Spiritual Lessons from the Camino de Santiago: My Only Regret
I don’t regret much in my life–which is pretty good looking back on 51 years–and I honestly can’t think of anything in my life that I’ve done that I regret. Everything I’ve done has simply been a choice I’ve made that’s taken me farther down the path of the unknown.
I’m truer to the old saying that we don’t regret what we’ve done but what we’ve left undone. Those are paths I chose not to take, and now I may never know what was down them. The unknown remains the unknown.
It’s been almost a year since I walked the Camino de Santiago, and I still dream about it regularly. Not so much the people on the journey with me–except for my daughter–but the things and events and sights and sounds and smells and feelings along the way. That I’m still walking it. That I’m walking new facets of it. That I’m walking it again, start to finish.
It’s a template for the journey of my life, and the spiritual lessons have not ceased to flow, nor do I think they ever will.
Carrying Too Much Weight in Backpacks
Before I left for the Camino, I read up on other people’s regrets, things they wished they’d done on the Camino but hadn’t or things that they wanted to do over or do differently on a return engagement with The Way of St. James. Most of the regrets I read about were from people who started with too much in their backpacks. That really wasn’t a problem for Shannon and me, since Delta had lost our bags and we endured the first six days of the trip with just the clothes on our backs and what we could borrow from generous fellow pilgrims. The lack of supplies, as well as my missing gluten-free protein powder and hormonal supplements, made for more of a “true pilgrim” experience than I had planned.
Not Learning the Language
Other pilgrims wrote that they regretted not learning Castilian Spanish, or even Galician, before embarking on The Way. I had planned to learn, had even bought the Rosetta Stone for Spain Spanish software. In the year before I left for the Camino, two of my three section chiefs were promoted out of my organization, leaving me with a triple workload and a routine 75 hours a week in the office, sometimes more, just to keep my head above water. I was back to surviving off five hours or less of sleep each night and, given the choice between learning a new language and making sure I was in the best of shape for the physical challenge, I made the conscious choice not to learn more than a few simple phrases.
For most part, I did okay pointing to pictures on the menu or food behind the counter at pubs, playing a hilarious game of charades with Shannon and a young pharmacist, and lots of nodding and smiling in response to multiple choice questions. The locals were all remarkably friendly, with the sole exception being a bar owner in the middle of nowhere who refused to let me enter the restroom until after I had purchased drinks. Since it’s customary on the Camino to purchase use of the toilet by buying food or at least a bottle of water, my only issue with her insistence was my sense of urgency–and my inability to understand precisely what she was saying and explain myself with equal eloquence. I think I ended up throwing several euros on the countertop and running for the restroom, then coming back for my food and a happier disposition from the woman.
Not Getting in Shape
Other post-Camino bloggers have written about how they regret not being in better shape or not having trained more. I don’t think I could have been in better shape or trained more than I did. By the time I left for the Camino, I was walking 50 miles a week at a 4 mph clip as well as training for inclines on the treadmill and doing squats, lunges, and leg extensions. I was gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free.
I know many pilgrims spend months training and preparing, running or walking marathons. I was one of them–it just wasn’t enough. I had chosen to walk the Camino at an important pause point in my life. I had just turned 50, and I wanted to celebrate that as well as spend some time with my daughter who had just graduated from college and share the experience with her as well. But I also wanted to look ahead. I knew I was mentally burned out but I did not yet know how physically tired I was or that it had a name. I was exhausted from the past year physically, dealing with a condition that is referred to as “adrenal exhaustion,” which is a deeper level of “adrenal fatigue,” with flat-lined cortisol and hormones. No matter how tired I was, I kept pushing, and I didn’t realize yet that it had taken a toll on my health. My BFF referred to my Camino pilgrimage as an inflection point in my life, before moving forward, and he was right.
Desperately Needed a Break from Being “In Charge”
Attitude wasn’t enough–I needed to de-stress and to sleep. By the time I left for Spain, I had been training hard. Maybe too hard, according to my doctor, and I was mentally exhausted. I needed to surrender responsibility and decision-making to someone else, just for a little while, so that I could come home to a fresh start.
I let Shannon, at 22, take charge of quite a bit. No regrets about that. She’s a seasoned world traveller who has immersed herself in other cultures. I knew she’d be mature enough and worldly enough to make good decisions. She took great care of me on the Camino and I wouldn’t trade anything for having experienced it with her, but where my regret lies is with other people and surrendering…not being in charge but…surrendering my choices. I let others set the pace for me, and that, in my life, has always been a mistake.
The one thing no one told me before I left for the Camino de Santiago is how physically difficult parts of it can be for someone who has spent her life at sea level. All the training in the world at 55 feet above sea level could not match that of hiking in the mountains or at higher altitudes on a regular basis. There’s a reason they say to begin the incline like an old man, walking uphill in slow lunges, then coming down the other side like skiing diagonally so you don’t blow out your knees. If you go up like an old man, you won’t feel like one when you reach the bottom on the other side. (For some of you, this method of mountain hiking will be the most important tip you read of everything I write about the Camino.)
Not having access to my supplements and having to resort to the prevalent Camino diet of delicious bread (gluten), delicious regional cheeses (dairy), and wine, Fanta, or Aquarius (sugar) at every little bar or pub about three to five miles along the Road (plus occasional provolone, ham croquettes, soup, and lots of water), I shot my weight up a good ten pounds within a few days and left me feeling flu-ish long before we reach Santiago, even though I was burning over 4000 calories a day above my foot intake, according to my BodyBugg monitor. My body was working exhaustingly hard in the uphill climbs and I just couldn’t get enough oxygen at times. The rest of the pilgrims traveling with us were a little older or younger than I was but they were used to higher altitudes. I was perennially at the back of the pack–a shock after being so athletic at home in the previous year, to the point of outpacing women half my age. Here, I was outpacing no one and my lungs were begging.
My Own Regret
Of those of us who walked together, I had little to nothing in common with them, though I did find it interesting to hear about their lives and viewpoints. Many times at the higher altitudes, I could not keep up, which was an eventual complaint from my fellow pilgrims who obviously saw me as out of shape and had now idea of the preparation I had put into my training. When they feared I was lost, they would stop and wait for me, usually taking pictures and chatting, having a snack. The moment I, almost doubled over and gasping,would catch up with them, they were ready to go again. So I very rarely had the chance to stop and take pictures, or enjoy the scenery myself, at least from a stationary position.
If I Could Do It All Over Again
If I could do it all over again, right now, I would stop more often and soak in the beauty of my surroundings, and take more photographs. I’d stop and smell the flowers more, literally. I would be less concerned with keeping up with people I have little to nothing in common with, except being on the same patch of road at the same time.
I would walk quietly by myself with my thoughts, or with my daughter, for hours at a time, still on the same path but not concerned whether others thought I was a drag on their holiday excursion or their rush to explore another wine bar.
I let myself get lost for a while in the idea that I really, really, seriously needed a break from being in charge, having to plan and understand every little detail, and in doing so, I surrendered my choices I normally would have made. Had I kept myself in charge of my path, it would have been simple to say, “No, we’re going to slow down and you can go on up ahead and we’ll meet you at the bar in a few hours. I won’t hold you back and you can be happy after several glass of wine and chatter and I’ll be happy, too.”
What I’ve Learned from the Camino de Santiago
I don’t know if in my own journey of life, I can ever surrender control without surrendering choices, but I do find that it’s a little bit easier back on my own turf. I can hand off control of a situation to someone I trust, in my personal or my professional life, and still maintain my integrity without feeling pressured to compromise myself. Some would call that delegating, and it’s something I’ve learned to do rather well since my return from my pilgrimage. I can’t say it’ll ever come easily to me to surrender control without surrendering what’s important to me, but perhaps that’s why I still dream vividly of walking the Camino.