Paths Are Made By Walking
Practical Steps for Attaining Serenity
Sikkim province, India. 1995. We began our Himalayan trek as strangers with a common goal: six Americans decked out in jewel-toned Gore-Tex, Polarfleece, and state-of-the-art hiking boots; a team of yaks bearing tents, ropes, gear, and wicker-caged chickens; three Sherpa cooks balancing baskets of potatoes, turnips, pots, and pans atop their heads; all climbing to the spectacular western rim of Kanchenjunga peak. A Sikkimese guide led the way, wearing tennis shoes, thin cotton pants, a lightweight jacket, and a rag bandanna.
By the fifth day, two Americans had succumbed to altitude sickness, one carried back to the village on a yak, the other leaning on the shoulder of a Sherpa who volunteered to go back down. The rest of us continued up the mountain, cutting through fog and mist and haze to a clearing at eleven thousand feet. We made camp by a lake near a rock-pile shrine to the “weather gods” and ate lentils and fry bread. Only the braying of yaks, the flapping of prayer flags, and the occasional, distant call of a hawk broke the silence. To keep warm in the cold moist air, we put hot-water bottles in our bedclothes and went to sleep beneath a low, heavy sky.
At morning’s first light, a Sherpa tapped on the tent. “Madam. Wake now. Snow. Big snow.” Peeking out, I saw the ground covered in a thick white blanket. Clouds concealed our destination: the summit of Kanchenjunga. It would be a difficult day for trekking.
After hurrying through a breakfast of fried egg sandwiches smothered in hot pepper sauce, chai, and the daily dose of garlic soup to prevent altitude sickness, we started off—snow still falling, fresh water and chocolate bars in our packs. The Sherpa cooks and yaks had gone ahead, but when we left an hour later, the trail was blocked, buried beneath the blowing drifts. We set out in another direction, stumbling, unable to catch a full breath in the thinning air.
The new route led us into a deep, ice-encrusted valley. Without a clear path to follow, we shared the grueling task of breaking our own. Even the strongest among us grew exhausted after only ten or fifteen minutes in the lead. We distracted ourselves with small talk about movies and the warm comforts of home. Now and then the guide would pause, adjust his rag bandanna, and squint into the unforgiving glare. Gradually, his air of authority became a look of uncertainty. We were lost.
Talk of movies ceased, leaving only the silence of falling snow, the squeak of boots, and a strained chorus of breathing. “Too far east,” said the guide, pointing. From that moment on we kept a code of silence, fearing that even the whisper of a complaint would crack our will to continue. Forced to change our direction again, we had to cross into more unfamiliar territory, break more trail.
Slight in frame and older than the others, I struggled to lead for even five minutes. Numbed with cold sweat and melted snow, I found just keeping up at the back of the group difficult. In order to forge ahead, mental focus narrowed to the simple act of taking the next step. Muscles quivering, I used my arms to hoist my legs up and over the surface of the snow before they crunched back down through the crust for another step forward. Up and over. One more time. And again.
We plodded on, sharing water and rationing chocolate, glancing back at our tracks—our record of progress. As we caught sight of our rendezvous point, whoops and hollers of exhausted joy broke the grim silence. As we made our way to the trekkers’ shed, disheveled and shivering, the Sherpa cooks grinned, clapped, and raised their arms in welcome . . . and relief. We took long breaths of garlic soup and smoke from the cooking fire—civilization at last. Inside, we peeled off wet layers, huddled by the fire, and drank hot tea with sweet milk. Strangers no longer.
Upon my return from India, I resumed my consulting work throughout the United States. Listening to people talk about pressure on the job and conflict with loved ones, I reflected on my own struggle during the trek in Sikkim. The difficulty of changing our lives for the better is very much like the effort required for each step on that path to Kanchenjunga.
When confronted with the gathering storms, high winds, and deep snow of our emotional minds, we must make a parallel effort to etch new pathways in the brain. Like creating new trails on the way to the summit, we can, through mindful practice, change our behavior—passing through the undiscovered terrain of self to the warm shed of better relationships and shared experience.
As we prepare for this journey, it may help to first look at the map, get a feel for the territory, and examine in greater detail the topographic features of the emotional brain. A closer look will familiarize us with the well-worn neural trails that make up our emotional habits. Though our existing habits often get us to our destination, we may miss some of the emotional richness—the more sublime scenery and hidden beauty found in new behaviors and reactions.
And then there are times when our habits lead us entirely in the wrong direction. We get lost or hurt, or do damage to our relationships. To determine the most rewarding route, it helps to understand how and why our habits and reactions are so strong—and not always in keeping with our intentions. To get a closer look at why this is so, we turn now to “the brain” inset on the map of self-discovery.