“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls…”
A friend and I just returned from Santa Fe, where we did some hiking, some writing and a lot of playing. We are working on a book about Spirituality and Grief, and I cannot think of a better place to ponder such things than the desert.
I snapped this picture near Skull Bridge, at the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) near Abiquiu, New Mexico. The Trail head is just over that bridge and heads south into the Rio Chamas Wilderness area, a gorgeous place no matter what time of year. I wrote about another trip here in a post titled Smile at Fear.
It’s funny to me how small the world seems when I sit at my desk and type, when I can instantly communicate with someone in New Mexico or Australia, when I can click a few buttons and pretty much anything I want is at my fingertips. But the world takes on whole new dimensions when you are actually out in it. I am often filled with wonder and a deep sense of unease that it is easier to speak with someone hundreds of miles away via text than it is to walk across the street to talk to a neighbor. I have a house full of things my grandmother’s generation was told would save time and make life easier and I suppose in some ways they do. But time for what? More work? TV? Stress? Family and friends? What do we do with this supposed extra time and ease we were granted? We live in a world moving so fast that when something takes mere seconds I say it is moving slowly. But that’s when I’m inside, dealing with the non-human, unnatural world. Traipsing around on a trail that literally runs from Mexico to Canada makes the whole thing suddenly come into a more realistic perspective.
One of the reasons I love hiking is that the planet truly takes on a whole new dimension when you are walking through it– deserts and woods are not like other places. For one thing, they are huge, but more than that they are full of wonder and scenery, challenge and solitude, hope and a sense that we are not alone. Interestingly, when I get away from all the stuff that is supposed to save me time, I have all the time in the world. When I get way from the hustle of the millions of people on the planet, the less alone I feel. Wilderness trails offer a chance to reconnect to myself and in doing so I reconnect to my God as well. I love the water, but put me on a trail anywhere, especially in the mountains or the desert, and I have found my bliss. A path simply takes you from one civilized place to another, but a trail…Ah, a trail takes you from what we like to call civilization into the unknown. I believe the further we travel into the Unknown, the more we travel the path the ancients knew led to the Heart. By doing so, we allow the soul to take the ancient paths which lead to peace and rest. I think of Augustine’s line,
My soul is restless, O God, until it finds rest in You…
There is something so comforting about knowing that just as this area on the CDT was traveled for centuries before Europeans “discovered” America, so too has the Path of Life has been journeyed for generations before me. The Prophet Jeremiah wrote those words about ancient paths sometime around 600 B.C.E. We really haven’t changed that much in all of the years we’ve roamed this planet…we’ve always been restless, we’ve always sought rest for our weary souls. Leaders and subjects come and go, tides ebb and flow, children are born and someday die in old age, relationships are complicated and endure, money is made and lost and on and on. Cravings have always been with us, as has emotional pain and bliss, but time marches on and the search for meaning transcends generations. This has always been the nature of humans and I assume this will continue on long after I am gone from this body. Our technology has changed, but deep down we all want the same things we’ve always wanted…health, love, safety, joy, freedom from suffering, the chance to live and love and enjoy those with whom we live and love. These are the ancient paths we all walk, and while the details may change, the human story is pretty much the same over time.
The ancient paths are the ones I think we all long for in our depths…we all long to connect to ourselves and loved ones, to something greater than ourselves and to all Life can offer. Tillich said the word “solitude” reflects the joy of being alone, while the word “lonely” reflects the pain of being alone. We all need to have time alone to walk the path, to feel the pain and the joy of that “alone-ness” at times. And while it is comforting to know others have gone before me and I am never alone, the truth is that it is still my path to walk and the choice is mine to walk it. Growth is optional and not everyone chooses it, but that is also an ancient path. Buddha said, “You cannot travel the path until you become the path itself,” and I realize more and more how true that is. As they say in Zen, the obstacle is the path, and we can only truly travel that path with an open heart. What fascinates me is that we all have teachers and endless opportunities to open to the path, but we can only apply the lessons within if we choose to do so with an open heart and mind. So we all travel the path, but our choices can lead to a path of heartache or one of joy. As usual, discernment is the key.
What the ancients knew, that we all must learn, is that the good path will only open to us as much as we can or will give ourselves to it, without judgment of ourselves or others. In doing so, eventually we find what all the mystics tell us over and over about the path…such as, we are not punished for our anger, but we can be harmed by our anger. We are not rewarded for our good deeds, we are rewarded by them, including the ways in which our immunity and our cellular structure becomes stronger and more resilient as we practice compassion and joy. The deeper we go, the more love and humility and compassion we find, thus the more rest we find for our weary souls, which leads to more compassion and humility. I’ve come to believe essence of true humility is knowing I am neither too much nor too little, and that I don’t have to prove myself to anyone—even me. But that was one of the lessons of my path, I didn’t come in with that understanding at all. Like all of us, I grew into it and hopefully will learn to walk this path with a wise heart.
Just as Jesus said to love one’s neighbor as self, and Buddha said there is no one more deserving of your love than you, we all have to walk the path of embracing our own goodness. We have all faced demons and struggled on the path. We have all embraced the path or run from it, not realizing it was all still the same path. We have all had conflicts with parents or children, friends or bosses, teachers, lovers and maybe even someone we called an enemy. But choosing the good path leads to rest, and a rested soul is a wise soul, and wise souls usually come to understand the conflict is within, not outside of us somewhere. Thus they seek the wise path of peace.
We all walk these ancient paths, and the paths often diverge into addictions and an experience of suffering. The path always eventually leads to the same place of Home, but not everyone knows to ask up front, “Which one is the good one?” But the Universe, in all of its gracious abundance, always lights the path before us until we know to ask, until the answers become clear. Because this too is the nature of the path, leading us from one civilized place to another, ever offering the Light yet another day. Gautama Buddha addressed this hundreds of years ago with his own disciples, hoping to shed a light on the path for them, yet hoping they would also take responsibility for illuminating it themselves. He said to them,
All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
But do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
So today, for all of us standing at the crossroads and asking, ‘Which one is the good way?’ I wish you peace and clarity, and rest for your souls.