In her last work, Interior Castle, St Teresa remarks that instability of spiritual states is often a cause of bewilderment to spiritual aspirants. They felt sure that what they experienced at times of devotion in favourable circumstances would be with them for ever; when they found later that somehow it had gone, they were liable to lose confidence and give up.
A Zen master, discussing the same point, compares the spiritual path to a journey in a rowing boat along a coast where there is a strong tide. Half the time it helps, and half the time the tide is against the boat. Beginners usually enter on the practice when things are favourable, and they make rapid progress up to a point, but when they find the ‘tide’ has changed, many of them become discouraged because they find they can hardly advance any further, and they stop trying. So the contrary tide carries them back over nearly all the distance they covered. When it again runs for them, they make new efforts and the spiritual qualities they had lost become manifest once more, but when it changes, they give up as before and are carried back, losing the spiritual intuitions and inner peace.
They can spend, he adds, a lifetime thus alternating between elevation and depression, and never reaching the goal because they will not row unless the current is in their favour. Even worse, some of them may come to feel that all efforts are somehow useless, leading only to states most of which pass away; they lose faith that there is any real progress to be made.
He gives some interesting and valuable advice to disciples in this sitation. The attainments of the favourable times, he says, are indeed unstable, unless and until they have been held steady during an unfavourable time. When you row with the tide, you will pass certain points on the coast-line; but if you stop rowing when the tide turns against you, you will be carried back past them. You will see them leaving you, so to speak. Then you will have to row past them yet again when the tide runs for you.But if, when you have once passed them, and the contrary tide begins, you work hard to hold the boat where it is, just where it is without thinking of further progress at present, then those points are behind you for ever. Never again will you have to struggle past them.
If you attain a state of some peace in peaceful surroundings, you do not know whether that state will remain with you or not. But if you have managed even once to retain some degree of it during a time of serious disturbance, then that degree of peace is yours for ever. And the same with other spiritual qualities. This is the advice of Zen Master Hakuin.