The practice of meeting your Camino teachers

Everything and everyone you meet on the Camino can be your teacher if you allow it.

Some of the most difficult experiences—physical pain, loneliness, doubt, conflicts with other pilgrims—can show you what you most need to understand and heal in yourself. This is because everything you encounter on pilgrimage is a mirror image of your everyday life, just concentrated and intensified.

Looking into that reflection, pondering the similarities and what they can to teach you, can be a transformational practice.

Two stories of loneliness

Walking the Camino backwards, for me, meant walking alone. Even though dozens of people crossed my path each day, the numerous three-minute conversations about why I was going the wrong way led to feeling lonely at times. I felt “othered,” a backward-walking novelty, not part of the group. As a result, I looked forward to stopping at a cozy albergue with a communal dinner so I could feel connected with people and have meaningful conversations. We all need to belong.

Story One: A hard teacher

On this particular afternoon, I was feeling the familiar pain of loneliness. In my everyday life, I distract myself with food, social media, and watching programs online. On the Camino—especially without a phone—those go-to comforts weren’t available. I felt more emotionally exposed not having them, but that was the point. If the Camino were completely 100% comfortable and familiar, it would just be a vacation. I went seeking more.

The albergue that evening was almost empty, promising a quiet night’s sleep. For dinner, I decided to have the menu peregrino at the in-house café. In hindsight, I feel badly for the young Russian woman who was there, alone, to enjoy the wifi.

“Do you mind if I join you for dinner?” I inquired, hopeful. She had a friendly face and seemed like she’d be good company.

“No problem,” she replied and set down her phone.

I asked her all the usual pilgrim questions about where she’d come from that day, how she was feeling, when and where she started walking. If you’ve never done the Camino, this might sound intrusive, but it’s quite common. Pilgrims often swap stories about how their body feels, about pilgrims they know in common, who took the bus due to injury, et cetera.

As we chatted, the phone on the table emitted a jingle, her eyes darted to the device. She tried to ignore it, looking back at me, but not successfully.

“Excuse me a moment,” she said, picking up the pink phone, a smile dawning and tapping rapidly. My dinner came. She put the phone back on the table.

I asked about where she was from and in the middle of telling me, her phone jingled again. This time, she looked less torn. “One moment,” she said, picking it up. More tapping.

Allow me to pause here and say that it wasn’t her responsibility to help me beat my loneliness. She was on her own journey.

On the third jingle, however, she dropped the pretense of talking with this grey-haired, American stranger. “Excuse me,” she said and made a call. Body turned at a right angle to me, she spoke for the time it took to finish my dinner.

As if I didn’t exist.

Now, if I’d been on a vacation, I’d probably now rant about the evils of cell phones and the degradation of courtesy. But this is a pilgrimage. If you’re willing to look into the mirror of circumstances, you will learn a lot about what you need to change about yourself and how you do your life.

After I got over my crocodile tears, paid my bill, and left her talking, I realized something important:

This is how I do my life. The woman sitting across from me was me. Like her, I check out mentally using my devices. I wish humanity would vanish. I get annoyed by people, especially my spouse, when I’m in thrall with something online—to the point of similarly rude, inconsiderate behavior. Furthermore, I regularly prioritize connection with those not present at the expense of the people right in front of me. Ouch.

That is what the young Russian woman taught me. I realized that the connection I seek is right here, in front of me. Not just with others, but with myself and with the Divine.

As easy as it would be to judge her, the lesson was right there for me to accept. The teacher showed up. And the student was ready. I now seek to change my behavior so that I connect with the people around me—seeking them out—and turn off my devices so I can really be present with them.

Story Two: A gentle teacher

On a different blue day, I showed up too early at an albergue that wasn’t yet open. Its name referenced an angel, and my heart felt certain was supposed to be here. So I stood anxiously outside, unsure of what to do.

A short, round woman with curly dark hair slowly approached the albergue. Her face was radiant, and she smiled warmly at me, making eye contact.

“You are staying here tonight?” she asked in Spanish.

“I hope so,” I replied.

“Just one moment, I will unlock it for you.” And I realized she was the hospitalera. She was letting me in, despite arriving so early in the day.

Gracias, señora,” I replied.

“Anna Maria,” she corrected gently.

When we entered, she showed me where to put my sticks and asked, “Would you like some coffee?”

Surprised by the familiarity and warmth, it took a moment for me to answer sí. “Good,” she said. “We will sit and have some coffee.” She hobbled to the kitchen and I heard clinking cups behind the glass door.

Sometimes you meet teachers on the Camino who impart the lesson with such honesty and compassion, it percolates into your soul.

Anna Maria and I sat across the table from each other in the quiet. As we began to talk about the debilitating pain in her knees and about my first life-changing Camino, the connection felt so real. “It’s hard walking alone,” I confessed.

She channeled the answers I needed to hear.

“You may feel alone,” she said. “But you can never be alone.” The Divine is always with you. Love is always with you. The loneliness you feel is something you create. Open up to the abundance that’s already waiting for you.

Tears sprang to my eyes. I needed to hear these words so much. Anna Maria reached out across the table and held my hand. Tears welled up in her eyes too. “You are never alone.”

And, just like the Russian woman, Anna Maria taught me something important about my life. By being willing to listen and accept, I understood how I make my life harder than it needs to be trying to do everything myself. I can connect more deeply with What Endures. It’s there waiting for me.

The practice of meeting your Camino teachers

Any time we have an intense emotional response on the Camino, we are meeting a teacher. The feelings can be everything from frustration and anger to deep love and profound, wordless connection.

Anytime this happens, it’s a moment of truth, an opportunity to reflect on what the feelings mean, and what they can show you about your life. The practice of reflection can guide you through the second Camino—the one that happens after the walking ends—into transforming your life.

Serendipity, songs, and pre-Camino angels

I knew my blue mood wasn’t permanent

Ever since my Camino, I’ve come to believe that invisible spirits look out for me, guide me, support my path. Yours too. Although my logical side wants to deny this, sometimes the coincidences are too numerous to ignore.

The key is being open. It’s about remaining unattached to How Things Will Turn Out. A few days ago, I surrendered the need to know.

Not surprisingly, signs started showing up. My blue mood lifted. Hope and excitement began bubbling up in its place. By doing my part and letting go, I started hearing the messages that were there all along.

Song angels

When I was on the Camino, song angels would come and whisper lyrics of a long-forgotten melody into my ears. Receiving these songs was a profound spiritual experience. When Desperado came to me, for example, I remembered to come down from my fences and open the gate of my heart. Each song that arrived carried with it a message my soul needed to hear.

Styx and Sparks

Now they’re showing up before I leave. One song came in the grocery store last week. Two days ago, it was Show Me the Way by Styx—a tune I haven’t heard in years. Its message of surrender and trust reminded me not to worry and to trust that the Way is there for me to find.

Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river
And wash my illusions away
Please, show me the way

The next day, a more contemporary song—One Step at a Time by Jordin Sparks—came to me like a silver thread. The drum beats are actual footsteps, and its message is about taking your time, making one choice, taking one breath, and focusing on what you can do.

When you can’t wait any longer
But there’s no end in sight
It’s your faith that makes you stronger
The only way we get there
Is one step at a time

I needed to hear these words. We all do.

People angels

The Divine uses people as messengers too.

Three songs and then a day later, dear Meg, the original Camino archangel, called me out of the blue.

As we caught up, it became clear that both Meg and I are walking at life’s edges, challenged by conflicting choices. We talked about the difference between thinking and knowing. How to make everything more complicated with cruel self-judgment. How hard it is to really change your life.

We also reminisced about our Camino when the topic of gear came up. Meg told me about a sweet woman she met who was carrying a third of her own weight on her back. When Meg eventually helped lighten this woman’s load, she revealed she was carrying no fewer than a half-dozen knives from well-meaning friends.

Meg contagious laughter got me going. “Why would anyone need six knives?” she asked.

“It’s not like the Camino is in the wilderness!” I said. “No hacksaw necessary!”

Meg cracked up. “Right! Do you even really need one? I mean, if you have cheese, you can just bite some off with your teeth! And the lightweight sporks, Jen! What the fuck?”

Our laughter was cathartic.

You can pack your bag full for every contingency, and it will physically hurt you—even end your Camino early. In the same way, you can fill your mind with every worry, doubt, and fear—and ruin a perfectly lovely walk. That mental mess makes you miss the blessings, the serendipity, and life-changing messages.

Wake up

As we discussed Meg’s current big decision, I suggested the best way to get the outcome she’s looking for is to get really clear about what she wants.

“I have to disagree,” she said, surprising me. “I fuck up everything I try to influence. I really think the point is to let go of control.”

As a lifelong control freak, this got my attention.

She continued, “Someone asked me once why I should set the bar myself, when I have no idea how happy I’m capable of being. If you try to control everything, you limit the outcomes of what’s possible. Your ideas of what you can create are too small, too limited. Let go instead and see what shows up. It could be even better than you can imagine.”

Wow. Just whack that nail on its shiny little head.

Stay open and let go

These words, from exactly the right person, were just what I needed to hear. Her humor lightened my worries, and our conversation reminded me to open my heart to the wonder and miracles everywhere.

When we were just about to hang up, she said, “If I don’t talk to you before you go, have an amazing time, Jen. Don’t pack too much.”

“In more ways than one, right?” We both laughed.

“Yeah,” she said. “Try to keep it to just one knife.”

What’s the point of pilgrimage? No, really.

Photo credit

Lately, as I wake in the morning, I can feel the realization dawn over my body like a wave of prickles cascading from head to toes: Jesus. Seven weeks. In seven weeks, I’ll be in Spain. In seven weeks, I’ll be walking every day.

I haven’t been blogging because I’m feeling pretty discouraged at the moment. Not with my body or my training, but with what’s happening in my country. On one hand, I want to stay informed. On the other, everything I see about the presidential race shocks me, appalls me, and scares me. What are we doing? Most candidates are sleeping with Big Money (or want to) and another is talking about the size of his sexual organ. What on earth is happening?

It feels as though the very fabric of this country–one with so many kind and generous souls–is being stretched and torn. Is it race? Is it sexuality? Gender? A growing millennial generation with wholly different values than the old, dying guard? I have no answers, but a growing dread of September elections.

With all of this going on, I’m deeply in doubt about the usefulness and relevance of pilgrimage in a modern, connected age. What’s the point of unplugging and walking? Why spend all that money, time, and energy? What does it accomplish, and how does it solve anything?

I am having a dark night of the soul. It’s not permanent, but it is real: Part of me truly and earnestly does not want to walk another five hundred miles. It feels like such an interruption of my life that, in many ways, I haven’t learned to live since my Camino three years ago. Yes, despite the fact that I’ve assented to this calling, I am not thrilled with it. I’m resisting it still because I don’t see the point.

Maybe that’s the way a calling works. A yes is required before anything will be revealed about the journey or its purpose. The messages I heard over a year ago were clear and unequivocal, “You will walk again. You will return to the beginning.”

I assented. I will go.

It’s then I remember that the Camino is life. There is nothing we can do that isn’t part of the journey. I can walk in Spain, or I can walk through my own neighborhood. I can open my heart to other pilgrims as we share a meal, or I can open my heart to the person behind me in the coffee drive through or give a five bucks and banana to the homeless guy with the cardboard sign. It’s all part of the same journey. There is nothing outside it. Everything is included.

This helps me remember that my country is on its own journey—of which I am a part. We are called to create a more perfect union. That is our purpose. We said yes to this over two hundred years ago, but we don’t know where that will lead. Our country’s journey is a camino.

So with all of this swirling around in my mind this morning, I walked into the grocery store to pick up a few things, and I received another message. A confirmation. A benediction: The song playing on the PA system was a Camino anthem, “I will walk five hundred miles, and I will walk five hundred more…”

I get it. This path I walk is blessed. All our paths are.

Buen camino, peregrinos. Keep walking.

This might be the week…

This might be the week I actually buy airfare. Committing to those non-refundable, staggeringly-expensive tickets is quite possibly the scariest part of the journey for me.

At present, I am watching no fewer than eight possible itineraries on Google Flights.

flight price graph

Conventional wisdom holds that the best prices are 171 days from departure from the US to Europe. Sadly, everything took a jump last week while I bit my nails and second-guessed myself. I hope I don’t regret that.

In spite of my nerves, the most amazing generosity has been pouring my way. I don’t have adequate words to describe my feelings about this. Stunned comes close. Humbled too. I’ve wept in astonished gratitude more than once. The faith of supporters in my purpose invites me to trust the Divine plan at work in all of this.

 *   *   *


In quiet moments, I hear two messages about this journey. One of them is a constant companion, my old chattery brain with its hair-trigger worry reflex. It sets off without stopping to take a breath, “What if you’re doing the wrong thing? What if you’re not supposed to go? Don’t you have better things to do with your time and resources? This is ridiculous. Why are you doing this to yourself?” All reasonable concerns.

But. If I pat this hyper messenger on the head and send it off with a cookie, it settles down. Only then can I hear a second one, a truth-telling guide who whispers gentle, one-word messages in basso profundo, “Go.”

“Are you sure?” I ask.


Though I lack a strong conviction about the identity of that messenger, its simple statements make my jaw unclench, my shoulders relax, and my body takes a deep, refreshing breath. This gets my attention.

 *   *   *

Tuesday mid-morning is the best time to buy airfare, so I’ll likely be hovering over the “Purchase” button with sweaty palms this week.

With everything happening in the world right now, I hesitate to ask for prayers when so many suffer and endure extreme uncertainty. My struggle seems so small by comparison. What compels me back to Spain is a calling into deeper relationship with the Divine and to be on the path, both literal and spiritual. With my whole heart, I hope to be a beacon of peace wherever I go.

I’d be grateful if you can send up a flare or a prayer for this one pilgrim’s next step.