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Himalaya, India,1997 – a journey told by an unknown psychologist

“We begin our Himalayan trek as strangers with a common goal. A Sikkimese guide led the way, wearing tennis shoes, thin cotton pants, a lightweight jacket, and a rag bandanna. By the fifth day, two climbers had succumbed to altitude sickness, one carried back to the village on a yak, the other leaning on a 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 the 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.

The route led us into a deep, ice-encrusted valley. Without a clear path to follow, we share the gruelling 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. Slight in frame and older that the others, I struggle 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. 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……and again….

Upon my return from India, I resumed my practice, listening to people talking about the pressure on the job and conflict with loved ones. I reflected on my own struggle during the trek in Sikkim, and thought of the difficulty of changing our lives for the better, and that change is very much like the effort required for each step on that path to the end of the journey. 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 behaviour – 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 us to first look at the map, get a feel for the territory, and examine in greater detail the topographic features of the emotion brain. A closer look will familiarise 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 behaviour 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. (Excerpted from Paths are made by walking, New York, Warner books 2003

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