Before setting out to walk the Camino de Santiago, I stated confidently, “I want to be changed by this experience” and I meant it. My life had been comfortable up to that point, if a bit stalled, and the calling I felt to walk it was both exciting and daunting.
“I want to be made uncomfortable,” I told my friends. “I want to be in unfamiliar places, to not know where I’m going to sleep at night or where my next meal comes from, and see what this teaches me.” Truly, I had no idea what this intention would set in motion.
Change does not come easily to me. Despite being a seeker, I will defiantly ignore signs, resist messages, and otherwise thwart my own awakening because change is so freaking uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, my pilgrimage to Santiago was a spiritual two-by-four. Instead of a cozy, controlled life, I plunged—body, mind, heart, and spirit—into a nomadic experience across northern Spain. The lows were grueling, lonely, and painful, at times causing me to doubt everything about the journey and life. The highs of this experience were delightful, awe-inspiring, and liberating.
The relentless extremes over seven weeks rattled my equilibrium. Quiet woods gave way to cacophonous cities. Rugged mountain paths contrasted with miles of bone-jangling concrete. The delight of new friends conflicted with my desperate need for solitude. In jam-packed albergues, feelings of loneliness seemed laughable. In a single day, my emotions ranged from irritation to joy, from despair to profound gratitude.
Since I had limited control over the extremes of my environment, I was forced confront my rigid attachment to external conditions and then let them go. I had to. I kept running into metaphorical brick walls thinking things shouldn’t be the way they are. I shouldn’t have this pain in my arches. That guy shouldn’t be snoring. It shouldn’t be raining. I shouldn’t be attracted to people I’m not married to.
The Camino kept showing me how my misery (or happiness) always starts with my thoughts—not the circumstances around me. I got this lesson repeatedly, each one presented a greater challenge. The Divine was determined to manifest my intention.
Slowly, I became content—no matter what was happening. As I shed my judgments, attachment, and dog-like desire to be liked, I began to find a sense of balance residing within. My ego—my me-ness—began to wear away until I was luminous. “You look ten years younger,” one acquaintance exclaimed.
In this spacious lightness, I found clarity where there had once been murk. Forgiveness took the place of blame and regret. Laughter and honesty replaced my habitual cautious smallness.
My emotions flowed. I wept tears of frustration, fear, joy, warmth, loss, exhaustion, anger, gratitude. I laughed—genuine, un-selfconscious horsey laughing. Snort laughing. Bent over, gasping for air laughing. Where did that come from? How long had I been living under a thick crust of seriousness?
The Camino fundamentally reoriented me to claim my own power. When I found that my thoughts and attitude couldn’t rescue me, I let myself fall into a God-shaped net. As a self-avowed control freak, this was truly a miracle. Learning first hand that the Divine supports and loves me, I began to experience soul-level trust that things would unfold exactly as they should. Spiritual writer, Anne Lamott, says there are two kinds of prayers, “help-me-help-me-help-me” and “thank-you-thank-you-thank-you.” I got really good at them both.
What surprised me most about the Camino was the community. Although I’d obsessed over every minute detail about what to pack and how much it weighed, I didn’t give a single preparatory thought to the people I would meet on the Way. Apparently, when I stated my intention to be changed by my experience in Spain, the Divine lined up incredible men and women who would reveal the perfect lessons for me. Through them, I learned that I am a small part of a beautiful, complex web of souls on a journey toward wholeness—and that we can contribute much to each other’s lives if we allow it.
The Camino wore me thin in the best possible ways and I became free. My intention had come to fruition because I did change. I discovered the truth about who I am and what I have always been but had forgotten: whole.
This only took me forty-nine days, fifteen pounds of gear, and a flight to Europe. Okay, that and a dogged determination to mine every moment of this pilgrimage for inspiration. I loved it. I hated it. And now I know why the Church recognizes pilgrims for our efforts and forgives our sins; if you’re paying attention to the inner heart-and-soul journey as you walk the physical one, the Camino will cleanse you from the inside out.