During our last class before the holidays, my grade 12 students and I talked about getting old. Well, older. I mentioned something that had happened six years ago and we were all taken aback for a moment. Six years ago I was still living in Rochester, New York where I grew up; six years ago, my students were in grade 6. Six years is six years but somehow, it seems like a much bigger change for them. Six years ago, my students were kids. Now, they’re young people who are preparing to go into the world and do something. But not just yet. Let’s not rush things.
I’m reflecting on this right now because I have a birthday coming up and it required me to change the tagline that appears just below the title of this blog. Until about 10 minutes ago, the tagline read, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.” Now it reads, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.”
Don’t panic: I’m still a teacher.
But yes, I’m turning 30 next month and any birthday is a cause for reflection. Last year I wrote a list of what I’d learned in my twenties and it definitely reflects how I was thinking at the time I wrote it. A few months later, I wrote a letter to my brother with some life advice and I like that one much better. It takes some elements of the first list and frames the ideas in actionable ways – I like that. The difference between these two lists, five months apart, also reflects what I would like to highlight here: the importance of perpetual learning.
I can point to much that has changed for me over time, but an essential constant has been the desire to learn and to grow. There has always been a genuine excitement over recognising something new or forming new connections. I’ve never been afraid of what I don’t know and I’ve never been deluded into thinking there’s nothing left to find out. This is also why I’m more than happy to reread books. There’s plenty out there, sure, but you really never step into the same river twice. (My credit to Disney’s Pocahontas here, but further research indicated that Heraclitus said it first.)
Last week, my Theory of Knowledge students gave oral presentations on the topic of ignorance. One student concluded by saying that ignorance leads to growth. When my co-teacher asked what she meant by “growth” she replied, “I don’t know, maybe learning.” Yes, exactly. Ignorance opens doors to learning. I have always known this but I have not always had the language to express it.
Growing up, my parents had a pretty clear policy on things we children didn’t know: Go find out. We had dictionaries and encyclopedias and after some time, we also had the Internet. If you didn’t know it, you looked it up. If you didn’t understand your findings, you asked. I only remember being turned down once for an answer. I was thirteen and my poor dad, looking distinctly uncomfortable, told me, “Go ask your mother.” I did and it was a good thing.
I have never been a stranger to learning. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken the important step of being able to appreciate when I am wrong. In many ways, being an educator has taught me this. As a student, I could see right through my teachers, especially new ones, and I knew exactly when they didn’t know what they were desperately trying to demonstrate that they knew. As a teacher myself, I understand the necessity of being both genuine and vulnerable with my students. I expect the same of them, after all, and at the end of the day we are partners in this thing called education. (Schooling is a different matter and, in keeping with the above, I am very open about this, too.)
Learning is deeply personal and I understand that. When I think back to what I wanted out of life six years ago, to return to the conversation with my grade 12 students, I’m stunned by how much has changed. I am in awe of what I have learned.
I am doing almost none of what I expected to be doing, but much of what I dreamed of doing. I have so much more than I thought I would, but very little of what I had wanted. I now see myself in ways I never imagined were possible because I didn’t know they existed, but I am not who I thought I would be. And I know there is more to become.
This is not to say one is all good and the other is all bad, certainly not. Rather, this is to say that I have lived in varying shades of black, white, and gray – at times, more gray or more black or more white. Shifting. Sometimes fluidly, sometimes with stark lines. In short, I have lived. I have learned.
I’m not particularly sentimental but I do grow nostalgic every now and then. For instance, the other day I looked up a friend from a former life. Just looked. But the same day, I picked up a book by an author I would have once passed over. Because you never know. Really.
In the words that Immanuel Kant took as the motto of Enlightenment, “Sapere aude. Dare to know.”
And millennia earlier from Socrates, “I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”
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.
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.
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.
Congratulations, baby bro. You did it. And your family are so, so proud of you.
I missed your graduation because I’m half a world away but all of our grandparents were there and that’s more important. I’m proud of you because I know you worked hard, took chances, made choices, and had adventures. Our grandparents are schepping nachas because you were their first boy and no one knew what to make of you, but everyone loved you immediately. Everyone continued to love you as you grew into the cheerful, funny, passionate person that you are. And look at where you are now. I’m so glad they were there.
I couldn’t be there but I’m thinking of you. I know you have a good head on your shoulders and that’s why there are things I want you to know. Putting my educator hat on, I will say that I wish they’d taught you differently in school. You graduated from an undergraduate business program, after all, and I wish they’d taught you about things that matter. You know you’re supposed to go into the world and make money, with which you’re then supposed to do . . . something. Make more?
But as your older sister, and as person who shares the planet with you and identifies in relation to you, there are a few things I want you to know:
You will always have my love and support, in any way you need it and at any time of night or day. Just call and I’ll be there.
It’s important to take care of yourself. It’s important to eat well, sleep well, and make the time for things that matter. Work can wait, even if it’s just for a few minutes. You can’t do the work if you’re not healthy.
The world is full of choices and they only get bigger as you gain life experience. Make the choices that will help you become the person you want to be. Surround yourself with people who will help you grow.
It’s hard to ask difficult questions and even harder to answer them. Think and feel deeply. Consider the questions, “Who am I? What am I?” Consider them over and over and over. Act accordingly.
You will make many, many mistakes. You will hurt people without knowing you did. You will be hurt. You will cry. And you will learn. Learn from your mistakes and experiences and let them make you a better person.
Beauty is easy to pass by. Don’t. Really, actually, stop and smell the flowers. Spend thirty seconds just looking at a tree. Dance in the rain. Climb the mountain. Look around and protect the simple things – they matter.
Remember that small acts create big ripples. It’s not hard to remember a birthday or write a note or say hello to someone new, but all of those things make a difference. Make them part of who you are.
It’s okay to stop. It’s okay to decide this isn’t working and do the difficult thing and walk away. It’s okay to start over. It’s okay to try something completely new. This is how we learn and grow.
Speak up for what matters to you. It’s one thing to grumble in private and quite another to stomp your feet in public. Stomp your feet and behave with integrity.
The most important thing is to be a good person. Money can wait. Buying a house can wait. Your new avalanche skis can wait. Be a good person. That cannot wait.
Congratulations again. Take some time to celebrate . . . and now go change the world.
I love you,
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place