Pathways

Have you ever noticed how, when you do something often, you can almost do it without conscious thought?

You get up in the morning, you stumble out of bed, brush your teeth, take a shower. Maybe you wake up a little because you have to make a choice about what clothes to wear. But then you style your hair, put on your makeup, eat breakfast, leave the house, and make your way to work, almost without thinking.

You’ve walked these paths so often that your brain runs on them, like a train on a track.

But what happens when something disrupts that path? What happens when your car won’t start or the train isn’t running? What happens if a TV drama is filming on your block and the officious people in black jeans and black t-shirt, with the lanyard hanging about their neck, and the walkie headset and the clipboard bar your way with outstretched arms, say “filming” with that smug way as if you should be honored to have them block your way. What does your brain do then?

For me, it’s almost as if I come up short. I freeze dead in my tracks, pull my brain back from wherever it has wandered off. Stop, refocus, figure out what is next. You can almost hear my gears grinding, wires sizzling.

Then you have to make a decision. Do I wait for this person to clear my way? Do I turn right? Or left? My brain has to plot out a new path, calculate the impact on my journey, the time remaining to get where I’m going. Only then can I act.

If the filming or the construction continues for several days, that new path becomes the route that I walk to work until it becomes my routine and etches itself into my neural pathways. And then that continues until that route is disrupted again.

Sometimes it takes something outside our control to disrupt the path we think we were on. Sometimes the path we were on was a route to work. Sometimes it’s a career journey or a love story. Sometimes it’s a mood.

Sometimes you don’t even know you’re on that path.

The path feels normal when you’re on it, as if it were the way that it has always been and the way it will always be, as if it could not be imagined to be any other way. If you are sad or lonely or happy today, then you remember all the sadness, loneliness, happiness yesterday. And imagine that tomorrow you will be the same.

Every step that you take on that path reinforces it.

Several years ago, I visited Door County. The friend I was traveling with and I wanted to explore so we drove around a lot on the back roads. And we kept coming across this road called “Deer Path Road” – except there were several of them crossing each other. And then we realized that originally the road had been deer paths.

Sometime, maybe before human time, a herd of deer had walked there. As seasons passed, they took the same route, who knows why. Perhaps it was the shortest route between two places that deer like, or it had berry bushes that they could graze on, or offered some protection from predators. But it became the regular route.

When people came to that land, they walked the route that was easiest, the route that the deer had cleared, where the plants were least dense and the soil compressed beneath the feet. Each step that the people took reinforced that path, made it the path to take.

When European settlers moved in with their horses and wagons, they took the established path. Eventually the horses were replaced by cars. And eventually the road was paved over and named. If the two places that the road connects are important enough destinations for humans, eventually that road will be widened and made into two lanes, and four, and eight.

And this is what we do with the path we choose. Every step we take is a step on our path. If we choose to do something nice for our spouse or roommate when we wake up, we take a step on that path. If we say hello to the people on the street, we take a step on that path. If we grumble and swear and complain that we are overworked or underappreciated, that becomes our path and we believe it is our truth. Even sitting still, watching TV, choosing not to do anything, just drifting with the programming, we are taking steps on a path, a circular path that goes nowhere, just around and around and around.

The path we have taken so often before feels normal to us. It’s easy to walk on because we’ve walked it before. If we take a step off that path, push through some nearby bushes, the ground is slippery and the nettles sting our hands. We worry that we may get lost and not find our way back to the path that we know. But who knows what lies beyond that next bend? It could be something marvelous.

But oh that first step is a doozy.

If you are planning a big change in the future, you feel like you need to transform your life, you can prime your brain for change by starting small. Walk or drive a different route to work each day. Rearrange your morning routine. Have breakfast for dinner. Take a class in something new – it doesn’t have to be something you even want to do, just something new. Say hello to people you don’t usually talk to.

Get your brain ready for a big change by inviting little changes into your life.

Eventually the big change will come into your life.

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