Even With a Map You Can Still Get Lost

The trail as a metaphor is a wonderful concept. Each person must walk his or her own path through life, and is ultimately responsible for the direction that path may take. Life, like any trail, is a matter of ups and downs.

When one is going up, and the way is steep and tiring, the idea that there will ever be an easier time of it is only a belief. It is not real. What is real is the feel of aching muscles and burning lungs as you head up the trail. Yet when you reach the top and your breath returns to normal, the pain is soon forgotten and the misery of the climb has been left behind. Where I have been seems immaterial. Where I am going is what engages me. The top is like the goals we set in life that, when achieved, sometimes seem unimportant. It is the process, the steps, the getting there, the human effort that is important. Inspired by Hugh Swift.

Hugh Swifts paints a wonderful metaphor for the way we continue through life in search of our dreams and goals. I have humped up and down many mountains over the years. Always it starts the same. I see a mountain peak. It is a peak I have not climbed before, and I suddenly get the urge to climb to the top. I tell myself the view from the top must be fantastic. And so I gather up my resources – rucksack, map and compass – and start up the trail with only a conceptual if idea of where I’m going.

When I think about it, this is exactly the way I tackle the big goals in my life. I get an idea, buy a few books, or attend a course, and then I start off in pursuit of my goal with only a conceptual idea of how I’m actually going to achieve it.

So what can the mountain trail teach us about our goals?

The trail teaches us that we must have a plan even if it’s a loosely devised plan. Looking at a map of Snowdon, where I climb often, there are many marked paths to top of the mountain. Paths that others have trodden and left sign posts and guides to aid me on my journey. However upon closer inspection there are literally an infinite number of paths to the top. Some are harder then others. And some seem all but impossible. Which path should I choose? Should I take the one that many have done before and thus have left an easy trail to follow? Or should I take a little known, more secluded trail?

Another lesson is the map seldom looks like the territory, so the story goes. You can sit and plan for days and weeks which route you will take to get to the top of the mountain. You note your grid references and mark your waypoints confident that you have a rock solid plan and should reach the top with few distractions.

The moment your feet touch the ground the territory changes.  You quickly realise that what you see on the map and what you see before you is different. You must make some adjustments based on what you see before you in the real.  You must trust your own instincts, your own judgements.  The map is just a guide.

The mountain trail can teach you a lot about yourself and your life. The ancients believed that there was something called the mountain spirit – a spirit of purity and isolation. Even though the Tao was everywhere, spiritual wisdom was too easily lost in the cares and consideration of the plains.  However, in the isolation of the mountains, with the voices of the throng stilled, the whispers of the Tao could finally be heard. This was what the ancients called the mountain spirit.

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