That Old Trail in the Woods

 
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I dearly love being able to teach mindfulness and meditation and digging into interesting and thorny topics like anxiety and uncertainty along the way. What I get to witness (not what I do, but what happens when a participant is engaging with the content and practicing new ways of being) is sheer transformation. Relating to life differently than before.

I’ve come to have a favorite teaching metaphor for the kind of change that is occurring, and if you’ve ever been in one of my courses or met with me for coaching, you’ll probably have heard me go on a bit about this metaphor. What can I say? — I think it’s meaningful and a beautiful image for keeping perspective on how growth tends to occur.

Perhaps you like to take hikes, or you know someone who does: picture a hiking trail running through the woods. This trail is clear and easy to follow as it winds through trees, bushes, and brush. The reason that it’s so easy to follow is because it has been trodden so very many times before. Each time someone walks on this path, they maintain this specific path from point A to point B, and they wear it in more (even just a little) as a trail.

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If you wanted to create a new trail, a new way of getting from one place to another, imagine what that process would be like. You’d probably need some tools to cut through the brush. Even when the way was fairly clear for you to walk, just imagine how many times you’d need to re-trace that path in order for it to be as easy to follow as the rut of that first well-worn trail. Of course, it’s totally possible to create new trails...and it takes time, effort, and patience.

…The great news is that this can be done! Neuroplasticity— the ability of the brain to change— is possible throughout our whole lives. It is happening all the time, and we can change brain pathways through intentional re-training. For me, this is an exciting and comforting thought: that we can change in significant ways. And, like making a physical trail, this change takes intention, attention, practice, and repetition. It doesn’t happen in a day, so being kind, gentle, and patient with ourselves is crucial.

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… There will, of course, be times of returning to the old trail. During especially difficult circumstances— when you’re pressed for time, when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, when you’re dealing with that family member who has always known how to push your buttons… Imagine the woods when it’s dark and stormy, when it’s hard to see your way. In these dark conditions, the old path feels like the easiest one to take, and you may find yourself halfway down this path before you even know it. This is where you again and again bring in self-compassion. You are a human being, carving a brand new path. It is hard to create new habits from scratch, and it takes practice! After all, how many years did you tread the old path? Give yourself a break. Whenever you can, begin again. Open to your experience. You know how to do this, and you can do it in any moment that you choose.

I’m wishing you perseverance, courage, and kindness as you continue. May you be well.


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This is an excerpt from “Transform Your Relationship to Anxiety,” a self-guided course inviting meditation and reflection, hot off the presses.

This holiday season…

I’m inviting all who order the book to join us in a Read-Along online! Here’s a chance to discuss and encourage each other as we read, and I’ll offer live group meditations and Q&As along the way!