Pathways to a Happier You
I want you to imagine a beautiful meadow leading to small mountains on all sides. It is morning, and you find yourself smack dab in the middle of the expanse, looking around you at the knee high grasses and flowers and bramble surrounding you.
There are all kinds of trails leading away from you like spokes on a wheel. Some are clear and well maintained, lined with flowers and small stones, some overgrown and shadowy, twisted and obstructed, and every other kind of path you could imagine. It appears that they all lead to unseen destinations in the surrounding mountains.
You look around thoughtfully ~ which path do you choose?
You decide to follow one of the overgrown footpaths. There is something about It that beckons you. So you bend under flowery branches, and begin to walk. It is clear that it has not been used in some time. You duck under low hanging limbs, climb over felled trees, step over tiny streams, until in the distance you can see the pinnacle of that particular path. It is an old but very sweet and very lovely memory. You roll it around in your mind for a bit, remembering how it felt, revisiting the experience with fondness. You enjoy the short reverie but realize that you do not need to go the remaining distance to reach it. Now you know where to find it if you need it. You turn around and head back the way you came, soon finding yourself at the center where you began.
Again you look thoughtfully around you. It seems wise to investigate one of the large paths now, the ones so clear that they’re more like small roads than walkways. One calls to you with what feels like light whispers in the wind, while the other seems to howl a bit, with a tinge of urgency or aggression beneath its surface.
You again decide to go slightly against instinct and head down the darker path. You move much more quickly than you did on the tangled path, your feet propelling you forward, but your heart does seem to be lagging a bit behind. Because it is so wide and flat and clear soon you can see to the mountaintop. And even from a distance you recognize that the summit is covered with your most constant worries and fears. You start to feel the unwanted emotions; anxiety, shortness of breath, upset seeping into your bones. You take a deep breath and turn and run as fast as your legs can carry you. You feel the uncomfortable heat of those fears against your back as you run, and you notice that the path is even a bit wider, a little easier to cross.
You arrive back at center, breathless and eager to put those feelings behind you. You hesitate for only a moment and then head down other wide open route.
As soon as you start on it, your breathing becomes calmer. Your heartbeats return to a steady rhythm, and the breeze feels sweet against your face. This time it seems as though your heart wants to move faster than your feet can even move. Soon you can see the mountaintop.
This time you see a person or experience that warms every inch of your soul. Something that makes you feel whole and complete and abundantly loved and at peace. You keep climbing, almost dancing, until you reach the summit.
And when you finally arrive, you cannot help but to break into song and wild dance. You spin, taking in all of the joy and happiness in the scene, feeding it to yourself in huge portions like the soulfood that it is.
Finally you calm enough to sit, on the throne of your joy, and look at the vista below and beyond.
From there you can see Everything. All the paths. All the memories, all the fears, all the thought pattens, painful and inspiring and forgettable and everything in between.
And it clicks. The paths represent how often you visit those thoughts and memories. When you continue to go back to something, the paths become more worn, easier to travel, more likely to walk down on autopilot because the way is so familiar and so clear.
This is a personification of neuroplasticity ~ a big word that means that with every repetition of a thought or emotion, we reinforce a neural pathway - and with each new thought, we begin to create a new way of being. These small changes, frequently enough repeated, lead to changes in how our brains work.
Neuroplasticity is the 'muscle building' part of the brain; the things we do often we become stronger at, and what we don’t use fades away. That is the physical basis of why making a thought or action over and over again increases its power. Over time, it becomes automatic; a part of us. We literally become what we think and do.
And you know what? Both meditation and mindfulness can help positively alter your brain’s pathways. For free! With no equipment! Anywhere! Any time!
When I first heard the analogy of the well worn paths, neuroplasticity suddenly clicked for me. I grew up in the country, and we would always create paths through the forests and fields and snow in the winter ~ or follow in the footsteps made by someone else. And after a path was established, I often would not think at all about which way to go ~ my brain would take me down the worn path on autopilot.
So I encourage you to start being aware of what paths your brain continuously goes down. Are you often worried about something? When you wake up, what are your first thoughts and inclinations? I challenge you to start experimenting with the neuroplasticity of your brain and its ability to choose to think about, respond to, and attract what you truly want in your life.
Please start small and trust the process. If you usually awaken to coffee and checking your cellphone, try having tea instead and meditating, if even for a moment. Start taking the stairs where before you took the elevator every day. Try intentionally thinking of a reassuring thought when you catch yourself starting to go down a path of worry.
“Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.” —John F. Kennedy
And then start modeling it for and teaching it to young people. Creating new paths is a skill, and like all skills the earlier learned, the better. So which trails are you going to give up traversing and which new pathways are you going to start creating today?