Tag Archives: Decisions

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

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)

How to Feel

Are you all packed?
Nope.

When do you leave?
Too soon.

More and more of my recent conversations have started like this.

Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has expressed excitement for me, which I truly do appreciate. I have a handful of friends also leaving Singapore, all of whom have been here longer than I have; everyone is full of similarly mixed emotions. There’s nostalgia, uncertainty, anticipation, relief, excitement, a spirit of adventure. Some have concrete plans about what’s coming while others are still figuring that out. Everyone has made the choice to leave, but the reactions to leaving differ. This has me reflecting on how I make and respond to my own choices.

For as long as I’ve been consciously aware of decision-making, I’ve made choices that take others into consideration before thinking of myself. I believe this started when I was about 11 years old and my parents separated. While I wasn’t technically supposed to have a choice about spending every Tuesday night and every other weekend at my dad’s apartment, sometimes I did have the option to stay with my mum. That was on particularly bad days with a lot of tears, for some reason or another. I remember flicking through a collection of colorful hair elastics that I kept together on a ring chanting, “I go, I don’t go” in a perverse version of daisy petals and “he loves me, he loves me not”.

The last elastic rarely made the decision for me, but it did tell me how I felt about the choice I’d made.

I knew that a sense of relief on the last flick meant that there was congruence between the elastic’s answer and the real decision, while a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach told me I was secretly hoping for the opposite outcome. Sometimes I felt nothing, which was even worse.

The difficulty arose when my feelings were discordant with what I imagined my dad was feeling when I raged and stormed over whether or not to spend time with him. It was a battle between choosing to make him happy (though I usually let my fury make itself very obvious, which likely had exactly the opposite result) or to make myself happy (though I often dissolved in tears anyway because I knew that I was hurting my dad, so I really wasn’t helping myself at all).

I knew that I had a lot of emotions, but I didn’t know how to balance them. I didn’t know how to handle so many conflicting emotions at once.

My discomfort with cognitive dissonance led me to avoid acknowledging my feelings. For much of middle and high school, I stopped making decisions based on my own whims so as to avoid rejection, disappointment, or fear if my choices didn’t align with others’ wishes. It was easier to consider “What will make them happy?” than “What do I want?”. I felt safer avoiding desires and expectations than admitting what I was really feeling, often because I didn’t know what that was.

Though my strongest desire is still for others to be happy, the biggest (and healthiest!) change has been considering myself at all. I am allowed to want, hope, and seek out. I am allowed to say no, change course, and propose alternatives. Considering myself has also meant embracing the conflicting emotions that I’ve recently been experiencing on a very regular basis.

I have given myself permission to admit that I am very sad to leave Singapore and both excited and nervous about returning to the US. I am excited for the next chapter, adventure, and experience. I look forward to the unknowns that lie ahead. At the same time, I have misgivings and feel apprehension and frustration. I dream about teaching internationally again.

At 11, I didn’t know that there isn’t one “right” emotion for everyone involved. There isn’t one way to feel. At 26, I have come to accept that it’s about finding a balance. The scale might tip depending on the day or even the hour, but that’s okay.

Of everything I’ve learned during my year in Singapore, how to be open and honest with myself, and by extension with those around me, might just be the most important.