The path is made by walking.
Anyone with the smallest of fingers on the mindfulness pulse has heard some version of that statement before. It's ubiquitous, and for good reason – mindfulness is about living in the present rather than focusing on the path ahead or behind us.
But like most sayings, ideas, and other poignant things, hearing is only one level of understanding. In order to truly get it, something has to happen in one's life to make it finally click.
I've already written a lot on this topic. I thought I was using it in my daily life. I thought I really got it, until I realized there is actually nothing to get.
When I set off on my 3-week, 8-state, 4,000-mile, solo-camping, journeyman trip, the "path is made by walking" was a launching off point. The past was behind me and the future yet unknown, so I would walk forward on a path – a literal path in the form of trails across 13 national parks and forests and an intellectual path that would hopefully mark my next steps in life.
Some part of me expected the trip to uncover all the answers in my life like some sort of hallucinatory, native american vision quest. I wasn’t alone in that expectation – when I returned, numerous friends wanted to know what I'd discovered about life and if I’d figured out what I wanted to do next with mine.
But sadly, I didn't return with all the answers. I certainly came back with a number of important lessons from the journey - confidence, humility, escaping nostalgia, the folly of multitasking, the true meaning of consequences, a renewed passion for the environment, and the freedom of disconnecting from the digital world - but no one lesson told me exactly what to do with myself now that I was home.
The lessons I learned were more like suggestions – they gave me an idea of how to move along the path but no real indication of which direction to travel.
So when I first got home, I struggled. I searched in vain for that one big vision from my vision quest, but I had no more clarity on how to move forward than I did before the trip, and I was left confused and crestfallen.
Then, after two weeks back home, and feeling as though I was blindly crawling down my path instead of confidently striding forward, I finally got around to finishing the amazingly poignant "Wild" by Cheryl Strad. The closing passage:
"It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn't have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I'd done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was... to believe that I didn't need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be."
It was the answer I had been looking for... and the answer was that there is no answer.
You don't go out into the woods, close your eyes, and see the whole path laid out in front of you. You go out into the woods, close your eyes, and you hear the wind whispering through the pine trees, you feel the mist from a 600 foot waterfall brush against your face, you smell a perfume of ferns and soil and wild flowers.
You go out into the woods, close your eyes, and you don’t see a vision...you see the powerful simplicity of right now.
That is why the path is made by walking. Each step you take is this very moment. Each step is all that you can control, all that you know, all that you do. And with each step your path grows. It doesn't necessarily show you what's ahead, but by making each step count in the present you build up the path of your future.
Your current step is reading this blog post. Your next step, what you do with your next moment, is up to you.
My current step is sharing these blog posts with all of you. My next step, what I do with my next moment, is up to me. But no matter what, I’m going to charge forward with confidence and joy to see where it takes me.
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat in my Prius on the day I finished my journey. Everything except the fact that I didn't have to know.