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,” even though I, too, am on a spiritual path.

If someone says, “I have a spiritual practice,” I’m interested. I want to know what that 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 walker and hiker, I appreciate well-marked trails. I’m grateful for those who created, cleared, and maintain the pathways along which I tread. Though I love the thought of­ bushwhacking, my nonexistent sense of direction (and several adventures involving being 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 the best metaphor for spiritual exploration? Something so linear. My quest has been anything but a straight line.

A child’s scribble would be a more apt. Something loopy, energetic, messy, joyful, frustrated, hopeful, sublime.

Time lapse photo of children waving sparklers

Or a board game in which the player 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 so often, the dish comes out perfectly. The next day, when the process is repeated, everything ends up in the trash.

A spiritual path suggests a predictable progression along previously traversed territory. Others have walked the path, flattened the grass, arrived, and reported back. There’s tremendous value in their accounts, in learning from their wisdom, 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 well-informed walker 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