I was driving through Ohio with a colleague when the GPS informed us that we were facing an hour-long delay on the interstate. About 25 miles down the road, we would become ensnarled in bumper-to-bumper traffic, projected to crawl along at an average speed of a few miles an hour for an hour or more. At that point, I thought to call a retired firefighter I know who has worked throughout the entire state and knows it intimately to ask for his advice.
He rattled off several smaller roads and a series of towns we could pass through on an alternate route to our destination, one that was not offered by any of our high-tech phone apps. If we went this way, he said, it would probably take even longer, but it would offer us a “fall foliage tour.” We agreed it might be just as well for us to get off the beaten track.
We left the high-speed monotony of the freeway and traveled ever-smaller roads, up and down rolling hills and past farmland that stretched as far as the eye could see, punctuated with the occasional house. Eventually we would find ourselves on the outskirts of a town, pass through the stately town square, often decorated with fountains and statuary, and then back into the outskirts on the other side into more farmland and eventually wilderness. It was relaxing scenery to pass through on a lovely sunny day. Sadly, though, the towns. Sadly, though, the towns showed lots of wear from decades of being marginalized.
Off the Beaten Track
Prior to our straying into the less-traveled areas, Ohio held one meaning for me. Now, it took on more complexity. Away from the glitz and buzz of airports and city lights, where many of us spend almost all our time when we travel, there is small-town life, and pain that comes from being at the margins, just as there is pain in those marginalized urban areas where tourists don’t go.
With so much division emerging, now seems like an ideal time to commit to finding ways to get off the beaten track, and mindfulness can help us do that.
It taught me something about the insidious nature of the “beaten track”—the well-worn pathway we’re all pulled along on from repeated travel. It’s the proverbial oxcart path through the woods that centuries later becomes a superhighway. The same phenomenon occurs in our minds and in our social relations. In our brain and our central nervous system, as the saying goes, “As it fires, so it wires.” When the algorithm in our social media points our brain in one direction and keeps reinforcing it, neurons fire and lay down a path—a wiring pattern—that is easily repeatable. The pattern dictates what we see and how we see, and ultimately the choices we make. It’s how we learn to isolate and insulate, how we learn to see people in limiting ways, to exclude countless alternative perspectives. Not fake news or lies, just varied vantage points.
We are inveterate generalizers, just as I generalized my picture of Ohio—until my picture became more nuanced as I was forced to look in places I would not normally go.
Go Your Own Way
With so much division emerging, now seems like an ideal time to commit to finding ways to get off the beaten track, and mindfulness can help us do that. First, in our minds, and then, perhaps in our actions. In mindfulness meditation, when our mind wants to go down the beaten tracks of our habitual thinking, we don’t try to counteract or contradict it, we simply notice and don’t go there. We come back to the breath and the body. When the beaten track invites us back, we choose openness and creativity.
Perhaps one question for us now is, Can we transfer that habit into our everyday lives more, and find ways to get out of our isolation and insulation and wander into unexplored places, so we can see a bigger and more complete picture of whatever Ohio we happen to be passing through?
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