The word “path” refers to both the physical and psychological. Our trajectory in life is called a path but we both follow a worn path trodden by predecessors (the totality of what we call culture and society) and a path of our own making. We assume the latter to be our own making and feel guilty when it does not please or gratify or reward us, but the path of our own making is seldom so autonomous.
Working with images of paths helpfully illustrates this. Our usual image of change and decision-making is that of a forking path, illustrated by, for example, the letter “T” or “Y”.
If we begin at the bottom of the stem of the letter and proceed up, we soon encounter a fork on the path. We must make a decision about our path, which we will presume was never so clear or resolute that we could be sure that we did not want to proceed.
As the poet Heine notes, the tension at the fork is overwhelming, beyond our strength to simply hold the tension, to stay where we are and refuse to go forward. We seem to instinctively want to choose one of the choices and be done. We are lured by what we hope may be a better scenario, a path wherein we can retain our identity while enhancing and improving our lot. Thus, Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
We take the gamble, not fully understanding what we will discover, clinging to past and projecting the present. Hope reigns stronger than reason, desire clings to an intuition.
If we have understood what Buddhism calls the Ground (and here may be illustrated by the stem of the letter), then the path that is manifested does not really fork but just continues. The fork is an interruption, a decision, an existential pausing, scanning, and continuing.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
We look back, imagining how far we have come, and what good things lie before us. If we get to the end of this new path — the arm of the stem on the Y or the crossbar of the T — we can conceptualize our point on the path. If we recognize the Ground, we are merely changing the appearance but have the opportunity to incorporate where we are, the new here and now, as simply a continuation. We begin to become the path, as the popular Buddhist saying goes.
But we may doubt. We might turn around again, proceed along the path we have just trodden. We want to go back and not face change or decision. But we will only come to a crossroad again, another fork in the path. It is not the same fork because we are now looking at it from another perspective, yet we are back where we started. Everything will look different, everything will look strange and unexplored, and perhaps vaguely familiar, but we are lost. We cannot go back again because the consciousness we held at the beginning is now different, even at the same physical point of the path.
And when we recognize the notion of path as a psychological or even spiritual one, we can realize why we cannot go back, even if we go back to the same physical spot.
This can be further illustrated by an anecdote. Someone goes back to the city or town of their birth. The house of their childhood is still there, the neighborhood grid of streets and other dwelling-places, something of the curve of the road and the landscape are familiar.
But everything is in a different light. Time has passed, the same people are no longer there. You realize that they are gone. A new set of occupants is there, strange faces staring out of windows or appearing at their doorsteps in suspicion. Time has passed, but space is compressed and seems suffocatingly so. What seemed vast and indifferent for a child is now almost claustrophobic, crowded and stifling. The very air, the sunlight, the absence of familiar sounds or voices, are all changed. Where are they?
The path once known cannot be recovered. That which was comfortable and familiar is now hostile, like an animal occupying new territory, driving away the bird or mammal that once occupied the nest, the den, that once ranged the field now barren and pathless.
Perhaps nature is more definitive, more “realistic” than we are. When something is irrevocable, nature seems harsh and unrelenting, while we demand more time to evoke a wistful nostalgia for our old path, our old self. It is then that we find our emotions merely accentuating a pathlessness, a feeling of not belonging anywhere, or having lost identity or psychological reassurance. Nature wants to reach equilibrium as soon as possible.
So Frost writes of what we should end up doing, of the way to accept change and to act by not acting. We must take a path intuitively, not for any rationale presented to us by the world, not for money, comfort, prestige, or social opportunity.
Oh, I kept the first [path] for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
We can be less certain that the path less traveled is the better one. It is, as Frost says, simply different, and we will have only one chance to do the choosing, and the telling.
More important is the criteria for our choice, for there is no fork in the path, only a continuation of the same path, only adjustments to the path we are creating. The path less traveled of Frost’s last stanza below is simply the path we travel. We don’t have to keep the first path for “just in case.” We have to make the present (new) path the path.
And while the material or psychological outcomes of change or decision-making may not be exactly what we demanded, they, too, may represent a path that is open to change, to a new fork, if we need it to be. The only outcome to satisfy is, after all, in the heart, in the spirit. If we are wise in our path, that is the “all” that makes “all the difference.”
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.