On My Way – Two Long Distance Walks On Ancient European Pilgrim Routes
First published in AmSAT Journal / Spring 2018 / Issue No. 13 www.AmSATonline.org 41
History of the Road to Santiago
Santiago de Compostela, Spain, is a town in the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula in the province Galicia. Its main attraction—and end point of many pilgrim routes—is the Santiago Cathedral, built at the presumed gravesite of the apostle Saint James (San Tiago in Portuguese or Santo Iago in old Spanish). In the Middle Ages, the westward pilgrimage—El Camino—ending in Santiago, became the most renowned route, replacing earlier pilgrim routes to prestigious Jerusalem or the world’s economic center, Rome. Traditionally, a pilgrimage started at one’s doorstep and culminated in Santiago de Compostela, which explains the many routes through western Europe towards the same end point. In large part, these routes traverse France in a general southwest direction, often originating in European countries to the north and east of France. Other routes cross Spain and Portugal in a general northwest direction. The emblem of the apostle James was a scallop shell, and its stylized version became the symbol for the many trails through Europe.
Although the most popular pilgrim route to Santiago is the Camino Francés, beginning at the foot of the Pyrenees in the French town St. Jean and traversing northern Spain for 490 miles, I chose to walk a route called Camino Portugués, starting in Lisbon, Portugal. I averaged 16 miles a day, walking 300 of the 360 miles in 18 days (occasionally I took a cab or public transportation). Nine months later, I walked a different, unnamed route from the German city Trier to Auxerre in France, covering approximately 225 miles on foot in 14 days.
When I decided to walk El Camino, I didn’t quite know what my motivations were. I like walking; the activity held a physical and spiritual promise. I planned my itinerary, giving myself a lot of time to complete the journey, and made provisions in case my body or spirit would give out. I couldn’t be certain I would suc- ceed—that much I knew—but it seemed possible.
Walking between five and nine hours a day, mostly by myself, gave me plenty of time to think, and plenty of time . . . not to think. If I were a different person, I could have solved scientific or humanitarian problems, or become a more holy person. I did none of that. I just walked. Over the weeks, however, answers emerged to my underlying guiding questions: What did this long-distance walk mean to me on a physical level, professionally as an Alexander teacher, and as a person who wants to grow? Who am I on a deeper level, outside my habitual comfort zone of familiar people, surroundings, activities, and communication? What will my strengths and challenges be? Where am I presently in my life and where will my path take me from here?
I am in my late 50s, in decent shape but not athletic by any standard. For my first Camino (more than for my second one) I prepared by taking occasional, brisk two-hour walks. But even then it was obvious to me that walking here and there for a certain considerable distance had little bearing on my performance of walking all day, every day, over several weeks at an average of 16 miles per day. The first-time walker can’t even know if accumulation will work for her (muscular strength and ability to persevere) or against her (muscular exhaustion, physical weakness, and/or mental distress). Luckily, in my case, and in the case of many others whose accounts I read, it turned out to be the former: By walking every day, I became both stronger and more tolerant of discomfort.
Walking alone attracted certain comments from people I met on the road—one of them was “You must be thinking a lot…?” When a fellow-walker posed this question towards the end of my first pilgrimage, I could confidently say, “Not really. It’s mostly about putting one foot in front of the other and about not missing waymarks.” (Not missing signage like an arrow or a scallop symbol became a metaphor for being aware and present.)
Another frequent comment was, “You are brave!” On the last day of my second journey, when I managed to reply in broken French, “I don’t have fear,” I realized that courage is connected to the experience of fear. Since I had never been really afraid while walking alone—concerned at times, but not scared—courage had not been a personal measure of my success or strength. More recently I have climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine, where I experienced a level of fear combined with physical exhaustion that produced classic anxiety symptoms. That experience required courage to move ahead!
Walking and the Alexander Technique
The first hours of each walk were stressful. Both times I left a city on foot, looking for markers and the right direction amidst all kinds of traffic signs, walking between trucks and under overpasses, not yet used to the structure of the guidebooks, and asking for directions in a foreign language. A few hours later, however, the first concerns about my physical stamina would arise: the backpack felt quite heavy, the heat challenging, toe and knee were a little painful. But with each day I gained strength and confidence; I could luxuriate in my observations about physical and mental use. So as I practiced the Alexander Technique in activity, I tested some of its principles and found new and personal ways to apply and express them. What follows are some of my discoveries.
Do Not Use Your Muscles When Walking: They Are Using Themselves
When we walk, for exercise or pleasure, adding muscular tension is an unnecessary and end-gaining activity. Muscles function and coordinate properly and sufficiently if left alone. The agonistic and antagonistic forces of the muscles that flex and extend the legs alternate their activity with every step; it is the walker’s job to allow that to happen. One way of doing this is to let each leg go briefly through a predominantly resting stage (the swing phase) while the other leg is in the predominantly active stage (the stance phase). We can make sure to let the ankle of the swinging leg be free before the heel meets the ground again; we don’t need to tighten intrinsic foot muscles while the foot is in the air—no need for the big toe to come up, for example. We can allow the knee to release forward and away from the hip joint for optimal, self-regulated gait length and for additional elasticity in the interplay of leg muscle flexion and extension. In fact, it is better to think about the joints than about the muscles. When all these ideas are integrated, I do not use my muscles; the muscles are using themselves in activity. And I just do my walk.
Meeting Pain with the Right Amount of Attention, Direction, and Inhibition
On both journeys, I left without pain and returned without injury. Yet on the way, during so many miles in one pair of boots, it’s likely that any walker would have encountered some discomfort, as did I. My one persistent foot problem was a calloused pressure point on my right pinky toe, because my right foot is wider than my left foot and thus more crowded in the boot. This little toe spoke to me most walking days, and I responded to it with varying attempts of taping, padding, or inserting arch lifts. And with inhibition! A problem is often only as big as I allow it to be; it deserves the right amount of attention and adjustment, and then it must go backstage. With every step, I can experience different phases of contraction and release, of pressure and space, of impact and freedom. Since there is no pressure on that pinky while the foot is not weight bearing, I can release physically between steps. On a larger scale, I can broaden my focus and lift up mentally from a pesky toe.
One of my most treasured insights from these trips is that I can change my attitude and reaction to issues of discomfort by thinking differently about them. I address a physical problem by changing use and direction; I change the psychological aspect— how upset and constricted I allow myself to be about the issue— through inhibition. Thinking differently about pain will change it almost immediately. When I focus on pain, I create more pain; it’s a narrowing activity. If I give attention and energy to the pain, and my mind wants to define the sensations—all that is narrowing. When I focus instead on space, direction, or use, I create just that: space and direction, openness, and fluidity.
Another example is that on both walks my left knee was achy for the first one or two days. I paid attention, thought about my use, and about how to change the delicate arrangement of this crucial mid-leg joint. Then I started directing the knee forward and away and towards the second toe in a more organized relationship with the ankle and hip. I also didn’t panic, nor did I narrow my perception to just the knee. Through specific directions, inhibition, an expanded field of awareness, and my increasing muscular strength, the knee became just fine and has remained so. Last fall on Mt. Kathadin, during thousands of feet of descent, my knees never hurt.
Walking with a Backpack
I carried a backpack that weighed approximately 20 pounds before adding provisions and water for the day. After I got used to my increased weight and size, I realized that I could not simply rejoice in the fact that the equipment I carried felt so light that it seemed a part of me; I had to continue to think of it as part of my physical and spatial use. So I experimented with directing to my equipment. (The same would be true for other tools and equipment like canes, casts, and prostheses; rackets, clubs, and hedge trimmers.)
In regard to my backpack, I was mostly thinking the direction “back.” Where is my back—not just my physical, dorsal surface, but the back of my backpack? AHH, there! This thought was simple and had marvelous results! Not only did my spine lengthen up, but the weight of us (me and my pack) resettled in our common center, my pelvis. In addition, I could sense the difference between my alive body and the lifeless backpack mass. I can recall this direction now at any moment, without carrying the backpack: Thinking way back allows my neck to integrate with my back and my spine to lengthen.
Meditation versus Inhibition
On day one of my first journey, I had managed my way out of hot and noisy Lisbon into the suburbs. It was afternoon, and an experienced walker convinced me not to overdo it on the first day but to stop at the next hostel. From there I left early the next morning for a long passage north. Soon I found myself at a busy intersection, helplessly disoriented, almost resigned to walking along a highway to the next town rather than searching for the path indicated in my guidebook. Why? I had misused a meditation exercise and had focused my gaze for a while on the patterns of the pavement. Bad idea! The original meditation instruction was to sit quietly and contemplate upon the ripples in a bowl of water, not to walk and stare at the pavement! It was only the second day, and none of this business of walking and watching had yet become routine; I must have been scrambling for an escape or entertainment. Was I already bored or still in my usual, busy, productive frame of mind? I realized that by not being in the moment, attentive to the conditions, I missed what was most essential: the next waymark to my path. When I retraced my steps, I met another walker who pointed me towards the right path.
On my second walk, I briefly tried a similar meditative practice—and again I lost the connections I most needed: those to my guide book, map, and surroundings. Of course meditation has its benefits, but in these situations it was not helpful to me. It took me out of reality. Instead it worked much better for me to walk and meet my present situation with inhibition. Whatever thought or sensation attacked my protective shell of well-being, be it heat or rain, boredom or frustration, pain or over-planning, I could notice it and decide not to react to it in any narrowing or restrictive way.
Opportunities to Inhibit
There were many opportunities to inhibit reactive patterns. One still stands out vividly in my memory: During my second journey, I walked for two weeks, passing through a mostly isolated, economically deprived French agricultural landscape in the Champagne region, not meeting anyone and sloshing through several days of rain. One Friday evening, I arrived at a cloistered-looking little town where I found accommodations
in an old, antiquely furnished villa. In the morning after an absolutely lovely and generous French breakfast, I wanted to pay for the night using my bank card. Alas, the owners had not yet adapted to modern tourism and only accepted cash. They were extremely friendly and didn’t seem to mind that I paid them about 20 Euros less than their usual rate; after all, I was a pilgrim on foot. I learned that the next and only bank and ATM machine along my route were about two hours away. And so I started my day, with one penny for luck left in my pocket.
Soon I began to wonder what I would do if the ATM were broken or locked in a bank that would be closed on a Saturday morning. I got nervous, a bit anxious. By that time I had gained considerable experience letting go of thoughts and could chose to stop worrying; it wouldn’t do me any good nor solve the unknown problems ahead. Rather than spending the next two hours in mental anguish, I told myself that problems will be solved when they were in front of me, not when they arose in my mind. With this conscious quieting, I could concentrate on the map and terrain and was able to enjoy the walk more and see my surroundings. I have to admit though that I was elated and relieved when I found that not only was the bank open, but the machine willingly spewed out cash. I soon found a little champagne-tasting place and café where I splurged and rested for a long time before slowly making my way out of rainy Champagne.
In similar earlier situations, my well-being had suffered when I allowed my mind to go to sensation (for example, focusing on the nervous constriction in my chest or stomach) or to negative self-talk (inventing what-if scenarios with unhappy outcomes). Under stress I tend to define my current state with words in my head that confirm my felt sense. Inhibition to me is a way of letting go of the need to be right, of assuming that what I feel is equivalent to an objective truth. When I am able to use inhibition this way, I feel I am “meeting myself”; I find some wisdom, equanimity, even gratitude, and simply a better way to be.
Walking can be extremely boring! It’s hours of nothing else but setting one foot in front of the other. No matter how busy you are with your maps, your body, your hunger, the weather, other travelers, and road signs . . . there is really not that much going on. Certain thoughts become prevalent; they repeat and want to assert themselves. I noticed, for example, my preoccupation with proud thoughts—about my strength and the distance I had covered, my comparison to other walkers, repeatedly planning what thoughtful nugget I would post on Facebook that night, etc. After a while I got pretty good at recognizing my proud thoughts as soon as they emerged and might admonish myself: Beware! You are not there yet! “Don’t praise the day before sunset!”(1)
Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. I believe each of us has at least one “deadly sin” to battle—pride, gluttony, envy, sloth, wrath, lust, or greed. Having so much time helped me develop yet another practice: exploring this pitfall of pride. And in turn, it provided another opportunity to let go of something, not to pursue that particular preoccupation but to change by practicing awareness and inhibition.
With a Catholic upbringing and support from my present Episcopal community, I want to add that repetitive prayer like The Jesus Prayer (2) or the German version of the Rosary to Mary (3) was surprisingly comforting at times. These prayers did not take me away from reality and awareness but instead provided peace, strength, and meaning. I recall a hot and strenuous stretch of paved road through an industrial area with the charm of an airplane landing strip where a continuous prayer was another way to get me through without feeling sorry for myself or complaining about things that can’t be changed.
Mens Sana in Corpore Sano: A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body
Most walkers arriving in Santiago get in line at the Pilgrim Office for their certificate of completion. The pilgrim’s pass is stamped at hostels, churches, and town halls along the route and is a proof of completing the itinerary. At this last stop, I, together with many others, presented my pilgrim’s pass, the Credencial, to officials of the Roman Catholic Church.
The pilgrim knows beforehand, from popular films or books, that she will be asked the reason for her journey, a question about which I had much time to think during those weeks of preparation and walking. I understood early in my process that it was not the certificate that mattered, but the fact that I, and others, had an opportunity to ask ourselves the question: Why am I walking—for leisure, religious, or spiritual reasons? Thinking about it for a long time, I had come to the conclusion that my walk was about health: My body and my mind are healing in unison; the strength of both is what makes me happy and whole.
Alas, there was no health-related question, and in the end I limply answered “spiritual,” shrugging my shoulders, feeling that this procedure, allowing for only certain responses to life’s complexity, doesn’t give the full picture. Maybe I should have said “recreational,” but that would have been cheating myself out of the connection to a much more important experience.
“The Camino That Can Be Walked Is Not the Camino.” (4)
It is obvious: A pilgrimage is not about the outer way, the physical or mental activity. Neither is it about financial assets, nor physical strength, nor age, looks, clothes, nor the ability to read maps or negotiate good accommodations . . . none of this makes a pilgrim. On my last three days before I reached Santiago de Compostela in October 2016, I walked the longest distances I could imagine, met the nastiest and the nicest people on the same day, felt elated and worried, grateful and vengeful, bone-tired and buoyant, hungry and satisfied.
All of us walk our own path, lucky if we can see beyond our own footsteps, open to receiving support from our inner wisdom and from unexpected companions. We all walk our own way! Sometimes we walk with others.
1. Polish proverb, translated. Known to me in German as “Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben.”
2. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 3. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
4. This phrase is adopted from the Tao: “The tau (reason) which can be tau-ed (reasoned) is not the Eternal Tau (Reason). The name which can be named is not the Eternal Name.” See www. bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/tao-te-ching.htm.
© 2018 Michaela Hauser-Wagner. All rights reserved.