This is part three of an extract from a manuscript I used
in a class on spirituality and photography
at the Pacific School of Religion,
and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA
Sometimes our paths lead to our centers, sometimes out away from our centers, and sometimes our paths connect our centers with that which is outside us. I spied a trail in the grass of a dewy morning. The trail was less than an inch across. It wound through the lowest level of the canopy of grasses under the taller grasses, zigging and zagging around the thicker stalks of grass, pushing down and matting the shorter, thinner grass stalks, at times forking and disappearing into holes or thickets, at times going straight. A hawk soared. At one end of the trail was a burrow in a thick patch of blackberries. At the other end the trail disappeared into a thicket. The trail told me a lot about a life that lived in fear of hawks. There were many protections: built in escape routes, dead-ends, holes in the ground where the animal could dive for cover. I knew that whatever the animal was, it could never forget its hawk, the predator who hunted, and would make a meal of it. Many times our trails reveal our hawks, those who would devour us. Sometimes our trails reveal who it is we devour. We can gain clues about ourselves by observing our own paths.
Sometimes our paths cross with others’ paths. I recall watching a small cut-glass vase tumble end over end to the concrete and smash into thousands of minute fragments. As I watched the vase tumble, I watched also the clumsy, fearful hands that tried to catch it before it hit the cement and shattered. I remember, too, the look of anguish on the face of the young woman as the vase shattered. The splintering glass and her visage were of a kind. She was a street person, homeless, and the vase had fallen out of a shopping cart as she looked for something else. It was early morning, and she had just awakened. I had watched her climb out of her night-wrappings and off a concrete building-porch in down-town San Francisco. The glass must have been the last remaining vestige and a symbol of another way of life, all she had saved from another and better, happier time. The time she remembered was gone, as was the vase, but where the whole vase symbolized her prior life, the shattered glass was now a symbol of her present way of life. That she knew this was written in the horror on her face. Our paths crossed by way of the symbol represented in that shattered vase. The glass splinters also symbolized the dreams in my own life that have shattered. I felt her anguish because it was my own anguish as well.
What are the paths around us? What kind of clues do we find? Bateson saw an index in the spiderwebs that referenced the paths of very tiny insects. What paths are there to see? What ways do we go in our hearts and with our bodies? When I think of spiderwebs, I always think of the spiderwebs out at Bannon Island. These were some tough webs. I ran into one with my face, and I thought I had got caught up in fishing line. I stopped and looked around and discovered that I was in the middle of a spiderweb forest. These webs were ten feet across, and had the biggest and yellowest spiders in the center of them. I just backed on out of the area. I do not like spiders very much. Some of those webs also had large holes poked in them. Some of the holes were patched and had spiders living in them, but some were not patched and had no spiders living in them. The whole area had a surreal quality to it. Birds, I discovered later would swoop through the openings in the trees across which the spiders had spun their webs. In the empty webs the birds had eaten the spiders. I was seeing in the holes in the spiderwebs, the pathways of the birds.
Sometimes I just want to take off, to get away and not be on any path at all–not to hide or escape, but to test myself. Every time I have done so it has been a harder way but in many ways extremely satisfying. Two times when I was hiking and decided to leave the trail and go cross country I ended up literally dropping off cliffs because there was no other way down. I came out roughed-up, scratched, and jarred, but relatively unhurt. One time I had slithered up a steep grade of loose shale only to find there was a sheer drop of over one thousand feet over the other side, and I had to back down the shale. It was fifteen hundred feet to the bottom, and I could not see my steps as I could when I went up. One slip and finely tuned body would have taken on the consistency of raspberry jam. Each physically dangerous place has enabled me to find a rock-solid place within me on which I can depend.
This deep, solid center offers me a steadying presence in the midst of a shaky existence. Because I have found that solid, steadying presence at moments of extreme physical danger, I can find it in the midst of other kinds of danger too. Our exterior paths lead us to the paths to our centers.
Yet, paths do not necessarily go inward, and they are not necessarily rock-steady. Paths can be fragmented and go outward as well. These are paths we use when we try to deny or escape our lives. What do the paths look like which we use to escape? There are those who embrace life, and there are those who are the runners from life. What are the paths of the latter? Good words, fancy phrases, but with quick eyes and faster feet, runners who do their best to escape what they fear. What they fear is considerable, yet it is much the same as those who embrace life must face. Mostly those who would escape fear death, whether physical or psychological or imagined, and because they fear it they deny it. Their denial is the path they use to run on. These runners pretend these are smooth paths, but the paths are truly rough and deadly. There is no rock-solid center, but fragmentary and fractured areas of diffusion and confusion which, too, are denied.
We can tell these paths because they seem to have no beginning or ending, they just have parts of paths. Like lizard tracks in a windstorm, the paths of denial disappear in the upper ridges where the going is hard, but reappear in the lower, easier regions. These paths are blown-out by drugs, alcohol, consumerism, unattached love affairs, easy answers, and a general inability to, commit to any one thing except pain—which itself is denied. It is in the pain that these paths cross our own. Recognition of the pain, as Fox suggests, is the via negativa a path that does not seek out pain or deny pain, but a path that recognizes and accepts pain along with creation and the New Creation of the via transformativa. The via negativa is the cross-country way. It follows the harder trails, but it has hope in the blessing, not escape.
As you go out to meditate on paths, keep in mind that the paths we see and photograph must lead us to some place. Paths have a destination. I suggest that where we want to go with our path meditation is into our center within. This is the Rome to which all roads lead us. If you are keeping a journal, you might make notes of how you feel as you discover certain kinds of paths. What do the paths make you remember? If the path seems like some other path you have been on, jot that down. It might be that after a meditation on paths during the day, you will dream about paths during the night, or at least something related to paths–going on a journey, being lost, finding something. Too, it could be that thoughts will come to you at the busiest and most inappropriate portion of your day that relate to this meditation. Keep a pad and writing tool close so you can jot down what insights you may have. All of this will help you on your visual meditation. For as you meditate, make images and contemplate the notion of paths, deeper and deeper levels of meaning will come to you.
Also, as you make your images, jot down what thoughts you have. The act of creation often brings creative insights. Making the image is an out-sight which in turn brings insights.