Tag Archives: Books

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: Wellington

After a weekend in Auckland and a few days on the road, my friend Sharon and I spent a couple nights in Wellington to conclude the North Island part of our trip to New Zealand. As in Auckland, the waterfront is a huge part of life in New Zealand’s capital.

We’d also read that we were supposed to check out Cuba Street, which is full of restaurants, shops, and bars.

It didn’t disappoint, but my favorite spot on the street by far was a used bookshop. I spent far too long in there one evening and, as always happens when I enter a used or independent bookstore, I bought a book. I justified it because it was a book of poems by a Kiwi poet. Not only do I not typically read poetry, but I’ve also never purposely read something by a Kiwi author. And now I have done both of those things!

We only had one full day in Wellington and we spent it, unsurprisingly, hiking and by the water. We climbed Mount Victoria, which was really just a hill. It provided beautiful views of the city . . .

. . . and the walk itself was lovely, as usual.

We passed charming gardens on our way back to the harbor . . .

. . . and then we saw the most wonderful idea! The library sponsors a book bike to ride around and let people take (to keep!) books for free. These are books that are out of date, like old travel guides, too worn to remain on shelves, or yet another donated copy of books the library already has. How wonderful!

Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum, is located in Wellington and of course we went for a visit. It was fascinating to learn about the country’s history, particularly since we were somewhat familiar with Maori culture by this point. The history of native people and colonial settlers is much the same the world over and it’s painful everywhere. We also got really lucky at Te Papa because there was an exhibit on the Terracotta Army on view. I’d love to see the real site but Te Papa’s exhibit was amazing.

Another main attraction in Wellington is the cable car, which took us up the hills overlooking the harbor to the Botanic Gardens. The walk down through the gardens was calm and peaceful and the gardens ended in a cemetery as we returned to the city.

The following day, we took the Bluebridge Ferry from Wellington to Picton, the tiny town with the ferry terminal at the tip of the South Island. The ride was about three and a half hours and it was wonderful to stand outside and feel the wind and smell the water.

We sat next to a lovely older couple who told us about the geography of the Cook Strait and gave us suggestions of what to do with our South Island itinerary. Everyone we met, honestly everyone, was so friendly and helpful.

And then just like that, it was time to spend two weeks on the South Island!

My 2018 Reading List

Back in 2016, a friend convinced me to get on Goodreads and I’ve been keeping careful track of my books ever since. Growing up, I’d keep track of the books I read over the summer, writing titles and authors in notebooks with rainbow gel pens. Times change. The lists below are in alphabetical order by title and grouped into nonfiction and fiction categories.

Nonfiction

21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Yuval Noah Harari

The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness
Epictetus

The Art of Loving (I admit, this was a re-read)
Erich Fromm

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World
The Dalai Lama

Building Peace: Living and Learning for a Better World
Rebecca M. Stein

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money
Bryan Caplan

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
Richard W. Wrangham

Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy
Mark Regnerus  

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II
Liza Mundy

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters
Thomas M. Nichols

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It
Jonathan D. Quick

The Ethics of Identity
Kwame Anthony Appiah

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling

The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between
Abigail Marsh

The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully
Frank Ostaseski

Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love
Emily Witt

The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility
Owen J. Flanagan

Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding–And How We Can Improve the World Even More
Charles Kenny

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality
Angus Deaton

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
J.D. Vance

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen
Kwame Anthony Appiah

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
Michael Pollan

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
Lisa Feldman Barrett

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
Jordan Ellenberg

How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation
N.J. Enfield

I Will Survive: Personal gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender stories in Singapore
Leow Yangfa

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
Francis Fukuyama

Inventing Human Rights: A History
Lynn Hunt

Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool
Jennifer Jacquet

The Jew in Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India
Rodger Kamenetz

The Jews of Islam
Bernard Lewis

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity
Kwame Anthony Appiah

Meditations
Marcus Aurelius

Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want
Nicholas Epley

The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis
Martha C. Nussbaum

Mothers and Others
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
Steve Silberman

Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.
John Francis

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua

The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence
Dacher Keltner

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
Kate Moore

The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World
Owen J. Flanagan

Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves
George M. Church and Ed Regis

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies
Geoffrey B. West

Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air
David J.C. MacKay

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002
David Sedaris

Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World
Megan Feldman Bettencourt

Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction
Maia Szalavitz

Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism
Ian Bremmer

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul
Jeremiah Moss

The Way of the Bodhisattva
Santideva

Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter
Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Robert M. Pirsig

Fiction

China Rich Girlfriend – Kevin Kwan
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki – Haruki Murakami
Corridor – Alifan Sa’at
The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan
Dance Dance Dance – Haruki Murakami
A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman
A House Without Windows – Nadia Hashimi
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami
LaRose – Louise Erdrich
Luncheon of the Boating Party – Susan Vreeland
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
The Round House – Louise Erdrich
South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami
Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami
Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel García Márquez
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

Nothing tickling your fancy? Take a look at my lists from 2016 and 2017.

Wishing you peace this new year, in your mind and in your heart. Happy reading!

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