The Camino – touchstones for challenging times

 It seems strange that an 800km walk across the north of Spain in 2009 provides ‘lessons' for getting through challenging, changing times, but it has. And it seems equally odd to be writing about it in these terms, but then again, why not?

Context is everything, so picture two sisters walking the Camino – the French Way – from a small village in the south of France to Santiago de Compostela, in the west coast of Spain. This involved walking over and around the Pyrenees, up and down hills through four provinces, hot days and cooler weather. It required back packs, stays in hostels of varying quality, facilities and comfort and two sets of clothing. Each day brought different challenges, interesting people and joy. There was ample time to reflect on life and living as the speed of travel and distance covered each day depended upon the terrain, injuries and the available accommodation. The journey was mentally relaxing, spiritually uplifting, emotionally and physically challenging and ultimately, a reminder of important ‘life lessons'.

Lesson 1. Get over yourself

In response to wearing only two sets of clothing for thirty days; sleeping in cramped accommodation with up to 120 strangers; accepting other pilgrims' different personal habits; walking some days with inadequate food or water, leg injuries and no guaranteed accommodation at the intended destination, the ability to ‘get over yourself' was critical. It necessitated great adaptability to the unfamiliar and rapidly changing circumstances; and the ability to find the humour in every situation.

The key to ‘getting over yourself' is self awareness. How we see and experience the world is only how we see and experience it, no one else. We all carry well buried self-limiting beliefs, negative attitudes and expectations about ourselves and others that unwittingly hold us back or tie us in knots. And when faced with challenges, when push really does come to shove, we will find we can actually do more than we may ever thought possible. ‘Getting over yourself' requires making no assumptions about anything and avoiding judgements; having no expectations (of anyone or anything) and adjusting quickly to change. And if we're really clever, deliberately setting our intentions for each day and deliberately choosing the attitude we want to take into our day, lifts our game and energy levels immediately.

Lesson 2. Self care

Despite adequate preparation and preventative measures, leg injuries and blisters struck a week into the walk. Our recovery was relatively quick because of a good level of fitness, strong immune systems and healthy bodies. Numerous pilgrims who weren't fit or adequately prepared had a miserable time and struggled from the outset.

The key to self care is embracing the ‘if it's to be, it's up to me' motto. Self care is our own responsibility and we can't blame others for what we may or may not have done to date. Good, ongoing self care strategies are essential to cope with everyday life and ordinary challenges, as well as extraordinarily difficult times. This necessitates healthy eating, regular exercise, reducing negative stress, managing multiple stressors and having enjoyable, fun things in our life. Keeping one's health and wellbeing is critical, because if it's lost, other losses inevitably follow.

Lesson 3. Let go

The best laid plans can go to pieces. It happens. Despite our intentions to walk every step of the 800 kilometre route, leg injuries necessitated the rapid development of Plan B and bus travel for a few days. It required us to let go of our expectations of ourselves and our original plans yet keep the end goal clearly in sight.

The key to letting go requires us to stop railing against things we have no control over. It means identifying the things we can control and identifying the things that aren't in our control – it pays to know the difference. It requires us to see the new situation simply as it is. There is simply no point analyzing it to death or going on about it. Alternative plans are needed, as is getting into gear, quick smart.

Lesson 4. Be in the present moment

Walking six – eight hours each day means legs and arms do their thing automatically and the mind is free to roam. Without the need to be ‘doing' anything else than walking (well, that and keeping a sharp eye on the terrain and potential hazards), the opportunity was to be truly human ‘beings', fully engaged in the present moment i.e. this minute, this hour, this morning. We were absorbed with what we were doing, seeing and feeling, with all that was around us.

The key to be in the present moment is to stop wasting energy and time looking back to how things are/were or, looking too far forward on how things might be. It is easy to ruminate endlessly on grievances, missed opportunities or past successes or events. Too much focus in the past or on the imagined future means we miss now – the present. The challenge is to remember that this moment, this day, will never come again. The past is gone, the future isn't known and there is no guarantee we'll have a tomorrow, so all there really is, is now. Focus on that.

Lesson 5. Ask for help

Some days, there was nothing familiar or remotely comfortable about some of the situations we found ourselves in. We relied on the help of strangers for clarifying directions and finding transport, medical facilities, banks and shops. Everyone we asked was happy to help us and we were grateful for their efforts.

The key to asking for help is to understand it isn't a sign of weakness rather, it is a sign of self awareness. It is about realizing that sometimes, time is of the essence and input sooner rather than later, is the best option. It is also a reminder that in this arena also, we may need to ‘get over ourselves' and let the ego take a back seat for a while.

Lesson 6. Receive gracefully

On a number of occasions, we received food, drink, medicine; help with accommodation and unsolicited, much needed directions. Villagers and fellow pilgrims, people we didn't know at all, offered items when they thought we needed them. These random acts of kindness occurred without warning and were freely given – and always at a time when what was offered, was exactly what was needed. It was humbling and heartwarming.

The key to receiving gracefully is to ‘get over ourselves'. People most used to giving freely to others may find it strange and uncomfortable being a recipient of other people's generosity, yet, receiving is the other side of the giving coin and needs embracing. A reminder too that gratitude needs to extend beyond an immediate need, to all that is good and great in one's life. A ‘gratitude list', reviewed daily, is one way to do this. Entitlement attitudes and deficit thinking is best avoided.

There is nothing new about these ‘life lessons' – they are as old as time itself. Yet in the busyness of personal and working worlds and in the context of extraordinarily difficult or challenging events, they can get forgotten. There is no time like the present then, to start anew.(c)

Sue Dwan

Dwan & Associates

May 2012