There’s a story about a jaguar in a zoo who lived for nearly a decade in a 500 square foot enclosure. The zoo had provided it with proper food, water, and, for the most part, stimulation. However, over time, the wild cat began to feel the stress of living in captivity. These animals hold the memory of freedom deep in their bones, so the jaguar began to pace. Back and forth it went, day after day, month after month, year after year, until a dirt ring had sunk below the green grass around the perimeter of the cage. A well-worm pawed path to trace the anxiety of a wild creature held captive.
Eventually, the organization built the jaguar a larger cage. 3,000 square feet was the new size. It was over six times as big as the old enclosure. There was a large swimming hole, trees to lie under, plenty of rocks to climb. There was even a cave to curl within. They reintroduced the cat to its new home. It explored a bit, took a dip in the swimming hole, slithered into the cave. Almost immediately, the jaguar resumed its habit of circling those 500 square feet where the perimeter of the cage used to be, and was no longer. And now again, day after day, week after week, the majestic cat would slink back and forth as if nothing had changed.
We are not so different from jaguars. We thrive when we are free. We thrive when we can roam without border. We also live within habits. Sometimes we do not realize that the limits that used to surround us are no longer. We get so busy, or stressed, or preoccupied with our lives, that we forget to look around to see if the cage is really, in fact, still there.
This pacing jaguar speaks to the nature of habit. At one time, the habits we formed were helpful. Perhaps they let us cope with stress, or unpredictability. They gave stability. Over time, if we want to thrive, we must shift our habits. The jaguar in the cage represents those well-worn neural pathways in the brain. These are the automatic things we do without thinking. From the way we eat, to the words we speak to ourselves, our habits shape our lives. Neuroplasticity is a relatively new discovery in the scientific community that says we can actually create new neural pathways in the brain. Through many practices (like yoga and travel), we can actually change the patterns of our brain; we can shift out of that old cage.
Travel increases neuroplasticity. We step all the way out of the cage. We are gifted new eyes with which to see the world. We literally cannot repeat the same routine we do at home. We are ushered into new cultures, new sights, and new people. The sunsets have a different hue of purple than we’re used to seeing at home. We smell cooking that we do not recognize, and feel our mouths watering for that unknown blessing. We get to meet people we wouldn’t otherwise, who have some piece of the puzzle and perspective in the web of life that is completely, uniquely theirs. Whenever we immerse ourselves in these experiences, we are forever and irreversibly changed. We cannot go back. We have peeled a layer of the world back. We can see. We carry this new vision back with us into our lives. When we re-enter home life, we see that the cage had long disappeared. - Nicole Nardone