that changes is the way the information is integrated. Ascending to a higher platter results in better integration of the existing information. Very little new information is added other than perhaps a few mystical experiences along the way. At the highest platter, the information is so well integrated that the adept experiences no separation between him/herself and the environment. This is non-duality, the vaunted ideal of spiritual practice. And because non-duality is so highly prized, there can be a tendency to over-value it. Yes, to over-value it. And when this happens, it is possible to neglect horizontal development in our zeal to climb the ladder of the vertical. All of us have seen the results of this: the “enlightened a__hole,” the guru who takes advantage of his/her students, the emotionally crippled sage.

Different people will have different ideas about the ideal ratio between the vertical and the horizontal. Some feel inspired by the vision of the bearded sage living out his solitary life in a cave, continuously absorbed in a cosmic bliss-out. Such a solitary yogi may have little interest in or opportunity for broad horizontal development even though his vertical attainment is prodigious. Others might carry the ideal of the “shepherd bodhisattva,” who actually delays or postpones his/her final awakening in order to be most effective at helping others find freedom. If you visualize the “hard drive” profile of each of these types, the former would be tall and thin, while the latter would be broad and short(er).

It’s easy to see the “Hinayana”/Mahayana debate reflected here; the pure developmentalist (“Hinayana” in the technical rather than the pejorative sense) is primarily interested in vertical development while the Mahayanist (bodhisattva type) may emphasize horizontal development above all. And while I don’t think there is a single right answer to the question of which is better, I think each of us has a built in affinity for one or the other of the archetypes, an affinity which, by the way, can change at various times/phases in our lives and even day to day according to our mood.

With this in mind, it makes a great deal of sense to seek balance; seek to move upward on the spindle of the hard drive, opening up new, better integrated platters as you go. But don’t neglect the horizontal axis; the ideal awakening is both broad and deep. The vertical axis is the one we address most directly in the pragmatic dharma community and it is the one I talk about most often in my own teachings. For horizontal development, there are many resources available. Psychology, philosophy, hatha yoga, body work, a conscious recognition of your own limitations, and above all, regular contact with community and wise advisors are but a few of the many ways to broaden your awakening even as you climb the ladder toward buddhahood.” (http://kennethfolkdharma.com/2011/10/the-simile-of-the-hard-drive-vertical-and-horizontal-development/)