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)