I had heard about the Camino when I was studying abroad in Sevilla 13 years ago, but I really decided to do it 9 months ago when my life got flipped, turned upside down (I´d like to take a minute, just sit right there…). As they say, when the Camino calls you, it´s up to you to answer.
“No hay camino se hace camino al andar…” -There is no path. A path is made by walking
A lot of what I learned I already “knew” but needed to experience to really understand. Why do people speak so negatively about learning things the hard way? If “hard” means through experience, I think sometimes it’s the only way. Like with meditation, concepts can be simple but it’s in the doing that you really get it. This realization has allowed me to have compassion for myself and the past.
Perhaps, the insights are more powerful because you really can’t run (or walk slowly) away from yourself on the Camino. Emotions, like the weather, are relentlessly in your face and constantly changing. Happiness, gratitude, fear, sadness, boredom, joy, exhilaration, pride, love, generosity, frustration, anger… I´ve experienced all within an hour! I realized that strength isn’t about being numb or getting rid of negative emotions, but it’s giving yourself permission to experience the full range of emotions that make us human.
There is a saying on the Camino that goes “without pain, it is not the Camino.” And it´s true…life comes with pain but that doesn´t make it bad or wrong. If you had told me 9 months ago, that I would be “between” jobs, homes, and relationships, I would have asked you what went wrong. But now, sitting in a fellow pilgrim´s flat on a rainy day in Pamplona, I am asking myself what went right.
What you find on the Camino is rarely ever what you set out looking for, but the Camino gives you what you need. I did find strength but I found so much more in seven weeks of walking 500 miles. I found life, peace, friendship, perspective, bed bugs, and blisters. There’s a great quote from the Camino documentary that says most people start out as tourists but end up as pilgrims.
Here are some of my main learnings:
Life is constantly changing and nothing stays the same. You can’t get too caught up in the past or future. No matter how much you enjoy or hate yesterday, you have to leave it in the past. No matter how many plans you make, there is no guarantee. The singular truth is today, and it is an adventure awaiting you. I learned to find the balance between feeling gratitude for the past but not living in it.
Like Queen Elsa said, you have to let it go, though I learned letting go is not an active process of singing, letting your hair down, and unleashing your inner slut. It’s about letting things be and sitting with the discomfort of uncertainty, fear, and imperfection, because if the plane’s going down, baby, it’s going down. There are things you can control and things you can’t. I was worried that my back would be the problem area, but surprise! It was my left knee, chronic cough, and bed bugs (thrice!).
Physical baggage is much easier to let go — I realized how little I really needed in material things. It was liberating to pack everything I owned in a bag that I could carry on my back and be free to stay in whatever town I wanted to.
People come in and out of your life and you theirs. On the Camino, sometimes you walk 100 km with someone you just met, and you share your most intimate fears and hopes. You spend 24/7 with them, you literally see their dirty laundry, and you might lose your shit in front of them under the unforgiving sun because it’s fuckin’ hot, you’re fuckin’ tired, and maybe you need some fuckin’ “me” time.
When you part ways, you don’t know whether they will be your friends for life or you might never see them again. Some encounters last longer than others but they all have their significance. As a friend told me during my penultimate breakup, people come into your life for a reason, season, or lifetime but you won’t know which one they are.
Newsflash: fear is here to stay! We can let fear dominate us or we can lean in. There are so many types of fear in the world…fear of uncertainty, rejection, failure, success, death. Like cockroaches, fear will always lurk in the dark corners of our mind. There’s no value in wishing we could live without fear–it is our mind’s way of protecting us but we can choose to act out of love instead of fear. We can live in the safe, tiny house our minds have built for us, but we also have to shit there too.
Pema Chodron says “the feeling of dread or psychological discomfort might just be a sign that old habits are getting liberated…After a while I realized that since the shakiness wasn’t going away, I might as well get to know it. When our attitude toward fear becomes more welcoming and inquisitive, there’s a fundamental shift that occurs. Instead of spending our lives tensing up, as if we were in the dentist’s chair, we learn that we can connect with the freshness of the moment and relax.” Of course, the “freshness” of the moment can be fist-clenching, but so are rollercoasters and most things exhilirating. Sometimes shit is hard, and you just have to put one foot in front of the other…
You can set the rules and objectives of the game of life. My game used to be about being better than others and perfection. It would have been nice to have neither pain nor a constant, chronic cough like something I imagine a character in Les Miserables had. In any case, you can always find things that are wrong and you can always find things that are right. Is the game going to be about perfection and superiority or progress and generosity?
I learned to trust my soul and use my mind as a computer. It would upset me when my mind would bombard me with memories of Tom, sometimes randomly and especially when I was with another guy. I would get worked up that my recovery was going backward and I would never get over Tom. I realized that my mind wasn’t holding on to the past or trying to hurt me but doing what it does best as my body’s computer/search engine: pulling relevant information out of storage like it might do with memories of travel or food. It’s me interpreting the results as good or bad that is hurting me and I can change that.
Just because I’ve traveled somewhere cool or eaten a dellicious meal before, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it again or can’t enjoy it anymore.It’s no surprise that my mind can more easily pull up emotionally charged files, because those files have heavier weighting. It’s also being protective, trying to shield me from more painful experiences. It actually has compassion for me, not trying to fuck me over.
“You don’t choose a life, you live one…” from The Way with Martin Sheen. Plans can give you a false sense of certainty, but they are just your delusions of the future. There are no guarantees that things will turn out how you think they will, and that´s not such a bad thing. Belen and I would make determined plans to walk to some village, and we inevitably would do something different, sometimes by our own choice and sometimes for circumstances not under our control. Most of our greatest memories happened that way, like the time we decided to rest a day in Villarmentero and get drunk with the crazy donkeys.
The rat race is all in my head. At the beginning of the Camino, everyone seemed to be in a rush and would talk about when they planned to arrive in Santiago or beyond. After the physical and mental pain of the first two days and the seeming impossibility of walking 10 km much less 800, I stopped talking about arriving in Santiago and decided to stray from the guidebook, walking shorter distances and staying in intermediate towns. That changed my Camino. I stopped feeling so anxious as people passed me and realized that the competitiveness was within myself and not with others.
I constantly reminded myself to focus on the journey, surviving today. Santiago would be just another day in the future, and moreover, 500 miles away with no guarantee of arriving. I learned the fine line between pushing my limits and listening to my body. Some days your body feels okay and you can do 25 km, the next you’re not sure you can finish 10km. I learned to trust myself once I had made the decision.
In a metaphysical sense, I wonder why are we all rushing towards the end (of our lives)? It will happen inevitably and if we’re only focused on the end, we miss our whole lives.
Some people say the real Camino starts when we return to our ¨normal¨lives. I hope I can bring this freedom, openness, awareness, and love to my post-Camino life.