6 key life lessons Camino de Santiago will teach you
“In the past month, I’ve walked 686 kilometres, woken up at 5am each day, shared a room with at least 30 people every night and had to pop 7 very painful blisters. I’m exhausted – but I’d do it all over again,” a young woman summarised her camino experience to me as we sat outside of our hostel.
For those who don’t know much about Camino de Santiago, it is an ancient pilgrimage that consists of many walking routes stretched across Europe. For centuries, Catholic pilgrims from various corners of the world have been flooding the muddy village roads of countries like Portugal, France and Spain with one aim only – to get to Santiago de Compostella, a city in the northern region of Spain. They would traditionally start the camino from their own homes or parishes and walk for months to get to their destination.
What made them commit to walking such unimaginable distances? A combination of myths, faith and religious mystery. According to the official history of Camino de Santiago, pilgrims believed that the city was a sacred place where the remains of an apostle St James were kept. They would walk for miles in groups and alone, across the Pyrenees mountains, hills, forests and small towns for salvation, paying a penance or other reasons. In the 12th and 13th centuries, 250 000 pilgrims travelled to Santiago each year.
Camino has evolved greatly over the years, adapting to modern day living and attracting hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life each year.
What motivates people to do it these days? Some are seeking a spiritual or religious experience. Others walk it to spend time alone and reflect, or to challenge themselves. I’ve met couples who chose camino as a way to test or rekindle their relationship. I’ve also met people who came mainly to explore the culture and cuisine of Galicia. Others simply come to have a good time and meet like-minded people.
I walked camino because I wanted to challenge myself. I had never done anything like that before, and…well, the night before I was due to start I could barely close my eyes – I was too nervous.
Did I get what I wanted out of camino? I got so much more than that. Camino is an experience that allows you to learn about yourself and others. To really get a taste of a life stripped down to the basics and just experience things and emotions as they are.
Here are the life lessons my camino taught me. I hope my learnings encourage you to pack your bags and go experience yours…
Lesson #1. Carry less to enjoy the journey more.
One of the key lessons camino teaches you is to carry less – not just physically, but also emotionally. When walking camino, you constantly carry all of your belongings on your shoulders. The weight of your backpack doesn’t only impact how quickly you walk, but also how much you enjoy the walk. If it’s too heavy, your walk will be a struggle. The tricky thing is that no-one else can carry your load for you – everyone has their own backpack to worry about. So, pilgrims learn to pack very light and even leave things behind as they walk.
From an emotional perspective, my dad once got be a great book called ‘Repacking your bags: Lighten your load for the good life’ by Richard Leider and David Shapiro. I suggest adding it to your reading list. The book explores the key principle to a happier life: identifying important things in life versus unnecessary burdens that only weigh you down. It provides tips on how to let go of the burdens and simplify your life to make it happier and more fulfilling:
“…it’s not just what we carry “in our bags” that determines the quality of our lives; it’s also, more importantly, why we carry what we do. That’s the Purpose component. It’s vital to become clear about our life’s purpose so we can carry what we’re carrying with balance, fortitude, and joy. With that in mind, we’ve found that happiness has more to do with experiencing than with having. Having is great, but it’s not it. For most of us, what we’re really looking for is a feeling – a feeling of aliveness.”
Lesson #2: You don’t need much to feel happy.
When walking camino, you really don’t have much. You have your lightly packed backpack with a few essentials and you have to hand-wash your clothes almost every night to have something to wear the next day. But does not having many things have an impact on the joy and satisfaction you get out of camino? It really didn’t for me or anyone I met on the way. In our lives, we often own so many things, yet we buy more things. And then we move those things into our lofts and buy newer things. Do we need all of that to be happy?
The camino experience teaches you that you don’t need much. And not just in a material sense. The walk to Santiago takes you through small villages away from civilisation, with poor phone signal and not much entertainment happening around you. You sleep on bunk beds in rooms you share with at least thirty other pilgrims, if not more. You are out of bed by about 5am, and walk for hours in the heat (or in the rain) until you reach your destination. You get blisters along the way and you are in pain for a lot of the time. Yet the overall experience brings so much meaning and joy that some pilgrims do it over and over again. Why is that the case? Because people find the happiness within. People find the joy in breathing, walking and appreciating the things around them. Camino makes you realise that you can live on bare essentials, and experience great happiness.
Lesson #3: Shit happens, but things will get better.
How many times did I step into shit on my walk to Santiago? I don’t know – I lost count. But you know what happened each time? I carried on walking and it came off. I left it behind. Yep, I got grumpy with myself for a moment for covering my only walking shoes in poo – but I overcame it with a thought ‘Ah, it’s just shit. I’ll carry on.’
Similarly, in life, shit has to happen every now and then, because that’s the basic principle of life. I’m not saying that me stepping into shit is in any way equal to the troubles of life you may be experiencing right now, but we can use that as a metaphor. Without the dark moments, we wouldn’t appreciate it when things go well for us. When bad things happen, it’s important to remind yourself that it is temporary – things do get better as time passes. The way you deal with a bad experience is more important than the fact that it happened. If you let it get to you and dwell on the fact that you’ve been so unlucky, ask questions like ‘why me?’, your energy will be spent on that rather than fixing the problem. I’ve learnt that the best way to deal with it is accepting it and then carrying on down your path. As you carry on, you will find a solution.
Lesson #4: Strangers can be nicer than you think.
We have all come across strangers whose ignorant behaviour makes us want to scream. When we cross paths with someone like that, it’s easy to lose all faith in people, and expect nothing good to come out of an encounter with someone you don’t know. We are also often very cautious around strangers – haven’t we been taught since we were little that we ‘shouldn’t talk strangers’? The truth is, the majority of strangers are people like you and me. You are just a ‘stranger’ to the little lady sat next to you on the train, and I am just a stranger to the young mum walking next to me along the canal. If you think you can be nice to others, then the reality is that the person you consider to be a stranger can probably be nice to others too.
I really wasn’t expecting people to be this nice to me on my camino. People who I considered to be strangers truly and genuinely cared and shared what they had with me, asking for nothing in return. I was offered anti-inflammatory gel, plasters and even someone’s spare pair of socks. And I didn’t even know their names – I still don’t. One of my favourite moments was when someone who lives along the camino filled up a jug of water and left some apples for hungry and thirsty peregrinos to take on their way to Santiago. The gesture really warmed my heart. Strangers are often nicer than you think – just need to give them a chance.
Lesson #5: You can achieve the impossible by taking one step at a time.
The whole camino is over 700 kilometres. It seems impossible and daunting at first, and it can be difficult to start, because the finish line seems so far away. But people do it, and people complete it. How? By taking one step at a time and setting themselves a daily goal. Each day, they walk for a set number of miles, following the signs on the pillars, until they get to their destination for the day. And then the next day, they do the same. And the same process carries on for weeks until they reach Santiago. They don’t aim to walk 100km a day, no matter how badly they want to get to the end, because they know that it will break them and they won’t arrive at all.
This could be applied to aiming to achieve our goals in life. Some goals seem impossible at first, but setting yourself some ‘mini goals’, or ‘daily goals’ helps. By completing these ‘mini goals’ each day, you will gradually achieve your main goal. Take it step by step – even if the tasks are daunting and seem impossible at first – and you will get where you need to be.
Lesson #6: Quality time with yourself is key.
The main reasons I wanted to walk camino alone was to spend time with myself. Truly spend it – not just pass it. We often look for other people to ‘spend time with’ for the time to seem worthwhile. Often, if we don’t have anything planned with other people, we tend to see that as doing ‘nothing’. And often, when we are by ourselves, we end up sorting out life admin, cleaning the house, watching TV or getting some other tasks done. What we need to do more of is truly spend time with ourselves, as we would spend time with a friend. This means spending time alone doing something that nourishes us, something that is enchanting and makes us happier.
It may seem like an odd thing to do, but I think it’s the only way to truly get to know who you are, what motivates you and makes you happy. Camino taught me that spending time in my own company is just as beneficial as spending time with a partner or a close friend. This time alone brought clarity to me and helped answer questions I previously thought I didn’t have the answers to. Solitude allows you to rewind and reboot, and it can help you get to know yourself better. Learn to spend time with yourself as you would with a friend.
These are just some of the lessons walking the camino taught me. It is a unique experience, and I highly recommend packing your bags and simply doing it!
Have you already walked camino? What did you learn on your walk? Share your lessons with us in the comments below, head over to out contact page and fill in the contact form – we would love to hear from you.
Borrowed Roads x