A Path with a Heart

A few weeks ago, I ran out of books. I was travelling and realised that I was going to be on a plane for seven hours without anything to read. After a moment of paralysis, I messaged a friend who replied by sending me a digital copy of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda. It’s long and drags occasionally, but I’ve been reading it on and off since that flight and I’m enjoying it very much.

A week ago I read the passage quoted below and it’s been dancing around my mind ever since.

“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.

This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.” – Don Juan, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda

If this understanding is accurate in terms of how to live well, though there are a few areas that I question, it is worth considering what this actually means in terms of living in today’s world.

Finding a Path with a Heart

When I first read the passage, my own heart leapt. Yes, I thought. Yes. That’s what it means when something just feels right – it means that it has a heart.

Finding a path with heart is challenging and as Don Juan says, we probably have to try many, many times before getting it right. But maybe we know it when we find it. Maybe it’s one of those things where we might not know what we’re looking for but we’ll know it when we see it. Something about it just makes sense to us and so we carry on. A path with a heart, according to Don Juan, is followed not due to fear or ambition, but because it is the right path. This does not mean that the path is meant to take us somewhere in particular. Rather, it means that we are making disciplined choices to do the right thing because the direction we are heading is not relevant.

This is where it gets tricky. Much of society today is highly materialistic. We are conditioned to, or sold the idea of, working towards the next goal, which usually means attaining something – a job, car, partner, house, nicer car, nicer house. As soon as we’ve accomplished Thing A, there’s Thing B on the horizon and everyone else is probably getting it faster than we are. We should know, because we’ve been following them on social media they look so happy! What’s wrong with me?, we might ask. Why them and not me? One could argue that this is the way of the world; it’s difficult to then respond, Well maybe the world is wrong. But this is a subject for another time. If we are chasing an outcome, we are going somewhere. This is a path without heart.

A path with heart, on the other hand, rings clear to me as a way of being in the world, a way of living or relating to oneself, one’s environment, and those around us. A path with a heart can go anywhere or nowhere – how it goes is what matters. We know the beginning and the end but we don’t know the middle. At the beginning, we are born. In the end, we die. In the middle, we live a life. A path with a heart makes that a life well lived, and likely not the life we are sold as described above.

Assuming, and I know this post is rife with assumption, assuming that we have found a path with a heart, the question remains of how to stay on it. The question also remains of how we’re even supposed to know we’re on it in the first place.

Staying on the Path

According to Don Juan, we’ll know if we’re on a path with a heart if the path is easy but we’re also unlikely to realise we’re on a path without heart until it’s nearly too late. This presents a difficult position. Let’s first consider how to stay on a path with a heart.

I find it difficult to accept Don Juan’s assertion that a path with heart makes for a joyful journey and that it is easy. Anyone who has lived, really lived, knows that it can be painful and confronting to try to do the right thing. It can be difficult to even determine what the right thing is, let alone whether we are doing it. And it can be difficult to accept and learn from challenge if we come to understand that we are not doing the right thing. A further obstacle, from that point, is how to do better.

But, and this part is important, the easy part is in knowing that we are doing what is right by the principles we live by. I believe that one must have clearly articulated principles in order to walk a path with a heart. Otherwise, how will anything ever feel right or joyful or easy? As one of my friends says, he needs to walk out of work each day knowing he has done everything he can to do the right thing. Walking a path with heart, then, means living a principle. It means actually doing rather than merely speaking. It means being able to rest with yourself knowing who you are and why you have made certain choices, and then acting according to who you say you are.

From where I am right now, this is not easy. It is actually very difficult to peel oneself apart and ask questions. It is sometimes even harder to hear the answers. However, I see how it might become easier and perhaps this is Don Juan’s point. There are obviously bumps on the road, challenges and trials in many forms, but staying on the path itself might remain easy because it is the right one. Maybe it’s the knowledge of the path rather than the actions required to remain on it that Don Juan calls easy. This implies that life should be lived with purpose and our actions should be in accordance with our purpose. Once the purpose is clear, the rest of the way might not be easy, per se, but it might be congruent with one’s understanding of the world. There is an ease of being that comes through in such cases.

But I admit, I’m very much in this stage of my own journey. And that’s the thing – a path is a journey.

Switching Paths

As an educator, I’ve had some really interesting conversations with young people about their choices. We talk about who they are, what matters to them, and how to choose a life direction where life has purpose. Students change their minds a lot, but it’s also clear when they are sticking to something that just doesn’t seem like it will work. It’s hard enough for some young people to switch paths even before they really start on it; changing paths as an adult is even harder.

Don Juan claims that we should leave the path as soon as we realise it isn’t a good one but, since many people do not question themselves at all, this is unlikely to happen. He says that when we finally do realise we’re on the wrong path, the path without a heart, we’re essentially out of time.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in death and dying. Many people die with regrets and wishes for having lived differently. I suspect Don Juan would say that they followed paths without heart; life was likely a painful journey and, in the end, the traveler succumbed. Many people live their lives fighting for something, for anything, without acknowledging that this is what they are doing. The fight is so ingrained in them, so much part of who they have become, that they cannot look at what truly is. But they know when they have lost because there’s nowhere to go anymore. The path has swallowed them. Such is a path without heart. I understand why Don Juan implores us to step off.

The painful part of a path without heart is that we’re constantly fighting to make it work simply because it’s the path that we’re on. We don’t stop to ask how we got there or to consider why we’re still there. We’re there because we’re there, not necessarily because it’s the right place to be. Granted, learning to stop and think is very difficult. It requires us to be vulnerable and open with ourselves and with others. But often, doing what is difficult is also extremely valuable.

However, this is not to say that the right path might not also be difficult, as discussed above. The importance is in choosing the path that is congruent with who we are and the principles that matter to us – the path with a heart. Honesty, both with ourselves and with those around us, will help us determine the way we want to live. It will help us understand what it means to have a purpose, and give us a framework for the world we want to build.

Conclusions

Don Juan tells us that paths are just paths and they lead nowhere. This means that there is nothing to “get” at the end, no finish line, no prize. The path we travel, therefore, is a way of being in the world, a way of walking, a way of living. A path with a heart is the right path because it speaks to who we are, and how we understand the world around us and our place it in. This means we need to clearly understand our purpose and live each day according to it. What matters to us? Why? How do we get there?

It is important to understand here that purpose is not the same as a goal. We might not reach the goal; we might not get the trophy or the cocktails on the beach. We do not “reach” purpose, after all. We live it. If we have walked with purpose, we have lived in a way that is congruent with who we are. Purpose means knowing what matters to us, knowing what makes us whole, and building our lives in accordance with these principles.

Travel the path with a heart. This is living. This is life.

Yunnan, China – September 2019

Travel Guide: Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta, also known as Jogja because it’s easier to say (according to the local guide who answered my question about that), is located on the Indonesian island of Java. It’s the only Javanese city still ruled by a monarch and is home to Indonesia’s best universities. A large student population, special government status, and a unique heritage and culture make Jogja a lovely place to spend a long weekend. I’ve been wanting to visit for some time and I was really glad to finally have the opportunity to do so.

We arrived early in the afternoon and started off with a walk to get our bearings. Jogja is bright, sunny, and hot and we were happy to take the suggestions of a few locals who stopped us to chat. They sent us to a couple batik art galleries and told us about cultural events taking place over the weekend. As we walked, we saw quite a few murals, which is always a highlight for me.

We walked along Jalan Malioboro, a very busy central street lined with shops and street sellers selling souvenirs and batik clothing. It was entirely too hot and overwhelming to be there during the day and we decided to go back in the evening. Jalan Malioboro is very tourist-oriented and the real local markets, which we saw by car the next day, are located a few streets over.

The primary reason for our visit to Jogja was to see Borobudur and Prambanan, two very famous temples. We went on a Friday to avoid weekend crowds and that actually worked out really well. Borobudur dates back to the ninth century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s the largest Buddhist temple in the world and designed so that visitors follow the path of Buddhism from the base of the temple, symbolising the world of desire, up to the top of the temple, symbolising the Buddhist cosmology of forms and then of formlessness.

It was amazing to see how much had been reconstructed, as well as how much hadn’t. Indonesia experiences frequent earthquakes and their effects are present here as much as elsewhere.

Borobudur is about an hour and a half away from Jogja and our driver pointed out interesting spots along the way, told us about Indonesian farming, and answered our questions about life in Jogja and the rest of Indonesia. On our way back to the car my friend commented that it’s interesting how the best-known part of Borobudur, the stupas at the top, are hidden until you get there. I mused that this fit into the design of the temple – you have to do the hard work on the individual self before reaching that point of clarity.

Our next stop was Prambanan, Indonesia’s largest Hindu temple and also a UNESCO site. It’s about two hours from Borobudur and, just like the first temple, took us about two hours to explore. I was really glad we went because the two temples were completely different. The architecture was noticeably different, in keeping with the typical style of each religion, but so was the feel. There was a sense of mystery at Prambanan that I had not experienced at Borobudur.

Prambanan tells the story of the Hindu Ramayana epic and has temples dedicated to different Hindu deities, the most important of whom are Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Protector), and Shiva (the Destroyer).

The ruins here were even more prominent than at Borobudur, too, due to significant damage from a 2006 earthquake.

The grounds around Prambanan are home to yet more Buddhist temples. We stopped to look at Lumbung . . .

. . . and Bubrah . . .

. . . and spent some time wandering around Sewu, which was definitely the coolest of the three. It was actively undergoing renovation, but empty other than us and the workers. It’s weird to wander a temple complex removed from crowds. Borobudur wasn’t busy but there were people around every corner. At Sewu, we were keenly aware of being alone and aware of the novelty of the experience.

The following day we visited Batik Winotosastro, an active batik workshop that also hosts batik classes for visitors. Our experience there was fantastic and I highly recommend a visit. A lovely woman introduced us to the workshop and set us right to work. We chose patterns to trace onto our cloth and then she moved us over to real batikers. We learned how to hold the dipper that contains the wax (I’ll be honest – I found this really difficult) and proceeded to trace the lines we’d just penciled. The batikers were working on additional layers of colour beyond the base layer and it was amazing to watch them and see how intricate, detailed, and precise their lines were. They prettied up our wax outlines while our guide showed us around the workshop.

Batik can be hand drawn or stamped, we learned. The stamps are copper and have been around a very long time, but the hand drawn batik are more expensive. When our batik were prettier than we’d left them, our guide took us over to the woman responsible for dyeing . . .

. . . and the man who boiled off the wax . . .

. . . and finally to the women with sewing machines who hemmed the edges to finish off.

It was a real pleasure to learn from such a knowledgeable person and to experience how an actual batik workshop operates. Watching a traditional process in action was a great learning experience and says a lot about Jogja’s desire to maintain its heritage. I am always glad to support places like that.

Our afternoon destination was a quick trip to the Water Castle, which is located on the grounds of the royal palace. The only section preserved today is the bathing complex where the sultan and his ladies would relax.

I really liked the neighbourhood around the Water Castle, too. It was bright and colourful, though very quiet. We noticed that people in Jogja tended to avoid the outdoors in the middle of the day, which is not what I have seen in other places with similar weather but definitely something that I understand.

For our last evening, we headed back down Jalan Malioboro to experience the night market. It was busy and crowded and still rather overwhelming but I’m really glad we went.

I was particularly taken by the street food stalls that opened up and attracted just about everybody.

And furthermore, we were in Indonesia. They take coffee very seriously here. Filter coffee from a street cart!

Before going to the airport the following day, we went back to the royal palace, the Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat. The palace hosts cultural performances daily so we got to hear some Javanese music and see traditional dance.

The palace also has several museums explaining different traditions and rituals. There are a few artifacts on display throughout the complex, as well.

After another cup of coffee from Tanamera Coffee, a local roastery and café that we visited a couple of times, it was time to go. We had a lovely long weekend in Yogyakarta and I would definitely recommend it for lovers of history, art, and culture. Happy travels!

Acting on Impulse

Sometimes, you just know what you need. But maybe you don’t know why or how you know that. Sound familiar?

In psychology, we call this intuitive thinking. This is what we “just know”. We know it immediately and we know it with great confidence. Unfortunately, this type of certainty are also prone to error. Psychologists call this type of thinking System 1. The alternative mode of thinking, the mode that is slower, rational, typically more accurate but less confident, is called System 2. As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, System 1 thinking is quick and easy while System 2 thinking is more difficult. System 1 is our default for day-to-day decisions because it relies on the patterns with which we have learned to interpret the world. When we have a hard problem to solve, though, our slower, more rational System 2 takes over. Together, Systems 1 and 2 comprise the Dual Process Model of thinking and decision-making.

System 1 was talking when I knew, I just knew, that I needed to cycle to the beach on Monday night. Had I thought about it a little longer, System 2 might have reminded me that I’d had a late meeting at work and didn’t have any food prepared for dinner, so biking the hour to the beach might not be the best use of my time.

But that’s not what I was thinking about. Instead, I was thinking about how the beach smells and what it sounds like. I was thinking about how it feels to ride there and about sitting up on the rocks to watch the waves. Or, maybe I was feeling all of that instead of thinking at all.

A friend volunteered to come with me and off we went.


I may not have been thinking slowly or rationally, but as soon as we left the main road and entered the park, I knew I’d been right. My breathing came more easily, cycling felt smoother, and my head cleared. As soon as we scrambled up the rocks to hear the water and watch the sunset, I realised I’d been right. I may not have known why, but the beach was the right place to be.

Sometimes it’s okay to do follow an impulse. Sometimes, something deep inside of you knows what you need. It’s okay to learn to listen.

Haeundae Beach – Busan, South Korea (NOT the beach I visited on Monday)

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place