My husband and I have a motto that we try to keep in mind when ever we go on a trip: “Don’t let the plans get in the way of the journey.” It’s a line from an episode of the Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” during which our heroes join up with a band of hippie-like nomads for a traipse through a secret (and allegedly cursed) mountain tunnel. Last week, we decided to spend Labor Day weekend on a camping trip and our motto was put to the test. As Robert Burns’ famous poem says: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go often askew, /And leaves us nothing but grief and pain, / For promised joy!” When our plans for a quiet weekend in the great outdoors went askew, the question for us as practicing Buddhists became: how can we give up the plans and let the journey continue?
Here’s the deal: before this weekend, I hadn’t been camping since I was about 12 years old and I’d never been tent camping that I can remember. I’ve spent time in fairly primitive cabins and pop-up campers but tent camping is something totally new to me. My husband had spent a few nights in a tent as a kid and I’m always looking for some way to get out of town for a long weekend so I got the idea to buy a tent and hit the campground. Looking back on it, I’m not sure what our “plans” really were but I know they involved hiking, roasting marshmallows, sleeping under the stars and (most importantly) peace and quiet. So, Saturday morning, we packed up the car, threw the dog in the back seat and headed out to Kanopolis State Park, about two hours north of Wichita. When we pulled up to the primitive campgrounds, everything seemed pretty good. It looked like the best sites were taken but we found a decent spot within easy access to the trail head and the bathroom and we set up camp. As we pitched the tent I remember wishing that we would have a week to spend there instead of just the weekend. I breathed in the fresh air and was excited and ready for a great night telling stories and making s’mores. With camp set, we headed out for a hike with the dog. I’m no native Kansan and like most people, when I think of Kansas images of endless corn fields stretching off into the horizon come to mind. But, this area is known for its sandstone rock formations, canyons and caves so there was actually some halfway-decent hiking not terribly far from our campground. We had a lot of fun out on the trail climbing around on the big rocks and trying to shatter the smaller sandstone on the ground. When we got back to our tent, we returned to find that our plans for a nice quiet camping trip had screeched to a sudden halt. A family of six, complete with two yapping dogs had moved in right next door and my hopes for a quiet weekend outdoors seemed shattered.
We started combing the area for fire wood to get our minds off of the group next door and after a few minutes, I realized that these people were just going about their business and had
absolutely no idea that they were wrecking our trip. Then I remembered a quote from a Thubten Chodron talk on anger, she said: “Do other people really make us angry? Or, do they do things that we chose to get angry about?” At that point, I understood that it was time for us to continue our journey and stop worrying about our plans. Our irritation with the family next to us had nothing to do with them, it’s real source was our expectations for the trip and the fact that those expectations were not being met. Dealing with irritation and anger sometimes means changing the the current conditions in order to create a better result. For us last weekend, that meant spending less time at our campsite and more time out on the trail or on the road exploring the nearby area.
For a show on Nickelodeon, Avatar had a lot of Buddhist and Taoist inspired themes on top of the action and adventure and our little motto is an example of this. For me, not letting the plans get in the way of the journey means being open to the possibilities and not becoming limited by our expectations and plans. Allowing the journey to play out despite your best laid plans can lead you to amazing places that you never expected to visit (such as: Lindsborg, Kansas: Little Sweden USA!). This concept is not an easy one for me and I continue to work with it time and time again. I have an INTJ, (The Mastermind) personality type. I prefer to build strategic plans and then execute them with diligence and competence. I’m a “goal oriented” individual who likes to check things off my “to do” list. One of the most important things that Buddhism has taught me over the years is how to get out of the way and go with the flow, even if that means throwing my to do list out of the window.
The Buddha taught that life is unsatisfactory and that our suffering comes from holding too tightly to our ideas of how things “should be.” Learning to relax that mental grip on our expectations is the best way to really free ourselves from the suffering that tight grip causes. I believe it was Gil Fronsdal who once said: “It’s easy! Remembering it is the hard part,” and I’ve found this to be true again and again. When I’m confronted with a whole family of Bengali tea boys, my initial reaction is almost always irritation and annoyance. The little phrase, “don’t let the plans get in the way of the journey” has been a way for me to remember the Buddha’s teachings when my plans go askew and I feel that irritation begin to rise. So, last weekend we repeated our little phrase, “don’t let the plans get in the way of the journey,” and were able to turn a bad camping mini-break into a pretty decent road trip.
So, I’m curious: what “mindfulness bells” do you use to bring you back to the practice when your “best laid plans” go askew? Do you have a Buddhist or non-Buddhist quote that helps you to remember to relax and let life go its way?