Lessons from the Long Walk

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Dear Still Water Friends,

My wife Ann-Mari and I recently returned from a thousand mile pilgrimage walk, from Le Puy-en-Velay in southeastern France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.

Most days we walked for eight to ten hours, following a trail that pilgrims have used for 1200 years to reach Santiago de Compostela, where, according to legend and the Catholic Church, the relics of St James are kept.


We walked through mountain forests, plateau pastures, and croplands. We passed through small villages, enchanting medieval towns, and, from time to time, through moderately sized cities.

We traveled light, carrying several changes of clothes, toiletries, rain gear, and a few lightweight modern marvels: a digital camera, a cell phone, and, for half the trip, a tiny computer (stolen in Pamplona).

Most nights we stayed in simple dormitories available only to pilgrims. Many were offered and subsidized by municipalities, counties, or regions, and by non-profit groups formed to support pilgrims. Some were private dormitories and pensions, owned by former pilgrims, whose primary intention was to support pilgrims. And some were simply businesses, offering accommodations to pilgrims willing to spend more.

We were part of an international stream of pilgrims following the same trail — during our 80 days of walking we talked with hundreds of other pilgrims from more than 30 countries. Some were short-timers, walking for one to three weeks during their vacation. Many of the short-timers came back year after year until they reached Santiago. Many pilgrims walked only the 500 miles of the Spanish section, the most well-known part of the Camino. And a few were truly long distance pilgrims. One of our favorites was a petite, energetic woman in her sixties, traveling alone and speaking only German, who began her 2000 mile walk from her home in Leipzig, Germany.

Since we’ve been back we’ve been asked many times, and have asked ourselves: What have we learned? How have we changed?

These are not easy questions. It is much easier to talk about the details of the trip — the enchanting fog-filled days walking over the Pyrenees or the spiritual energy we felt sitting in the simple Templar church at Eunate. However, I believe they are worthwhile questions. I’ll begin here identifying three areas in which I believe my understanding deepened and hopefully through the discussion this Thursday evening at Crossings and this Sunday in Columbia, these notions will develop.

Learning number one: spiritual and emotional set-points
I gained a better understanding of what maintains and changes my spiritual and emotional set-points. (Set-point being another way of saying my point of homeostasis or equilibrium.) We had a great time. There were better days and worse days, but overall we were happier, healthier, and more at peace than we usually are at home.

Being on the trail was not a tinkering with our daily routines, but a radical change. In terms of the degree of change, it was similar to being on a long meditation retreat, but many of the conditions of the change were different. I was not in the protective enclosure of a retreat center, and I wasn’t doing it away from my family. I walked with Ann-Mari, and for the last five weeks, with Juliana, our 21-year-old daughter. Now that we are back we are thinking about what it was that allowed us to feel so happy, healthy, and at peace, and how we can create similar conditions in our daily lives here. The conditions we have identified include:

  • Most of each day was spent outdoors in physical activity.
  • Our daily responsibilities and our To Do lists were radically reduced.
  • We had time as we walked to fully share our joys and appreciations, as well as our hurts, regrets, and sadnesses.
  • Our plan and direction for each day was clear: we followed the trail markers for 10 to 15 miles.

Learning number two: we create our own realities
I gained a deeper understanding of how we create our own realities. There are some commonalities for everyone on the trail: there is the walking, the trail signs, places to sleep, places to eat, and the landscapes, buildings, and people along the way. I was fascinated and deeply touched by the tremendous variation in how people interacted with these shared commonalities. For some people the Camino seemed primarily to be a task to be accomplished. They took pride in how many miles they could walk per day and focused on what they would do after this task (the walk) was completed. For some it seemed primarily to be a traveling pub crawl — they looked forward to ending each day with a group of pilgrims sharing food and drink. Some pilgrims, both Catholic and non-Catholic, were drawn to the historical churches. They explored them with interest and took time to sit quietly or pray in each one. For some pilgrims the natural world was of great interest — they noticed the changes in the flora and fauna, took delight in encountering a new species of slug. These are just some of the ways people experienced the Camino, and, of course, the categories are not mutually exclusive.

For myself, when I was anticipating the walk I framed it in terms of a thousand miles of walking meditation. To a great degree, that’s what I got and enjoyed: hours and hours of breathing and stepping and calling myself back to the present moment. I also enjoyed greatly the conversations I had with other pilgrims who also saw their time on the trail as a time for practice and transformation.

Learning number three: increased appreciation for the practice of mindfulness and for Still Water
A third learning for me was a deepening of my appreciation for the practice of mindfulness and especially for our practice in the Still Water community. When the Pilgrimage to Santiago blossomed in the 9th to 14th centuries, the beliefs and practices of the Catholic church were deeply meaningful and motivating for pilgrims. One walked to Santiago to become closer to Jesus, to partake of the energy which emanated from the relics one encountered along the way and in Santiago, and to receive indulgences from the Church that would reduce one’s time in purgatory.

My experience was that today, the Catholic-ness of the pilgrimage is greatly reduced. The primary exception was that in some of the historic towns and cities there were special masses for pilgrims each day, which many pilgrims, both Catholic and non-Catholics, including us, attended. Also, a few Catholic monasteries and lay communities along the way offered prayer and spiritual support for pilgrims who wished to stay with them for several days — an offer which, apparently, few pilgrims opted for. But that was about it.

Although there were committed Catholics we met along the way, included several priest pilgrims, they were a minority. For most pilgrims, the Catholic church had little significance in their lives, even if they were nominally Catholic. As one young Spanish accountant explained to me: “My grandfather went to church all the time. My father went sometimes. I never go.”

However, many of the people I met on the trail seemed to have a thirst for spiritual meaning in their lives. And often, as they explained their searching to me, they seemed frustrated. They knew what they wanted, but didn’t know how to get there. I felt grateful that I have the the practice of mindfulness, and that I have spiritual teachings, teachers, friends, and communities in my life.

I was aware, also, as we walked that there were few organized opportunities for people to reflect on the spiritual significance or what they were experiencing. I recognized that one of the most important things we do at Still Water is to create spaces each week for people to come together to explore their inner worlds, and, when they are ready, to share from their hearts with others.

In my experience, this didn’t happen on the Camino. One could do it for oneself, if one had the background and discipline, but it wasn’t supported by an organized community.

Because I find it myself so nourishing, and have seen how it has transformed others, I came home with the desire to create more spaces each week in which people can both go within and share with others.

We will explore these themes both this Thursday evening at Crossings, and this Sunday evening at the Yoga Center of Columbia. I hope you can be with us.

I will also be offering a three-hour introduction to mindfulness workshop (Embracing Ourselves, Embracing Our World) this Saturday morning at Blueberry Gardens in Ashton, MD. Space is still available. For more information click here.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher