From a Zen perspective, every minute is an opportunity for presence; my late teacher used to say that real practice starts when you get up from your zafu (meditation cushion).
It wasn't a conscious action to invite pilgrimage blogs; it could have been poetry, natural history, philosophy, deep ecology, prehistory, storytelling, Zen and so on; and no doubt, in time, it will be. (In fact, if you have something to say on any of those subjects, please get in touch with me, via my websites.)
But a lot of my focus with my courses and retreat the last few years, especially since place is very important to them, has been how we approach such a time together: can we make the whole trip and retreat time in a spirit of pilgrimage?
Anyway, enough. Today's blogpost comes from Robert Wilkinson, a real veteran of the Camino de Santiago; that mythic route which has fascinated so many of us, myself included (I won't tell you how many times I've watched the film 'The Way', Emilio Estevez' film with Martin Sheen – my top feelgood film). With my thanks to Robert.
'Wanderer, there is no way, the way is made by walking.' ANTONIO MACHADO
I’ve always loved walking. I like the simplicity and freedom of it. No tying or troublesome equipment needed — just a serviceable pair of feet. Planes, trains, ships, cars, bikes, horses and donkeys all limit you in one way or another. With foot travel — barring walking on air and walking on water — you can go wherever you want, whenever you want. You don’t have to look at a timetable, you don’t have to wait for a ride, you don’t have to spend lots of money and you don’t have to buy loads of gear. All you have to do is point your feet to the north, south, east or west. Walking creates an intoxicating sense of possibility you don’t experience with any other form of locomotion. As I once wrote: The most soulful places are almost always reached only on foot.
Yes, I love walking, and have done a lot of it — country walks, city walks, day walks, night walks, circular walks, walks to the shops — but, until 2007, I’d done very little long-distance walking. That’s not to say I hadn’t dreamed about it. I spent thirty years of my life as a travelling salesman (ok, publisher’s sales and marketing executive, if you want the grand title) and had England’s motorways imprinted on my mind like varicose veins on a middle-aged leg. My fitness suffered as I succumbed to endless car journeys and expense-account lunches. But all the while I dreamed of a different life, a life in which I would ditch the car in the knacker’s yard — before I ended up there myself. A life in which I could walk and walk and not stop walking.
One rain-sodden May evening in 2007 I was sitting in a pub in the village of Kirk Yetholm, a few miles beyond the Scottish border. I’d just finished walking the Pennine Way. The only National Trail I’d walked before had been the Dales Way, a delightfully bucolic ramble from Ilkley in Yorkshire, over the Pennine watershed and down to Windermere in the Lake District. This had taken five days, the Pennine Way nearly three weeks. I was celebrating coming to the end of the trail with two other hikers. One of them, a merchant seaman, told me his life story. How for years he’d spent his free time — his time on dry land — drinking, partying and chasing women. How one day it had suddenly dawned on him that he was completely wasting his life. And how he’d begun to walk the Caminos, a network of ancient pilgrim routes which crossed Europe and led to holy shrines in Rome and Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. Walking these paths had become a drug to him. Listening to his anecdotes, absorbing his enthusiasm, I became entranced, and was soon hooked.
To hike my first Camino, from Le Puy in south-central France to Santiago in north-west Spain, took me two months — from mid-October to mid-December 2007. I covered 1000 miles at an average walking pace of 17 miles a day. Not that considerations of time and speed are particularly relevant or important — at least, not to me. The Camino is not a race or a competition. It doesn’t matter if you walk it in one go or spend a lifetime knocking off short stages. It doesn’t matter if you walk it alone, with a friend, in a group or walk it backwards. There are no rules and, if you want rules, you can make them up as you go along. Then break them, if you wish. In my opinion, it’s not even imperative to arrive at your actual destination, your holy shrine (this may be heretical) — though most pilgrims, including myself, desire this, and the whole Camino tradition is based on pilgrims doing penance or seeking a cure for illness by completing the journey.
Where or what is the destination, anyhow? In these New Age days of Zen and syncretism and imaginative thinking, many — again including myself — believe that the destination is the Way itself. Life is a perpetual journey, and we never reach the end of our questing and questioning — and every end is just another beginning, as we know. So the Camino becomes a metaphor for life, a signifier for a continuous spiritual journey of self-discovery. En route you may with luck, and a little magical guidance, find and celebrate your true self, as well as celebrating the people and places you encounter each day.
Of course, it’s very much a physical journey too — with all the associated highs and lows, pleasures and hardships: the fatigue, the aching limbs, the sore feet, as well as the mental exhilaration and occasional epiphanies. Also, because the Way usually takes the shortest possible route to its sacred goal, and because it’s a practical, religious route, not a tourist route, the landscape it passes through is both rough and smooth: there are ugly, tedious stretches as well as sections of sublime beauty. Though the Camino teaches you to see something of value in the mundane and the quotidian as much as the rare and the sparkling.
Since 2007 I’ve walked six more Caminos, including most of the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome (I’ve got as far as Lucca). I’ve walked day after day in rain, wind and snow. I’ve walked across baking hot plains and through cool temperate forests. I’ve struggled up the steep slopes of mountains and coasted down the other side. I’ve met some fascinating people and also some people I’ve tried like crazy to avoid. I’ve seen both breathtaking landscapes and some very ordinary ones. I’ve entered many wonderful churches and some distinctly unfriendly bars. I’ve eaten some of the best meals of my life but sometimes existed all day on stale bread and mouldy cheese. I’ve been threatened by aggressive dogs. I’ve nearly fallen into a ravine. In short, it’s been a bit like life in general, but far more focused and intense.
You have time to think and to experience things in a very full and rich way on the Camino, and each experience seems valuable — if not at the time, then often in retrospect. Somehow the very process of walking through a landscape or a country for weeks on end — it’s a very visceral, earthy thing — enables you to really feel that place in your heart and soul. To be truly touched by it. To know it far more deeply than if you’d used any other mode of travel. And, more importantly, it enables you to know yourself.
'All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.' MARTIN BUBER
Posted by Robert, The Solitary Walker.
You can read more of Robert’s Camino adventures on his blog:
The website of the Confraternity of Saint James, a UK-based charity established to promote the pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela, can be found here: csj.org.uk.
I've written a number of times on this blog about contemporary pilgrimage ; there's one example here. RLA