On the evening of April 29, I sat around a large wooden table with about 20 other pilgrims in the small French village of St. Jean Pied de Port. Each of us would begin our 780-kilometer trek to Santiago the next day. Just before dinner, we shared the “title” of our Camino – a summary of why we made the effort to get here and what we hoped to accomplish.
My Camino intention
One man who had just lost his wife said his was “finding joy.” A handful of newly retired folks titled theirs “liberation,” a chance to envision their future without the daily grind of a job. I tried to capture my complex reasons for the pilgrimage with the word “clarity.” I wanted to locate the source of the pain I’ve carried my entire life and lay it at the foot of the Iron Cross, the highest point on the Camino, between the towns of Foncebadon and Manjarin, where pilgrims leave a stone, a kind of letting-go ritual. I wanted to swap my suffering with joy, my shackles with empowerment. I wanted to walk away from the cross with a brain less encumbered with neural passageways pointing to distress and a heart that was less afraid of making a wrong move.
Follow the yellow brick road
We left the next morning with our backpacks much like Dorothy and her crew in The Wizard of Oz, hoping the contemplation during our steps along the path combined with the remains of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela would grant us the miracle we wanted in the Emerald City. We were in good company, as the famous pilgrimaged had been traversed by the likes of Saint Francis of Assisi, Charlemagne, and Shirley MacLaine.
For most people the most challenging aspect of the pilgrimage is walking 500 miles with a 20-pound pack. However, the physical demands proved easy for me compared to the mental requirement of being alone with my thoughts for 10 hours each day – with nothing to interrupt the ruminations. Many days I redirected negative intrusive thoughts 50 times a minute, or 3,000 times a day. It was far more exhausting than the miles I walked.
I persisted. And persisted some more. When I was met with a pack of wild boars at 5 in the morning, I relaxed and pretended they were simply intrusive thoughts. When two unfriendly Greyhounds followed me a half-kilometer, I loosened up again, imagining they were made-up condemnations that couldn’t hurt me. There were other challenges: I fell off the bunkbed, got lost miles out in a field with a dying cell phone, sprained my foot, and became severely dehydrated. However, nothing came close to the difficulty of redirecting my thoughts along the trail.
On the holy path to Santiago I learned how to comfort myself in a fit of panic and relax through terrifying thoughts. I let go of situations I wanted to be different, grieved the loss of meaningful relationships, and forgave everyone who had ever wronged me, intentionally or unintentionally. However, most of my energy went to forgiving myself for my many mistakes and hurting the people I love the most. I repeated mantras of self-forgiveness and self-compassion with almost every step. Many days I cried for eight hours straight, cleansing myself of some of the emotional toxins that were blocking my heart to new experiences.
“Camino doesn’t give you what you want,” a wise woman said to me around the halfway point. “It gives you what you need.”
That was confirmed by a group of pilgrims I had dinner with about 35 kilometers past Santiago. We had all made it to the Land of Oz and realized the wizard, or St. James, wasn’t the source of the miracle after all.
Courage, brains, and heart were inside of us.
The man from St. Jean who lost his wife hadn’t found joy. But he had experienced surprising beauty. The young woman who wanted career direction still was lost, but had uncovered her need for self-compassion.
My lesson: acceptance
My lesson was made clear a night later in the coastal town of Muxia, in the province of A Coruna. As soon I saw its breathtaking shoreline, I knew it was the end of my pilgrimage and the point behind it. The pain was still very much with me, however, as the sun set that night, I was overwhelmed with joy, taking in the gorgeous colors and appreciating its exquisite beauty.
I realized I was able to hold beauty and pain simultaneously in my heart and knew that was the title of my Camino: acceptance. Pain may always be with me. I may never graduate from the tireless efforts of redirecting my thoughts over and over again. But as long as I continue to open my heart, I can enjoy a full and meaningful life filled with moments like this.
Even with pain, I can still experience joy.
In his book The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coelho writes this about Camino: “Did I really want to change? I don’t think so, but when all’s said and done, this road is transforming me.”
That it did.