Sign saying "Path" in spray paint on trail in the woods

Why I Dislike the Term “Path”

I get annoyed when someone says, “I’m on a spiritual path.”

If someone says, “I have a spiritual practice,” I’m interested. I want to know what the person’s practice consists of and how consistently it’s practiced. When did they begin to practice and how has the practice changed over time?

I’m not against paths. As a devout walker and hiker, I appreciate well-marked trails. I’m grateful for those who cleared and maintain the pathways along which I tread. Though I love the thought of­ bushwhacking, my poor sense of direction (and having got lost in the woods after dark) has convinced me of the usefulness of  paths, as well as maps.

It’s good to know where you’re going, which road to take to get there, and what you’re likely to encounter along the way.

But is path an accurate metaphor for spiritual exploration? Something so linear? For me, a child’s scribble would be a more apt. Something loopy, energetic, messy, joyful, frustrated, sublime.

Time lapse photo of children waving sparklers

Or a board game in which players keeps getting kicked back to Go.

Or a cookbook with recipes that never turn out the same way, no matter how closely instructions are followed. Every once in a while, a dish comes out perfectly. The next day, when the process is repeated, everything ends up in the bin.

A path suggests a predictable progression along previously traversed territory. Others have walked the path, flattened the grass, arrived and reported back. There’s enormous value in their accounts, in learning from their journeys, in trying to proceed as quickly as possible from Point A to Point E.

Yet there are those of us who, no matter how many maps we study or sages we consult, continue to seek in a way that resembles not so much a confident explorer, but a crazed fly bouncing off windows, buzzing, crisscrossing, crashing, insensible for a moment, stock-still, then twitching, rising, persisting, back in the air. Beginning again.

Begin again.

Sparkler photo courtesy of Mark DeMaio via flickr