I was out for a walk recently and took this photo. The winding road lit by the morning sun caught my eye. The road draws us along it, doesn’t it? We instantly, and largely unconsciously, follow its path through the vineyards, turning at the top of the hill to disappear over the top and behind some trees. Yet beyond that lies another hill, less distinct in this light, with a tower standing high on the right. What is that? What’s over there? Where does this road go?
It feels like there is a story here in the making. It feels like we are being encouraged to look into the future, to see what “lies beyond”. That’s such a great thing to do. Our brain thrives on novelty. The right hemisphere, in particular, is always on the lookout for the new, always paying its broad attention to the world around us, sensitive to changes, to new sensations, and seeking to connect us to them.
The other side of that metaphor however is “who laid that road?” Because if I want to go and explore over that hill and see what’s there, chances are I’ll automatically, without thinking about it, follow exactly that path. And there’s something else we all do every day. Follow the paths that others lay for us. We hear a lot these days about propaganda, about the slant on reality pushed by mass media owned by a handful of people, and rumours, lies and conspiracy stories spread through social media. Which all raises the question, “how am I to make my way through this life?” “Whose stories, whose paths, whose directions, am I going to allow to determine the paths I’ll take?”
Here’s another image. I took this one while walking to the Saturday market in a nearby town. This is the Charente river. It looks like this pretty much anywhere you encounter it as it flows through this region (which is also called “the Charente”). It flows with a kind of ease. It rarely looks turbulent. People in this area use it as a metaphor for a way of life. No, maybe more than that, people in this area are influenced by the physical appearance and behaviour of this river in a way which encourages them to live “the slow life”, or, as is often said around here “soyons zen” (“let’s be zen” – relaxed, chilled out, calm).
I think I prefer the metaphor of the river to that of the road. The road seems more fixed somehow. Heraclitus famously said it isn’t possible to step into the same river twice. That’s so clearly true because you can see the water flowing by and you know it’s not exactly the same river now as it was even a few minutes ago. That teaching applies to everything in life of course. Even if a tarmac road isn’t all that different from day to day, you’ll never repeat exactly the same experience of travelling that road.
The river forks at this point where I took the photo. You can see some of it heading off to the left, whilst the rest heads to the right. Life is very like that too. We come to these natural branches, these forks in the road, and we have to choose which one to follow. I think its true that there isn’t necessarily a right choice and a wrong one, and if we at least choose consciously we can feel more “in the flow” in our own life.
Finally, look up into the sky of this photo of the river. There’s a third metaphor about travelling through a life. The contrails in the sky show us where the planes have been (approximately….these trails move and begin to disappear from the instant they are created), but they don’t show us where the plane is going (well, only very vaguely). This reminds me of how we make sense of life by looking back. We understand the present moment in the light of our life so far, the experiences we’ve had, the decisions we’ve taken.
As best I understand it we also make sense of the present moment by factoring in the possible futures we can imagine, so maybe all three of these metaphors have something to contribute – the road, the river, and the trails in the sky…..