This article applies to all forms of way, all paths are of the same nature. However, for the sake of the article I will write from the perspective of a spiritual path.
This article is best read alongside my more in-depth article on the same topic How To Be A Buddha. Please excuse that this article was written without editing or refinement and so it may be a little fragmented, but I hope you get the gist.
When people say that they are looking for a path or for guidance they mean that they are looking for the route from Point A, usually where they are now, to Point B, a destination of sorts. This applies as equally to a spiritual journey as it does to a physical journey or a psychological journey. The destination may be a place, a feeling, an understanding, or a state of being. The destination may be Paris or it may be security, either way the nature of the path is the same. These forms of destination are interchangeable, and could be said to represent different aspects of the same thing, for example: one may believe that their destination is Paris, yet the reason why could be that it represents a new beginning, or that they miss their mother… so is the destination Paris or the state that represents? You could argue either and it doesn’t matter since the way to a particular state of being is the same as the way to a physical place. The same rules apply.
And what of people who do not know their destination? People who feel a call to something they cannot name, or people who do not see any path at all? Not knowing what one wants is not the same as not wanting anything; likewise not knowing where the path is does not mean that one is not on a path. To borrow an analogy I’ve used before: an apple tree knows how to make apples but it doesn’t know that it knows how to make apples. Not knowing the way to Rome doesn’t mean that you’re not going that way, and not knowing where you are going doesn’t mean that you won’t get anywhere.
It’s been said that one needs a guru, which is a teacher or a guide. A guide is someone who has walked the path before and now guides others along the path, for a fee — the fee often comes in the form of respect, which is a very valuable currency and not one you should throw around. Guides, teachers and gurus are, without exception and despite what they say, running a business and hence are inclined to promote their particular brand of guidance and their particular path. Is there anything wrong with this? There is nothing wrong with this per se, but unless you can see that this guru themselves has the thing that you want, there is no point following them. Guides can only guide you to where they have already been. If they are offering enlightenment, are they themselves enlightened? If not then they are something akin to the spiritual version of a used car salesman. It is worth remembering that every teacher you meet has currently got as far as becoming a teacher, that is where they are now, and whatever they are teaching you is therefore part of a journey that ends with becoming a teacher. Is this what you are looking for?
A further problem I will mention in regard to gurus or teachers is that the student and the teacher naturally get tangled up and this often results in a codependent relationship. The teacher needs the student and the student needs the teacher; each has something the other wants. There are many issues with this but one of the worst is that when the destination is reached the student does not leave the teacher. The job of a guide is to take you to a destination, but once there you must leave behind the guide. For example, a boat takes you to a destination but once there you must get off the boat or your journey cannot continue. Remember: the best doctor is one who doesn’t have any patients. It is the job of a doctor to cure their patients, and likewise it’s the job of any guru to cure their students as quickly as possible. Another problem with this scenario is that if a teacher is looking for students then the students clearly have something the teacher needs, and if this is the case perhaps it would be more honest to have a transactional relationship of equals, i.e. a trade.
If you see anyone who has the thing that you want then go ahead and ask them how they got there; they know how and can guide you. If you don’t see anyone who has what you are looking for, if you are going somewhere that no one has gone before, or if you don’t know what you are looking for, then the rest of this article is for you: the guru-less way.
Life itself is a guru, a teacher, a guide. When I say this I don’t mean that you can think of life as a guru, I mean literally that life is such a guru that it puts all other gurus to shame. Another way of looking at the same thing would be to say that a guru or a teacher is one who imitates the methods that life itself uses to teach. So what does life do?
You know what life does. We all know what life does. If you make a wrong step life sends you a clear signal, which usually comes in the form of a slap, i.e. it hurts. If you step correctly then you are rewarded with some form of positive feeling. Bad feeling = wrong way. Good feeling = right way. It’s that simple. To go wrong you’d have to literally try to do the opposite of what feels natural. So why is everyone going wrong? Clearly it’s because they actively distrust life itself and instead are following human gurus that are leading them astray. Why would a person do such a thing? Clearly they must believe words, i.e. symbols, over experience.
Words are symbols for experiences, for example a ‘table’ is not something you eat on, it’s a word that symbolizes something that you eat on. Don’t confuse the word with the experience it represents. Life communicates with us directly but it does so in the true language of experience, not via symbols. This is a more real form of communication than that of symbols. The symbols are human inventions that we use to communicate experiences; life doesn’t need to do this, it can give us the experience directly. Unfortunately most people now consider the words as the truth, and ignore actual experience. This is called to mistake the map for the territory.
Hence it’s not that life doesn’t guide you, it’s that most people are not listening. Listening to what exactly? Listening not to a voice of reason, not to seductive promises, but to actual feelings and experience. Hence the path and the scenery are the same thing. The view you get along the path is the same thing as the path itself. The path is the teacher; every path shows you how to follow it. Is this not true? Doesn’t a road itself guide you onward? Doesn’t a path itself provide the signposts and the milestones?
Probably the biggest mistake people make is thinking that they need to see ahead, to see around corners. Everyone wants to know what to do next. Life doesn’t teach like this, and the reason life doesn’t teach like this is because if you could see around the next corner then you would be around the next corner already. You can see as far as you need to see to take the next step, precisely because that is where you are and you are seeing forward from where you are. Sometimes if the path is clear you can see a few steps ahead, and sometimes it’s misty or there’s an obstacle in the way and so you can only see so far. You don’t need to know what is behind a mountain in order to climb the mountain, you need only to climb. It literally doesn’t matter what is behind the mountain until you are already over it — no purpose would be served in you knowing something that is irrelevant to what you are currently doing, if anything it would be counter-productive.
How much information do you need to know in order to find the path? How much information do you need to know in order to follow the path? In both cases you only need to know when you step off the path, and you know when you step off the path because it hurts. If what you are doing hurts then try the other way. Sooner or later you’ll step off the other side and it’ll hurt again, this is the other side of the path. Now you know where the edges are: walk forwards.