Finding New Paths in Familiar Territory

by | Jan 31, 2024 | Blog

Because of where I live and work, in the (fortunately protected) woods surrounding the Quabbin Reservoir, I drive a car a lot. To get to pretty-much-anywhere requires traveling at least a few miles, often much more.

I have lived in this area for many years. It’s the part of the world I was born into, and while I left it for decade to learn about the bigger-wider-world, since I returned here more than two decades ago I have embraced it as home.

Naturally, by now, I know a lot of the local territory very well. Often, the route wherever I am going doesn’t even need to be conscious, as I have traveled it so many times. That said, I also often have the good fortune to go to new places within this familiar territory, and to link two previously visited places via a different-than-usual route.

There’s such a helpful metaphor in this situation, regarding mindful living.

As the time I have devoted to a contemplative lifestyle (studying the Buddha’s teachings, practicing insight meditation, yoga and massage therapy) surpasses a quarter century, this inner territory also feels very familiar. Like the choice to make a certain physical place home, these ways of living have become like an inner home for my heart and mind. Often now, the practices feel like driving a familiar road.

Because of this, there’s joy in recognizing how much there still is to learn, how much hidden territory still lies between my familiar routes in practice, and how much practice is like an interconnected inner landscape with many possible routes.

As you know, practice is about being fully and peacefully present in the journey of this life. It can be so easy to use the inner GPS, so to speak, letting past learning lead the way. To a significant degree, this is helpful.

Yesterday, though, while driving to relatively new destination in the familiar physical territory of my work life, on the way to to teach a new class at a local college, I made an interesting discovery.

I’ve been to the town the college is in many times, but rarely to the college itself so I started my weekly trips there using the GPS to guide me, a map. Yesterday, I felt had learned the way well enough now to go it alone.

I noticed that my mind was able to visualize the whole map, with the needed landmarks to inspire confidence in arriving at the intended destination memorized. It was pleasant and confidence inspiring to recognize this so, I decided, as I often do, to make this drive a formal mindfulness practice.

As I journeyed the 20 odd miles, I did indeed pass the signs and markers I had envisioned. But, here’s the refreshing part: I also saw many new things too. It was great fun to notice how the thinking mind can only take in a bit at time and needs a lot of repeated exposure to deepen its relationship with a territory. Maps have their usefulness, whether they are stored externally or internally, but the fun really is in being present for the journey.

The maps that guide my contemplative lifestyle start simply: be aware of breathing and walking. From there, they go into the great mysteries of peace and freedom from suffering, a territory that is quite unfamiliar to most of us when we start practicing. How wonderful to make this terrain home and spend a lifetime tracing the familiar paths within it and finding new ones too.

As we move into February, with the new year growing familiar, I wish for you an attitude of appreciating the well-established paths in your life and also of finding new adventures right here, creating new paths in your home territory.

May you connect the dots of your life so that the direct experience of peace and freedom is accessible no matter where you find yourself in the inner landscape.