Journeys–long or short, they can fill us with excitement and trepidation in equal measure. Whether it’s a holiday to an island resort or a journey to reach your work goal or walking a spiritual path towards greater happiness and peace of mind, all journeys have some basic elements in common. And these basic steps can mean the difference between having an enjoyable journey or a disastrous one, and can even become the difference between reaching your goal or not.
My meditation teacher is a big fan of ‘car metaphors’–so here is one. If you are going on a road trip from your house, there are some basic things you have to do before you leave. First you have to clean your car (enough so that you can fit yourself and your luggage in it), fill the car with petrol/gas, check that the engine etc. is working, and pack your stuff. This is called the Groundwork, all the stuff that you have to do before leaving on any journey.
We also need certain Skills for our journey, in this case, the skill of driving the car, of knowing the Highway Code etc.
And then we can start the car and head off. We can start our journey. But at the beginning of any car journey, there are a lot of Nitty-Gritty Negotiating of small back roads that must be done before we reach the highway. And of course this is true of the beginning of any journey. The start is often slow and slightly annoying as we get the details of the new journey right.
There is also another very important part of Journeying that it is easy to forget–and we often do. And that is knowing how to get along with others on the journey, how to behave in our surroundings and with the other beings in our surroundings. Without this Moral Code, we could certainly physically get from our house to our destination, but the journey would be very unpleasant (for us and for others).
And so, if we’ve packed well, know how to drive, gotten ourselves to the highway and are getting along with those difficult backseat drivers, we’re doing pretty good so far! But here’s where journeys can get really tricky, because the large, fast highway beckons…but if we don’t have a Map to show us how to get to our destination, we are pretty unlikely to get there. And this is what trips people up because of course it is tempting to take roads that look nice, roads that are clear of traffic, roads that pass by beautiful scenery. It’s easy to get distracted on our journey, but if we are trying to get somewhere specific, it’s not always that helpful to follow our intuition. Sometimes we need to follow a map laid out by people who have travelled to that place before us.
Understanding these are separate steps on our journey can help us prepare well or even help us figure out where we are going wrong.
For me, this metaphor was originally used by my teacher to explain the path of Yoga.
The groundwork we must do as yoga practitioners includes purification practices (cleaning our car), basic care and nutrition for our bodies (filling the car with energy and making sure things are working). Then there are certain skills we need to learn to do yoga correctly, in terms of postures but also our awareness while we practice. Initially, it is easy to get mired down in the nitty-gritty details, such as posture alignment, or when is the best time to practice. This phase can sometimes feel annoying, as we struggle to work yoga into our lives and get things ‘right’. And of course, in the yoga tradition there are the yamas and niyamas that provide the moral code for how we should behave out in the world. But after all this detail, at some point in yoga practice we reach the highway, and it is really wonderful. You start cruising along with your practice, the physical postures feel great, and it is tempting to just stay on this lovely scenic road. And of course you can. It’s YOUR journey. But if you want to reach the destination of the yoga path–to ‘calm the restless mind so that the self can abide in what we really are’ (Yoga Sutras)-then you need to keep going. When a road has served its purpose and it’s time to get off, you need to be able to see the signs and get off at your exit.
This metaphor has stuck with me because it is not just true of following a spiritual path. It seems pretty true for any journey we are trying to take.
If our journey is leaving a bad job and trying to find one that is more fulfilling, then of course we need to do some Groundwork, which might be getting clear about what we like/don’t like about the current job, what our skills currently are, and even taking care of ourself physically by sleeping and eating well so that we have the courage to do all the scary/brave things that will be required of us. Then once we identify the destination (new type of job), we will need to assess whether any new skills, new training etc. are required. And without a doubt, we should reflect on our own moral code, what do we feel good about and what we absolutely don’t want to get pressured into doing. In the early days, there will undoubtedly be a lot of nitty-gritty crap to sort out. The learning curve will feel steep, and so we’ll need a lot of patience and perserverence to keep going.
But the most important part of this whole metaphor is having the right Map.
Which is also the hardest part.
There have been so many moments for me recently where…I know where I want to get to, feel like I have the skills, the interest, the passion, the commitment to work hard to get there. But it’s not clear HOW to get there, which step to take next. This reality slammed into my face last year as I began trying to publish my novel without any clue how to publish it, much less how to market it to people beyond my group of family and friends. There were times (and still are…practically every day!) that I felt completely overwhelmed at what seems an impossible dream goal of becoming a published author. But…there have been people who have done this before me. So I have spent the last year reading and listening to podcasts by writers who have gone before me and been successful in their journeys. And for the moments I feel like I don’t know what to do next, I clutch at the map I’ve been given by these other writers who have gone before me and try to have faith that if they can do it, so can I.
And honestly, let’s admit that we are not all reinventing the wheel. Often the place we want to get to is a place other people have journeyed to before us. (Even when that’s the lofty goal of Enlightenment!) The difficulty then becomes trying to get their advice, identify their actual steps, and slowly begin to piece together a map that might work from the specific place we are standing.
As for me, I am totally mired in the ‘nitty-gritty’ stage…in my journey as a writer, a yoga practitioner, a meditator…but for each of these things, I’m beginning to piece together a map that I think might work. And what I’ve noticed is that having a map (even if it’s just the beginning of one, even if it’s just a rough sketch) can give you a tremendous boast of confidence to keep going.