Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Self-acceptance on the Camino: Are we following a misguided ideal?

Please note: Some current glitch on my blog is preventing me from uploading photos for this post. Hopefully, my webmaster will be able to correct this soon. I apologize for the lack of visuals.


For the first time on the Camino, I had to wear sandals on day seven because the blisters on the side of my foot hurt too much to wear hiking boots. While walking from Los Arcos to Logroño, I met an Australian marathon runner, who looked sixtyish, who said that he was having problems with his gluteus muscle. (I had no idea where on his body that was, but he said it travelled down his leg.) As we discussed our ailments and those of other pilgrims we had met, he concluded: “That’s the cross we have to bear.” After I shared some sunscreen with him, we each continued on our separate journey.


As I approached Logroño, a middle-aged female pilgrim, sitting at an outdoor café, watched me hobbling into town and said: “It’s not much farther. You look like you’re not doing well.” My instant desire was to swear at her or say something like “Thanks, Einstein,” but I kept these sentiments in check. Then I chided myself for thinking such un-Camino-like thoughts. After all, this was a spiritual journey, supposedly offering a greater sense of altruism.


Horseshit. I was tired and cranky and didn’t need some stranger telling me what I already felt. Yes, while I walked the Camino, as in daily life, my shadow side never seemed too far below the surface. Although I did, indeed, experience many moments of bliss, contentment, and peaceful joy, their opposites, such as anger, self-centredness, and judgmental smugness, made frequent appearances.


Begrudgingly, as with the pains experienced on the pilgrimage, I have learned to live with these parts of myself, even when their presence seems to taint my concept of spiritual growth.


Carl Jung called the “shadow” the dark side of our personality: those more primitive traits that we’d rather have people not see, whether it’s lust, greed or envy. As someone who considers herself spiritual, I strive to let go of these unpleasant qualities, since they don’t fit my notion of compassion, understanding, and oneness.


Many times, I heard myself and others describe some pilgrim’s behaviour as not “Camino-like.” Yet, I wonder now what ideal we thought we were living up to and what right we had to judge someone else. Did this not enhance our own sense of self-righteousness?


At a global level, people have created a mythological aura around the Camino pilgrimage, reinforcing the notion that anyone who walks this route enters a shared force field of kindness, welcome warmth, and overall good vibes. I do believe that this is true, but it tells only part of the story.


We each bring our own inner shit into this mix. By walking the Camino, we don’t automatically become more evolved; our soul doesn’t gain brownie points for entering heaven or wherever else our eternal beingness might be destined. At a simple level, we each receive an opportunity, while walking The Way, to open ourselves up further and “see” ourselves in more all-encompassing terms than we might have previously.


The Camino provides a convenient backdrop for this, since it removes our usual distractions of work, money-making, and status markers and offers space, solitude, and relative silence to invite contemplation. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t achieve this deeper sense of self in a different setting, without meeting thousands of people from around the world. We can start the process anywhere, any time.


It begins with acceptance. Can we truly accept all of who we and others are, even when we feel ashamed of our not-so-pretty characteristics? I find such acceptance an ongoing challenge. I still prefer to align myself with my own notion of goodness.


Yet I am realizing how dishonest this stance can be. It projects an unreal image of perfection; as humans, we are all flawed. We can try to undo these faults and foibles, and appear more honed and “positive,” but we can never banish the undesirable aspects of ourselves. They remain with us. We can learn to transmute these “negative” aspects through ongoing self-awareness, whether it’s via meditation, yoga, or whatever method we choose. That way, these unwanted characteristics will gain less of a hold on us; we will no longer identify completely with them.


It’s like taking a star’s name off a marquee, and instead, making him or her only a bit player, film extra or walk-on cameo in our life. These gremlins of our personality don’t like to lose the limelight, but as long as we still acknowledge they are there—give them a movie credit, as it were—they will not interfere as much in our thoughts.


Therefore, walking the Camino or choosing a spiritual path is not about denying who we truly are. It’s about embracing all aspects of ourselves, even the pieces we like the least. It’s about allowing ourselves to be more of all we are.


Otherwise, we can lose ourselves in spiritual ideology that says we must think, act, and behave in a certain way to meet an ideal. Many spiritual thinkers demonize the ego, saying that it’s the façade that prevents our deepest Self from shining through. But to me, it’s a vital intermediary; like our shadow self, we can allow it to work either on our behalf, or against us. Life is much more complex than a simple duality: the angel on our one shoulder, the devil on the other.


We each choose how to view who we are and aren’t. Easy to say, not so easy to do. It’s a lifelong journey.

December 31, 2013 at 4:21 pm Comments (5)

Social media on the Camino: barrier or portal?

After hours of walking the Camino every day, I always felt grateful to arrive at a café or restaurant to rest and have a drink or snack. But too often, outdoor tables were full of people texting or talking on their cell phone. It seemed that for many pilgrims, finding a place with free Wifi was more important than food or drink.

Some pilgrims accessed the internet on their phone to find out the weather in the next main town along the route. While sitting at the table, they sometimes shared facts about this upcoming location, such as population, current temperature, and historical points of trivia, which they had just found online. Although I appreciated hearing more about certain places, this new knowledge also seemed to remove the mystery of the experience for me. There was no more joy of discovery—much had already been revealed.

pilgrim symbols low-res 985

Universal symbols require no technology or language to communicate their message.
At one roadside eatery, I enjoyed seeing the pilgrim icons
used to identify the respective washroom for men and women.

Others on the Camino used email to contact pilgrims they had met, to arrange where they would meet up or agree to stay that night. This seemed practical to me, but at the same time, it imposed planning on a process that I liked to keep more open-ended. Whether it’s on the Camino or in daily life, we all choose how much control we want to impose on what we do. We each find the balance that works for us. How much are we letting go and allowing life to come and meet us—making room for the Unknown—and how much are we trying to shape it ourselves ahead of time?

It jarred me to hear Spanish people talking on their phones as they walked. This occurred only a few times, thankfully, since the chatter of a voice ruined the serenity and silence of a moment. Yet, when I felt irritated by these occasional disruptions, I reminded myself: These people are not far from home. Their friends and loved ones are readily accessible. Why resent their desire to stay connected? Maybe I just needed to learn more tolerance.


After all, I was carrying an iPhone, which I used to send and receive emails and for taking photographs. How was my behaviour any different?

editing notice low-res 906

As an editor, I chuckled at these multi-language instructions in one Camino washroom, which included others’ attempts
to correct vocabulary and syntax.


Like most Camino pilgrims, I daily searched for outlets at albergues to recharge my iPhone. At one hostel, all were constantly in use, and I was unable to recharge it. The next day, I walked a whole morning without being able to take photos. It surprised me how unnerving this felt; I could not seem to let go of the sense that I was missing out on one-of-a-kind visual opportunities. I was more attached to my identity as a photographer than I thought.


Although I enjoy taking pictures, I recognized that to stop on the path, find a place to put down my poles, take off my gloves, dig my iPhone out of my zippered fanny pack, and take a picture—often when it was so bright that I could barely see more than a faint silhouette on the screen and didn’t even know if the image was in focus—I was disrupting the flow of my walking journey.


Holding up an iPhone to take a picture of someone or something creates a barrier to direct experience. I was stepping into the role of recorder, framing and capturing the image inside a tiny rectangle rather than observing it with my own eyes. I wanted the picture as a memory of the scene, yet I was removing myself from the event to do this. The immediate connection to a moment was gone.


John Brierley, author of the popular Camino guidebook that I used, recommends not bringing a camera on the pilgrimage. He writes: “[D]on’t forget that you can’t photograph an inner experience, so don’t set up a disappointment for yourself! . . . The camera . . .insulates the photographer from the reality of the experience.”


Strangely, I did not consider my writing process (jotting words in my notebook along the way) as the same form of separation from a moment. For me, this writing felt more like an extension of my inner thoughts, sometimes the result of an inner experience. Usually, I just wrote a few lines or a quick paragraph to jog my memory in the evening, when I would write in more detail in my journal. Yet while doing this, I was still stopping along the way and removing myself from those around me.


altered state low-res 175

Without pen, camera, phone or any other distraction,
I found nothing more exhilarating than directly experiencing
Oneness with Nature, as if an altered state.


Some Camino pilgrims bring along iPads and share their comments and photos as they go, either on email or on Facebook. I think that’s great to stay in such constant contact with people, but I chose not to do that. Consciously, I knew that I wanted to write about my experiences after my return, not en route. Before leaving, I told my husband that I would email him when I got a chance, but not to expect daily communication.


In that sense, I was creating separation. I realize now that my view of a spiritual journey, ultimately, is a solo one. While on the Camino, I sought out others with whom to share my spiritual self and related perceptions, appreciating that sense of community. But in a given moment, there was nothing more exhilarating than tapping directly into Nature’s energetic essence, stopping to feel this everpresent sense of Oneness. No technology is required for that at all — it only gets in the way.


December 20, 2013 at 6:32 pm Comments (3)

Find faith in liminal space

Chartres window exterior low-res 015

The rosette stained-glass window
on the front of Chartres Cathedral



Not surprisingly, on a pilgrimage route dedicated to a Catholic saint, I met quite a few practicing Catholics and Christians. In some ways, I envied the Catholics’ sense of faith; they seemed to have such a vast well to draw from, whether it was Latin liturgy, knowledge of saints, familiar rituals like genuflecting and crossing themselves, or reciting Biblical scripture. The outward signs of their religion seemed so accessible, like membership in a global fan club, yet I had not joined. Although I shared the same physical sacred space when entering a church, I could, and did not, relate to the inner sanctum in the same way at all.

In each church and cathedral, I gazed with historical respect at the array of crosses, some simple, some in ornate gold. I admired stained-glass windows, looked at tombs and statuary, and admired medieval stone work and paintings. I stood before a multitude of representations of Jesus alone, and with Mary, hoping that perhaps these images would reach me with some profound sense of otherworldly presence. I closed my eyes and tried to meditate. Nothing seemed to reach me.

I watched one forty-something Catholic priest, a lively fellow whom I had known for a few days, stand before one towering array of baroque gold over a cathedral altar. His eyes were closed, his hands clasped in prayer. He bore a serene smile. His body seemed to speak a quiet sense of supplication. I felt as if I was bearing witness to his heartfelt devotion. I knew how much his faith fuelled his life.

Chartres window interior low-res 018

The interior of Chartres Cathedral’s rosette window

Again, I recognized my envy. This array of overt symbols had reached him, touched him, held significant meaning for him; to me, they were little more than furniture. What was I missing?


I thought of the spiritual symbols and imagery that spoke to me in India and Nepal, and still do today: paintings and statues of Tara; the Om symbol; Buddha; various Hindu gods and goddesses. How are these any different than Christian iconography?


Where does my faith lie? I have faith in the gift of my husband’s unconditional love. I believe that a divine force or Source unites us all, an energy that defies codification and easy representation. However, this seems so vague and abstract compared to the solid, visual emblems of Christianity and Catholicism. Perhaps that’s why I start to doubt this Presence when life events are not unfolding as my ego believes they should. There is no formation of pews that I can join; I simply sit, close my eyes, and meditate.

church rosette pattern low-res 419

The ceiling rosette pattern that I admired so much


In one simple stone church, now empty and abandoned, Camino pilgrims had left dozens of handwritten notes folded on the remains of the altar. Part of me wanted to open a few and read them, yet I didn’t, feeling drawn to respect the privacy of their words. In this peaceful space, stripped of religious décor, I found this human act of leaving something highly personal behind—a prayer, a blessing, a plea?—more heart-tugging and enduring than the officially sanctioned art work of the cathedrals.


Inside the large cathedrals on the Camino, in cities like Leon, Burgos, and Santiago, I found myself most absorbed by the ceiling patterns, the rosette-styled designs with architectural arches that evoked the sense of a mandala. These curved circular forms felt like giant blossoms poised high above me, visual motifs that imitated star flowers or the centre of a rose. To me, in utter simplicity, these formations surpassed religion, serving as a silent yet universal reminder that all life is interconnected. They evoked awe and connection unlike anything I found in the traditional relics and figures.

Overall, the myriad forms of religious representations on the Camino left me thinking about the concept of faith. How, and why, do designated buildings, with their crosses, tombs, stained-glass windows, and statuary, symbolize religion and faith? Is it the gathering of people within the space that reinforces this notion, or the shared rituals that have occurred inside them for centuries?

And why do humans have to complicate and name everything, when Mother Nature, in her blousy sky and forested skirts, can evoke more than enough wonder on her own?

Walking the landscapes of The Way forms an all-embracing cathedral in itself. Rather than tucking inside cloisters, removed from the elements, a pilgrim enters blessed space amidst muck, rain, wind, thirst, fields, forests, rivers, and creeks.

simple church low-res 334

The abandoned church that bore the altar full of pilgrims’ notes

notes on altar low-res 332

The altar full of notes

close-up of notes low-res 331

A close-up of the messages

I like the notion of liminal space, which comes from the Latin word limens, meaning “threshold.” Religion can create faith as a fixed entity, something concrete and named, one supreme answer, usually under the word “God.” I prefer the term “spirituality,” which is more unformed, an eclectic grab-bag of beliefs and interpretations. I mix a large portion of Taoism with some Tibetan Buddhism, pantheism, and the Divine Feminine.

church and shadow low-res 370



Ultimately, these terms all point to the same    thing: divine love and compassion, held within liminal space. This refers to those in-between places of transition, when we wait for the new to appear after we have let go of the old and familiar. Such ambiguous times, rife with the Unknown, can hold the greatest anxiety and produce tremendous doubt. Yet, we continue walking forward, resting in the moment, often amazed at what unfolds before us, guided by faith in whatever form it appears to us.

, , ,
December 13, 2013 at 4:26 pm Comments (2)

Wonder and stillness on the Camino: where’s your entry point?

Leaving at 6:30 a.m. from Santa Catalina, walking alone in quiet, I saw the sun lift into a sky of muted pink. The peaceful simplicity of this natural start to a day embraced me as I walked, surrounded by rolling, thick rows of heather. These radiant mounds of purple and white, next to yellow bushes of broom, were as tall as me. I had never seen heather grow so high; their presence brought wonder to my journey.

heather in the hills low-res 814

Some of the multi-coloured heather in the mountains of the Camino pilgrimage.

It was June 21, my twenty-fifth day on the Camino — only nine more days until my destination of Santiago.

While walking in a lively wind under overcast skies, I allowed the gusts to nudge me along, through the glorious array of mountains and brash colour. Swallowed into nature, I let myself wallow in the luxury of solitude and boundless beauty. A phrase came to me: “This is the gift.”

All day, I walked on footpaths, seeing few people amidst scrub and conifers, feeling energized by the cold, clouds and wind. I passed dozens of wind farms on distant hilltops, an audience of skinny figures both still and moving. 

Later, the steep descent down to Acebo, full of a lot of loose shale and stones, demanded my concentration and slower movement. My ankles and the bottoms of my feet were aching. I took an ibuprofen. For a considerable time, I heard the constant squeal of a cyclist’s brakes as he went down the same route.

uneven terrain low-res 908

One of the many examples of uneven terrain, with loose stones, along the Camino

At least three times, with no one else around, I stopped to rest my feet, express gratitude, and drop more fully into the landscape. At these times of stillness, I felt as if the fields of dried grass heads, waving in the wind, were linked to me in one energetic flow. It seemed as if they were the sole motion that mattered.

The next day, I wrote in my journal: “One awareness that came to me yesterday was that it’s all there in life and nature — it’s just up to me to stop, find the stillness, and connect to the peace that is everpresent. This is not an earth-shattering awareness and it’s not as if I didn’t know that before, but I feel as if I got it at a visceral level. It came to me in such simple clarity. It is always there. It is up to me to decide to tap into it or not. I create any state of ‘not peace.’”

Rather than through walking, my usual gateway to this felt sense of oneness has been through the stillness of seated meditation. With eyes closed, focused on my breath, I don’t have the distraction of my moving body. At such times, my mind seems more willing to slow down, even if it’s only briefly. Author and Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg says of this form of meditation: “The great ground of being opens up and holds us. Sitting still joins us to that true marriage.”

EL CAMINO stone seat low-res 965

This stone seat along the path invited pilgrims to stop
and find rest and stillness on their journey.

At times, I wondered if my mostly constant movement on the Camino worked against me in finding this sense of stillness. I thought that a meditation retreat, with prolonged periods of sitting in one place, would probably allow me greater and more frequent access to Presence or Source than a destination-based pilgrimage. But perhaps that’s just another illusion of the mind, yet another form of creating separateness, rather than connectedness.

While on the Camino, I noticed that I resisted doing sitting meditation. Even now, I don’t meditate regularly. Decades ago, while in India for many months, I often meditated twice daily for an hour at a time. Since I was there for seven months, I more easily let go of my sense of time. While on the Camino, I was keeping to a schedule and convinced myself that I didn’t have time to meditate, except for brief periods.

A willingness to let go of something, whether it’s a deadline, an identity, possessions, money, goals, status or needing approval, creates an entry point to Presence and Source. That’s one reason why I think so many people are drawn to the Camino: they recognize, either consciously or unconsciously, that it offers a way to let go of their daily accepted identity markers, to leave their regular life behind. Through walking its path, we can let go into the Unknown, finding stillness in motion, joining nature as one, unified force.

photo massager low-res 967

— Elke Wehinger photo
I’m at bliss in one albergue, enjoying a coin-operated foot-and-calf massager.

In childhood, my entry points to the Great Connection were art, creativity, writing, and spending time on the Lake Ontario waterfront, although I certainly didn’t view them that way then. In adulthood, I’ve added yoga, meditation (I’ve tried the open-eye method of Shambhala Training and the more traditional closed-eye ways), walking meditation, and SoulCollage®.

We can all find our own paths inward, whether it’s while cleaning a toilet or sitting with someone who’s dying. For a British climber I was involved with in India, ascending rock faces, ice walls, and the world’s tallest peaks were his spiritual entry point. Combining intense focus and connection with rock, ice or snow, within vast, panoramic spaces, brought him in intimate touch with a force greater than himself.

If we are willing to move beyond our own limited self and step into all-embracing Self, we can honour a moment no matter where we are. We don’t need to walk the Camino to experience this; it begins with simple awareness, appreciation, some form of stillness, and one, conscious breath.

, , , ,
December 8, 2013 at 4:06 pm Comments (2)

Fear and worry on The Way: All part of mindfulness?

A sign and I low-res 1019

Only 50 kilometres left to go . . .

Before starting the Camino, I was worried that my ankles and knees wouldn’t be able to sustain me for the duration of the 800-kilometre walk. I had had arthroscopic surgery in my right knee, along with torn ligaments in my right ankle, which I had also sprained. Would I be willing to accept “failure” if I was unable to complete the walk? What if I injured myself irreparably?

For the first few days on the Camino path, walking in rain and mud, my right knee made a clicking sound that I had never heard before. Uh oh, that’s not good, I thought. If my body is already reacting this way so early in the journey, how on earth will I complete the pilgrimage? Luckily, the noise in my knee soon stopped. My body must have adjusted to its load. I was carrying only 15 to 20 pounds in my backpack; in earlier decades, on hiking and trekking trips, I had carried at least double that. But how would my middle-aged physique stand up to this?

scene low-res 736

Like many people on the Camino, I wore a knee stabilizer on my right knee. At times, that knee and lower leg felt numb or half-asleep. At first, I worried that if I wore the stabilizer for too many consecutive hours, it might cut off my circulation and cause a blood clot. But I ended up wearing it all day, every day, on the Camino, without a problem.

For the first two days on the pilgrimage, my quadriceps ached and my feet felt as if I had walked barefoot for hours on small stones. But these symptoms disappeared.

Many times, during that first week of walking, I thought of one-legged Sarah Doherty of Roberts Creek, who completed the Camino using crutches. When sliding through mud on steep terrain, I asked myself: How did she do it? A trained athlete, she undoubtedly had enough strength, endurance and optimism to continue.

stone wall low-res 202

Each day, as I walked the route, I realized that none of the things that I had feared or worried about had come true. On June 5, my ninth day on the Camino, in response to my own question “What have I learned in this first week?” I wrote: “My knee is stronger than I think”; “I can rely on my body to get me where I need to go”; “I can still walk the El Camino when I have blisters and heat rash.”

Yet my mind seemed to seek out new worries: Would I be able to make it for several days on the plains of the Meseta, with little shade, under relentless sun? For this portion of the pilgrimage, to ease the challenges, should I pay to have my pack transported ahead? In the end, a cool breeze accompanied the heat as I walked that region, and there were more shade trees than I had expected. On one day, it was overcast. I carried my backpack the entire time.

When consulting my quick-reference map, I remember how daunting all of the unwalked days ahead looked. My guidebook had divided the journey into 31 panels of mini-maps, three per vertical column. Each map panel represented a day’s walk, from the shortest distance at 18.6 kilometres, from Mansilla to León, to the longest, at 31.2 kilometres, from Mazarife to Astorga. When I folded out the map panels and looked at them all as one unit— eight panels of 24 days on one side, and nine remaining days on the flip side—I remember thinking: “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this.”  

Yet, as the pilgrimage progressed, I realized that I was conquering all of those squares of unknown terrain. Flipping over the pullout map page to the final nine-day section felt like triumph. I was overcoming the distance and my own fears.

My worrying and “what ifs” were, and are, part of what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh might call “busy mind” or “monkey mind.” My focus on the future, worrying about what might lie ahead, prevented me from truly being present in the moment. If I chose to view the Camino as a struggle and attached to that thought, that’s what it would become.

man on wall art low-res 174

To produce true presence in the here and now, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends returning to the mind and body through mindful breathing and walking. As I’ve learned in hatha yoga, it is common to use shallow breaths, ones that barely engage our body from the belly. When breathing deeply, from our belly, we fill more of ourselves with air — we take in more life, as it were.

While walking the Camino, I did focus on my breathing at times, especially when going uphill. Sometimes I seemed to shift to belly breathing without even realizing it, which gave me extra oomph, like a turbo-drive motor, on steep ascents. But too often, I was more caught up in what lay ahead and when on earth I was going to make it to the next town to eat, drink or rest. My perceived survival needs trumped my spiritual ones.

When I tried to walk as a form of contemplative meditation, I found this easier to do when no other people were around. Mindful walking meant that I gave full sensory attention to my surroundings, breathing in the smell of sage, listening to a cuckoo, staying present with how my feet and boots touched the earth, and admiring flowers, birds, and landscapes.

Mindful walking did not mean that my fears or worries disappeared, only that they just flitted through and I could let them go, rather than harbor them as nagging reminders. The process of walking the Camino became an extended, expanded version of my daily life: a mental dance between fear and trust.

December 2, 2013 at 10:35 am Comments (4)