The Meditation Path and the Brick Wall
Buddhist nun (and celebrated author) Pema Chödrön has some ideas about what to do when your ...
Sometimes I worry about becoming a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage addict. The Iberian Peninsula, after all, is littered with Camino routes stretching back into France and even Italy. The many routes reflect the myriad origins of medieval pilgrims heading toward the fabled city of Santiago de Compostela, claimed as the resting place of Saint James.
I did my first pilgrimage in 2017, completing the popular Camino Frances route that runs some 550 miles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees beside the French- Spanish border through the mighty pastoral breadth of northern Spain’s interior toward Santiago and then on to Finisterre on Spain’s most western Galician coast.
But that was small fry compared to what I did during the global pandemic. When I arrived in Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon at the end of 2020, the tap-tapping of my walking sticks on the pavement caused the trendy young things on the quayside watching the sunset to turn their heads my way. Behind me lay about 1,200 miles of multiple Caminos joined together.
From Bayonne in France I had hiked the Camino del Norte route, following Spain’s rugged northern coastline, before joining the Camino Primitivo, which drops from the coastline into the mountains before converging with the Camino Frances in its final approach to Santiago. Continuing to Finisterre and the coastline—the logical end of any peregrination—I did a sharp left and began the Camino Portuguese.
All this was done on foot—apart from a five-minute boat ride to cross the river marking the Spanish- Portuguese border—while carrying a far too heavy rucksack. (I always carry too many books and too much food, the latter “just in case,” a modern- day consumerist habit that the Camino endeavors to free one of but that I still struggle with.)
Walk near your home at half your normal speed. Set a goal of noticing something new every few steps. If you’d like, take photos to document your discoveries.
The route the Camino Frances follows originally served during the Middle Ages as a pagan pilgrimage toward Finisterre, once viewed as the end of the known world. Medieval pilgrims arrived at the shoreline to gaze in what must have been awestruck wonder at the Atlantic’s expanse stretching into what seemed an unfathomable mystery. Like us, they were after answers or at least some sort of better understanding and appreciation about what their lives represented and meant.
But around the 10th century, the canny Benedictine monks of Cluny in France began fostering the route’s religious reputation. This was based on the claim that soon after Christ’s death, Saint James preached the gospel in Spain and that after his martyrdom in Jerusalem his body was smuggled back to Galicia by a party of Spanish disciples. Nothing of the sort is suggested in the Acts of the Apostles, where his death is recorded. Hence, his Iberian-based adventures may well be a fine myth. But that really is beside the point nowadays because in many ways the Camino has transcended its connection with Saint James.
Nonbelievers match if not outnumber the religiously inspired on this epic journey. What most pilgrims agree on is that the Camino teaches you about a potentially better and purer sort of lifestyle.
“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way,” American writer Linda Hogan wrote in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. “Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
You don’t get that just by going on an afternoon walk, or at least I certainly don’t. But the more I hiked on, the deeper Logan’s lesson sank in, along with many others. These included how a primal need resides in us all to bear witness to and address our fellow travelers on this pilgrimage of life. How, though we may disagree on much of its myriad aspects and details, journeying through life should ultimately serve as a means of rejoicing in our shared humanity.
“Adventure is allowing the unexpected to happen to you,” says the narrator in Death of a Hero, the World War I novel by Richard Aldington, reflecting on what life should be about.
“Exploration is experiencing what you have not experienced before. It isn’t seeing new and beautiful things which matters, it’s seeing them for yourself. And if you want the sensation of covering the miles, go on foot. Three hundred miles on foot in three weeks will give you infinitely more sense of travel, show you infinitely more surprising and beautiful experiences, than thirty thousand miles of mechanical transport.”
Obviously, not everyone can take off the five weeks usually needed to do one of the Camino routes at a reasonable pace. Fear not, for there is nothing to stop you from reaping the spiritually reinvigorating rewards of a pilgrimage. We are all pilgrims in this journey of life, after all. At the most basic level, it could be a small spiritual pilgrimage of the mind at the day’s start. Perhaps you wake up 30 minutes earlier than normal to read, after making a pot of coffee, an inspiring religious or spiritual book.
Texts that I have turned to for this early morning mind-pilgrimage range from the likes of the philosophical and existential Meditations, written by the 2nd-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, to Silicon Valley pioneer Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Or it could involve simply reading and meditating on a prayer. Even better if the prayer is from a tradition you don’t subscribe to—challenge your mind and preconceptions. If more time permits, add that vital physical aspect to the mental component of your pilgrimage; get out of the house to walk and explore, ideally taking in a bit of nature. It’s firmly established that our modern sedentary lifestyle isn’t good for us, though it is all too easy to forget this simple fact or to not do anything about it.
Print or draw a map of the country, your state or city, or some other region. Mark spots that have particular meaning to you. Picture yourself walking around these locations. What do you smell? What do you hear?
“From the tycoon to the typist, from the logical positivist to the positive thinker, you spend nine-tenths of your time on foam rubber,” famed dystopian fantasy writer Aldous Huxley wrote in Island, a novel about a fictional remote Pacific island called Pala where an ideal society has flourished for 120 years by embracing ways entirely at odds with the surrounding world. “Spongy seats for spongy bottoms—at home, in the office, in cars and bars, in planes and trains and buses. ... The life force that used to find an outlet through striped muscle gets turned back on the viscera and the nervous system, and slowly destroys them.”
If more time permits, add that vital physical aspect to the mental component of your pilgrimage; get out of the house to walk and explore, ideally taking in a bit of nature.
It’s important to walk and move, is Huxley’s point, in case that isn’t clear! A Swiss pilgrim I met described how even if you live in a busy urban jungle of a city, a mini pilgrimage can be made by identifying a nice park, assembling a small picnic, and heading to that verdant oasis, as tiny as it might be, to get a touch of the Camino vibe. You might even get lucky and enjoy watching a nice sunset—a mainstay after a day’s hiking on the Camino. With a little organization you could even fit it in after a day of work.
If you have a whole afternoon or a day spare, the options get more adventurous. Before I set off on my Camino, I bought a guidebook that offered walks around the North Yorkshire region of northern England, where my family lives, ranging from the likes of a leisurely one-and-a-half- hour walk along a river to a more challenging three-hour stomp up and down the desolate moors of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. After selecting a walk for the day, I’d make a packed lunch with a thermos of tea before loading a small rucksack with waterproofs and other essentials, such as my walking sticks, into the back of the car before head- ing off to the start point. In addition to the emotional and physical benefits of these small pilgrimages, I got to see and learn about so much more of the region that my family calls home. Before, I hadn’t appreciated it as much; the stunning beauty and diversity I discovered—there all along, right under my nose—left me both proud and grateful for what was on offer. By the time I returned home after each foray, I was brimming with Caminoesque ebullience.
But there is far more to a pilgrimage than just going from A to B. For as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, noted: “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” and everything the latter entails, that matters more. Many of the same practices that I witnessed on the Camino can be incorporated into your scaled-down pilgrimage. One is the practice of leaving stones representing your burdens at various key points. On the Camino this resulted in piles of stones mushrooming beside crucifixes and official way markers all along the route.
Many people undertake the Camino as a means of processing loss—be it the death of a loved one or the breakup of a long-term relationship. The idea of using the Camino cathartically to confront sorrow and grief made perfect sense when I first walked it, but my initial reaction to the placing of stones, if I am honest, was to see it as a bit corny. I also thought: “Where do I start? I’ll be here for the whole day placing stones.” But by the time I approached Finisterre, the idea’s principle had grown on me.
Challenge yourself to get out of your head during the walk and truly engage with your surroundings. Stop thinking about work or that dispute you are having with so and so.
Mental processes often need a physical act or gesture, even the smallest one, to kickstart them, or to at least give them some tangibility or anchoring. So once you get to the end of your pilgrimage, find a spot that speaks to you as being significant, for whatever reason, because of its natural beauty or because it reminds you of somewhere or someone, and place a small stone while reflecting on why you are placing it.
Also, challenge yourself to get out of your head during the walk and truly engage with your surroundings. Stop think- ing about work or that dispute you are having with so and so. Just pay attention to the physical world around you. Really consider the trees and nature, its complex composition, and all the noises accompanying it.
One way to encourage yourself to focus more intently on your surroundings is to walk at 50 percent of your usual pace. If that sounds a bit odd—and it is much harder to achieve than you might expect—it’s vouched for by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho in The Pilgrimage, his first major book, in which he documents his experiences doing the Camino pilgrimage, an endeavor he credits with paving the way for his future successes, including his bestselling phenomenon The Alchemist.
Another Coelho-endorsed Camino practice is to stop by a river or stream and dip your finger in the water and swirl it around. Focus entirely on that for at least five minutes. (I can never get much beyond one minute.) Again, it’s all about slowing down, focusing, engaging physically with nature—and seeing what that does for your emotional and spiritual state.
During your personal pilgrimage, also make a conscious effort to say hello to everyone you encounter and cross paths with, and to smile at them. This probably isn’t as hard to do in America, as it’s more of an acceptable and established social convention. But in the UK, it can be close to a revolutionary act, and you can get some strange looks back.
Place a candle in each room of your home. Making a circuit, light all the candles with a self-affirmation. Then blow them out, letting something not serving you go each time.
The point is to personally manifest positive energy flow and see what that does for you and for others.
On the Camino it results in the most valorous feedback loop, one that opens your eyes to the sort of more enlightened world and society that might be possible—as imagined on Huxley’s island of Pala—if we could better embrace life-enhancing values and actions rather than the likes of cynicism, suspicion, and the mental defensive crouch that seem so instinctive in the fast-paced, competitive, modern world. Entering that more free-thinking sort of mental space on the Camino typically takes a few weeks, but you can still rub shoulders with it on an hours-long pilgrimage, which if nothing else—and I am confident that you will get much more from it than just this—should remind you of how the simple act of walking is one of the easiest and most accessible countermeasures to the sense of being hemmed in and stymied.
In selecting a route on which to practice and engage with
all this, you could go really old-school and find a detailed
topographic map of a nearby rural area suited to outdoor
pursuits and plot your own route. National Geographic
maps often cover areas of the US suitable for walking. Route
selection is not as tricky as it sounds, and it’s very satisfying
when you have plotted and planned—including the likes
of choosing where to take a picturesque coffee or lunch
break—and completed a route successfully through your
Walk a traditional meditative labyrinth or a labyrinth you create yourself. If that’s not an option, trace the path using a finger labyrinth. (Visit labyrinthsociety.org for more information.)
“What are boys and girls for in America?” posits the wayward protagonist in Island as he is mentored by the inhabitants of Pala toward realizing a new way of living and looking at the world.
“Answer: for mass consumption. And the corollaries of mass consumption are mass communications, mass advertising, mass opiates in the form of televisions, meprobamate, positive thinking and cigarettes.”
He asks his guide what the Palanese boys and girls are really for. “For actualization, for being turned into full-blown human beings,” is the answer. Unfortunately, in the real world that actualizing process often goes uncompleted well into adulthood. A pilgrimage of any length, be it a full Camino route or an afternoon trek, is a step in the right direction.
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