Camino de Santiago, Camino Frances, pilgrimage, Spain

What the Camino de Santiago Taught Me About Life

My first directional scallop shell

I may not be able to fully articulate what drew me to walk the 800 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago in September of 2013. I initially learned about it after watching the movie, The Way, and besides the knowledge I took from that, I knew little more, and sought little more out prior to walking.

Follow the yellow arrows…

What I did know was that I was seeking a connection with like-minded, open-minded people, the type I had been fortunate to cross paths with frequently on the back-packing circuit during my previous four years of world travel. I also, admittedly, am a bit of an extremist, so while some people may look at a 35-day walk through northern Spain as a little crazy, it’s these kinds of challenges and experiences that get my heart racing.

The breakdown of a ‘true pilgrim’

That’s about all I can say for what brought me to the Camino. I wasn’t seeking answers to any life long questions, I wasn’t seeking a deeper connection with God, I wasn’t looking to find myself on this pilgrimage. I wasn’t even calling it a pilgrimage. For me, it was going to be a long walk, where it was me, my own two feet, and what I was carrying on my back.

It’s this way.

During my European travels over the two months leading up to my arrival in Spain, I met two people who had completed the Camino. Both told me it would be profound, but neither went into much detail about their own experiences. And, so I just showed up to walk. I had heard September was a good time to go, and I planned on arriving in St. Jean Pied-de-Porte on September 1st. I began the Camino on September 2nd, unaware of what I would learn and how much the Camino would impact me. Finally, I arrived in Santiago 32 days later – tired and with blistered feet, but with a full heart and a deep sense of peace in my entire being, as well as feeling much more in tune with myself.

Below are my Camino lessons, what I learned about myself, others, and the world during those four and a bit weeks of walking The Way.

Smiles on a painful day.

1. Slow down and savor – We rush everywhere. We always have somewhere to be. We overcommit ourselves. We operate at such fast speeds sometimes that I wonder how we enjoy the actual act of doing, let alone find time for little moments of peace. The Camino taught me to slow down, and it did so by slowing me down. I set out in good physical condition, with my head high, covering 27 kilometers on the first day, and 22 on the second. I was in so much physical pain after those first two days, that on days three and four, I barely covered 15 kilometers in 6 hours. (That’s just over one mile per hour). Yes, I was frustrated, but what I did while being forced to slow down was to look around me. I noticed how blue the sky was, I watched kids play, I sat at cafes over long lunches, I engaged in conversations with strangers, I dipped my feet in rivers, I savored more moments. And when I was feeling stronger and able to cover greater distances, I still made a point to do these things on a daily basis. The Camino is a year behind me now, but I still do these little things on a daily basis.

St. Jean Pied-de-Port

Ramon’s scallop shell, which I walked behind many a day.

2. Be kind to yourself – Doesn’t this sound so silly to say? Shouldn’t we be the ones who treat ourselves in the most kind and patient manner? Well, I know when I was leveled on those first few days of the Camino, there was a loud voice inside my head (most likely a bruised ego) saying “You’ve run marathons, you’ve done triathlons, and you can’t walk 20 kilometers!” What I developed on the Camino was a different connection with that voice in my head. First, I started to hear it, and then over time, I began to understand that it was telling me exactly what I needed. Then, I began to fully listen to it, and I became a lot more patient with myself. From slowing down because of shin pain instead of pushing on, to minimizing time with certain people because of their negative energy instead of making excuses for their behavior, I started acting based on what that inner voice was saying. It’s amazing what it will tell you, if you are just open to listening to it. I just stumbled across this Shell Silverstein quote yesterday, which is pretty spot on, “There is a voice inside of you, it whispers all day long, ‘I feel that this is right for me, I know that this is wrong.’ No teacher, preacher, parent, friend or wise man can decide – what’s right for you – just listen to the voice that speaks inside.”

St. Jean at dusk.

3. Be kind to others – It is incredibly easy to judge a book by its cover, makeassumptions about others or quickly form our first impressions. Trust me, there were plenty of times on the Camino where if I were judged on first impressions alone, my Camino family might have been a lot smaller. but along with learning to be more patient with myself, this experience taught me to be more patient with others and to always extend kindness. There’s a quote floating around these days, “Be kind to everyone, you never know what kind of struggles people are fighting.” Everyone has their own set of baggage, and wouldn’t life be a little bit easier if we were that much nicer to each other.

4. Count your blessings – This is a simple one, but we often forget to do it, and can easily get caught up in what’s not going right in our lives. I vented to my Camino walking partner about my family dynamics. She lost her mother five years ago, and her family dynamic was shattered. It put things in perspective for me. Count your blessing everyday. Focus on the good and what is going right. Believe in the law of attraction.

Morning walk, day 1: St. Jean to Roncesvalles

5. Live in the Moment –  It’s all about RIGHT NOW, right this very moment. It’s not about what you have to do tomorrow – that is unknown, and, it’s not about what happened yesterday- that is behind us. Learn to be here and now. One of the members of my Camino family shared this quote with me, “If you’re depressed, you’re living in the past. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. If you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.” While a certain amount of reminiscing and daydreaming can be fun, don’t let it steal your now away.

Signs for the albergue in St. Jean

6. You don’t have to have everything figured out right now. I used to get a little overwhelmed by the big picture, but life has taught me that you really don’t know where you will end up, no matter how much planning you put in. Isn’t that the beauty of the joy ride? The Camino taught me that all I really needed to know was how far I intended to walk, what I was going to eat and where I was going to lay my head. Pretty basic, really. Ok, there are a few more variables in the real world, but I learned to break things down and, in general, be less overwhelmed by the big picture and all the variables that we actually have little control over. I learned to enjoy the ride a little bit more.

7. Don’t be too proud to ask for help. One of the major turning points for me on the Camino came on the ninth night. I had just shared a pilgrims dinner and was attending a reading, led by one of the hospitalerias at the donativo. He said, “Do not be too proud, and remain alone. The Camino is not about being alone. It is what you will learn from the relationships you form with other pilgrims…what they will teach you about yourself and what they share with you about themselves.” Life is the same, friendships are the same, relationships are the same. We are all the same and we all need a little bit of help sometimes. Be willing to offer help and asking for it will come much easier when need be.

Country road, take me home…

8. Be fully aware of your feelings. We are so good at letting our heads rule our hearts, and silencing that voice inside, and that’s usually the voice that is telling us exactly what we need. But, instead of listening to our hearts, our feelings, we let logic prevail, and come up with a more ‘sensible’ action plan. I realized that the little voice inside my head (or heart, really) was conveying my feelings, and I believe our feelings are a true indicator of what we need. So, as an add on to number 2, part of being kind to ourselves is being aware of what we are feeling and what we need, and we can figure this out by taking the time to truly slow down, whether that’s through walking, meditation, yoga, or doing something else you love. Figure out what that is, and do it often.

The encouraging graffiti of the Camino.

So there they are my Camino lessons. I never thought I would finish a 32-day walk with so many realizations about myself, my life, my world, my place in the world and my priorities. For my fellow pilgrims, I hope you experienced the same kind of self-enlightenment, and for those considering the Camino, I hope you’ll listen to the voice that is calling you to go.

Buen Camino
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