Lessons from the Camino de Santiago

IMG_3549Having walked the Camino de Santiago twice now, I have reflected upon the many life lessons I learned from this experience. The “Camino” is a pilgrimage to Galicia across northern Spain ranging anywhere from 100 to 1000 miles although most people walk the traditional 500-mile French route. Walking from hamlets to monasteries to hostels, across rivers and over mountains, one has plenty of time to ponder the meaning of life. At the request of several who have asked me about this trip, I share here the core of my musings. These lessons are applicable to anyone regardless of age and background, however they are particularly apropos in intercultural relations. As I interact with friends and colleagues I find that my relationships are richer and my work more productive if I abide by these precepts:

EMBRACE CHANGE. Change happens. I did not have to embark upon a pilgrimage in some foreign land to change, I merely needed to open my mind to the possibility of other ways of being and adopt the posture. And yet, that was the path I had to take to get to where I am now. The more I kick and resist change, the harder it is. However, the more I relax and allow the flow to carry me, the more peaceful the journey.

BE PRESENT. Being present requires leaving the past behind and letting the future take care of itself. If I learn from the past and prepare for the future in the here and now, all of my worries take care of themselves. Part of being present is interacting with every person I meet as if they really were sent to me to teach me something in that moment. It is imperative that I pay attention, don’t let my eyes wander and listen attentively. This requires focus, but the Camino taught me that the more I pay attention, the more I learn. So many of us are too distracted to drive, too distracted to learn and too distracted to love wholly. Be present. There is so much more to the person in front of you than you realize.

THINK ABUNDANTLY. There is enough in this world and to spare. Since this pilgrimage, I have come to realize that not only are my needs met, many times I receive far more than I anticipate. On the Camino I found that if I let go of my need to control, every day I found I was guided where I needed to be; I had the food I needed to eat; I had a place to sleep; and the people I met were generous and caring. When I needed help, such as when I almost broke my ankle, I asked for it and I received it. It did not always come the way I had imagined, but there was often more there going on than I realized. It was merely a matter of replacing a deprivation mindset with one of abundance. There is always enough love to go around, always enough forgiveness, always enough time. It is just a matter of adjusting my mindset.

SLOW DOWN. One of the books on the Camino discussed most by fellow pilgrims is El Peregrino by Paulo Coelho. In his pilgrimage he underwent several exercises to heighten his awareness. One of these was to reduce his walking pace by half. On the surface this may seem trivial, but when put into practice it can be excruciating. Once you adjust to a slower pace, a whole new world opens up to your view and you become more aware of your surroundings. When I rush through something, I often make a mistake or overlook a crucial detail. When someone else’s emergency encroaches on my space, I need this skill more than ever to keep calm and grounded. When I have slowed down, listened, gathered my faculties about me and then proceeded, I have made wise decisions.

LET GO of your agenda. People will always tell you that the Camino always has a different plan in store for you than what you had planned for. Life is like this. In Spanish, there is a saying, “El hombre propone y Dios dipsone.” Essentially, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. I need to be open and listen to other possibilities.

DO NOT JUDGE. One of the most valuable things I learned from the Camino was the importance of not judging people. Walking 500 miles has a way of beating you up. You could be the most meticulous person with great hair and swag, but once you get out on the dirt-road with blisters on your feet and the same set of clothes for a month, you may not look like that CEO persona everyone knows and loves. This goes for just about everyone. Life has a way of breaking us down to our essence and when someone meets us at that place, we need to give them the same benefit of the doubt we are expecting to receive. As I slow down, am present, and let go of my own agenda, I find I cannot judge and I am far more to accept people for who they are.

WALK. The Camino de Santiago can be done by bicycle or horseback, but the majority of pilgrims walk. It causes people to slow down and take in thousands of years of history the way they did back in the Middle Ages. It is also a great way to disconnect and unplug. In our society we drive far too much. Walking grounds us. Walking is always touted as great exercise, but it also avails you of opportunities to talk to people, hear sights and sounds, breathe and think. I learned that if there is a rock in my shoe when I am walking, it is best to get it out right away (literally and figuratively). Don’t continue to hurt yourself needlessly. You have to take care of your feet – little things can cause big problems.

SLEEP is a miracle. It was always amazing to me that no matter how battered and beat up I felt at the end of a long day of hiking, I could sleep and arise the next day refreshed and ready to start again. Again, our hustle and bustle world downplays the importance of sleep as people try to out-do each other staying up into the wee hours to eek out a few more projects. While I admire those who burn the midnight oil and are driven in their tasks, at the end of the day this thing called ‘sleep’ is an amazing physiological phenomenon. It is the ultimate reboot. I don’t fully understand it, but I love it and advocate the age-old axiom: “Early to bed and early to rise.” (…so you can enjoy the sunset and sunrise!)

BASK IN THE LIGHT. Along the lines of sunrises and sunsets, I found that the best things in life are done with light. There are so many facets of life that are made better with light. Each person has a light within them, which, if it is kindled and nurtured grows brighter especially when shared with others. We are all attracted to light and things that reflect light, hence the popularity of jewels and precious metals. The fact that light is actually the secret to a plant’s growth should teach us how important light is for our own growth. We cannot be long in the dark before we start to miss it and yearn for the return of the light. It is no coincidence that the word “enlighten” is used to describe how we can all be taught new things. I learned on the Camino that the word Namasté can be interpreted in English as “the divine light in me honors the divine light in you.” What a wonderful world this would be if we all greeted everyone we met with this in mind.

What I have learned and written here is not new. All of these principles have been taught by great philosophers and leaders of religions as well as great corporations. I just needed to learn them for myself. I hope that some of these spur you on to adopt a more enlightened and abundant life.

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