Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

A pebble in the sea: My Camino pilgrimage completes a circle

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A portrait of my pebble
before it enters the Atlantic Ocean



I threw my pebble into the Atlantic Ocean at sunset, by the lighthouse outside Finisterre, a fishing village on Spain’s northwest coast. It was late June, more than a month after I had picked up the small, speckled pebble on Roberts Creek Beach back home on Canada’s west coast. This tiny memento had come from the Pacific Ocean, and now it was returning to a colder, faraway sea.


I had carried it with me for my entire Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, to this coastal spot about 90 kilometres northeast of Santiago. Along the route, at different times, I had reached places where I could have left it: at rock cairns, where pilgrims had piled small stones, and at Cruz de Fer (Iron Cross), the highest spot on The Way. This giant cross stood on a mound of stones left by pilgrims, mostly in memory of a loved one or as a personal gesture, as if to say: “Look, I’ve done it.”


It never felt right to me to leave my pebble in any of these places. Along The Way, I pondered what this small grey-and-white stone symbolized for me. My father had died almost three years earlier, yet it did not represent a memory of him. Nor did I think of it as something to honour my elderly hiking friend Peter Jolly, who had died just over two years before. Throughout the Camino, I had thought of both of them, and their essence had stayed with me as I walked. I did not need a pebble to commemorate that.

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The lighthouse at Finisterre on Spain’s northwest coast

No, this wee weight, kept inside the zippered pouch of my fanny pack, in a corner next to my crush of coins, represented some element of home to me, my beingness, my minute place in the interconnectedness of life. When I threw it past the tall boulders below the lighthouse into the smooth sea, it felt as if I was completing a circle of sorts, symbolically joining two bodies of water. I was sending the pebble home. Although this transfer spanned thousands of kilometres separated by land, the pebble was going back to part of the same salty waters that had shaped it.


Before it had landed on Roberts Creek Beach, from where had it begun? How big and how old had it been?


“When you drop a pebble in the water, there are ever-widening circles of ripples,” writes Robert Anderson in the play and movie Tea and Sympathy. “There are always consequences.” Indeed there are. During the walk, I had met hundreds of people from around the globe. With many, I felt camaraderie, closeness or gratitude. With others, I grew frustrated, impatient or irritated. Each encounter could elicit a different response, depending on my mood, tiredness, hunger, pain or desire for silence or solitude.

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I’m at the 0 kilometre marker by the Finisterre lighthouse on a windy June evening. Once in Santiago, many medieval and modern pilgrims choose to continue their walk to Finisterre.
Due to time constraints, I took the bus.


Yet like the connection of land and seas, we pilgrims were all a community, all travelling to the same place, all nudging each other along in some way, like pebbles in a stream. In the vast waters of life, we all tumble and flow. Within this broader journey, what are we going to do with our beingness, our pebble of personhood?


After Finisterre, I was going home. The Camino was over for me, yet I would carry this experience of a shared community, a sea of souls, with me, like a pebble in my pocket. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that people can carry a beautiful pebble, carefully washed, in their pocket. Every time they put their hand in their pocket, they touch the pebble and hold it gently. They can use it as a reminder to focus on their breathing, with awareness.

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Fishing boats in Finisterre

When someone is angry, the pebble becomes the person’s dharma or Buddhist teaching: while holding it, calmly breathe in and out, and smile. Hanh admits that this might sound childish, but he acknowledges the value of this practice. Holding the pebble brings you back to yourself. It is a tool to create mindfulness.


We can think of the pebble as a rosary or prayer bead; it reminds us that our teacher is always with and within us. The pebble allows love to be born inside us, Hanh says. It helps us to keep that love, and our version of enlightenment, alive.

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Finisterre at dusk

On the Camino, I did not use my pebble with such conscious awareness. Perhaps it offered teachings that I was not yet ready to receive. Regardless, I have let it go, and now I can begin learning again. I can make every day my Camino pilgrimage.


This ends the Camino-related story on my blog. I have written 34 posts, one to commemorate each day that I spent on the pilgrimage route. However, I plan to augment this content into a book. If there are any particular aspects of what I wrote that you would like me to expand on, please let me know.


I’ll return to my regular blog content after a brief break.   

June 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm Comments (2)

One year after walking the Camino: What gifts remain?

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Stones left by pilgrims on the Camino transform a simple rock into an impromptu cairn.

Exactly one year after starting the Camino pilgrimage alone, I was curious to read my journal responses to a questionnaire about the journey. In a Pamplona hotel room on May 27, 2013, I had filled out a self-assessment in John Brierley’s guidebook Camino de Santiago. Since then, I haven’t looked at my responses.

I certainly remember my fears before starting the Camino. One was of wild dogs. In her book about walking the Camino, Shirley MacLaine describes roving gangs of wild dogs that attacked pilgrims. She had to fight them off with her walking stick.

That threatening image stayed with me for more than a decade. It was likely heightened by my memory of watching the movie The Hound of the Baskervilles as a child. In this Sherlock Holmes tale, a deadly dog, supposedly otherworldly, attacks and kills people.

As an adult, even while attending a day-long series of presentations by people who had walked the Camino, I asked one of them if he had had any confrontations with dogs. He had, but it was with one that was chained. He reassured me that most dogs along The Way just barked and almost all were tied up. He didn’t encounter any wild ones.

“Worry is a prayer for what you don’t want,” wrote one pilgrim in an albergue book. I copied this phrase, mentioned in my guidebook, in my journal. On that day in Pamplona, a year ago, I also wrote: “This trip is ultimately going to be about my ATTITUDE . . . My biggest challenge on the El Camino will be not succumbing to negativity and pessimism. That is my tendency when things are not going well.”

Like life itself, the Camino is a journey of the mind, body, and spirit. Fear can play an overwhelming role or just a bit part. Besides initial concerns about theft along the route, I feared that my joints, a previously injured knee and ankle, would give out. In retrospect, none of my fears proved true. What lesson can I learn from this? Fear can be a cautioning ally or a terrorizing tyrant: the choice is mine.

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The Camino bears many forms of crossing a threshold,
such as walking under bridges like this one.

In response to the question “How do you differentiate pilgrimage from a long-distance walk?” I wrote: “A pilgrimage has an intention of inner searching and divine connection, deepening one’s relationship with one’s divine essence . . . A long-distance walk can become a solo pilgrimage, but doesn’t have the same collective archetypal significance. A pilgrimage is more about how the journey is made rather than the destination itself.”

In reply to the question “What do you see as the primary purpose of your life?” I wrote the following: “to live from my truest, deepest Self, by opening to as much self-love and acceptance as possible, and sharing this with others through love and compassion [now I would add “kindness.”]. I added “using words and imagery through writing, editing and teaching to help others and inspire them on their own spiritual journey.”

I liked that for each day of walking the Camino, Brierley, author of my guidebook, addressed both what he called “the practical path” and “the mystical path.” Under the latter heading, he always included some inspirational story or prompt to consider a deeper intention or more soulful perspective to mundane events. This blending of grace and grit, so to speak, was a perfect metaphor for The Way and again, for life itself.

Yet I still struggle to integrate the often-conflicting desires of my head and heart. My ego seeks validation, recognition or status (separateness or individuation) while my heart or soulful Self searches to reconnect with peace, joy and contentment (oneness or interconnectedness). Walking the Camino confronted me with those choices on a daily basis: tap into the innate energetic stillness of nature, of which I am a part, or strive ahead with worry and concern about how, when or where to reach the next destination.

As part of his self-assessment questionnaire or what he calls “inner waymarks,” Brierley asks: “How will you recognize resistance to any changes that might be necessary?” I wrote: “Fear and worry are my resistance . . .when my motivation might be to prove my worth to myself and others, rather than coming from a deeper place. When I am motivated by a desire for SECURITY and SAFETY, rather than risk and testing the Unknown. SELF-DOUBT and NEGATIVITY.”

When I review my list of factors in response to “What appears to be blocking any change from happening?” it seems like a familiar litany: impatience; self-doubt; lack of trust and faith; sense of unworthiness; difficulty in letting things unfold; desire for control, and so on. Yet I recognize that I sit in the director’s chair for the movie of my life. Each of these qualities, like characters, can play a lead role or not be in the cast at all. The choice is up to me.

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Elke and Pam of Langley, BC were among those
I created heartfelt friendships with along The Camino.

One year after walking the Camino, it is still tough for me to embrace the journey itself rather than the destination or goal. Yet I continue to learn to let go more easily and to trust the Unknown, especially as I continue in the path of self-employment. I am still a work-in-progress and always will be.

How did completing the 800-kilometre route change me? It allowed me to overcome fears; to rediscover and reinforce the power of resilience and perseverance; to open to new and lasting friendships; to strengthen a sense of innate Oneness; and discover the joy and satisfaction of fulfilling a life’s dream. That’s more than enough for now.

May 28, 2014 at 8:22 am Comment (1)

A general strike on the Camino: Where does inner awareness fit in a recession?

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While walking the Camino, it was difficult to ignore the impact of Spain’s severe recession. By the time I arrived in late May 2013, the nation had already suffered two consecutive years of economic decline. Unemployment stood at more than 23 per cent, based on Bloomberg data.


On May 30, the day I arrived in Pamplona, thousands of protesters were marching through the streets as part of a city-wide general strike. Flyers for “huelga generale” littered the cobblestones. (Trying to find my hotel, I ended up asking directions from a firefighter, who was using a hose to put out flames in a dumpster.) More than a dozen unions, both public- and private-sector, had called for the strike to protest government cuts and corruption and rising taxes.


In major centres such as Pamplona, the main squares such as the popular Plaza del Castillo were almost deserted in late May. Outdoor patios and drinking establishments sat empty. In most places where I had a snack or wine, people in work clothes would gather for a drink but never stayed for dinner. I assumed that eating out was too expensive for most citizens.

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An empty café patio in Plaza del Castillo in Pamplona

Even in the large plazas of Santiago de Compostela, a city of about 96,000 and the final destination for Camino pilgrims, only small clumps of travellers appeared. In tourist shops in that city, I usually saw no customers or perhaps only one or two.

When I arrived in Santiago, a shopkeeper told me that the city’s small businesses were supposed to be closed that day as part of a strike, but he had opted to remain open. I sensed he was desperate for sales.

In several places along the Camino route, I passed new yet abandoned subdivisions of multi-storey condos, eerie in their emptiness. In most places, other than city centres, I could walk for a day and see no more than two cars pass by on a highway. This, too, felt strange: movement defined my journey in Spain, yet the nation’s roads seemed to stand still.


Owning a car appeared out of reach for too many people in Spain. While I was there, gas consumption had dropped 14 per cent from the previous year, according to Bloomberg. The price of unleaded gas—about 1.45 euros or $2.20 Cdn a litre (about $7 U.S. dollars a gallon)—made it unaffordable for most people. Officially, Spain’s gas unaffordability was 8.48 per cent; that meant, according to Bloomberg, that citizens would have to pay 8.5 per cent of their daily wages to buy the equivalent of a U.S. gallon of gas.


On my next-to-last day in Spain, a middle-aged taxi driver who took me from the bus station in A Coruña to my hotel seemed desperate to get an additional fare, my drive to the airport at 4 a.m. the following morning. I felt glad to oblige.


At the handful of guest houses where I stayed, none were fully occupied, even when they mostly had only two or three rooms.

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The deserted rose garden at my hotel in Oleiros

On my final night in Spain, I treated myself to a marvelous hotel in Oleiros, in the hills overlooking A Coruña. I was the only person staying at this four-star place, with a maze of lemon trees, sumptuous landscaping, a rose garden, a recreation facility and indoor/outdoor restaurant with a glorious view and excellent food. I thought: How can this place even afford to stay open?


As a foreign visitor on the Camino, I tried to reconcile my spiritual journey with the day-to-day lives of residents in Spain. In the smallest villages, it was clear that their survival was tied directly to the daily business they gained from Camino pilgrims.

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My dinner of fresh scallops while the only patron
at an Oleiros hotel restaurant


I wondered: Did Spanish youth, facing an unemployment rate of 56.1 per cent (as of August 2013), resent pilgrims like me, visiting from around the world, who had the relative luxury of time and money to take such a trip? Or were they grateful for our business?


I sensed that it was the latter. At no time on the Camino did I ever experience a Spaniard expressing resentment or animosity towards me as a tourist. This contrasts to sneers and contempt I’ve received in places from Asia and Latin America, even while travelling within Canada and the U.S.



Some of this is due, in part, to the historical tradition of pilgrimage within Spain and respect for the physical challenges and sacred significance of a Camino journey.


Yet, although acknowledging these outward signs of Spain’s serious recession and high unemployment, I found myself wanting to keep them at the periphery of my travel experience. It was as if I was afraid they might serve as a blight on my psyche, an influence that could mar my sense of what a path of spiritual discovery is meant to look and feel like.


Seeing the pro-Basque graffiti that promoted separatism from Spain reminded me of equivalent sentiments in Quebec against nationalism in Canada.

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Some pro-Basque separatist sentiment
appears as graffiti on the Camino.


The idealist in me wants to believe that we can all live in peace and harmony, finding salvation through heightened inner awareness. Spain’s external signs of struggle, unrest, and discontent marred that vision. Therefore, I observed them as intrusive blips, not giving them much attention or exploration. I told myself: I’m on holiday, after all; I’m not here as a protester, advocate or activist.


I might as well have said: “I’m on an inner journey towards peace, goddammit. I don’t want to hear about your problems. I have enough of my own.” What, then, is my ultimate view of a spiritual journey? Why did I mentally separate myself from elements that appeared undesirable?


In retrospect, I realize that for me, ideally, a whole-hearted spirituality needs to encompass all aspects of reality, whether they’re viewed as pleasurable, disruptive or negative. That process starts within me; rather than push away parts of me that I don’t like, it is important to embrace and recognize the value in all aspects of myself. Whether in the spiritual or political realm, this is a perspective of oneness, rather than separateness.


Otherwise, as Vivian King says in Soul Play, those parts of me that I try to distance myself from, whether they are fear, envy or self-criticism, start trying to gain my attention like unaccomplished actors in the inner theatre of my life. They want to be recognized and valued or else they’ll stomp onstage in the middle of a so-called production and try and grab the spotlight like applause-hungry prima donnas. I need to ask: What message do they want to give me? What can I learn from them? How can they help me?


The government of Spain, not to mention Stephen Harper’s in Canada, might well adopt such an all-inclusive approach to its citizens. When people’s needs and discontent remain unanswered, they will rebel, protest, and demand attention until their voice is heard and some requested changes occur.


Spain had deep troubles while I was there. As part of my spiritual quest, I wish that I could have been more open to its plight, containing that more fully within my heart as part of my Camino walk.

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May 2, 2014 at 2:35 pm Comments (3)

Time on the Camino: spiritual solace or a tough taskmaster?

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Stopping to smell and admire flowers and nature along the Camino
was an easy way to experience a sense of timelessness.

I have always paid great attention to time. I hate being late. Most of my work life revolves around deadlines. I frequently check the time on my watch or computer to orient myself to appointments, and feel surprisingly naked and vulnerable when not wearing a watch. In grade seven, I even wrote a speech about the nature of time.


Therefore, it was disorienting when, in just over a month, I went through three watches while walking on the Camino.

First, my cheap Timex stopped working and the strap came off; I lost the tiny metal pin that attached to the wristband. Then, I lost the square face of an expensive, artsy German watch I bought in Chartres; only the wide, expandable wrist band was left.


I told myself this was a sign to let go of my attachment to time. I’m too caught up in it. Deepak Chopra calls this “time-based thinking”; he says it’s the domain of the ego. In contrast, spirit is timeless. It exists beyond our sense of linear time.


I tried to convince myself that I didn’t need a watch; I could check the time on my cell phone or ask others. But my ego won out. After about three weeks of walking, I bought a whimsical, brightly coloured watch in Léon for 16 euros; it had a cute image of a cartoon dog flying in a plane. I admit: I felt attached to it. By the next day, it had come off my wrist and was gone.


I told Elke, one of my walking companions during my final week on the Camino, about my watch issues. The next day, her watch stopped working. Jokingly, she blamed me.

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With blisters, a sore knee, and fatigue, my then-54-year-old body certainly didn’t feel ageless on the Camino.


I remembered reading Chopra’s Ageless Body, Timeless Mind years ago, in which he reinforced that our attitudes and perceptions help create our level of consciousness. This, in turn, affects the level of stress or tension in our bodies; it reinforces the mind-body-spirit connection. How we react to time becomes part of that equation; are we stuck in the past, worrying about the future, rushing to catch up to people and events—pushing the river, so to speak—or letting go and allowing things to unfold organically?


I have definitely been a push-the-river type. Learning to let go has been a challenging lesson for me in the last few decades; it’s why I made “Let go and go with the flow” the unspoken message of my children’s book Gracie’s Got a Secret.


My mind felt timeless when I lost myself in the surroundings, in solitude, and experienced a deep connectedness with all around me. But more often, I was wondering: How much time to the next town? How much longer can I walk? I made time a taskmaster: it’s what prompted me to leave early in the morning to increase the likelihood of finding a hostel bed at night.


I was following a plan with a determined destination, dividing my days into kilometres and hours. What a contrast to my extended time of solo meditation and spiritual exploration in India. With no schedule in that country, it didn’t matter to me what day of the week it was.


That’s why learning to recompartmentalize my sense of time, upon my return to Canada from India, was one of my biggest adjustments. I had rarely thought beyond a day at a time.

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Timelessness is ever-present if we can shift perceptions from ego to spirit.

On the Camino, having to stick to my predetermined arrival date in Santiago felt oppressive at times; my return flight was already booked. This didn’t allow for diversions or the spontaneous desire to stay extra days in a certain place.


I appreciated the leisurely options of retired Europeans who lived so close to home and booked their return train or plane passage based on when they felt ready to go back. Time seemed to be able to expand for them; it didn’t have the same urgency that it seemed to have for me.


If I walk the Camino again, I will choose only a portion of the route and stay longer in some places, giving myself more time to explore and relax without a schedule.

April 14, 2014 at 12:10 pm Comments (4)

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.

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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?

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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.


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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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The altar full of notes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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— 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.

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

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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)

Surprises on the Camino: Little miracles are waiting everywhere

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One of countless poppies seen in fields as masses of red on the Camino

Before going to sleep in the evening at a nunnery-run albergue in Santa Domingo, I grabbed a heavy wool blanket from two stacks of them in a tall wooden cupboard. It stood next to my lower bunk bed, one of about a dozen in the room.

For two weeks, many mornings had been brisk on the Camino; I could see my breath when leaving in the early morning. This was an uncharacteristically cold summer in Spain; some said it was the worst in thirty years, colder than the previous winter. My thin nylon sleeping bag, chosen to cut down on carrying weight, did not provide enough warmth; I was always grateful to use the blanket provided by the hostels.

It was June 8, day 13 of my pilgrimage. Some people in the dark room were up at about 5:30 a.m., using their headlamps to pack up their belongings. Not long after, I got up and began to fold my blanket in preparation for leaving.

Three or four Spanish coins flew out of the blanket and onto the floor. Where did they come from? I knew they weren’t mine; I was always careful to keep my change in a zipped compartment in my fanny pack. Had they fallen down from the pilgrim sleeping on the bunk above? Unlikely, since the beds were tight against the wall, without space for anything to slip through.

This unexpected discovery made me smile. I wondered if one of the nuns had tucked them into the folds of the blanket as a sweet surprise. It made me think of the phrase “manna from heaven.”

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Thousands of picturesque doorways appear
in Spanish villages along the pilgrimage.

The next day, at an albergue in Belorado, the same thing happened: I was folding my blanket and a few coins flopped out onto the floor. I checked my zippered fanny pack; there was no way that anything escaped from my wallet. I told the young Swiss-German hospitalero about it, but he shrugged it off and seemed surprised. Was this some random act of kindness that albergues practiced as a secret tradition?

I told a pilgrim buddy Eddie about my coin surprises. A writer from Ireland, he had walked the Camino numerous times and had not heard of anyone experiencing this. For me, it happened on only these two days, in roughly the middle of my walking along The Way. This repeated event intrigued me.

The following day, in an albergue run by monks in Carrión, I awoke in the early morning and heard a loud male voice utter a stream of words. All I could make out was something like “Vaia con Dios” (Go with God). Everyone else in the room had seemed asleep.

I assumed that this was the monks’ wake-up call, yet when I later checked my watch, it was only 4:30 a.m. It would have been about 3 a.m. when I heard that voice. That was too early for a wake-up call. Was it some spiritually minded drunk who had decided to appear outside the window and provide an odd blessing?

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In a small village, this Spanish couple in their 80s were harvesting their garden produce.

In the morning, I asked others if they had heard anything, but they said no. Did I dream that? I don’t think so. I can’t explain it. Perhaps it was the ramblings of a wayward monk.

Whatever the source, I took the message as a nudge to loosen the hold on my ego and trust my spiritual Self more consistently. As for the coins, I thought: “Gee, money comes to me even when I’m not looking for it.” I needed this reminder.

Upon my return to Canada, a number of people asked me if walking the Camino had changed my life. They wanted to know some highlights. I found these questions difficult to answer. Rather than several outstanding events, the walk to me was a long series of small, but poignant or meaningful surprises, which came in many forms, from these unexplained moments with the coins and voice or a sudden realization in conversation to the appearance of a nurturing companion at the “perfect” time or a powerful encounter with nature or wildlife.

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The U.S. pilgrim Michael Como, with whom I shared a memorable day on the Roman Road while seeing only two other pilgrims, shared the words of St. Augustine: “Life is a series of little miracles.” That’s how I like to think of my Camino experiences. Tiny miracles are waiting for us everywhere, if we’re open to them.

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November 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm Comments (2)

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