As the age turns, millions of people are pioneering a transition from the old world to the new. It is a journey fraught with peril and hardship and breathtaking discovery, a journey irreducibly unique for each of us. Because we are stepping out into the new, it is also profoundly uncertain and at times lonely. I cannot map out the details of anyone’s individual path, but I can fortify you as you walk it and illuminate some of its universal features. My purpose is to give voice to what you have always known (without knowing it) and always believed (without believing it), so that you may breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Ah, I was right all along.”
In a sense I am not describing a path at all, since there isn’t one in the new territory of the pioneer. Indeed, what I am describing is a departure from a path, the ready-made paths laid out before us, and the creation of a new one. You know the ready-made path I’m talking about. Typified by that odious board game “Life,” it begins with school, traverses the territory of marriage, kids, and career, and, if all goes well, ends in a long and comfortable retirement. This program has been crumbling for decades now, as high rates of divorce and radical career change demonstrate. I, for one, am not planning for retirement; the very concept feels alien to me, as does the notion that my Golden Years are to be any time other than right now.
“You are here because you know something. You don’t
know what it is, but you can feel it. Something is wrong with the world.”
— Morpheus, The Matrix
I will describe seven stages of the discovery and walking of this invisible path from the old world to the new. I present them in a linear narrative, but usually their progression is not strictly linear. It is, rather, fractal: each stage interpenetrates the rest, and we may skip around a lot, revisit old territory, jump ahead to new, pass through some stages in minutes and others in years. Nonetheless, I think you will recognize some of the major landmarks in your own journey.
Stage 1: Something is Wrong / Idealism
Idealism is a belief that a more beautiful world is possible; that the world as we know it is deficient, unworthy of our full participation. When idealism is not expressed as action, it turns into cynicism. It is no accident that both idealism and, today, cynicism are hallmarks of youth: young people, being newer to the world, less inculcated with the belief in its permanence, and less personally invested in its perpetuation, can see much more easily the possibility of a better one.
The idealism of youth is a seed of what is to come. The teenager looks out upon some aspect of the world and is outraged. “No force in the universe will make me accept a world in which this happens! I will not be complicit in it! I will not sell out!” Usually this attitude is unconscious, manifesting either as cynicism or as rage, an uncontrollable anger directed at whatever surrogate target is available. Those teenagers with the strongest idealism are often the angriest; we think there is something wrong with them and their anger problem, but really there is something right. Their protest is misdirected, but fundamentally valid.
Our culture fears youth even as we valorize it. We are afraid of that knowledge that the world we have invested in is wrong, and go to great lengths to suppress it, both within ourselves and externally as a war on youth. In a carrot-and-stick strategy, on the one hand we entice youth into complicity with the adult world, while on the other abashing it with patronizing dismissals and intimidating it with severe punishments for lashing out. And so, bought and cowed, we earn the badge of “maturity” and enter the adult world.
Bought and cowed, yes, but never broken. That knowledge of a more beautiful world lies latent within us, waiting for an event to reactivate it. Each time we encounter something unacceptable in our lives or in the world, something that arouses our indignation and protest, we feel our spark of youth being fanned into flame. We can and do put out the fires, repeatedly, but the invitation never stops coming, and it comes louder and louder until we can no longer ignore it. Then it launches us into the next stage, when we act on our indignation, whether consciously or not, and begin looking for the path out of the old world.
Stage 2: Refusal or Withdrawal
On some level, Stage 2 is always concurrent with Stage 1, but I will describe it separately because so many people are very nearly successful in suppressing the feeling of wrongness, suppressing the intuition of a more beautiful world that is possible, and relegating it to an inconsequential realm: their weekends, their choice of music, or most insidiously, their opinions. People have very strong opinions about what is wrong with the world and what “we” should do about it, and how life “should” be lived, but don’t meaningfully act upon those opinions. They like to read about what is wrong with the world and voice their concurrence. It is as if their opinions provided a vent for the indignant anger that would otherwise power real transformation.
The suppression of the desire to transcend the old world is never entirely successful. The unexpressed energy comes out in the form of anxiety, which is none other than the feeling, “Something is wrong around here and I don’t know what it is.” It can also fuel addiction or escapism, substitutes for the longed-for more beautiful world. Eventually, if all goes well, these props to life-as-usual fail, initiating a withdrawal from the lives we have known.
This withdrawal can take many forms. In my previous essay I discussed depression and chronic fatigue, which are unconscious or semi-conscious refusals to participate in the world. In my own life, for many years the refusal took the form of a half-hearted participation, in which I would go along with some, but not all, of the conventions of compliance. Whether in school or in work, I did just enough to get by, unwilling to fully devote myself to a world I unconsciously knew was wrong, yet not aware enough or brave enough to repudiate it fully either. If you perceive in yourself or another such “flaws” as laziness or procrastination, you may actually be seeing the signs of a valid, noble, yet unconscious refusal.
In other people, the withdrawal takes the form of self-sabotage. You get yourself fired, you engineer an argument or an accident, you inexplicably mess up, you don’t take care of yourself and get sick. These are all ways of implementing a decision that we are afraid to make consciously. So if you find yourself immersed in the wrong life but lack the courage to make a break from it, don’t worry! You will exit it sooner or later, whether you have the courage to or not. On this path, fear is no more the enemy than is ego or any other New Age bogeyman. A process is grabbing hold of you that is far beyond your contrivance. Your struggles are nearly superfluous as you are being born.
Another means of withdrawal happens when you just get fed up, and you snap. “I quit!” you say. Maybe you tell the boss to shove it. Maybe you drop out of school. At this moment you feel a sense of exhilaration, maybe of satori. It does not last and it does not obviate the upcoming journey on the invisible path, but it is valuable nonetheless as a reminder of your power.
A final and very telling symptom of this stage is the experience of struggle. Because you are still trying to participate and to withdraw at the same time, life becomes exhausting. You have to expend tremendous efforts to accomplish anything. You wonder why your career is stalled, why your luck is bad, why your car keeps breaking down, why nothing seems to click, when other people’s careers proceed smoothly. The reason is that unconsciously, you are expelling yourself from the world you’ve inhabited so you can search for another one.
Stage 3: The Search
In this stage, you are searching for something, but you don’t know what it is. You begin to explore new worlds, read books you would never have been interested in before. You dabble in spirituality, in self-help books and seminars; you try different religions and different politics. You are attracted to this cause and that cause, but although they are exciting, you probably don’t commit very deeply to any of them (though for a time you may convert very loudly). You try to figure things out. You want an answer, you want certainty. You want to know what to do. Sometimes you think you have found it, but after a period of intense infatuation with Zen meditation, or Reiki, or yoga, or the Landmark Forum, or shamanic journeying, you are eventually disappointed every time. Their promise of a new life and a new self is not redeemed, despite a promising beginning, and despite seeing others whose lives seemingly have transformed through these. You might conclude you just didn’t try hard enough, but redoubled efforts bring no further results. Yet nothwithstanding the disappointments, you know something is out there. You know there is another world, another life, bigger and more beautiful than the one you were acculturated to. You just don’t know what it is, and you have never experienced it. It is therefore a theoretical knowledge.
The search is in vain. Sometimes you give up for a while and attempt to recommit fully to the life you have withdrawn from. You join back in, but not for long. The self-evident wrongness of that world becomes more acute, and the relapse into depression, fatigue, self-sabotage, or addiction is quick and intense. You have no choice but to continue searching.
Stage 4: Doubt and Despair
The third stage morphs easily back and forth into despair or doubt, a natural response to the fruitlessness of the search. You think, “There is nothing for me. I don’t belong in this world.” You think, “Who am I to think I could be an exception to the universal law of sacrifice and self-control for survival’s sake? Why did I give up my promising future? Why didn’t I devote more energy to staying with the Program? I have made a mess of my life.”
In despair, the weight of the world comes crashing down on your shoulders. The various rays of hope you found in your search are extinguished in an all-encompassing darkness. Whatever political causes or spiritual groups you joined, whatever self-help programs or health regimes, all crumble under the onslaught of the powers that seem to rule this world. Quite logically, there is no hope, nor could there be any hope.
At this point, your idealism, your refusal, your search might seem like an enormous, self-indulgent error. Yet at the same time your perception of the wrongness of the world intensifies. You cannot go back, you cannot rejoin the program; but you cannot go forward either, because there is nowhere to go. Your situation is like that of a fetus at the onset of labor. The cervix has not yet opened: there is no light, no exit, no direction to escape the titanic forces bearing down upon you. Every promise of escape, every door you explored in your search phase, is proven to be a lie, a dead end. Desperately you may resume the search, hoping against hope to find it this time, only to plunge even more completely back into despair when your new guru too shows his feet of clay, when your new group shows the same ego and politicking, when your new self-help technique, your new promising lead, turns out to the yet another loop returning you to the center of the same old labyrinth.
At its most extreme, this is an unbearable condition that must nonetheless be borne. Subjectively it feels eternal. It is from such a state that we derive our descriptions of Hell: unbearable and eternal.
Stage 5: A Glimpse
In the midst of despair, from beyond hope, from beyond possibility even, comes an unbidden glimpse of another world. It comes without figuring out an exit from doubt and despair, whose logic remains unassailable even as it becomes irrelevant. You have caught a glimpse of your destination, the thing you’d been searching for. You might observe that the effort of your search fell a million times short of the power that has finally brought you here. Your quest was impossible — yet here you are! Perhaps it comes in the form of an intense experience of your true power and gifts, of joy and healing, of unity and simplicity, of the omnipresent providence of the universe, of the presence of the divine. It could happen through a near-death experience, a tragedy in the family, a psychedelic plant or chemical, an encounter with a being from another world, a miracle. You will be left in a state of profound gratitude and awe.
This state does not last very long: sometimes just minutes, sometimes days, rarely for weeks. It disappears faster the more you try to hold on to it, and once it is gone it will not come back by trying to replicate the circumstances through which it came before. You might slip back into doubt and despair, you might live a while longer in the old world, but there is a huge difference now. After having had this glimpse, you now know that a more beautiful world and a more beautiful life is possible. You know it in your bones, in your cells. Even if from time to time you doubt it in your mind (for the logic of its impossibility still remains), the doubts no longer seem so real, so compelling. You are leaving that world behind.
The glimpse of a new world is not necessarily a single definable event. Well, it is, but this single event might be diffracted onto linear time, spread out over a period of months or years. When it has happened, then the existence of a new life in a new world is no longer something you’ve just been told about. It is not a matter of religious ideology or New Age opinion. Because it is a real knowing, sooner or later (and usually sooner) it manifests as action in the world, creative action. You begin the next stage: a walk toward the destination you have been shown.
Stage 6: The Invisible Path
You have glimpsed your destination and felt its promise, but how do you get there? Now begins a real adventure, a journey without a path. Well-marked paths exist to becoming a lawyer, a professor, a doctor, or any other position in the old world, but there is no path toward the next unfolding of your true self. To be sure, you may still embark on a training program or something as part of a radical career change, but you realize that these structures are merely something you recruit into your own pathmaking, and not a path to your destination.
In this stage, real changes happen in your life. You may experience the end of a relationship, bankruptcy, career change, moving to a different part of the country, changes in your body, an entirely different social life and different kind of intimate relationship. You may continue to undergo various crises, but they don’t have the apocalyptic, desperate feeling of the earlier stages, but are rather like birth contractions, and indeed your situation is much like that of a fetus in the birth canal, being propelled toward the light. As this phase progresses, you might even have the feeling of having been reborn in the same body (or different body). While some vestiges of your old life will remain, there is no doubt that you are in new territory. You often experience a sense of newness, freshness, vulnerability, and discovery.
The walk toward the state you now know exists is fraught with pitfalls, dead ends, thickets and swamps. You have no markers, no external indicators of the right way. I said there is no path in this new territory, but that is not strictly true. There is a path, but it is an invisible path, a path you work out yourself. Your guides are your own intuition and self-trust. You learn to ignore the voices that say a given choice is foolish, irresponsible, or selfish. Your self-trust is your only guide, because the voices of your old world do not know this territory. They have never been there. It is new for you. You find your own way, groping along, taking wrong turns sometimes and doubling back, only to realize that the wrong turn was not wrong after all, but the only way you could have learned the right path.
Many have preceded us into this new territory, blazing trails into new territory for the bulk of humanity to follow as the old world falls apart. We are still among the early ones, though, establishing roles that have never existed before, the roles for a new world. Only a few of them have names: healer, life coach, facilitator, and so forth. Many more are nameless, riding the vehicle of existing occupations. The form of the lawyer may remain, but she is really doing something very different. You may have encountered such people before, angels in the guise of clerks, mystics in the guise of garbage men, saints in the guise of mechanics. Any profession can be a vehicle for healing work; or you may establish an entirely new profession.
The stage of the invisible path differs from the searching stage in that now, you are actually living the new life, or learning to live it. It is no longer the wishful possibility of someone trapped in the old world and longing for the new. While doubt and despair may pay an occasional visit, they do not weigh you down, because you know better. Their logic cannot assail the felt experience of the new being that draws you down the invisible path.
Stage 7: Arrival
Here is what it feels like to have arrived at the end of the
1. You do something that makes complete sense given all that you know is wrong about the world. That doesn’t mean you can claim to be saving the world. It means, though, that you can look any of the victims of the earth-wrecking, culture-wrecking, spirit-wrecking machine in the eye, unapologetically, knowing that in their heart of hearts they would have you do no differently.
2. You are living in the full expression of your gifts, doing beautiful work for which you are uniquely suited. This need not be work that is commonly recognized in vocational terms. It could be invisible work done as a father, a grandmother, a friend. You may not have a job at all, or you may have an ordinary job, or an extraordinary one, but either way your life will fully engage your gifts. You will feel that you have been of service, and happily. Indeed, you can never be fully happy if your gifts are not fully expressed and received. Ultimately, this is what drives us to search for the Invisible Path to begin with. We are here for a purpose and can never know peace until we find it.
3. You wake up most days happy and excited to live your day. You can hardly stay in bed. You are full of life, because you love the life you are living, and your energy system is therefore wide open.
4. You receive clear feedback from the world that your gifts are received, and that you are participating in the creation of the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible.
The journey is not over with arrival. In a way, Stage 7 is the precursor to Stage 1. We are born into a vast new world and a vast new womb, in which we grow once more until eventually we bump up against the limits of that world, too, triggering a new birth process. After a time of exhilarating development in the new world, you may become aware of an even deeper wrongness, or to phrase it more positively, of new needs for creative expression and healing. Each time you go through this process, new gifts become manifest. You have potentialities within you that will not germinate for many many cycles of time.
I am sure that the readership of this essay comprises people in each of the seven stages I have described. Indeed, because they are not necessarily linear or discrete, you might recognize a little of each inside of you. My message to you today is therefore different depending on which stage most defines your experience at the present time.
If you are in the stage of Idealism / Something Wrong, my message to you is: You are right! The voices of normalcy are lying. Your perception of a more beautiful world is a true perception, not immaturity or youthful naiveté. So believe, and do not succumb to cynicism.
If you are in the stage of Refusal / Withdrawal, I congratulate you on your strength of spirit. That is what is behind your failures, in school, in career. Your refusal is valid, noble even, especially considering you may not even know what it is you are rejecting. And I affirm that underlying feeling: “I was not put here on earth to…”
If you are in the stage of Search, I can only offer you a paradox. You will not find what you are looking for by searching, yet only after searching will it find you. The search itself is a kind of ritual of supplication that will bring what you are looking for into your experience. Your efforts attract it to you, even though you cannot possibly find it through your efforts.
If you are in the stage of Despair, there is nothing I can do for you except to intensify it. You will never get your proof that something is there. Your logic is airtight. You certainly won’t find it in this essay, or from me. You are in this territory for a reason, and the only way out is through, and part of the “through” is for it to seem that there will never be a way out, and even telling you this will not help.
If you have had the Glimpse of a new world, then my message to you is, Yes! It is real. It is not a trick. You were shown it for a reason, and would not have been shown it if there were no way to get there.
If you are walking the Invisible Path, I suggest that you trust yourself. What looks like a wrong turn is part of the path too. Trust your instincts, follow your guidance, and be brave. It is OK to make mistakes, even huge mistakes. Errors and wrong turns are part of the destiny of thepioneer.
If you have already Arrived, then I would like to invite you to take on a new job in addition to what you are doing already. When you interact with people on other parts of the journey, your job is to have complete confidence that they will arrive too, to know it so firmly that you know it for them even when they do not know it themselves. You see others as heroic and hold a space for them to arrive. This message also goes to that part of everyone that knows the new world and is witnessing your unfolding into it.
I would like to emphasize again that these seven stages are not a monotonic progression, and certainly not an ascension from ignorance to enlightenment. They are archetypes that project themselves onto our lives, often following each other in the order I have described but sometimes all mixed together. I myself could almost say that I experience all seven on a daily basis! You might move forward to Stage 6 or Stage 7, only to discover some incomplete remnant of an earlier stage to which you circle back for completion. In fact, Stage 6 includes all the rest, and the whole cycle of seven could also be called the Invisible Path.
On the Invisible Path, there are certain crossroads, waystations, resting spots where we encounter our fellow travelers and share in the mutual knowledge that yes, we are indeed headed toward a destination that is real. I would like for this to be one of those moments. In closing, I offer you a small poem describing my own experience of the Invisible Path.
None of the roads go where I’m going.
Promising paths lead nowhere.
They twist and turn,
And I arrive at my starting point
Again and again.
I strike out anew,
And now even my starting point is lost to me.
I see people walking, purposefully,
And I follow them.
They seem to know where they are going.
Are they lost too?
I cannot be sure.
They lead me to places,
But I do not feel at home there.
People look at me accusingly. I am unwelcome.
Nor do I feel at home on these endless paths.
Finally I stop.
There it is! A light!
I knew it. I knew it all along,
But the path is invisible.
I strike out through the darkness toward the soft glow of home.
The direction is clear but the light is distant.
An occasional glimmer illuminates my path for a second,
And then more darkness.
I feel my way through it,
Deep into unknown territory,
Leaving a new trail behind me.
I meet other wanderers and we share a fire
That promises of our destination.
We set off again, warm and purposeful.
The night is cold and dark and I am on my way.