I was approaching 40 before I seriously considered the possibility that I might actually be responsible for the direction my life was taking. I had simply been following my feet until a growing sense of dissatisfaction caused me to look around to see where I had got to and where I was going.
It was then that I encountered the writings of Carlos Castenada. Even now, 25 years later, I can recall the moment, on holiday with my wife and young family at a campsite in the Netherlands, when I opened The Teachings of Don Juan and read the old shaman’s words:
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 [sic] finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him.
There are those who are fortunate enough to begin asking themselves this question early in life but as James Hollis – another favourite writer of mine – says, for most people the first half of life is a necessary mistake. I think it is the word ‘necessary’ that helps us come to terms with what we might otherwise regard as mere youthful folly.
Usually it is not until we approach mid-life that we can begin to sense the unconscious forces that shaped our lives. Only then can we begin to release ourselves from their thrall; only then does the possibility emerge of freely discerning and choosing a path with heart.
And what emerges as a possibility in mid-life feels more like a necessity as we approach elderhood. Indeed, I am wondering if one of the defining characteristics of men and women who become elders (as opposed to merely getting old) is that they insist on walking paths with heart.
Some say that it gets harder to make such choices as we get older because by then we are fixed in our characters and bound by our history to keep on doing what we have always done. But this is to confuse two different things: character and persona. The former is about who we are and the latter about how we show up in the world.
A path has heart if it enables us to show up as ourselves so that, whatever age we are, we can flourish and contribute our unique gifts to the world. As Dawna Markova declares so eloquently in her well-known poem:
I will not die an unlived life
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.