Sunday, September 18, 2011

Coda 4: Paths

I've used the word territory elsewhere in this essay. The word trajectory also comes to mind, but path to me combines the idea of movement through time with the idea of the different territories we inhabit. Path suggests the threads or strands of our individual lives, which seem separate but are often linked in certain ways - overlapping people and places, for example, that may cause our individual paths to converge or diverge.
    We are born into territories, like that of our family, but we take up our paths individually. Paths may be or may appear unavoidable, but there still seems to be an element of volition to them. In their positive sense, paths are voluntarily taken up. They may involve vows of marriage or friendship, or of "voluntary suffering" (in George Gurdjieff's phrase).
    Like a path through unexplored terrain, the paths we take up in life may not take us where we expected. It is tempting to label "false," a "dead end," a path which leaves us "nowhere," but life proves the contrary often enough that I resist this terminology. Paths aren't linear. They're more like streams that sometimes disappear, only to surface later in a different form. Other paths are like rivers, always visible even if their nature constantly changes. All of them are part of our life's terrain.
    Buddhism asserts the connectedness of all things. It suggests never to abandon anyone. It also suggests how paths intersect as life unfolds. The process seems accidental, but may not be. When I look back at my own life, how it unfolded makes sense in retrospective. This may be what Nassim Taleb calls the "narrative fallacy," our human trait to reconstruct our life so it adds up. Yet this narrative reflects what we see. Except in the very broadest sense, it lacks predictive power. (Pace Taleb. He sees life as a sea of randomness, and humans as blind to it. My "very broadest sense" reflects what we're prepared emotionally to stake our life on. I think Taleb would agree with this. Very few things qualify.)
    The Soto Zen essayist Kocho Uchimaya says that when we die, our world dies with us. I'm not sure (to paraphrase the Buddha). There's an aspect of destiny visible to me in my own life when I look back at it. Sometimes I think of it as a cycle of plays in which the parts are divvied up among the same company. The actors looks familiar, but the roles they play differ. Perhaps karma relates to this, and the part we're assigned reflects and answers the previous play or plays, even as it is played out in real time, a different story.
    Paths are not predestined, but we find them and take them up with some sense of being properly on them, some sense of recognition or intuition of their rightness. This is an inexact science, to say the least. Life doesn't come with an instruction book. We read the signs as best we can. We do our best to walk a path we've taken up, although our best may fall woefully short of what a path demands of us.
    When a path involves a vow, the vow is properly a vow to persevere. This is equally true in marriage and in friendship. To persevere means, in a formal sense, to continue regardless. It doesn't mean to insist on the features of the path or the constant presence of another on it. A path is always an individual path, even the path of a marriage. Sometimes we find ourselves on it together is how I look at it. This is why I suggest relegating to family the issue and material effects that accompany most marriages. A family is a territory.

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