Heather Conn Blogs

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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 Comments (6)

Simple spiritual writing can reach all ages

Recently, I was invited to be a guest contributor to the blog Spiritually Speaking, which I didn’t even know existed. It’s produced through the Times Colonist in Victoria, BC. I decided to write about my children’s book and the challenges of expressing spiritual concepts in simple, concrete terms that will be meaningful to kids.

If you’d like to read my post, please click here. I invite you to leave a comment on this blog and/or the Spiritually Speaking one.

In the adult realm, I wrote an essay several years ago called Dharma by the Dozen: The Art of Spiritual Writing. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, here are a few suggestions for tackling this genre, in particular:

  • Embrace metaphors and similes that relate to the natural world.
  • Apply a light touch.
  • Use simple language.
  • Draw from personal experience.
  • Create images of beauty and resonance.
  • Write to inspire.


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February 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm Comments (0)

The spark of spiritual travel: find new connections

                                                                                       — photos by Lois Brassart

How does spiritual travel differ from regular travel? It can involve a pilgrimage or group meditation, a quest to find one’s inner self in a new environment, or a shared encounter of nature or beauty in a foreign country that opens a deeper gateway to your Soul.


Sometimes, a regular trip can open into a spiritual one through a simple question or casual discussion. A retiree friend of mine, Lois Brassart, was amazed at how one question inspired a whole new connection and relationship with a fellow traveller. Lois was recently in Turkey for “a few weeks of adventure” with a group of strangers as part of an amateur photography trip. On the last day, she was chatting with one of the other trip participants, Cheryl from Australia. Here’s how Lois explains what happened:


“My story starts with Cheryl’s prompt, ‘Talk to me about your spiritual life’ and ends 12 hours later with ‘Do you and Bruce have rituals?’ We [Cheryl and I] learnt more about each other in that one day than we did in the whole two weeks together. Cheryl has lived an amazing life. She has met Mother Teresa. She intentionally built a home with a labyrinth in her backyard and she meditates. She really knows how to connect with people. She walks the talk and believes that we are all amazing people.”

Cheryl’s one comment created a deep, new link to Lois, who shared her own spiritual yearnings and beliefs with her new friend. Without that mutual enquiry, they might never have discovered each other’s inner essence. In Lois’ words: “Cheryl is a woman of rituals, a woman with deep understanding of us humans. I’m a human learning my way, a human who recently joined the ritual, spiritual world after a long stint in corporate life. Meeting Cheryl has made me braver and more willing to take baby steps toward risk.”


After meeting this kindred spirit, Lois says that she and Cheryl opened their hearts to themselves and others, which broke through any language barrier with locals. Previously, their group had emphasized snapping the perfect photo, rather than getting to know each other or the Turkish people.


Cheryl acknowledges the openness that Lois shared in off-the-beaten-track Turkish villages, where their group was invited to share many cups of chai with the locals. She says: “Lois is REAL – what a gift to the world.  Turkish people recognized this fact and so did I.  We  learnt so much about these people with such generous hearts.  Lois would, without exception, touch them with her interest in their garden or their family and of course, she would make them laugh.


“One day, we sat in a bakery, a little cave where women made the most wonderful bread for the community. We simply hung out with three generations of women and girls, used sign language, and laughed.”

Lois says of her new friendship with Cheryl: “I wondered if this was a fleeting connection. No! We are on email at least three times a week. We share photos, including hers of bees sitting on lavender and of oh-so-cute baby ducks. We share her stories of summer at Christmas and battling 43-degree [Celsius] temperatures and me explaining that I don’t want to go out in the cold and take photos. But I do go out and send along photos of raindrops and reflections in puddles.”


Cheryl, in turn, says that Lois’s love of learning enables their conversations to go in many different directions. Like Lois, she wondered if their new friendship would survive the distance and demands of life, yet has discovered that their conversation has grown even richer.


Lois has shared many  resources with Cheryl, from the values and approach taken by local farmers’ markets, and a meditation for Thanksgiving, to  stories about group preparations prior to travel to South Africa, and, of course, photographs.


Cheryl says: “I get so excited when I see a message from Lois because I know I will be nurtured, stimulated, and learn something new.  I feel blessed to have found a kindred spirit and know that our connection will continue and our paths will cross again.”


The Internet allows Lois and Cheryl to deepen their connection despite the distance that separates them on different continents. Lois says: “We continue our relationship by keeping our hearts open to each other and sharing the beauty of our lives through photos taken miles and miles away, and through words of wonder.”


I experienced a similar connection with a New Delhi man, initially a stranger, while travelling in India for seven months. His one comment to me (an explanation about a photographic exhibition I was viewing) resulted in three hours of non-stop dialogue on a myriad of heartfelt topics. He was the first man, other than my spiritual mentor, with whom I shared my spiritual self.


We vowed that we would always remain in each other’s lives, and have maintained contact for 23 years between India and Canada. I’m writing about this relationship, and my path of personal discovery while travelling in India in my memoir No Letter in Your Pocket – Twenty Years Healing a Family Secret.

If you have a similar travel tale, please share it.

 Click here to see Lois’ photo gallery of her Turkey trip.


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January 15, 2012 at 5:13 pm Comments (3)