What if we’re not on a path?

I found this concise and eloquent post on Rob Poynton’s blog: Walk the line.

He challenges the way we often see our lives as following a path, in which one step leads to another. Most organisations and education systems take this view as a given. Rob argues that it’s not reality, but simply a metaphor – and one that brings many stresses:

It can be a corset, one that stops you thinking in the round about the wealth of different possibilities that lie before you. It pays more attention to where a step leads, than exploring that experience for its own sake. A linear interpretation encourages you to think in narrow terms of qualifications and stepping stones towards a pre-determined goal – it quite literally ‘channels’ your thought. It also creates the pressure to take the ‘right’ step. In defining a path it simultaneously cuts off (or casts doubt on) possibilities that lie off the path, implying that if you take them, you will become ‘side-tracked’ or lost. The emphasis is more on progress than discovery or enjoyment. Overall it implies that you ought to know where you want to go, and that the task is working out how to get there, rather than encouraging you to explore.

What if we see life not as a path, but as a field?

The idea of a field adds dimension. It can also add depth and texture. There are many ways to explore a space or a territory. There is no one path – no forward, no back. One might explore a section, then return to a central point, then head off in another direction. Or, go all around the perimeter. Or hop about. Or go back, repeatedly, to the same place, approaching from different directions at different seasons, or in different moods.

Rob and I have had a lot of conversations about shifting away from a linear view of time. I know that when I makes this switch, it immediately relieves a lot of the stress I can feel around challenges I am facing. Often when we’re stuck it’s because we have become attached to escaping a “problem” towards an imagined solution – yet somehow the solution seems to involve a lot of difficulty and stress. It can make a big difference to linger where we are and see what else is there.

7 thoughts on “What if we’re not on a path?

  1. Euan Semple

    I have often fretted about this on mountains. If I am intent on getting to the top, the well worn paths are efficient but can feel like tramlines and wandering off can be harder work and enervating. If, on the other hand I am just enjoying the sensation of being in the hills, then wandering makes me feel so much more connected to the environment.

  2. Tim

    Timely piece Johnnie thank you for broaching this subject.

    Taking this spatial perspective I have three points to raise. One, as someone working in agriculture I am always aware of the soil beneath my feet. Soil structure leads down and further on to the underlying geology.

    Two the field is a nice metaphor – Michael Leunig has a nice cartoon of a garden/meadow/field but which has a perimeter fence with a gate in it which leads to the stars! But spatially I do wonder what impact a field as big as the earth has on our psychology? Our experience has its limits – circumscribed literally by the earths roundness.

    Lastly, the points you raise are pertinent to many who are in their 60’s. The linearity of work is ending but how do you transition to the reality of seeing what else is there?

  3. Mark Earls

    Lovely stuff. Been thinking a lot about similar things. One way I’ve found useful to overthrow the tyranny of linear time is to do multiples: multiple paths to now (wherever that is) and multiple paths into the future.

    And to imagine the whole thing shifting back and forth like a Weaving machine

  4. Euan Semple

    I was going to say something about becoming increasingly disenchanted with even the idea of “getting somewhere”, didn’t, and almost immediately came across this quote which seems relevant.

    “The rage for wanting to conclude is one of the most deadly and most fruitless manias to befall humanity. Each religion and each philosophy has pretended to have God to itself, to measure the infinite, and to know the recipe for happiness. What arrogance and what nonsense! I see, to the contrary, that the greatest geniuses and the greatest works have never concluded.” – Gustave Flaubert

  5. Chris Corrigan

    I love this metaphor. It feels very much like my life is a field and even as I return to well worn places I find they have changed since I have been gone. I feel increasingly indigenous to the territory I have been birthed into these last few years, coming to know it so deeply that even small changes are delightful novelties and they come along to give some variations to the long rhythms of the place I am coming to know. Occasionally I get to move a fence or a boundary and find myself in some new field, but I think I am getting used to the idea that my little space is mine to cultivate and steward and my role is to welcome
    Visitors who find themselves captivated in some way with the little micro world I know and love so we’ll.


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