I went for a walk in the woods today, and found myself following the old familiar track without really thinking about it. I haven’t been down this way in a while, but it’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it’s known. I could go off the trail and explore – and I usually do, eventually – but I like the familiar track.
For one thing, it’s easy going. I can lift my eyes and look around more, instead of having to watch my feet. I also like following the same path on different days, and at different times of year, to see how this ground, and these trees, change over time. Having a path to come back to after exploring also keeps me oriented, and gives me reference points in the landscape that can tell me where I am.
Spiritual paths can be a lot like that, too, with all of the benefits and drawbacks that come with familiarity. On the one hand, having a long-term relationship with a single path lends depth to our understanding of it, and gives us something to steer by even when we step off it. On the other hand, we can grow complacent walking that old familiar track, to the point where we no longer notice the details or pay attention to the very things that drew us to it in the first place.
An even larger pitfall, however, is that we can forget that we can step off the trail, and that there may be other paths through the woods. At its worst, this leads to fundamentalism, but even in small doses can lead to parochialism and small-minded dismissal of alternative approaches. The flip side of this is “path envy” – we see people on other trails and start to wonder if they know something we don’t. We might start to wonder if the path we’re on is somehow inadequate, and either abandon it or get a bit defensive about where we’re walking.
That defensiveness can circle back around to a type of close-minded fundamentalism itself, when we look at where other people are walking and try to convince them that they’re on the wrong trail. “Oh, dear,” we say, “you’ll hurt yourself if you keep going that way. The path is over here!”
Or we might approach them a little more casually, suggesting that they should be open-minded and try coming over to our path for a while, to see the woods from another perspective. But how often do we make that suggestion when we aren’t willing to follow it ourselves?
Maybe I’m abusing the “path” metaphor, which has become something of a cliche. And I often don’t like the way the language of “paths” is used in spiritual practice. But sometimes it just fits the way I’m thinking, and today was one of those days.
On a final note, while no one accompanied me on the trail today, I did find evidence of those who had walked it before me. And that felt nice.