Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Some initial reflections of walking the Camino

 Will I be able to complete the journey or will I have to entertain defeat and spend the rest of the month on a beach in Ibiza? Each time, in anticipating the Camino, both in 2010 and in 2015, my insecurities are at the fore. Supposedly, having completed the Camino in 2010, I know what to expect. However, I am five years older and maybe even less up to the task of more than 30 days of strenuous walking. The perverse thing is that, in the worst case scenario of being unable to walk the Camino, I would probably spend the next month on a beach in Ibiza or some such other warm destination. That’s not too shabby an existence, is it?

Certainly, the first day of the Camino in the crossing of the Pyrenees mountains did nothing to put that fear to rest. Both times, my arrival in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of those mountains, physically and emotionally drained and to the limit of my endurance, brought me to a place of despair. Although that first day is not the longest stretch of the Camino, it is the first day of extreme exercise. 

The Refugio at Roncesvalles is large and sprawling and I find it austere, the staff unfriendly and maybe even unsupportive of my efforts on this Camino. I have named Roncesvalles the “Valley of Despair.”

The dawning of a new day has brought me new hope and I set forth with a sense of optimism and happy anticipation. I cannot wait to leave Roncesvalles. However, I do not discount the value of having stayed here because I find I need some place of ‘despair’ to appreciate fully the rest of my life journey, which generally has been happy and harmonious. 

What I have noticed in walking the Camino a second time is that it takes longer to get from one place to another than I had originally remembered. However, I try not to focus on the destination but will enjoy every step of the journey one step at a time. Again, this will be my Camino and it is my intent to always walk at the pace that for me is comfortable, grounding and in synch with my psyche. I anticipate a healthy balance of sometimes walking with other people and sometimes walking on my own. I know that I will enjoy both times. Walking with others provides people with whom to share one's experience, and walking on my own is an internal journey and opportunity for reflection.

A few things have changed since my first Camino five years ago. There are many more people walking this path partly as a result of increased coverage by the media, including a film entitled ‘The Way’ starring Martin Sheen, and a documentary entitled ‘Walking the Camino: six ways to Santiago.’ Some pilgrims that I met have criticized this as making the walking of the Camino Frances (St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela) too commercialized. Yes, there are more people, but that does not mean that one cannot benefit from an internal spiritual journey of reflection and celebration. If the number of people is too much a distraction, then this suggests that the problem is with the person. It’s more difficult, but it should be possible to find peace and tranquility in the busiest intersection on the planet.
Wifi is now everywhere, including in most of the Refugios. This can be a blessing in that one can stay connected with family and significant other, but it is a drawback in that it takes us away from the process of total immersion in the Camino experience. 

What is the Camino experience? That is a very personal question and I imagine that every pilgrim may have a slightly different answer. My reason for walking the Camino was as a celebration of having reached a landmark year. Apart from the physical activity of walking an average of twenty-five kilometers a day, and the benefits that accompany this, I was looking for a simplification of my life. The central activity is to walk. That is what one does: walking lightly on the Earth and, at the same time, staying fixed firmly in the present moment. One takes one step at a time, placing one foot after the other. Wishing to be somewhere else, perhaps at one’s destination for the day, is to court disaster. Accidents occur when someone is not in the present moment. As I was walking, I realised that a moment of inattention on uneven terrain could result easily in a sprained ankle or a fall, and then it would be the end of this part of my Camino.

While walking, as Miriam my yoga teacher has always stressed, remember to breathe. I am not always good at that. The breath enables one to engage, relax and, therefore, cope successfully with an activity. In a place of either emotional or physical pain, the tendency can be to breathe shallowly. Walking long distances on a daily basis can bring with it attendant pain, so deep breathing is a very good way of dealing with the challenges of a physical effort slightly beyond one’s ability to endure.

Another benefit of breathing deeply is that, with increased oxygen to the brain, I find that it increases my presence on the journey. There are stunningly beautiful landscapes, forever changing, and I have found that, by breathing properly, it intensifies the grandeur of such a dramatic terrain. I tend to notice more the minute details of nature. On this Camino, I was much more aware of the vibrant colour of the earth, the sky, plants and changing vegetation. Without breathing, I  tend to find myself in a surreal fog. I breathe and, as a result, am stunned by how fabulous is the world and this Camino in Spain.

The simplification of life by walking the Camino means that other experiences tend to take on a greater intensity and that includes conversations with fellow pilgrims and meal times. In our real lives back home, it is so easy to dismiss as commonplace this communion with souls. On the Camino, there is no Toronto, there is no waiting business back home or other problems vying for our attention. It is a refreshing change to be away from the negativity of media. 

Above all, in the course of four or five weeks, one easily loses track of the day of the week. Really, in the big picture of things, this is insignificant detail anyway. Life is simple and this is my Camino. Get up and walk.

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