Joseph Anderson

Your path is not my path

At college, for some mad reason I took a quarter-long seminar course on the poetry of John Milton. I came to appreciate the beauty and subtlety of his writing, and I do remember writing a decent paper on the role of the poetic muse in Paradise Lost (even then the shamanic spirit was speaking to me!). But perhaps the most important thing I learned from the class was a comment by the professor regarding Milton’s religious affiliation that he was a “denomination with only one member – himself.”

In the intervening 35-or-so years, as I have tilted at one spiritual community’s windmill after another, it has often occurred to me that “a denomination of one” might very well describe the truth of my own spiritual experience. I think there may be reason to believe that this is true for many of us. If we take into account the various accidents of birth, experience, genetics, karma, astrological patterns and all the rest – it actually becomes a little absurd to think that any two of us are really on the same path. The Buddhist phrase is “84,000 doors to the dharma”, the intent of which, I think, is to serve as a metaphor for “as many doors to the dharma as there are people”.

The actual math based on current world population of over 7 billion would be somewhere around 84,000 people per dharma door. Hmmm: a population of 84,000 people * 84,000 dharma doors. No wonder we live in such strange and unstable times. But I digress…

On the shamanic path this individual spiritual identity seems to be almost a necessity, formed as it is out of one’s own dreams, trance-journeys, personal power songs and spirit relationships, and other unique experiences. But I think that is just a particularly focused example of what happens to all of us – even those who participate in well-defined communities. We may join with others in a shared set of rituals and initiations, hear the same spiritual teachings, use a common language to describe our experience – but it seems to me that all this masks the radical uniqueness of the path each of us is on.

One of my favorite gospel songs from childhood was “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley”. The second verse puts us in Jesus’ shoes:

You must walk this lonesome valley
You have to walk it by yourself
O, nobody else can walk it for you
You have to walk it by yourself 

We can see in the great tales of the hero’s journey that such solitude is not unusual: whether it’s Dante entering the dark forest in the middle of his life, Odysseus going to the underworld, or the Arthurian knight Percival riding into the mysterious woods. Even the great Taoist and Buddhist sages of the East, immersed as they were in cultures that were arguably far less individualistic than ours – even they often have needed to withdraw from the world to discover their true essence. There are no group bus tours to the heart of your own psyche – you have to walk there by yourself.

Our communities are there to support us, but their true purpose is not to substitute for the solitude of the journey, but instead to aid each of us in finding the courage and wisdom we need to chart our own course.  Such travel is not easy, and we do need each other – otherwise who but the strongest among us would not lose heart?