NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Path” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Path: With heart
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
Twenty years ago, I visited my brother Mark and his family near the capital of the tiny country of Luxembourg. One evening, I borrowed Mark’s car and went into the town center to meet an American friend of his for dinner. Mark’s friend and I spent several hours together, exploring the sights and sampling the night life. It was after midnight when we parted, and as I turned to head home, I realized I had no idea how to find the car.
I’d parked during the day and entered what I’d assumed was the main gate into the square, but now I saw that there were perhaps a dozen entrances, and in the dark I didn’t recognize the one I’d taken. I didn’t speak any of the languages native to Luxembourg, and anyway there were very few people around who could have helped me, even if I did. For several minutes, I froze in the middle of the square, unable to choose a direction. All I remembered was that I’d parked near water.
If you don’t know where a path goes, it’s hard take the first step.
Since 2008, when the financial crash hit, many of the people I see in therapy are confused about what they have been doing with their lives and are unsure of what to do next. They’ve lost jobs, had to move out of apartments or houses that are now beyond their means, and are forced to examine where they’ve been, what has changed, and where they can go from here.
When I encounter clients in this state, I often ask them to do what my mentor, Jim Grant, asked of me when I was similarly adrift. I had returned to Boston from four years in a PhD program in English and a near-death experience, and I realized I no longer wanted to be an English professor, or perhaps even to continue writing. Jim suggested I make a list of everything I ever liked to do, still liked doing, or would like to do in the future, and bring it to our next session.
The following week, we sorted the 20 or so items I’d come up with into groups. Many of my “likes” fit into a few categories: seeing (literally and metaphorically), figuring things out, helping people, fixing things, teaching. We explored occupations that might combine two or more. It was not a big leap to see that working as a psychotherapist encompassed most of them. Only literal seeing was missing, and from my awareness of this gap, photography reemerged.
When I do this exercise with clients, the result is often a return to an earlier, abandoned desire – a reboot of never-forgotten dreams. An interest from long ago gets re-activated. Something buried under depression, anxiety, hardship, or family expectations breaks through. They see the new paths as a better fit for their talents and joys than what they had been doing before. One client who had been in the insurance industry is now embarking on a career in the medical field. Another who was a real estate agent is now in law school. Others have gone into graphic arts, coaching, teaching, writing, and a few, like me, have become therapists themselves.
Psychotherapy had been an interest since my first psychology class in 1969. As an undergraduate, almost all my literature classes looked at novels, stories, plays, and poems from a psychoanalytic perspective, and I also volunteered at a mental hospital and took enough psychology courses to constitute a minor. Each time I went off to graduate school in writing or literature, I considered applying in social work or psychology instead. I veered away because I didn’t think I could handle the emotional backwash of the troubles of 25 or 30 people week after week. But by the time I did the exercise with Jim, I’d been through enough troubles of my own to feel confident that whoever walked through my door, no matter how serious the problems, would not blow me away.
The road is not always smooth and the path not always clear. Sometimes taking some steps down one is the only way to tell if a path is right for you: if, in the words of the Yaqui shaman in Carlos Casteneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, it is “a path with heart.” Which brings me back to that evening in Luxembourg, where I learned that going down the “wrong” path is sometimes the only way to get anywhere at all.
After a brief period of panic, I remembered that I’d walked about 10 minutes from the car to the entrance I’d taken into the town square. If I were to take any exit and walk 11 minutes, I’d either find the car or know that I’d taken the wrong path and could return to the square to try again. In the worst case, I reasoned, I might make all the wrong choices before I made the correct one, but I would still find the car in a little over four hours.
I found it on the third try.
Many of the people I work with are poised on the brink of a new direction but remain stuck at a crossroads of possibilities and risks, afraid to venture down one path or another because they might be making a mistake. They ponder and research and weigh and balance, but they stay stuck. There are too many variables, too many unknowns. They need to go down some path, if only to rule it out. And once they are in motion, they need to know that they will be able to discern whether the path they are on is one with heart.
A useful supplement to the interest inventory is the three-out-of-five list. It goes like this: List the five qualities you most want in an important area of your life, then circle the three that you can’t live without. Whether you are describing new or existing relationships, work environments, career choices, spiritual direction, or other significant aspects of being a human being, the three qualities you circled are the core qualities of your path with heart.
The list becomes your guide to stepping into the unknown. When you come upon a situation in which four of the five qualities you listed are present, but one of the crucial three is not, it’s often tempting to compromise. Most of the time, though, that missing essential third quality never emerges, and it really is essential. When we hold out for the qualities we can’t live without, often, the others eventually appear.
The closing statement of the Buddhist sangha I have recently joined goes like this:
“This day is ended. Our lives are shorter. Now we look carefully at what have we done. Let us live deeply, free from our afflictions, aware of impermanence, so that life does not drift away, squandered.”
When we are on a path with heart, the going may be no easier than when we are on another path. But we don’t mind. We know the path is taking us where we need to go; we are not just passing time. And when we come to the end of our days, we do not feel that our lives have drifted away, or that our time on the planet has been squandered.
I don’t think it gets any better than that.