It has been a fair while since my last travel blog post about el Camino de Santiago and yet, during these strange Covid times of lock down and self-isolation, I found myself reflecting on the pilgrimages I have made over the last five years and my heart and soul are longing to be on the Way again.
Five things to ditch on el Camino de Santiago is based on what I have learned from walking three Caminos – the Camino Frances twice (including walking on to Finisterre and Muxia) and the Camino Portuguès. So here goes…
1. Excess baggage
The first one is excess baggage. Now I’m not talking about the backpack. I’m not talking about what a pilgrim should carry, i.e. what to pack, even though I have written previous posts about essential packing lists…which are, quite frankly laughable now. As time has gone on, I have realised that I always took too many things and overloaded my backpack. So with each Camino I have packed lighter and lighter.
But alas I digress, for I am not talking about luggage and the physical things. What I am talking about here are the other types of baggage that we carry around in our everyday lives.
Now this could mean very different things to different people. It could be mental baggage, such as a sharp and trendy briefcase of worry, stress or disappointment. It could be emotional baggage, such as a complete set of matching, state-of-the-art suitcases containing your experiences of difficult relationships or the ending of them, or power struggles, family concerns and juggling too many responsibilities.
Alternatively, it could be a bright red, shiny handbag, screaming “look at me” carrying your perceptions of your failings in different spheres of life, perhaps in your career, family, friendships or life goals.
Or it could masquerade as a dark and tired, tatty, worn out duffle bag, weighed down with grief. For example, my decision to walk the Camino Frances for the first time in 2015 came out of being a full time carer of my mum, who was dying of terminal cancer. This was the hardest mission I have ever done in my life but it was also an immense privilege and honour.
I decided to walk el Camino de Santiago as a way to honour the life of my mother and simultaneously as a way to deal practically with my grief. This is because I had held everything in and trying to keep it all together, while I was caring for her. I just didn’t want to face the inevitable, so when my mum passed away I was very numb. I was almost in denial and I couldn’t feel anything.
I thought that the act of walking the Camino would be a way for me to engage with and embrace my grief and walk through it. I expected my first pilgrimage to be totally about grieving but interestingly enough the Camino always reveals surprises and what I found was it was like peeling the layers from an onion. The grief I felt for my mother was the crackly, papery outer layer and, as I walked further and further along, I realised I was also peeling other layers of the onion that had a lot more to do with the grief, stress, burn-out and a degree of PTSD that I had experienced during my humanitarian aid career over a period of twenty years.
So this is just one example of the type of baggage that we can carry around in our hearts, minds, spirits and souls and I think that what the Camino does is it enables us to recognise and acknowledge these types of baggage. It will present to us opportunities to face certain things that perhaps we had been pushing down over the years and, with loving care, engage with it and be prepared to embrace it, recognise it but then let it go with love, grace and even with gratitude, which might sound a crazy thing to say. But I mean from the point of view that whatever burden we have been hauling around with us, it has been there to teach us lessons in life. It has been there to present to us a mirror of who we are as people, maybe what we do well, what we need to learn more about, our own character, the shadow side. It is also a mirror to show us that suffering is a part of life and it is there also so that we live through every emotion and experience our human condition in fullness. Having said all of that, we don’t have to dwell in that place. Once we have learned those lessons we can release them with love and appreciation of what they have taught us.
So yeah, excess baggage. Look upon the Camino de Santiago as an opportunity to leave that baggage somewhere. You no longer need to carry it around with you any more.
The second one is pride. Yeah, we all ought to lay that down on the Camino! Partly because the Camino de Santiago brings together so many pilgrims from different backgrounds and walks of life, all age groups, cultures religions and faith perspectives into the melting pot of pilgrimage. Often we find that in our own societies at home, we are used to defining ourselves by what we do as a career and certainly this is the case in the western world. It is all about “what do you do? ” rather than who are we. Sometimes we can get wrapped up in the trappings of our status in our own lives at home around what we do – we are defined by our productivity in the workplace, which can lead to airs of superiority or competition and the notion of one person being somehow better than another according to their perceived level of status, success or achievement.
Alternatively, we can also define ourselves by who we are in our relationships – whether we are single, co-habiting, married, parents or grandparents etc. In contrast, on the Camino we do not have to wear those kind of masks.
Now, everybody has different reasons for walking el Camino de Santiago, some may walk for religious or spiritual purposes, to observe some rituals according to their faith positions. However, all pilgrims are not necessarily going to be on a spiritual path, or perhaps they don’t think they are. They could have a physical reason, such as setting a personal, physical challenge to improve their health and fitness or perhaps they want to travel slowly through France and Spain.
Whatever those reasons or motivations are, I have heard it said many times that the Camino de Santiago is a great leveller. We have been brought to this point in life, when we have felt prompted in our hearts and spirits to make this pilgrimage journey.
Anyway, the other thing about pride is that when you have been on the road for 26 km in 33 degrees C heat on the Meseta, you’ve kicked up lots of dust from the ‘senda’, you are a bit hot and sweaty, you’re wearing yesterday’s clothes because you were so dog-tired that you couldn’t be bothered to hand wash them at the albergue last night and you stumble into the next albergue and your hair is all matted down with sweat or its greasy, you’ve got a red, sunburned face or it a bit pimply in the sun …..remember that none of this actually matters.
Your heart is bursting with joy, you are finally in tune with your body and all of your emotions, you are completely at home in nature and among this eclectic community of pilgrims. That is all that matters. Physical appearance does not matter on the Camino. Leave your fashion cage at home, you don’t need all the extra accessories. What is more important is the person you radiate that emanates from your inner soul and your inner journey.
One more thing about pride is that one day on the Camino you might be in a state, maybe you have got poorly feet with blisters or you’ve got shin splints or perhaps you have lost something and you need some help. Often in our day-to-day lives our pride keeps us from asking for help. I think we have become so conditioned to thinking that is a weakness and it separates us from one another, when really we are an interdependent community.
The Camino de Santiago offers opportunities to ask for help and to provide help to our fellow pilgrims. Help is given and received with good grace and dignity and these simple acts of kindness remind us that we live in community and we need each other. We do not need pride to get in the way.
The third thing is judgement and I have written a little bit about this before and you may have read it already in my blog. Often you will hear plenty of judgement on the Camino, particularly around the duality of what constitutes a ‘true’ versus a ‘false’ pilgrim, which, in my humblest of humble opinions is a load of cods bol$*&ks!
I can hear you saying to yourself “Ahhh but I don’t judge, no, I just accept people as they are.” Hey….Gotcha! You’ve just made a snap judgement there in your own mind about yourself and whether you judge people or not. I mean really, in all honesty everybody judges everyone else all of the time. It is human nature. We see somebody for the first time and already we have computed an opinion in our heads based on what he or she looks like, how they sound, how they approach you or how they don’t and that is just natural.
On the Camino we are called to discard that habit of instant judgement and the deeper judgement around whether somebody is a ‘true’ or ‘false’ pilgrim. There has been plenty written about a true pilgrim being someone, who carries his or her stuff on his or her back for the whole journey, depends on the kindness of strangers and suffers on the way. Whereas a false pilgrim is someone, who wears a micro-sack on his or her back, stays in 5 star hotels, jumps out of a taxi to walk a short distance, while the matching luggage set is shipped ahead. You see, I’m doing it too now, right? It is very easy to fall into that trap but resist!
The Camino de Santiago compels us to lay that aside and instead, look at the basic characteristics of what a human being is all about. We all eat, drink and breathe the same. We all have blood coursing through our veins. Mostly we want the same things in life – to be healthy, to be happy, to be free, to have enough in the world to support our families and to have connection.
The Camino de Santiago helps to strip away those insidious layers of judgement but it is a living practice. It is important that we tell ourselves to let go of that judgement consistently. We must remember we are dipping our tired toes into the same river of life.
We are all pilgrims. End of.
The fourth thing is schedule. When I was at home before I went on my first Camino, I was trapped by by own schedules – never-ending to do lists at work and at home, clock-watching and that dreadful, heavy feeling of not having enough time, trying to stick to plans, endless meetings, targets and goals.
On the Camino, I found out quickly that I could extricate myself from the schedule trap. Yes, it is true that some pilgrims do enjoy planning everything to the last letter – dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s, including their date of departure from Santiago de Compostela. But my advice to you would be not to do that. Book yourself a one-day ticket to the beginning of your Camino journey and let your pilgrimage unfold. Walk at the pace you feel led to walk. Let your intuition lead you each day until it is done.
Yes, you do have a simple schedule of sorts, those that involve the daily activities that every pilgrim does. You get up, pack your stuff, head out of your albergue or little pension onto the trail, walk for a while, stop for first breakfast and a piping hot café con leche or have a banana, you continue your walk some more, stop for second breakfast, perhaps a delicious slice of tortilla, you then keep on walking until you tire, find an albergue to rest your head, unpack, wash your stinky clothes, devour a pilgrim meal and go to bed. So there a number of daily activities that do become a kind of routine.
However, that is not the sort of schedule I am referring to. I mean the compulsion that we have in many societies to perform, to achieve, to attain, to be acknowledged in our work places or in our home life.
The Camino allows us to let all of that go and be more guided by spirit, intuition, by prompts that we receive from the natural world and our own circadian rhythms, the places we go through and the people we meet. Then we open ourselves up to a whole load of wonderful surprises.
5. Self-limiting beliefs
The last thing on my list of five things to ditch on el Camino de Santiago is self-limiting beliefs. I had many self-limiting beliefs before I set off on my Camino adventure and I wasn’t even aware that I was carrying them around with me!
When I booked my flight to Biarritz, I thought how on earth am I going to walk over 500 miles (cue The Proclaimers)? How am I going to carry my heavy backpack, which weighed 12 kilos including water bottles on my first pilgrimage (and has become lighter ever since)? I thought it was an impossible journey. There is no way I could do it!
But I did it anyway! And as I walked I became stronger, I walked through the pain and discomfort and I soon realised that the only obstacle between me and reaching Santiago was me. That is an important life lesson.
The Camino is a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual challenge but it is not impossible. You start with putting one pilgrim shoe on the gravel path and then the other one and keep going. It is amazing how uplifting it is as each day goes by and you realise you are feeling physically stronger and fitter, you are more aware of everything and the beauty around you, you are more alert and open to making new friends and having very interesting conversations. When you meet fellow pilgrims, it is like you are already friends and you are already part of the same family.
You will realise that by the end of your Camino, when you reach the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, you want to keep on walking. That this is only the beginning for you because you have already experienced an epiphany on your journey. You can do more than you ever thought you could and the door is wide open to a new and bright future.
….keep on walking!
Ultreïa et suseïa!
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Peace, love and light,