The walk of a thousand miles begins with the first step


The walk of a thou­sand miles begins with the first step — it’s about "just start­ing" — while drop­ping the excuses

the walk of a thousand miles
Funny where my mind goes. I guess most of you know that I was, for 13 years, a Presbyterian Minister. I jokingly say that, back in 1996, I “gave the Church up for Lent,” and never took it back.

Nevertheless, my back-history is Christian; I have since walked away from that circle and have focussed on Buddhism, mostly of the Zen strain. My brain still holds tons of "biblical references," which, like the stories of the Buddha, help us to see where we are stuck, and how we might unstick ourselves.

The major faith groups are remark­ably alike in their over­all teach­ings. All have a line simi­lar to: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," for exam­ple. Also common is the idea that the walk of enlight­en­ment is a jour­ney that actu­ally must begin.

Thus, today’s declaration:

the walk of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Although this is the popu­lar form of this quota­tion, a more correct trans­la­tion from the orig­i­nal Chinese would be "The jour­ney of a thou­sand miles begins beneath one’s feet." Rather than empha­siz­ing the first step, Lau Tzu regarded action as some­thing that arises natu­rally from still­ness.

Another poten­tial phras­ing would be "Even the longest jour­ney must begin where you stand." Or, "Thousand miles to be trav­elled, start with foot (placed) down."


Like many Eastern construc­tions, this is a "Well, that’s obvi­ous" state­ment. We might then wonder at the preva­lence of this theme across cultures.

If it’s so simple, why keep repeating it?

I guess it’s not so simple.

So, where my mind went was to two "Jesus" stories that also share this theme. In both cases, Jesus is bopping along the road, and some­one says or does some­thing that inter­ests him. In each case, he says, "Come and follow me."

In the one instance he is speak­ing to "the Rich Young Ruler," (Mt. 19:16-26) who had seem­ingly done some pretty profound stuff. He’d actu­ally obeyed the law. He asked what else he needed to do.

Jesus said,

"If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have trea­sure in heaven. Then come, follow me." But when the young man heard this, he went sadly away because he had many posses­sions.

In the other instance, one of Jesus’ "2nd string followers" is invited to join the inner circle. Same pattern: Mt. 8:21-22:

Another of his disci­ples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

Fitting these two stories together with our "thousand miles" quote tells us what is required, and how we resist.


Being on our Western road trip, I am think­ing of the back­pack­ing trips Dar and I have taken out here in Montana. Here’s a photo of Dar, back in the 80s, suit­ably "encum­bered."

When you back­pack, you are carry­ing your house and "stuff" with you. You have to think a bit. What are the essen­tials? What would be nice to have along? How much does all of this weigh?

The tendency for many of us is to try to drag everything along, "just in case."

Which is what is so nice about back­pack­ing. Unless you plan on taking along a cara­van of mules, you can only take what you can carry. And more: you can only take what you can carry all the way to wher­ever it is you are going, taking into consid­er­a­tion the terrain. I can carry more "on the flat" than I can carry in the high Rockies. That’s just the way it is.

The Rich Young Ruler story concerns posses­sions. It’s really an admo­ni­tion about pack­ing light.

The rich guy was look­ing for another "simple rule to follow." Jesus decided to cut to the chase. Rather than making it easy, he said, "Give up what is most impor­tant to you." In the rich guy’s case, it happened to be his posses­sions.

In another person’s case, the "giving up" might be giving up on certainty. Or giving up on being right. Or giving up on a rela­tion­ship. Or giving up a job.

The same thing holds on a back­pack­ing trip. I’ve seen people trying to take a mound of stuff into the back coun­try. They have to learn to leave their excess baggage behind, so they can travel light.

Not easy when we have chosen to define ourselves by our posses­sions, or our knowl­edge, or our wisdom, or by job title, rela­tion­ship, or letters after our name. Some of us define ourselves by "what ails us." (I can’t do this! I’m poor, or an "Adult Child", or a help­less victim, I’m lame, or the prod­uct of bad parent­ing!!!)

Yet, if we do not leave our "excuses" behind, we’ll never take the first step.

In the second story, Jesus again makes that remark­able offer, "Come and follow me." It’s an expres­sion of, "Here is wisdom, and a path, (one of many, btw) and a guide, and a road map. But you have to do it now."

And the guy says, "Let me bury my father first."

Now, on the surface, this seems like a reasonable request.

Only thing is, the text doesn’t say that the guy’s father was actu­ally dead.

For all we know, he was healthy as a horse.

Thus, the guy might have been simply stalling for time.

OK, I’m making a bit of a joke there, but I’m actu­ally not. I had tons of clients, back in the day, that tell me that they couldn’t begin their own walk until:

  • their kids grow up (I kill myself over that one, as I know a lot of 30-year-old kids still cling­ing to mom and dad),
  • their parents die,
  • they make "enough money," or the best of all,
  • they’re wait­ing until the time is right.

Leave the dead to bury the dead. What an interesting line. It would almost seem to indicate that those not actively on the walk are the "living dead." Waiting, wailing, and moaning.

You see, the point here is that there is never going to be a perfect time to start. There is never going to be a time when you can haul all your crap with you. There is never going to be a time when every­one around you sings praises for your deci­sion. There, in short, is never any time other than this moment. In this moment, there is one step. And one step. And one step.

I tend to burden myself with "what if’s." As I do, my walk almost slows to a stand­still. I stall because the unknown-ness of the walk is scary. To simply leave, taking noth­ing along, not know­ing where I am going, not know­ing why, is scary. So I want to lie to myself and get the hell off the path. At least by the side of the road, frozen, I know where I am.

And then I see that just stand­ing there, rooted to the spot, is the equiv­a­lent of dying. I’m going to have an eter­nity to prac­tice being dead. There is only "now" to be alive. And to be alive is to walk. Despite the fear and with­out any certainty. Other than know­ing that this is all there is. One moment and maybe the next. Waiting and wish­ing is not going to change things.

And so, we’ve sold most of what we own, put the rest in stor­age, and are "walk­ing" with liter­ally 2 back­packs and 2 computer cases. The walk of a thou­sand miles (and more) begins with step­ping on the earth beneath our feet. It’s no differ­ent with the walk down enlightenment’s path.

What are you using as a way to stall? What are you attempt­ing to drag along? Whose permis­sion do you think you need? What do you think you need to "know before you go?"

Leave the dead to bury the dead. Travel light. Let go. And take a step.

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  1. Beth Montes 2015/05/24
    • wayne 2015/05/24

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