I’ve been wondering a bit about wandering: Without a strong, clear vision for the future, do we risk losing our way and failing to make progress in our lives? There would seem to be the danger that, lacking a plan and goals and an idea of where they’re headed, one could wander right out of their own life, in a sense. Was it the Cheshire Cat who told Alice that it didn’t matter which path she took if she didn’t know where she was trying to go? I suspect it was meant as a note of caution to young Alice, but part of me hears a liberating aspect to this, as well, a sense that any road will do for the traveler who understands that the journey itself is the destination – or, as the Cheshire Cat says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” From this angle, the lack of a destination – the absence of a hard-and-fast plan – becomes almost a kind of virtue, proof that one isn’t sacrificing the present for some distant day, or for some goal that exists somewhere just over the horizon.
Of course, there may be a shadow side to this any-road-will-do approach, in the fact that absolute freedom isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. The idea of journeying unconstrained by the need to arrive anywhere – free from any attachment to “results” in the form of a predetermined destination – such a journey runs the risk of becoming aimless in all the worst senses of that word, where the lack of a desired destination devolves into a lack of purpose that might infect the whole process of journeying.
I tend to imagine that an enlightened human being (whatever you might take that to mean) would be capable of making the most of any journey, no matter the length, with or without a clear destination in mind. They could focus on the present and trust in the continual unfolding of each individual circumstance to guide them along the right road. For this traveler, freedom is not a burden, for he knows how to enjoy the freedom without losing himself in it. In the same way, I can imagine a person capable of living their entire life in this manner – at ease in the present moment, moving forward one step at a time without fear or any pressing sense of worry about where exactly the path of life is leading.
In thinking over all this, I’ve come back to Bashō, whose Oku no Hosomichi (or, “Narrow Road to the Interior”) contains the following passage (a smaller portion of which I’ve quoted here before):
“The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years – every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.”
So, is there a via media here – a way to walk the middle path whereupon each step of the journey is valued without totally giving up that sense of purpose and direction that guides us in the long run? I wonder if the middle way lies somewhere between distracted tourist and aimless vagabond – somewhere, instead, in the realm of the pilgrim, who travels with a goal in mind but also does his or her best to consecrate every step along the way. Of course, this image of the pilgrim might have shortcomings of its own, and being on pilgrimage is certainly no guarantee of enlightened traveling. A mindless pilgrimage, after all, could be just as much a waste of time as running around, say, the great old cities of Europe with your nose perpetually buried in a guidebook.
There’s nothing wrong with reading the guidebook, just as there’s nothing strange about a pilgrim who longs to see the holy city at journey’s end – but don’t forget to look up from the book now and then, and don’t forget to look up from the road, to glance around and see what there is to see now, in this particular moment. The guidebook might have a lot to teach you, but don’t neglect the opportunity to look at the world through your own eyes. The shrine or the church at the end of the pilgrim road might be a holy site and well worth your attention, but don’t neglect the opportunity to give your attention to the world – and the people – around you wherever you may stand. Perhaps this moment, too, is holy.
So I guess what I desire, or what I’m seeking in my own life, is to strike a poetic balance – the freedom to experience all the joy and the sorrow and the magic inherent in each moment without losing my way along the path, without wandering away from the meaning and purpose of my own life or getting lost in the dark woods of aimlessness and despair. At this point, I’m still not certain what such a balance might consist of, or exactly what such a life might look like.
Perhaps it will take a “lifetime of wandering” to find out.
Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Desire