Heather Conn Blogs

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The Roman road: Cuban intrigue fills an historic route »« Social media on the Camino: barrier or portal?

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
  • January 4, 2014 at 12:20 pmFrank McElroy

    “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” —
    Janis Joplin

    for some of us poverty, celibacy, being alone and separated from the rest of the world, making no demands upon it, amount to something that feels like freedom

    Jung, Freud and all the others are interesting, but nothing close to your ongoing examination of yourself and others as expressed in this story and elsewhere

    the search for freedom (in my view an inherent need in all of us) leads to the questions you raise about your attitudes, your self, the attitudes and selves of others

    Remember “Into Great Silence”? An illusion of freedom through vows of poverty, celibacy, separation. It appeared serious, but there was endless corruption, venal and selfish behaviour, ties to the desperate weaknesses and motives of our modern, western world and, of course, to the human character (and lack of it).

    the stories we read and watch in film are often about the search for freedom, always in complex human circumstances. think of Orson Welles in “The Third Man” getting rich, beating the system, and of course, tying himself to the mundane world of law and order with unbreakable chains. think of him again in “Citizen Kane,” trying to break the chains of reality through exercise of power and and outrageous wielding of wealth. read any story by any great author, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway: they’re all about people trying to find some semblance of freedom, not having a clue, and ensuring their own enshrouding in the unbreakable wires of human complication

    maybe letting go of bad is impossible, a seductive illusion encapsulated in the notion of possibility

    maybe acceptance that these human traits, the issues they create, what a person is and must shoulder, presents real freedom – the power to make choices, to choose a path

    Robert Frost

    you’re on top of it, a scrutineer of what is surely inscrutible

    “Fly on Little Wing” — Jimi Hendrix

  • January 2, 2014 at 8:32 pmHeather Conn

    I appreciate your feedback, Jack. I like your suggestion of including the day and the month. I will remember that on my next post. I definitely encourage you to walk the Camino this year. Good for you!

  • January 2, 2014 at 8:30 pmJack Stein

    I just loved this blog and the frankness with yourself and your readers. In fact while I was reading your blog, I was wondering all the time if I could be as frank with myself when I walk the El Camino as you were with yourself.

    Upon telling friends and family that I intend walking the Camino this coming April, quite a few have told me that I am mad. Maybe being a little bit mad becomes me. I think we all have a bit of madness in us. My sister-in-law, one of the mad sayers, doesn’t understand why I want to do it.

    I enjoy your blogs very much. In this blog, I really appreciated you stipulating what day of the walk you were on. May I suggest that you also write down the day and the month; this might be specifically interesting to people like myself who intend walking the El Camino, even though I know that the weather could be somewhat different every year.

  • January 1, 2014 at 2:54 pmDavid Roche

    This is great stuff, Heather. I hope you are thinking of a book.

  • December 31, 2013 at 7:07 pmStephanie

    Heather, I think this post is my favorite piece! The reality that there is the good, the bad, and everything in between. Acceptance of myself has not been easy and I love the reminder that it is a lifelong journey, and where I am today, is just where I need to be. I think this really leads me to celebrate what is and welcome the shadow part as a piece of my own spiritual being.

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