‘If the path is clear, it’s not your path.’
I love this quote from Joseph Campbell, professor of literature and mythologist. I remember shortly after reading it, I went for a walk in my local park. Initially, I walked along the concrete path, weaving it’s way through the fields, as I pretty much always do. Then, I veered off the path onto the grass, where I had to find my own way. There was a palpable sense of freedom. Not only was the surface under foot more springy and responsive, I could go anywhere!
The realisation dawned in me, that the concrete path had been laid to direct me in a particular direction. While I followed it, I was walking someone else’s path. When walking in the park, this is not a particularly life-changing issue, applying this to my life however, invited food for thought.
Given that life is finite, the question of how I ‘spend’ my life, is an important one. Do I want to arrive at the ultimate destination – death – feverish, agitated and full of regret, or do I want to arrive filled with the sense that I have ‘made’ something worthwhile from my life. I have put the words ‘spend’ and ‘made’ in quotes to emphasise the reality of the choice that is implied in these words.
In his book ‘Living an Examined Life’, Jungian analyst James Hollis addresses these very questions. In a chapter entitled, ‘The Choice Is Yours’, he explores the ways in which we are culturally and socially conditioned to make particular life choices, by family, schooling and society at large – the concrete path. While these environmental influences can be supportive, and at times healthy, we may lose touch with an inner sense of direction, which is equally, if not more important.
In order to be able to ‘hear’, or access, this inner sense of direction, lets call it in-tuition, we need physical, psychological and emotional space. We need to STOP! While busy, we frantically follow the herd, shepherded by the dominant economic, political and social mantra of busy, busy, busy, more, more, more. It is radical to slow down, to say, ‘Not so busy, thank you.’ And to feel a sense of accomplishment. We are charting our own path, going at our own pace.
Mindfulness meditation and contemplative practices invite this capacity to stop. When we practice between 20-60 minutes of meditation daily, we enter a process of consciously ‘listening’, with and to, bodily/emotional sensations and patterns of thoughts. This is a direct connection with our inner world. When I meditate, I hear the whispers of inner-tuition, giving me direction, letting me know what is most important. Whispers, drowned out under the clamour of busyness.
Knowing oneself more fully, invites greater response-ability. When one hears and feels the inner longings, fears, frustrations, the un-lived life wanting to breathe through us, one is faced with choice. The possibility of action. A threshold opens up. To cross that threshold, is to follow through on our deepest yearnings.
In our society, choice is heralded as the ultimate freedom. Greater choice, however, can arouse uncertainty, anxiety and fear. It may include making changes to ones life, small and large. The painful loss of the familiar. The significant challenge of letting-go of what is deeply loved. The process of releasing ways of being that one is deeply attached to. This pain however, can be, the necessary birthing process required to bring something new into the world. As I asked in my post ‘Broken Open: On Difficult Transitions’, when ‘the caterpillar loses it’s former self, to be born into a new form. Does it know, in the mush, that it will be born with beautiful colours? That it will fly!’
A path with heart requires courage, and strength. Carlos Castaneda in The Teachings of Don Yuan, says,“For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.” This breathlessness includes developing the capacity to lean into uncertainty. To embrace not – knowing, risk and anxiety. We cannot bulldoze our way through. Reclaiming and excavating a path with heart, requires patience, kindness and sensitivity. This is not a path of extremes. We take time, listen and make small steps. Braille-ing our way. Feeling into the darkness of the unknown. As David Whyte tells us, ‘What you can plan is too small too live. What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough for what is hidden in your sleep.’ We can’t control this. We need to trust, to rest moment-to-moment in the process…
A helpful question to ask, in following a path with heart, comes from Hollis, ‘Will this choice enlarge my life, or diminish it?’ I have found this question profoundly helpful, and at times, piercingly uncomfortable. It does, however, help me navigate beyond a life dedicated to anxiety management. It opens me to a life of possibility… Ultimately, the most important questions on my deathbed, will be, ‘Have I lived and loved well?’ and ‘Did I live my life?’ It is important to consider these questions, and… to act on them, before it’s too late.
Image courtesy of Michael Leunig