Traveler’s mind

Circuit-riding is a venerable tradition here in the Blue Ridge. A plaque on Beaverdam Road in north Asheville commemorates the peregrinations of Bishop Francis Asbury, a Methodist preacher who traveled the region on horseback in the early 19th century, bringing inspiration to the scattered settlements and finding his own inspiration in these magnificent mountains. As he noted in his journals for the year 1800, “I have health and hard labor, and a constant sense of the favor of God.”

My own circuit riding, albeit by horseless carrriage, also takes me to the homes of local individuals, couples and families, and like the good bishop, I offer help and healing to people struggling with all sorts of challenges.

Despite the obvious differences, I feel a deep kinship with my colleagues who have gone before. Like them, I get the joy of communing with the natural miracles of mountains, forests and streams (there’s nothing quite like sunlight dancing on the waters of the French Broad or the Nolichuckey, which Bishop Asbury crossed at Querton’s Ferry more than 200 years ago). Like him, I get to meet fascinating souls who never fail to inspire me. And like him, I get a chance to practice cultivating what I’ve come to call “traveler’s mind.”

I first discovered traveler’s mind when I was in the Peace Corps in Maharlika (the native name for the Philippines) more than 25 years ago. During our training, I was told about the Peace Corps’ threefold mission: to help local people develop their resources more fully; to learn all we can from them; and, at the end of two years, to bring that wisdom back home.

Using this model, I taught family and behavior-modification therapies to the staff of the National Mental Hospital in Manila. At the same time, I learned Maharlikan tools for blending truth and compassion in interpersonal relationships. And I’ve done my best to apply that wisdom in my circuit-riding ministry ever since.

Because they move between worlds, travelers can sometimes see things that more stationary people don’t. But the reverse is equally true, and blending these two wisdoms is the essence of traveler’s mind. Travelers get the treasure of deepening their vision by learning from the rooted wisdom of natives. Natives get the treasure of broadening their vision by learning from the varied adventures of travelers. And by sharing these treasures, both can enrich their spiritual journeys in the deepest way.

In Asheville, we are heir to a wealth of rooted wisdom, including Cherokee, native Appalachian and African-American. These cultures have much to teach us about things like herbal healing, respect for elders and the power of prayer, to name just a few.

But today’s Asheville is home to a much broader array of widely varying faiths and cultures, often brought by new arrivals. These folks—and the many spiritual communities that have sprung up all over the Blue Ridge—have much to teach us about things like cultural diversity, spiritual variety and the power of meditation, to name just a few.

The Appalachian patchwork quilt is a perfect symbol for this blending of seemingly disparate materials. I much prefer it to the old idea of the melting pot, in which cultural differences were obliterated instead of being honored. And some of this creative sharing is already evident: in some newcomers’ appreciation for traditional Appalachian crafts and music, and in some natives’ exploration of the new visions brought by transplants.

But like broken stitches in a patchwork quilt, I too often see major obstacles to the cultivation of traveler’s mind in Asheville. Xenophobia, the fear of what seems foreign to us, is a perfectly natural human reaction. So is ethnocentrism—the tendency to be so focused on our own culture, whatever we perceive it to be, that we can’t believe anything else could be as good. The same thing happens with religious and political beliefs.

All of these tend to give rise to dogma—rigid beliefs based on the illusion that we are superior to others. And either/or thinking, based on the illusion of exclusive truth, leads us to believe that different cultures and religions have nothing to teach one another.

The factionalism that seems to underlie so much of life in Asheville and Buncombe County is an ongoing example of how these tendencies undermine our sense of community. And City Council member Carl Mumpower’s recent push to crack down on local illegal immigrants sowed fear where we most needed understanding.

Cultivating traveler’s mind is a powerful antidote to these obstacles. One simple way to do this is a daily practice of opening ourselves to other worlds. Imagine all of us, in our own unique ways, letting go of fear, superiority, judgment and rigid beliefs to help us be open to new sources of wisdom as we travel through our day. Imagine opening ourselves to what Christians and Jews call humility and what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” which helps us see all human beings—natives and travelers alike—as spiritual teachers. Imagine putting ourselves in the places of those who seem most different from us, so we can view our world through new eyes. And finally, imagine using what Taoists call “both/and vision” to build bridges instead of obstacles.

When Moses climbed the original Mount Pisgah, he was granted a glimpse of the Promised Land. And whether from the heights of our own Mount Pisgah or on the streets of our bustling downtown, many people feel of widely varying backgrounds feel they’ve glimpsed the promised land here in Asheville.

By stretching ourselves spiritually day by day, and by honoring both the independent spirit and the warm hospitality traditional in Appalachian culture, we can make this community a more harmonious patchwork quilt that will enrich all our lives.

[Psychotherapist and spiritual guide Karuna Kistler can be reached at (423) 257-4692 or at]

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