The symbolism of the path can be studied in order to understand why it is the fundamental image for life’s progress. Yet the path overlaps our other cultural images: way, road, journey. Each is different, as a stage or in themselves, and we need to consider where we are at any given point.
A path is a natural part of a natural landscape. We are so familiar with artificial landscapes that a natural path in them seems to be visually disruptive, violating some injunction against trespassing. But in a natural landscape (or in our symbol mind’s-eye) the setting and path must be natural.
A path is distinct as figure to ground. A path is visible and distinct but it arises from the occasional traversing by someone else. Who that someone else is we do not know, nor can we assume some motive or purpose too readily. The path is not marked, not controlled by anybody. We come to such a passage with similar intention, however. The path seems just wide enough for one, or, rather, just narrow enough. We step forward of our own volition, hoping the path will lead us somewhere but also let us be on our own. The experience will be our own, regardless of the outcome. Perhaps the experience will come to override our original purpose – we don’t know.
But the path is not a way. A way is established by a predecessor and the landmarks are already pointed out, the highlights emphasized, even if the destination is not clear. For a way is not a matter of destination but an experience. On a way, we cross various landscapes, not all of them visible yet, and some changing behind us. At least we set out on a way with a guide, even if only a literary or historical one. A way remains objective; sometimes we don’t understand the guide and have to look for ourselves, and sometimes we look ahead or behind without clarity. But we have the confidence that others have trusted our guide, however much our guide leaves things to our own potential.
If we travel on a road, we are no long on a path or way, for we have left the subjective experience for someone else’s. A road is intentional, but not our intention — somebody else’s. A road is organized y others, maintained by them, available to others as long as they obey the rules of those whose road this is. We pass over a road with necessary intent, with a preordained goal, measured out and specified as to where and when. We see rapidity, efficiency, and inevitability with a road. You must know where you are going in order to take exit. Or, if you do not know, you will be told so. On a road, one must keep pace with all the other travelers, or you will be singled out and perhaps thrown off the road.
A journey is a grand project. A journey is an abstraction, a desire, a hoped for outcome that remains in a shrouded distance. A journey will take up all of our resources, all our strength, our focus. We will have no choice but to give ourselves wholly to the proposed journey if we are to make a success of it. At least the journey is the product of our own mind: the success or failure of reaching our imagined goal is up to our own fortitude and skills. But the journey may take far longer than we expected. The hazards on the way may divert us for a long time, and the pleasures on the way may divert us indefinitely. We cannot resume a journey as on a road, for the goal may shift, the possible manners of completing the journey may expire or change. The journey may overwhelm us, due to circumstance but more likely to our own shortcomings. All journeys are perilous, involving risk. There is the possibility that we may end up not in the place we thought but in the place from which we began.
These thoughts are inspired by Wald and Ruth Amberstone and their book The Secret Language of the Tarot. The title is popularized; the book is better than its title. The authors’ intent is simply to draw out symbols and to reflect on their meaning. In the symbolism of the path and its counterparts, they see spiritual paths:
All point to some version of escape from the dilemma of the suffering small self in the great world, and they all lead, at the very least, to magnificent self-improvement and refinement.
Thus the great traditions propose only paths, and the rest is up to us: the Buddhist Eightfold Path derived from the Four Noble Truths; the Great Path of Return in Hindu tradition; the Path of Ascent in Gnostic tradition, among others. To pursue any other equivalent to the simplicity of the path is undertaken at our own risk. Meditating on the symbol of the path allows us to set ourselves in a great context and to work our way forward according to a clearer insight of will, meaning, and purpose.