“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
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.