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Short Path and Long Path

Two ways to seek enlightenment.

By Paul Brunton

Paul Brunton delivered this article as a talk in 1965. We’ve reprinted it from the Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation’s superb online database which allows everyone to freely and easily search and read all of Brunton’s notebooks. We wish the rights holders of every important spiritual teacher’s works would create an online database like this.

ALL WAYS OF SPIRITUAL SEEKING divide into two classes. The first is basic, elementary, the second for more advanced people. The first for beginners is the Long Path. It takes a long time to get results, and a lot of work has to be done on it; much effort is necessary for it. The second is the Short Path. The results are more quickly got; it is an easier path, and requires less work. To the Long Path belongs the methodical yoga. It takes a lot of work to practise daily: building of character and removing of weaknesses and overcoming of faults, developing concentration of attention to stop the distraction of mind and to get control over thoughts, strengthening of willpower, and all the activities for the beginners. These are the earlier stages of meditation.

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Meditation has two parts. The lower one belongs to the Long Path. Also, the religions are for the beginners and popular masses. They, too, belong to the Long Path. To the Short Path belong Christian Science, Ramana Maharshi’s teachings, Vedanta, Krishnamurti’s teaching, and Zen. They all say You Are GOD. The Long Path says instead: You are only a man. The one says that you are man and the other says that you are also really rooted in God.

Long Path—here is working through the ego. The student thinks he is the ego and develops concentration, aspiring to improve himself, getting more and more pure. He says: “I am doing this work.” He is thinking that he is purifying himself and improving the quality of the ego. But it is still ego. He is rising from the lower to the higher part of the ego and becoming a spiritualized ego. He is looking for the Gurus (spiritual teachers).

Short Path—it is different because the idea “ego” does not come in, only the Overself, not the longing (which belongs to the Long Path), but the identification, not even aspiration.

Long Path has to do with progress and takes a time for it and therefore means moving in time, and it is the ego who is working.

Short Path is not concerned with time and therefore not with progress. Thinking only of the timeless Overself. No idea of progress, no desire, it does not matter. Real Self is always changeless. Progress implies change. All questions and problems disappear because the questioning (ego) intellect is not allowed to be active.

Now you understand the question of the Guru. On the Long Path the aspirant wants the Guru, he looks for a Guru, is depending on him, and the Guru helps him to progress. On the Short Path the Overself is the Guru and the aspirants depend directly only on the Overself. On the Short Path the Guru question does not come into consideration. Guru is outside themselves, but God is inside on the Short Path stage. The aspirants on the Short Path need not depend on a Guru. Intellectually they have freedom from the Guru. If a guru dies or disappears, they do not worry about it. There is a real reliance on God—no human being, but your Spirit.

Long Path—the aspirants are moving in shadows, there is not life but darkness, they are not in the light but in ignorance. Their reason is not enlightened. Because they are living in the ego they are living in spiritual ignorance, which is darkness.

Short Path—he lives in the Sunlight, because he lives in Truth, the only reality—like looking, being in the sun. As in Plato’s story, he comes out of a cave, walking to the opening with his back turned to the opening of the cave, moving and seeing only the darkness. The other way is turning around to the mouth of the cave, seeing a little light, then more and more light. Even from the beginning there is still some light.

A question will be asked: Why does not every teacher teach the Short Path? The answer is: Because people have not got enough strength of character to give up the ego and are not willing to turn at once to the light. It is a sacrifice. To make this possible, the Long Path teaches them to make the ego weaker by graduated stages. In the Long Path the progress comes in, just to prepare them to reach a point where it is easier for them to give up the ego. This is one of the most important of the reasons. It makes the aspirant ready to benefit by the Short Path; otherwise he would not be able to travel on it. The second reason is because they have not the strength of concentration to keep the mind on the Overself. They may be able to keep it for one or two minutes, but they then fall back. Therefore it is necessary to develop the power of sustained concentration. Even if one sees the Truth, one must get the power to stay in the Truth and to be established in it.

Most people have strong attachments and strong desires for worldly things. These are in their way, obstructing their way on the path to Reality. This means that they want to keep attachments and desires that are coming from the ego, which they do not want to lose. Therefore the teacher gives first the Long Path, because most aspirants are not able to follow the Short Path. The Long Path exists to prepare them for it. There is no use for them to go on the Short Path if they have not got the philosophical understanding to practise it. Even if they were shown the Truth in the Short Path, they may, if unprepared by study and thinking philosophically, fail to recognize it. They have not learnt what Truth is and might not value it. They have no philosophical knowledge to see the difference between Truth or Reality and illusion or error. They have to understand Truth even intellectually. That is a part of the Long Path.

Another very important matter related to the Long Path: when people follow the Long Path and spend years working on it, many such persons after several years find they have not made the progress they have expected. In the beginning they have enthusiasm. They expect inner experiences giving power, knowledge, and self-control; but after many years they have not gained these things. On the contrary, tests, hard trials of the life come, death in the family, for instance, changes of the outside life, and so on. They are disappointed and say: “Why has God chosen me for suffering even when I follow the Path? Troubles come to me.” They are disheartened. At this point one of three things may happen:

  1. They may give up the Quest altogether, for one year or many years, or all life long, and turn back to materialistic living.

  2. They may think they have taken to the wrong path, or are using wrong methods, or have the wrong teacher, and they look for another teacher and another way. But with the new teacher the results are the same because they are still within the circle of the ego. The ego prevents them from sufficiently deepening their state of light and wisdom.

  3. The third possibility may happen to them. When they themselves have tried so hard and did not succeed and feel too tired mentally and exhausted emotionally, they give up trying but they do not give up the Quest. They just sit passively and wait. Those who are in this last or third category are completely ready to enter the Short Path and should do it. Even beginners may enter the Short Path, but in practice they find it too hard.

The best way is from the beginning to make a combination of both. But this combination must be varied and adjusted to each person, because people are different. There is not one fixed rule for everyone. One person is suited for a little of the Short Path and more or longer of the Long Path; with the other person it is vice versa. With most people the combination is the best way. It depends partly on their feelings, their intuition, and advice given by teachers. In the end, everyone must come to the Short Path.

Contradictions between the two Paths: one is the ego and the other the Overself without ego. The Short Path is without plane, intuitive, like Sudden Enlightenment. On the Long Path they are looking step by step to get out of the darkness of their ignorance. The next important point: on the Long Path many students want experiences—mystical, occult, psychical ones. It is the ego wanting them and the satisfaction of progressing. The ego feels important. In the Short Path there is no desire for inner experiences of any kind. When you are already in the Real, there is no desire any more. For experiences come and go, but the Real does not. Now you see why the popular religions are only attempts to get people to make a beginning to find God, but are not able to go too far and too quickly. For those who are more developed and less bound to attachments, the teacher gives the Short Path. In the teachings of Jesus and Buddha we find both Paths. People have different stages of evolution and can therefore take what suits them. The teacher gives them what they understand from their level of understanding.

Popular religions are mixtures of the Long and Short Paths. But unfortunately they sometimes lead to confusion. In the Biblical sentence, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” there are two meanings. The lower one means the reincarnation, the higher one means: I AM the Reality.

Paul Brunton

Paul Brunton

On the Short Path we do not care about reincarnation matters, we do not give them much importance. On the Short Path the aspirants need the philosophical study to understand only one point: What is Reality. It is necessary to understand the difference between the Illusion and the Reality. Every teacher’s biggest difficulty is to get the students to understand that not only the world but also the ego is illusion. The aspirants do not know what the ego is. Therefore Jesus said: “If you want to find your true Self you have to deny yourselves,” meaning deny the ego. Buddha said: “This is not I.” The Buddha taught his monks to practise saying and thinking this mantram. There is much confusion about the two points if there is not the knowledge that all teachings fall into these two classes and if there is no understanding of the difference between them.

It is necessary to publish a new book. Even among people who have studied for many years, there is this confusion.

A very important point: because the ego lives in its own darkness, it cannot give light. The light may come only from the Overself, which is the Sun and Light of human existence. With the reason we can control the ego to some extent, but it is not possible to control the Overself. As regards Enlightenment, this is not coming from self-willed effort; it is coming only by what the Overself does to him. It is a matter of Grace—unpredictable—and it is the last secret. It is like the wind that comes you do not know where from and goes you do not know where to. It is a mystery. At the end we have to be like little children and leave our Enlightenment to the Father and give up our lives to him. On the Long Path the aspirant tries to improve himself. He experiences successes and failures, ups and downs. When he is disappointed, he gets melancholy. On the Short Path such a situation cannot arise, because he has faith like a little child. He has given up all his future to Overself-God and he has enough faith to trust to it. He knows he has made the right decision and therefore is always happy. He depends on this GRACE, he knows It, that It comes from the wisest being behind the world. Whatever will come, it will be the best. He is always relying on the Overself and having the joy in it.

The Short Path is a cheerful Path, a Path of happiness. Just before this begins, the aspirant may experience the Dark Night of the Soul. He feels utterly helpless, has no feeling of spiritual Reality. It is a melancholy time—no feeling of spirituality or longing for it. He is neither worldly nor spiritual. He feels alone and abandoned and separated by a wall from his Guru. He feels God has forgotten him. This dark night may last a short time or long years. He is unable to read spiritual things, or think about them. There is no desire for ordinary things either. He feels sad and disappointed and may even try suicide. In this unhappiness even those who love him cannot bring him comfort. In both hemispheres, Western and Eastern, there is a saying: the night is darkest just before dawn. He is on the lowest point. After that, the Short Path brings back the Joy—just like clouds moving away from the Sun.

The best advice is, first, that it will not last forever; he must have patience. Second, he must have hope. Then he reaches a better level than ever before. The Dark Night of the Soul does not come to every seeker. It is like a shadow thrown by the Sun. When the Sun appears in the subconscious, the shadows arise. But it is the beginning of a great inner change. It is not a wasted time; there is a great deal of work going on—but in the subconscious—to root out the ego. It is being done by the Overself. It is a sign of Grace, but the aspirant nevertheless feels unhappy.

In the Short Path there are usually much fewer exercises to practise. It is not necessary to sit down specially to meditate, but to try to be always in meditation. When you are busy outwardly, meditation naturally takes a different form than when you sit down for it. During the active part of the day, meditation takes the form of remembrance, always to try to remember the Overself: IT IS (that is enough). In the special meditation time our object is not to improve the character. During the meditation we have to empty our mind of thoughts as quickly as possible, let the mind become still. Ordinarily we live in our thoughts, in our little selves, even if the thoughts are spiritual. Therefore we have to keep away from all thoughts. If you want to think of the Overself, which is without any form, it is not possible. We try, but any idea, form, or shape is wrong. You cannot imagine it. So better not to try but to be still. You must not remain in the ego. “Be still [let go] and know that I AM GOD,” says the Bible.

Wu-Wei, meaning inaction, not trying, is the highest teaching of Taoism and Zen and it means the same as what has just been explained. The Overself is already there. You as ego must get out of the way. Most people have to combine the Long Path with the Short Path—perhaps one day or one week (whatever the inner urge directs) on the Long Path and the other day on the Short Path. The attitude will be a passive one because all intellectual ideas have only a limited value. We must be now guided by our inner feeling of what we need, or by our intuition. If people ask whether they have to study, the answer is that the books deal with the thoughts. What they give is not the Truth, but only intellectual statements of it. It will only prepare them for a better understanding. When they study these books they will only get more thoughts. In the end they have to come to the point where they need no books. There are good books but we must always discriminate between wrong teachings and right teachings, which may get mixed together in the same book. This is the highest we can go with such studies.

When changing to contemplation, the thinking stops. This is the deepest point within oneself. This is why everybody has to search within himself and to find his own Path. It is not necessary to travel on the Long Path any longer time than that which prepares you for the Short Path. It is quite important to have living faith in the Overself and to become like a child and to have as much dependence on the Overself as a little child has on its parents. This faith should be in the power of the Spirit itself, not in any other human being. If the aspirant is constantly anxious about his faults or weaknesses, then he is on the wrong Path. He can try to remove them but cannot do this completely until he is able to give up the ego.

The basis of the Short Path is that we are always divine. It is with us already, it is no new thing, and we only have to try to recognize what is already there.

Text copyright © 1984‒1989 Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation. Used by permission.

Paul Brunton (1898–1981) wrote many books on spiritual subjects.

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There’s an approach to enlightenment in which you try from the start to abide as consciousness and being. This practice has various names in different traditions. Paul Brunton called it “the short path.”

Ramana Maharshi said the short path is the final section of every longer path, so if you are able to do so, why not skip the preliminaries and start at the beginning of the short one?

This volume contains advice and thoughts about the short path recorded by Brunton in his notebooks. The editors, who are intimately familiar with Brunton’s writings, have gone through his notebooks, extracted relevant passages, organized them in chapters, and added an introduction, preface, and glossary.

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This book is a galloping adventure story, a sort of spiritual Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it's also an accurate description of spiritual experience and a summary of important spiritual teachings. It was a tremendous best-seller in many countries in the 1930s and 40s, appealing to the general public and not just spiritually-oriented people. The author, a young Englishman, tells the true story of his adventures travelling up and down India looking for a genuine guru. His search ends when he finds Ramana Maharshi. This is the book that made Ramana Maharshi famous outside India. Brunton’s description of Ramana’s teachings is still useful and accurate today. This book is much better written than most spiritual books — it was a general best-seller, not just a spiritual best seller — and it’s a lot of fun to read.


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This page was published on August 21, 2019 and last revised on August 21, 2019.


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