Reflections on the Camino de Santiago by Nick Arandes
In August 2014 I had the opportunity to do the Camino de Santiago de Compostela starting in Jean Pied de Port, France and completing it in Santiago de Compostela. It took me 29 days to travel the 775 kilometers.
The Camino is obviously a personal experience and what I feel I learned during the stages throughout that day I share them in these reflections.
For some people, their intention to do the Camino is rather to reach a goal (Santiago de Compostela, or the pilgrim's certificate). Others did it because they thought that something "mystical" or "spiritual" would happen. There are those who do it as a form of penance, and others as a promise for something that has happened in their life for which they feel they owe something to their Creator or some saint, etc. And finally, others as a form of sport or simply to enjoy that experience.
If you ask me why I did it, the truth is that I had no plans to do El Camino de Santiago. It was that during that month I wanted to visit some part of Europe, although I also felt that I wanted to go to a place where let´s say “disappear” from the world, get away from everything, from social networks, from talks, from the computer, and simply meditate, Be in a quiet space.
For some reason, wherever I went, they asked me if I had done El Camino de Santiago, and if not, to do it. So much was the insistence of my environment to do the El Camino that I decided to do it and everything I needed was provided. It was as if Life was pushing me in that direction. In complete surrender, I accepted the calling and a sense of enthusiasm began to fill my heart.
Of course, I was very aware that I did not expect anything from El Camino. But I did see it as an adventure, as a new, different and exciting experience.
The first thing I would recommend is that all expectations on El Camino be set aside. Allow El Camino itself to surprise you.
Other suggestions would be that El Camino be made alone and complete. Let's start with the first suggestion:
Why do I recommend doing it alone?
Because when one is walking alone for so many hours, an average of six hours a day, it is like a forced meditation, one cannot escape his thoughts.
If you take advantage of those moments to self-observe what is hidden in the mind that usually is not aware of it since our daily life is so full of distractions, one could experience a very deep transformation.
But to release or transcend those thoughts you have to look at them and in El Camino you have many hours to contemplate. However, as we usually do not want to see what is hidden, many people are looking for ways to distracted themselves, and that is why on El Camino I saw pilgrims who spent most of the day with headphones listening to something so they could stay distracted, or spent most of their time talking while others were in an amazing hurry, like you have to arrive now!
And one of the reasons could be to believe that Santiago de Compostela is a goal to achieve, when Santiago de Compostela is every step we take. Isn't that how many people live their lives? If they do not have a "goal" they cannot be happy, so they spend all their time moving in the direction of some place because they cannot be well with this moment, with the present moment, which is the only thing it is.
So much can emerge when we are present to be healed during that time walking alone, since usually, even when we meditate and practice some kind of mental relaxation in our homes, it is not the same when you have the opportunity to be with yourself for a period of one month, six to eight hours a day contemplating, observing, feeling.
By the way, before continuing, I am not implying that there is something wrong with wanting to get distracted with headphones or wanting to talk to someone. There is time for all that, but many people did it to psychologically dissociate themselves from the fact that there are many kilometers that they had to walk daily and it helped them not to pay attention to each moment, especially when they were crossing long and empty flat terrain.
I remember a pilgrim telling me that it almost went crazy to think that he had to walk so many kilometers along the plain where there were no trees, forests, mountains, in short, where there was no landscape that changed to be able to get distracted.
And yes, during that time walking alone you can share with some pilgrim sporadically, but when the mind gradually becomes accustomed to the joy of that silence, the conversations are shorter and it is as if the mind asked for it unless one does not feel comfortable with silence because once again, you don't want or can't deal with your thoughts.
I enjoyed for example sharing in “albergues” (places were pilgrims stay, not hostels nor hotels) and spending time with other pilgrims. But I still remember leaving at six in the morning when it was still dark with my flashlight and enjoying the stillness of the morning. During the day, even when I was crossing open spaces where many people were desperate because as I already shared the long open fields where there was no changes of landscapes and therefore they felt like it was a long road, for me it was a beautiful space to be present, to contemplate, to feel, to reflect.
That's when you realize how the mind is so identified with the conflict and therefore always wants to get somewhere because it is never OK with what it is.
El Camino de Santiago offers us the opportunity to learn to accept, to be well with what it is. And if we do not learn that lesson in the first stage, there is no reason to worry because during the whole journey there are many days to practice, not only acceptance, but also patience, tolerance, understanding, contemplation, silence, and much more than what one could imagine. Let us now to the second suggestion.
Why do I recommend doing the whole Camino?
The reason why I recommend that El Camino be completed, not in parts, but the whole thing in one scoop, is because that is where we give ourselves the opportunity to get all the resistance out, but it is also like seeing if we can pass all the tests of El Camino.
I explain. You could say that El Camino is divided into stages, first the physical, second the contemplative, third the psychological / contemplative and the fourth we will call the spiritual.
Let's go in parts: First stage, physical.
At first one is so excited to do El Camino that its focus is rather on seeing how many kilometers one can travel, or how fast one can do it, others try to see how much they can push their body, like when you go to the gym and start lifting weights, usually more than you should because you are so excited, then when you arrive home, in the next day, and few more days to come, all the muscles ache.
Nor are we very present. It is there that people are more apt to experience injuries or accidents for which they may feel forced to leave El Camino.
I personally down the slope of the Pyrenees, which by the way was the first day, I was taking off my poncho while walking along, I slipped and fell. At that time I could have suffered an injury that forced me to stop continuing with the Camino.
Then in the third day I suffered a pain in the lower back that I did not know if I could continue walking. However, I always took care of myself and watched how I was feeling, but those experiences supported me to pay attention and not take the Camino de Santiago for granted. I realized that although my physical condition for doing the Camino was fine, there are other factors that have the power to influence the outcome.
That is where one begins to learn true humility. There is a saying that says, “a barking dog does not bite.” I was surprised how many people were in a hurry, very excited walking, even, people who went many kilometers ahead, however, three or four days later when they were supposed to be far ahead you found me again, while others found themselves forced to leave El Camino and return home.
Well, although it is "supposed" that I learned my lesson about not taking off pieces of clothing while walking as well as paying attention, I was still in the physical stage since after overcoming the pains I experienced during the first few days I began once more to attempt to do many kilometers.
I remember getting up early in the morning, I start walking and the goal that day for me was to reach Los Arcos. I walked very fast and was covering kilometers as if I were a machine. However, three things happened. One: that when I arrived at the town before the Arches which was almost 12 kilometers away, I felt a chest discomfort. It may have been because I was in such a hurry without stopping that I considered staying in that town.
When I sat on a bench and rested, I ate something, and again I felt fine, so I decided to continue.
The second was that approximately two or three kilometers before reaching the Arches, which by the way, all that was flat and there was almost no shade, I saw a van selling juices, things to eat and water. I remember asking him how far I was from the next town, he told me about twenty minutes. I asked him how much the water cost and although I don't remember the price he only had small bottles and I started to think, “the price for the small waters is too expensive. I can buy a gallon for that amount.
Instead of spending my money I decided to continue with what I had left of water since it was maybe twenty minutes away. The day was very warm, very sunny, I could not see traces of a town and I began to observe the mind worrying about the possibility of dehydration.
What an interesting lesson about life in general. I had over a thousand euros in my backpack, and for not wanting to spend those couple of euros I could have experienced the consequences of dehydration. And that day, by the way, the distance I traveled was almost 40 kilometers.
When I finally arrived in town without practically water, once I settled into the shelter, I had to lie down in bed and rest because I was experiencing a little of the effects of not having enough fluid in my body so I drank a lot of water , then I went to bathe, wash clothes and continue with what I had to do that day.
The third thing that happened was that continuing the next day with my hard head, I started to feel a pain in my left ankle, and I kept pushing until I reached Logroño where the pain was already unbearable. There I began to question whether I could continue El Camino.
At that time, another lesson presented to me was that of detachment. If I had been attached to arriving in Santiago de Compostela, I would have suffered. But my attitude, nevertheless was, if I am supposed to arrive in Santiago de Compostela, that will happen. How many people would have been disappointed if they had not been able to reach their "goal"?
However, the conditions were given that it seemed like I could continue with El Camino and what I needed was provided. I will briefly share what took place so that I could continue with the day.
The hostess in charge was very attentive and told me that there was an ambulatory nearby, about a kilometer away, but since I was not in a position to walk that distance with my sore ankle she told me that she could call a taxi and that if the doctor wrote a letter stating that I was injured and that I would have to rest, I would then be able to stay in the shelter since the shelter is only for a pilgrim to stay, no more than one day while doing El Camino.
When I go to get a taxi, a pilgrim who heard the conversation offered to go with me because he had blisters and wanted a doctor to see them. We went together and shared the taxi ride and cost. When I arrived at the hospital there was no one waiting, however, as I have an American passport, I did not have the documentation for medical services in Europe, however the pilgrim who went with me, who is from Spain, was the one who did all the talking and persuaded them to take me in, so they simply took my passport information and treated me at the ambulatory at no cost.
The doctor was from Santo Domingo, we talked for a while, very attentive, she saw my foot and diagnosed me with tendonitis so she told me that I had to rest for at least three days. Then she gave me some anti-inflammatory pills to take for the next three days, told me to put ice for 15 minutes three times a day and a cream recommended me to spread on the sore part.
And that is not to mention all the pilgrims who when they saw me with the ice on my foot offered me creams to put on, suggestions that may help, others told me their experiences with some tendonitis and how they got over it, in short, I had a team of pilgrim angels me around.
Something very curious also happened. When I sat down to put ice on my foot, a dove that was limping approached me. I shared some of my bread, and every time I went down to put ice on my foot, the dove was there.
Here is the picture of the dove near my foot
I did what the doctor told me, my stay at the “albergue” was very pleasant, I played the guitar for some pilgrims, some Italians prepared pasta and taught me how to make homemade sauce, it was an unforgettable experience.
But everything does not end here. On the third day I will continue the day, I asked the lady in charge if there was a store to buy a cane or one of those ski sticks since with the ankle that was still recovering I would need a support. She went to her office, gave me one and told me it was a gift from the “Albergue” since some other pilgrim had left it. And that ski stick accompanied me for the rest of El Camino. As we can see, El Camino (life) is always supporting us.
After that day, I no longer knew honestly if I was going to finish El Camino because the foot still had a little pain. I still had pills that the doctor prescribed for one more day, however I decided to go very slow. I felt that that's where I started the most contemplative stage. I was not in a hurry, I was resting my foot very carefully, putting most of the weight on my right foot, with the attitude that I will get where I have to go that day without pressure.
The next days were rather of recovery, but I also took it more calmly. Once my ankle was recovered, there is always the memory that I could get injured again so I felt inclined to be more conscious.
Second stage: contemplative:
The contemplative stage I feel is when it is recognized that as fast as one wants to go, El Camino is not going to shorten, so there will be a point where the physical part will have to yield.
Having said that, nonetheless, I was surprised how there are people who stay in that physical stage all the time. As in life itself, there are those who spend their entire lives struggling, fighting, because that is what they have learned and therefore for them life is a constant struggle. And they will live to fight and they will die fighting.
However, El Camino could be a very deep experience where one can bring the lessons learned to everyday life and begin to change all the schemes and beliefs with which they had identified.
On El Camino I never had to struggle, but to do only one thing, put one foot in front of the other. For many people that is very difficult because they are not aware that the important thing is not to get anywhere but to learn to be well with each step.
Life is every step. Santiago de Compostela is nothing more than a thought until one is in Santiago de Compostela. That is why those who arrive in Santiago and do not learn the lesson that the entire Camino gave them the opportunity to learn, will not be happy in Santiago de Compoatela either. They may get a quick hi, but that is it.
What is the difference if you are in the Pyrenees, or in Logroño, or in Burgos, or on any route through El Camino? Every step you take gives you the opportunity to recognize that only this moment is important.
However, if the focus is on reaching Santiago de Compostela at all costs, the way to stay distracted during the day will be thru, either talking with other pilgrims on El Camino, listening to music, or looking for any way to get distracted. And by the way, this is also part of the psychological stage.
As I shared at the beginning of this writing, El Camino gives us a great opportunity to be with our thoughts, to see the content of the mind for many hours a day and for a month or so.
That would cost thousands and thousands of dollars in therapy, in “spiritual” searching, while El Camino offers it practically free of charge in addition to being a very enriching experience and full of beautiful landscapes. I would not be surprised if even a person experiencing depression would benefit greatly from the experience of El Camino. But obviously, I am speculating.
Not only that, if you are a very sociable person, you could end up with friends from all over the world, because not everything is introspection. Life is a balance of internal work but also of joy, of fun.
Second and third stage: The psychological.
Why do I assign two stages to the psychological? Because in reality the whole Camino is psychological. But the physical part is a distractor because it hides or suppresses the psychological part a lot. That is why I once again recommend that El Camino be completed to give it time to take out everything that can no longer be hidden.
If El Camino is done in parts, usually one can stay in the physical part and there is no time to deepen since when one is now beginning to feel the psychological weight of El Camino the will is used to finish that part of El Camino. And with a lot of willpower can be done. But attempting willpower when you feel the psychological heaviness during the first week, and still have twenty or more days left, is different.
Using just willpower to finish El Camino when many weeks are left is a quite intense experience. But as a mindset change starts to takes place, if you pay attention to the lesson, the way you experience it is when you let go of expectations, when you let go of the goal, when you experience every moment, when you start to slow down, when you give yourself more resting spaces without pushing, isn't that a great lesson for life in general?
The interesting thing is, although there have been physical discomforts, inconveniences, mental blockages, psychological discomfort, the deepest lesson of this experience to stop the struggle and the suffering is, that Santiago de Compostela is not reached in a hurry, but step by step.
I could sit here to tell specific experiences of how El Camino supported me again and again, observing so many synchronicities, however, the message was the same, if I am supposed to be reach Santiago de Compostela, it will happen, not because of my personal will, but simply by taking step by step.
That's life. Our wishes are not fulfilled by our own will. Only they are fulfilled, first because it is the will of life, second is that if they are supposed to be fulfilled it will be at the time life decides it, not when we want, and third, to reach any destiny will only occur if the focus is on the present step, and just keep taking another step, without the goal in mind. Yes, I wanted to get to Santiago, but when I gave up completely, I only knew that if I was supposed to be in Santiago de Compostela, it will be.
Once I experienced all my mishaps and I realized that I didn't know if I would arrive in Santiago de Compostela, all I could do was put one foot in front of the other.
In other words, the arrival in Santiago ceased to be important, it is the inner peace that one feels when one trusts life, when there is a detachment from the desire to reach Santiago de Compostela. And paradoxically, I arrived to Santiago de Compostela. However, the only thing that is important is each moment because it is the only one there is.
Last stage: "Spiritual".
I put the spiritual part in quotation marks because I don't want to make expectations about El Camino. However, there is something mystical about that stage that usually, although it can take place at all times, I feel that in the end, when one has gone through so much is when one experiences it.
Although this is only a personal point of view, I feel that it is not the same to do a few stages and arrive in Santiago than to have done the complete Camino and arrive in Santiago since there are so many accumulated experiences, lessons, physical and mental processes that arriving to Santiago de Compostela after such an extensive pilgrimage. Is like a very significant and personal achievement that only a pilgrim who has made the complete Camino could understand.
When one arrives in Santiago de Compostela, it is filled with joy not only for having completed El Camino, but for all the pilgrims who arrived, who perhaps if you stay a few days later see them arrive because you lost contact with them and rejoice in seeing them, or those who arrived first rejoice in seeing you arrive.
It is like a sense of unity, of love, of brotherhood, where one does not think of one but of others. For me that is what makes it spiritual. Not that you're going to "enlighten yourself" or anything like that.
In fact, imagine how your life would change, your place of work or business if your focus ceased to be in you and was to support your brothers, your clients, your family. Santiago de Compostela was also like returning home, I even feel that even an atheist begins to believe in something.
Perhaps Santiago de Compostela for you is some goal or wish you have. What I would share, from my perspective, would be to observe every moment, and in due time, if what you want to happen is supposed to happen and you will know it happened.
I enjoyed El Camino. I recommend it as an experience that if you pay attention it could have a significant change in your life. The most important thing that the Camino de Santiago taught me and I will take it for the rest of my life is that my desire is never to acquire but to share, and that no matter what the destiny I feel inspired to attain, that I don´t get anywhere in in a hurry, only step by step.
A prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
"O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life." Amen.
-San Francisco de Asis
Nick Arandes, singer-songwriter, composer, author, writer and international speaker. For more information about his music and his talks visit his website: www.NickArandes.com