I can see you’re getting in the swing of your upcoming studies already! Your diagnosis—and perhaps prognosis—concerning the “bright agnostics” I encounter in my honors seminars is for the most part right on target, and you’re right in thinking that “The Noble Lie” was designed in part to provoke and encourage this particular audience.
If I were to follow your lead and do some “over-generalizing” myself, I would estimate that only about 25 percent of the honors students I teach fully understanding what I’m telling them and what they’re reading in the books I assign. Of these only about 25 percent make the existential connection and realize that the ideas they’ve encountered could “irrevocably alter” (your phrase) the direction of their personal lives. And of these, finally, only about 25 percent actually decide to begin moving toward that alteration in a deliberate or systematic way. Not the best odds, I agree, but quantity isn’t the issue.
Part of the explanation, again as you correctly surmise, is the fact of youth and the prospect of “bright futures”. Most people your age, regardless of how bright they may be, have a difficult time putting time in perspective since they haven’t yet experienced enough of it. I imagine this observation sounds a bit patronizing—wait till you’re as old as I am, etc.—but I don’t mean it that way at all. I’m speaking simply from the point of view of what might be called “applied metaphysics”. With a few rare exceptions, people need to move along the line of time somewhat further than you have before they become seriously interested—practically, and not just theoretically—in transcending it.
I’m afraid I don’t know you well enough to be able to predict what you’ll do with what you learned from our “Yogis, Mystics, Monks, and Zen Masters” or how exceptional you may prove in the long run. As already noted, the odds are that you’ll seldom look back. And even if you do, the next few years are going to be tremendously difficult for you, with any number of obstacles thrown in the way of serious spiritual work. Given what other, former students have told me, medical school is essentially one, long, stressful night! This being so, trying to preserve even the smallest residue from what you learned this past semester is going to be a full time job.
So what do I recommend? One strategy might be to look for “vertical openings” within the context of the health profession itself, places where an “alchemical” approach to the body is possible (I have in mind the chapter by Titus Burckhardt). More importantly, however, you can make a daily, if not hourly, effort to watch yourself—to push back the continually encroaching illusions so as to keep an objective grip on what is really going on.
“Make an effort”, I say, and not necessarily succeed in so doing! As you’ll recall, there was a consistent emphasis in each of the traditions we studied—in Yoga, Hesychasm, Zen, and Sufism—on the importance of detachment, on not identifying with the passing thoughts and emotions, the ups and downs, of our days. But there was also in each a compassionate acknowledgment of the fact that victory in this domain is finally more gift than achievement, a gift for which we prepare ourselves best by remaining courageous and hopeful even in the midst of our repeated failures.
Do you remember our brief discussion of the Zen master Soko Morinaga? Remember the subtitle of his autobiography? An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity. Your next years will almost certainly provide you with repeated opportunites for learning this lesson. Make the most of them!