The walk of a thousand miles begins with the first step

  1. Self-Responsible Relating
  2. As Within, So Without
  3. What we say is irrelevant; what we do is who we are
  4. Unpacking Your Mind
  5. 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.

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

3 thoughts on “The walk of a thousand miles begins with the first step”

  1. I’m happy you’ve posted some thoughts again! It is timely for me, as always. I’ve answered the 4 questions at the end for myself, and that was interesting. I’ve always traveled light, but need to further lighten my load in subtle ways. We shall see how that goes — if I actually do it or not.

    • Hey Beth! Nice hearing from you. We’re lightening too, still travelling a lot, but needing to both pare down and re-focus. glad to know the article was useful!


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