The Pathless Path

David Whyte writes a beautiful poem about forging our own way that echoes the often quoted wisdom of Joseph Campbell, “if there is a path, it is someone else’s.” The poem, “Start Close In,” is both meditation and wise council- the kind that turns us back toward ourselves for answers instead of further deluding us with “life hacks” and short-cuts in the form of “30 days to a better you,” or that we can find our way on someone else’s trodden path. Certainly, we learn and find guidance through the stories of others. We need the stories of others which serve as a salve for the beautiful and terrifying truth of the inevitable aloneness of selfhood. We do best to look for guidance from others, though, when we’re simultaneously trusting of our ultimate source of guidance within. Ursula K. Le Guin says it in the context of art, “One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”

Even with the stories of others as guidance and comfort, much of life is a foggy view forward without being able to see beyond where we are now, regardless of how scripted or unscripted our plans are and how lost or assured we may feel. We all experience a sense of pathlessness in our own ways. It might be that our internal longings are vastly incongruent with what we’re living out in reality, without a vague sense of how to begin to narrow the chasm. It could be that we feel a persisting ambiguity of what our internal longings even are. The pathless view might be an eerie sense of arrival at what we thought we always wanted only to realise we’ve been living a life outwardly expected of us. After all, most of us, at some time or another, get caught up reaching for some idea of success that we had no hand in writing ourselves. Maybe, we find a fulfilling rhythm in what we had the courage to go after on our own accord, and still find ourselves asking, where now, what next? Sometimes the fog is a dull ache, a longing to grow into more of ourselves, without quite yet knowing how. Sometimes, it’s more basic than that, like a matter of a soured mood or an acute bout of “hangry” that shoots all basic reasoning to hell. It looks and feels different ways, of varying magnitude, across different seasons. Sometimes it visits us with brevity, at other times with persistence, and in essence can be practical and profound, and everywhere in between.

Regardless of which version of the unknown path we’re experiencing, “Start Close In” provides direction without a map, and brings to mind one of the most basic and familiar (and inarguable) adages, “one step at a time”…


Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something

(Excerpt from David Whyte: Essentials. Read the full poem here.) 

The step “close in” is the only step in question when we follow the direction of what we know now and can intuit in these sensing bodies of ours, where we inhabit the present unlike our time travelling thoughts. Ease or relief in following directions that are void of our own intuition is short-lived. With our eyes on the step that’s close in, the relief in any illusion of a predetermined path falls away, but so too might the confusion, overwhelm, urgency, or whatever else we may feel about not knowing the path, the way, ahead of time. We can find practical wisdom in the simplicity of facing one step right now, the one we know intuitively. We can ask a question, look at the bank statement, reach out for help, let ourselves be still, apologise, write a sentence, satisfy our hunger, and choose to trust the yearning without trying to fix it away. Paradoxically, we have the greatest agency to navigate the way, our way, by admitting our pathlessness. Where else do we have agency other than where we find our own two feet? By admitting our powerlessness over control through any guaranteed path, we’re empowered to forge our way first and foremost with the step close in, the only one we’re ever facing.

Like most, I find comfort in having a sense of direction, both in my days and at greater scale in imagining the years. But those seasons that are especially unclear remind me of a beauty much greater than plans gone accordingly- the beauty in how life really is- unruly and wild, and more full of ellipses than fully formed sentences. The pathless path reminds me of the beauty in what makes us uniquely human- a yearning to live more into ourselves, the wondrous intangibility of it, and the beauty in the humility of this levelling truth: that we are all finding our way as we go.

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