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The Jewel of Discovery

Leanne Drumheller, GF board member and beloved member of Gangaji's sangha in Victoria, BC, had known for 20 years that some day she would undertake an ancient rite of passage, following in the footsteps of millions to traverse more than 800 km on foot of the Camino de Santiago. Her journey revealed itself in the rawness of inescapable physical discomfort, the depth of facing emotion, and the uncomplicated certainty of the limitless presence of herself.


Field of Stars – A Pilgrimage

Certain things in life hold a call that, once heard, cannot be forgotten. In the turbulence of my 20s I happened to skim through a Paulo Coelho book called The Pilgrimage and, for the first time in my life, felt a strong sense of a world well beyond the one I was living. I knew someday I would say yes to a pilgrimage walked by millions since ancient times to the “Field of Stars,” Santiago de Compostela. Working now in palliative care as a grief and loss counselor, I am continuously taught that life is short, that before you know it intentions turn into a list of “I wish I’d….”


So as my 47th year of life approached, I decided that it was time to tend to a few of my dreams, specifically the Camino. By then, I’d known for over 20 years that I would walk the Camino de Santiago, specifically the Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied du Port at the foot of the Great Pyrenees in France, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It is a journey of over 800 km that includes the Great Pyrenees, the Meseta Desert, and the Galician Range, alongside countless foothills and valleys to cross. In the fullness and distraction of our lives, to take this time is a luxury for many, and a necessity for some. For me, it was a little of both.


To me the word “pilgrimage” holds significant weight. It signifies a journey which is often beyond travel, beyond new experiences, beyond the familiar. It leads you into another realm of possibility, into a discovery that might be hard to fully understand, let alone attempt to describe. For many the decision to take a pilgrimage is a spiritual one: an opportunity to meet something deeper. To be in the silence of the open sky with only your feet and breath as music for the majority of daylight hours, and to discover what arises in this space is something I regard as an act of courage, possibly even an act of sanity in an ever pressured world. Yet I now believe that to undertake a pilgrimage is not something one can fully understand until you are in the throws of the process.


The Promise of the Camino

I researched for nearly a year before I left, reading countless posts on endless blogs and forums so that I could gather the best and most up-to-date information on equipment, route details, experiences, cautions, and delights. I made notes, agonized over purchases for the trip (specifically the weight and versatility of my pack), and I hiked and walked as much as I could in the months leading up.  I read about people’s highs and lows, their mistakes, their “wishes,” the experience of aloneness, the longing for more aloneness, and I painted a picture for myself of the Camino before I even left. Yet while I had a sense of how others experienced the Camino, I knew it would be “My Camino” no matter what anyone had already said, shared or offered.


I had read, from a number of sources, that there was a pattern for many on the Camino. That the first week was largely physical: dealing with a body not accustomed to walking 18 – 30 km / 6-7 hours day after day; the resulting blisters, aches and pains that accompany this kind of walking on uneven, hilly terrain can’t often be mimicked at home. So for most, to walk like this daily was to experience physical stress and discomfort.


I’d read that the second week was largely emotional, facing feelings we might be able to avoid through regular means of distraction at home. This time was described by many as the bigger challenge of the Camino. It was proposed that if you passed through these hoops, you might end up in the Spiritual phase of the Camino with its Paulo Coelho allure and mystery, the promised land of awarenesses and awakenings.


It was a very orderly proposal of the Camino experience, and in hindsight, utterly ridiculous. Every week was physical, every week was emotional, every week was spiritual, the opportunity was witnessing yourself and your reactions to all of the above. But I did enter the experience anticipating the end of blisters after the first week, resulting in great disappointment.


Quitting Is Not an Option

The physicality of the Camino is ongoing from first step to last. The terrain is varied every day, sometimes pavement, sometimes smooth gravel, sometimes very unstable rocky trails that are slippery and full of tree roots. The path is steep in many places and monotonous in others. The weather impacts your physical comfort, as does your capacity (or lack thereof) to climb mountains in blaring heat, or slide down hillsides in mud just hoping you won’t turn an ankle and thus end your chances on the Camino (although sometimes there might be a little wishing for this… quietly).


The Camino is an endless reminder that you live in a physical body with strengths and weaknesses. If you choose not to listen to what those are you will likely not finish the Camino. Over the course of six weeks, I watched as many had to stop the journey, mostly due to physical injury or stress. Only about three quarters of those who start in St. Jean go the whole way, but barely anyone gets through it without some measure of pain or injury. And those who do had best be very quiet about it anyways…


As with any new experience, there is a degree of excitement that carries one through the early days. At about a week in one is roughly 180 km into a 820 km hike, and the end feels and truly is very far into the future. Here began my awareness of no escape. Quite simply, if quitting is not an option, then the only other path is no escape. It was around this time that I started to see how a pilgrimage is just like life, and instead of my “invisible knapsack” in daily life, I was carrying my visible knapsack on the Camino. Each day I had an opportunity to unpack my thoughts, judgments, assumptions, and hopes. In this I recognized that the Camino, like life, is never about only one aspect of our human experience, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual, it’s about all aspects of what it means to be human.


The Space to Inquire

So as one toe would heal and another would start to blister, and my mind would chatter on about this or that, I started to experiment with the concept of the Camino being a distinctly “physical, emotional, and spiritual” journey. I found myself asking the question, “How am I physically?” As I walked I would listen to the awareness of what was hurting, and also to what was feeling good in my body. Ideally one takes care of ailments as they start to arise, but beyond taping a toe or taking an aspirin, there was little else to do. The Camino is full of wide open spaces, and one can walk several days through very small towns with only basic services. So asking myself how I was doing physically was not about alleviating the concerns, it was purely about inquiry, about giving myself a space to share, without fixing. And eventually, I would find myself drifting into other thoughts, or the beauty of the landscape, or just silence, and notice that this physical check-in had ended.


Naturally, emotions arise when pushing oneself physically, and I would notice feelings coming up in relation to my body. So I started asking myself how I was doing emotionally. I would listen to the feelings associated with my body and noticed how interconnected that relationship was. But sometimes it was about other things, like the people I was meeting on the Camino, my life at home, the future, the past. I listened with the same quality as I listened to my physical check-in, a listening that was not about fixing or solving or escaping the experience, but with a curiosity. I knew I also couldn’t fix how I was feeling, in part because I couldn’t fix the physical problems, but it was also just an experiment to listen, to not fix and also to not indulge. Eventually I would become distracted again by the natural world around me and the thoughts would cease.


The Jewel of Discovery

These practices were a beautiful experience for me, and helpful in just being present to what was happening, but the jewel of discovery lay in asking the question, “How am I doing spiritually?” Had I known I was going to find myself asking these questions as I walked along the Camino, I would have assumed this one would have been as full a response as the others. But I was wrong. Each and every time I asked the question, the inner response was the same, a profound feeling of just being fine. It was surprising how simple it was, how present without fanfare or drama: no grand realizations or flashes. It was uncomplicated and offered no story. A gentle and consistent response allowing me to sense a limitless presence within myself, a companionship and a camaraderie, even in the most grueling, painful, or beautiful of days. On the very worst day of the Camino, when I thought I couldn’t really go on yet had to, I asked the question, and the answer allowed me to just relax and keep going. On that day I realized that even in the fullness of physical pain and emotional distress I could still meet this presence of stillness within, and from that place, could continue.


The Camino offered me an opportunity to recognize that despite the aches, fragilities and wonders of my body and mind, underlying all of this is peace – simple and endlessly consistent. Conceptually I knew this to be the truth, as I’ve had experiences and felt the awareness profoundly. But the Camino was different in its day-after-day opportunity to ask the question and meet the answer. The most beautiful gift, now that I’ve been off the Camino for over a month, is that I continue to ask the question, and I still receive the same answer. Taking a solo pilgrimage to walk the Camino offered an opportunity I could not have anticipated, an invitation to meet what is always here, stable and unchanging. The Camino offered a space to discover day after day, through boredom and monotony, alongside distraction and camaraderie, past the chatter of mind and the ache of body, the recognition of the unchanging stillness laying beneath each breath, each step.


Leanne Drumheller, 2016

First published in Oasis Magazine