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Rashi Goel

The calf-paths of the mind

The calf-paths of the mind
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The first space shuttle from NASA was not equipped to reach the moon because 5,000 years ago, we traveled in horse-drawn carriages.

This is how it happened.

The first horse-drawn Roman chariots ran on unpaved roads, so their wheels left deep grooves. As more carriages passed up and down the same paths, these grooves deepened over time.

Over time, these grooves became the site for long-distance roads built by the Romans.

Then came the cars. Car manufacturers kept the wheel width the same as the carriage wheels – exactly 4 ft 8.5 inches. They did this so cars could run smoothly without slipping or going off course.

This 4 ft 8.5-inch distance between wheels also became the standard gauge for railways. Railway wheels, railway lines, bridges, and tunnels were all engineered to fit the standard gauge width.

What does this have to do with the NASA shuttle’s inability to fly to the moon? Everything.

The fuel cylinders for the space shuttle were being manufactured in Utah, but the launch was from Florida. Since the cylinders were too heavy to be transported on trucks, the job fell to the railways.

All trains from Utah to Florida pass through the Hoosah tunnel, which was, you guessed it, 4 ft 8.5-inch wide. Therefore, the cylinder had to be made to fit the tunnel – a size too small to carry enough fuel to reach the moon.

In case you were wondering, where did 4 ft 8.5 inch come from in the first place? It’s the distance between the rear ends of two horses – chariots used to be horse-drawn.

We do things because they have always been a certain way. This doing-things-the-way-we’ve-always-done-them is what Sam Foss calls the Calf-Path of the mind in his poem.

The Calf Path starts by telling us about a calf that walks home ‘like a good calf should’. But this calf is wobbly and takes a random drunken walk through the woods and ends up leaving crooked tracks all the way home.

The next day, a dog follows the calf’s path.

Then a bell-weather sheep leads its flock.

The path becomes commonly used and a large metropolis is built around it over time. Even though everyone complains about its twists and turns, they keep following it.

The last paragraphs of the poem share the lesson.

For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,

And work away from sun to sun,
To do what other men have done.

They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,

And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move.

But how the wise old wood gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf.

The Calf Path by Sam Foss

We unquestioningly follow calf paths because it’s easier. Either we all want to fit in, or the possibility that we could do things differently does not cross our minds.

We keep cooking roast chicken with the juicy ends cut off.

There’s a story of a woman who was a great cook but always chopped off a roast chicken’s juicy ends. One day, a guest asked her why she cut off the best parts. She said she did it because her mother used to. When she asked her mother why, her mother said, “Grandma always cut off the ends”. So they asked Grandma, who said, “I cut off the ends because I had a small roasting pan, and we were too poor to buy a bigger one.”

Calf paths ripen and deepen with time. They get passed on as rules, traditions, and statements like ‘this is the way things are done here’. These moments beg the question – Do we do these things because we want to – or because we always have? It is a calf path if you don’t get a clear, logical answer.

While many calf paths are external to us, the calf paths we walk most often are the calf paths of our own mind.

Our internal monologue, imposter syndrome, and shulda-coulda-woulda chants gag and bind us.

It takes insane courage to get off the calf path of our own mind.

Or sheer pig-headedness. Like Michael A. Singer.

The Surrender Experiment

Michael A. Singer had a spiritual awakening and decided to disregard anything the voice in his head said. He concluded that anything his brain said to him was ‘false’ – it came from social conditioning or ego. Both of these, he concluded, are unresourceful and self-limiting. In short, he decided to ditch the calf path of his mind, surrender his personal preferences, and say yes to anything life threw his way. This changed his life beyond his wildest dreams – he built a billion-dollar empire, a spiritual retreat, and wrote a New York Times bestseller.

As another year draws to a close, this might be a good time to think about the calf-paths of our mind instead of chasing another new-old New Year’s resolutions list.

Thanks for reading.


  1. How 4 ft 8.5 inch came about – here
  2. Poem by Sam Foss – The Calf-Path
  3. The Surrender Experiment – here