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El Camino: Trust your inner yellow arrow

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I’m a country pilgrim, content in shade

“Spirituality is living from an authentic inner self that exists beyond ego identity and materialist reality. It means following one’s spirit into the Unknown and risking loss of perceived security and safety. It means connecting to a vast, divine essence that can provide deep guidance and fulfillment.”

 

Simply put, spirituality involves letting go of fear. I wrote the three sentences above in response to a list of self-assessment questions or “inner waymarks” in The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. This guidebook by John Brierley, used by almost every native English-speaking person on The Way—includes prompts such as “What do you see as the primary purpose of your life?” and “How will I recognize the right help or correct answer?” (Brierley, a former oil executive and Dubliner, realigned his priorities towards inner growth after a pivotal visit to Scotland’s Findhorn community in 1987.)

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Hotel Eslava in Pamplona, Spain

I wrote these answers on day five of the Camino Frances, while resting at Hotel Eslava in Pamplona, Spain. In response to the question “How will I recognize resistance to any changes that might be necessary?” I wrote “Fear and worry are my resistance . . . [along with] self-doubt and negativity.”

 

Trusting myself and others has been a lifelong challenge. On the issue of “confidence to follow my intuitive sense of the right direction,” I gave myself 7 out of 10. This did not refer to geography but life direction—when would I know that I was choosing a path that reflected an authentic self, rather than one motivated by a need for recognition?

 

As part of this 800-kilometre walk, I was determined to open myself up to greater trust. Unlike some pilgrims, who called ahead to reserve at hostels or hotels or read about all the albergues in each town, I decided to trust that I would find what I needed when I needed it. Whenever it felt right or my body was too exhausted to continue, I would stop. Each day, I didn’t read my guidebook or look at its maps too thoroughly because I wanted to stay open to spontaneous discovery.

 

That process worked. Only once in my 34-day journey was one of the albergues I had ended up at full. Every day, starting on the path by about 7:30 a.m. helped ensure that I would arrive at most places by early afternoon, when beds were still available at hostels.

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Camino’s ubiquitous yellow arrows
provide comforting reassurance

 

Four days before arriving in Santiago, I came to a crossroads on a country path between Mercadoiro and Portos. A large rock had a yellow arrow pointing in a different direction than what my intuition told me to follow. I wanted to keep going on the wide dusty path that I was already on; it seemed like a natural continuation. But that yellow arrow, part of the directional system of the entire Camino route, had never led me astray.

 

My cynical mind wondered: Did some prankster move the rock so that the arrow pointed in the wrong direction? I chided myself for such thoughts. This was the Camino, after all, a space that promotes a spirit of sharing and truthfulness. After two other solo pilgrims arrived, both middle-aged men, and chose to obey the arrow, I decided to follow them.

 

For about an hour, the three of us walked down a path with no way markers or yellow arrows visible. Finally, we realized that this was not the right direction and had to retrace our steps. I felt irritated at this “wasted” time. I had put more faith in others’ choices and made the yellow arrow an external authority over my own intuition. That arrow had never been wrong before. What could I learn from this? Maria Theresa, a pilgrim from Colorado whom I met repeatedly along the route, said: “We need to learn to follow our inner yellow arrow.”

 

Ironically, the only other time that I got lost and wandered off the Camino was later that afternoon.  Alone, I found myself in a field of tall, dried grass, descending a long, steep cow path barely wide enough for my feet. I had no desire to go back up. Continuing downwards, I trusted that it would connect with the highway, which I could see below me. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to cross one of the electric fences I had seen or jump down to reach the road. Thankfully, the pathway led right down to the highway. After consulting my guidebook map, I cut through the closest town and managed to return to the Camino route, feeling proud of my ability to get back on track.

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This narrow path (left, foreground) led me safely back to the highway

By this time, I had walked the Camino for a month. For six of those days, I shared the path with a married, middle-aged German businessman who walks portions of the Camino every few years as a nurturing solo holiday. A lovely man, he expressed an attraction towards me but I had no interest in any connection beyond friendship. At times, he said that I seemed fearful; I worried that he would say or do something inappropriate. Would I have to fend him off? After we discussed my desire for openness and trust, he assured me that he would not do anything to hurt me. After suffering assaults on previous travels, I deeply appreciated his conviction. With that bond of trust, we have stayed friends and continue to email each other as supportive friends.

See Camino Guides for more information about John Brierley’s multiple guidebooks.

NEXT WEEK: Feet and the Camino

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August 2, 2013 at 9:45 am
6 comments »
  • August 3, 2013 at 9:08 pmMary Lou Renz

    Heather, thanks for writing this personal travel log of your spiritual journey in Spain. You write beautifully and sparingly which is a gift and hard work. The metaphor of the yellow arrow, I will use it to remind me on my journey as well. Continue on! Mary Lou

  • August 2, 2013 at 4:44 pmFrank

    Heather’s accomplishment is astounding. I started with her, committed to four days through the Pyrenees, then heading back to Boston. She left me in the dust immediately, no surprise there. And eventually we connected at the Hotel Eslava in Pamplona in the middle of a general strike. For me this was great fun, though the issues of unemployment and wealth disparity are not fun, issues most in north america face every day but which are more profound in Spain. Pamplona is a bit known for Ernest Hemingway, a writer many dislike, despite the beauty of his stories. It was wonderful to have a beer where he had mohitos. Heather lived life on the path, as Hemingway did in Pamplona, Cuba and Key West. They aren’t far apart, these two, though H would disagree I think. The more you know about each of them, the more engaging they are.

  • August 2, 2013 at 1:55 pmMichael

    Yes, following the yellow arrows worked, most of the time. It’s a good thing we have our inner yellow arrows!

  • August 2, 2013 at 1:04 pmJack Stein

    Hi Heather, thanks for sharing your inner fears and feelings and for your well written and insightful blog. Looking forward to seeing you and reading your future blogs. Jack.

  • August 2, 2013 at 12:52 pmPam

    I remember the day you got lost. We found you looking rather out of sorts at the roadside cafe and I remember thinking at the time it was The Way’s way of telling us that we should stick together. I’m glad we did from then on in :)
    Maria’s words will always stay with me as a poignant reminder that despite outward appearances it is best to trust that inner yellow arrow. When we departed Santiago we actually ran into Maria on the way out of town and we had the opportunity to thank her for her wise words. She in turn thanked us for supplying her with Ibuprofen in her time of need. Ah, such is the way of the Camino :)

  • August 2, 2013 at 11:46 amJudy

    Congratulations on achieving your goal, not only of getting to the Camino, but of completing it. Not sure I would fare as well. Well done!

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