Life Lessons from the Camino

Life Lessons from the Camino
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Painting by Natasha Lelenco, Casa das Peritas, Mallas, Fisterra / Finisterre

Twelve years ago I walked five hundred miles of the Camino, the ancient pilgrim route across northern Spain. The Camino changed my life.

This summer, sitting in a cafe in Santiago de Compostela, the Camino’s destination, I reflected on the lessons from my Camino that I needed to be more aware of.

1. The goal is important – but it’s sometimes not the most important thing

I am very goal-driven. I set off on this walk focused, like most pilgrims, on reaching Santiago de Compostela. Yet I stopped walking for the rest of the day when I was only three miles, less than an hour’s walk, from Santiago, at eleven o’clock that morning.

Along the way I had got to know a South African pilgrim, Sabine. Sabine was in remission from cancer and had started to feel unwell as she walked the Camino. I accompanied her to the hospital in Leon, almost 200 miles from Santiago. She was advised to give up and go home to her own doctors in South Africa. But Sabine wanted to stay on the Camino: she felt that this was a one-off opportunity to spend time with her teenage daughter who was walking with her. Each day Sabine took the bus to the next town while her daughter walked. Sabine’s heart was set on walking into Santiago. I and a few fellow pilgrims were determined that she would have that opportunity, hence our stop so near our goal. We passed a wonderful afternoon on the outskirts of Santiago, chatting, cooking and eating together, never venturing to check out our goal, a short distance away. The following morning, with Sabine well rested and the contents of her rucksack distributed among us, so that she was unencumbered, we accompanied Sabine as she walked slowly into Santiago.

2. Take time to appreciate that cup of coffee

No coffee ever tastes as good as the one that you have after walking miles across open countryside. The sight of a small village some miles in the distance would awaken hope and I’d walk with more purpose, imagining the smell of the coffee, the taste of it, and the caffeine pick-up it would give me.

At home in Dublin, I give little, if any, thought to the joys of a cup of coffee, often drinking it absentmindedly, or worse, having made or bought it, forgetting to drink it, so absorbed am I in other things.

It’s not only coffee I need to be more mindful of, of course...

3. Sometimes there is no solution and all we can do is be there

I’m a problem solver. When someone tells me about a problem, my instinct is to try and find a solution, a way to help. This serves me well much of the time as a business consultant. But sometimes this tendency to send my mind racing off, searching for solutions, gets in the way. Sometimes there is no solution. Just being there, listening and fully present, can be the most important thing.

One day on the Camino I walked alongside a French woman. I can’t remember her name, perhaps I never knew it. As we walked, we talked, and she told me about how she had given a baby up for adoption. Our pace didn’t vary, we walked alongside each other, both of us crying our eyes out. She had done it in secret, very few people knew; no one in her family did. We walked for miles side by side, weeping.

I never saw her again, after that day.

4. Laugh more

I have never in my life laughed as much as I did on the Camino. Actually, on reflection, that statement is not correct. I did laugh like that as a little girl. I’m not sure what age I stopped at.

The Camino is reminding me to laugh more – particularly at myself!

5. The first step is making the time

The first step of my Camino was the morning in November 2004 when I decided I was going to block time from mid-April to mid-June the following year to have the space to walk the Camino. So often since then I have found that the first step in making anything happen is creating the time, the space, for it to happen.

6. Lots of people won’t get it!

“Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.” Zero Dean

The Camino isn’t for everyone. Some people think that walking for miles every day carrying a 16lb rucksack, unsure whether you will find a bed to sleep in, is crazy. There are lots of parts of my life that I share cautiously, precious to me, but not necessarily of interest to another. And that’s OK!

7. When you open your heart miracles happen

As I walked day in and day out my mind started to quieten. The kindnesses I encountered daily softened my heart and made me kinder in return. I felt I was supported by the millions of fellow pilgrims who had walked that way before me.

The Camino helped me to open my heart... and that allowed miracles to happen.

Three days after reaching Santiago I went by bus to the small fishing village of Finisterre, an ancient mystical place revered by the Celts and the Romans, a place many pilgrims go after their Camino. There I met a German pilgrim, a writer who had started his Camino on the same day as I had, in the same town as I had, St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees. We had the walked the same roads, walked through the same villages, but had never met. We had however made the same friends, one of whom introduced us in Finisterre. We are still together and very much in love twelve years later.

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