Let me tell you how spiritual paths should work from beginning to end. I know it’s bold of me to claim to know, but I’m taking my cue from the many spiritual teachers out there who speak with just this kind of audacious authority.

You ask the average Joe or Jo on the street, “Is it best to be invested in things, to really care, to really commit–or is it best to be divested, to let go, to be really detached?” and they’ll say, “Well, of course, it depends.” The average Joe and Jo know that there’s no universal answer to this question.

What’s funny though is that you can hornswoggle Joe and Jo with rhetoric that implies that it doesn’t depend, that you should always commit or conversely always let go. Accuse them of being “attached” or “clingy,” “addicted” or any other pejorative that denotes investment, and you’ll get them all tangled in shame, foolishly wondering why they can’t comply with the universal law that you should always be divested.

Conversely, accuse them of being “uncaring,” “insensitive” “cutting and running” or any other pejorative that denotes divestment and you can get them all tangled up in shame, foolishly wondering why they can’t comply with the universal law that you should always be invested.

It’s sad.

People who feel really ashamed for failing to live by either one of these ridiculous, opposite, supposedly universal laws can go find a spiritual teacher who will teach them how to live by it.

One Joe tells a Jo that she was too uncaring. Ashamed for not caring she finds a teacher who claims to be able to teach her the power of faith, commitment, and investment.

Another Jo tells a Joe that he was way too attached. Ashamed for not being flexible, he goes off to a teacher who claims to be able to teach him the power of non-attachment, acceptance and divestment. These seekers want the peace of mind that comes from finally complying with the recipe, the universal law that one should always be invested. Or conversely always divested.

But there’s a problem. The teachings themselves, these supposedly pure truths are each self-contradictory. The recipe for investment says, “Surrender into faith. Let go into holding on,” and the recipe for divestment says “Commit yourself to flexibility. Hold on to letting go.”

So Joe and Jo go back to their respective teachers and say, “There seems to be a mistake. The teaching contradicts itself.” And the teacher, with a twinkle in his or her eye says “No mistake. You just haven’t solved the deep, ancient, esoteric mystery yet. There’s nothing wrong with the teaching. Stick with it and someday you’ll Transcend and Discover The Secret.”

“But how can you hold on and let go at the same time?”

“There’s a way. You just haven’t found it yet.”

So Joe and Jo go away and try to get it right. They practice Luther’s surrender to faith, or the Tao’s “doing not doing.” And they kick themselves for getting it wrong.

Some never get it. They spend their whole lives trying to meet the standard, to achieve this perfect non-contradictory state where they are both completely committed and completely detached simultaneously always.

And others never get it. They strive but do not achieve that perfect balance where they’re never out of bounds, over- or under-invested, never invested where divestment is called for, and never divested where investment is called for.

And still others never get it. They decide that The Transcendent state is where there are no standards. Cling; let go, invest; divest, who cares? It’s all good. It doesn’t matter. In the cosmic scheme, the enlightened just laugh a wise spiritual laugh at the folly of trying to live by standards.

But some Joes and Jos struggle on, looking at investment and divestment from every possible angle until they finally figure it out:

Either the teacher was wrong or lying for the student’s benefit. There is no sweet spot, no perfect blend, no way to simultaneously invest and divest. Investment and divestment are incompatible states.

T.S. Elliott said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to return to where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Like the everyday Joe and Jo they once were, the spiritually successful Joes and Jos decide again that it depends. Sometimes you’ve got to be very invested, and sometimes you’ve got to be very divested. You want to guess right when to be which, and it’s hard. It’s guesswork, inescapable guesswork.

Investment isn’t the answer. Despite what most religions say, despite the vast amount of spiritual energy invested in the power of faith, there is no one true faith to commit to for all eternity, and no faith that will give you eternity.

Divestment isn’t the answer either. Despite what ascetics and Buddhists and the other renouncers say, a life unattached, letting go, always in the here and now is both impossible and not worth living. It’s the life of the suicide, or, in compromise allowing unattached investment, of a toaster oven, content to be shut on and off with no lingering longing, no inertia and momentum, no skidding halts or sadness when its investment in toasting the bread is suddenly terminated.

And a pure blend — doing not doing, divesting into investment, or investing in divestment aren’t the answers either.

They’re the question. When should you be invested and when should you be divested?

One could call the spiritual path a sequence that goes “Hard left, hard right, hard center, hard choices.” For example:

Hard Left: Love (investment) is the answer.

Hard Right: Tough (divestment) is the answer.

Hard Center: Tough Love is the answer.

Hard Choices: Tough Love is the question: When to be tough and when to be loving?

Or one could call it Ambigamy: Deeply romantic (invested) and deeply skeptical (divested).

Or one could call it simply Expectation Management: Which standards and expectations to hold onto and which ones to let go of.

Joe and Jo return to where they started. But this time they’re hornswoggle-proof. No one can lure or distract them ever again with hard left, hard right, or hard center enticements and shame. Now they really really know that it depends. Now they concentrate on the guesswork, trying to minimize suffering, which is simply being invested where it’s better to be divested, and trying to minimize insensitivity—being divested where it’s better to be invested.

Alan Watts said “The lifestyle of one who practices doing not doing [Wei Wu Wei] must be understood as a form of intelligence. That is knowing the patterns, structures and trends of human and natural affairs well enough that one uses the least energy dealing with them.”

Not a state of perfection to be achieved, but a goal to aim one’s guesswork toward nonetheless.

What are the texts for the ambigamist, facing forward into the hard choices, deciding when to be doing (investing) and when to be not doing (divesting)? Unlike the texts for the hard left, hard right, and hard center approaches, each of which has to deny the truth of something, the texts for hard choices include everything. Literature, movies, philosophy, music, science, gossip, fables—it’s all about choosing one’s battles, where to invest and where to let go.

Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate said to major in English is to major in death. Cicero said “To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare oneself to die.” Ernest Becker said, “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.” D.T. Susuki, the teacher who brought Zen to the US said, “Life is like getting on a boat that is about to set sail and sink.” The Quakers say “Build it to last 100 years; be ready to leave tomorrow.”

Investment/divestment: this is the spiritual question common to all human endeavor, playing out fractally, from the micro-investments and divestments, the expectations and dashed expectations that live in you every day, that the trains, computers, shopping lines, and clerks will do what you’re invested in them doing, to the mini-investments and divestments, the partnerships and pets you hope will, but don’t always last, to life itself, the investment in being here when we have to die, to the macro-investments and divestments, our culture, species, planet and universe, spinning on for now, temporarily abled, but not forever.