How Did the Camino Change Me?

Everyone seems to want to know:  How did the Camino change you?

So far, I have had a few surprises upon my re-entry to the Ordinary World.  And that’s not even counting the fact that I recently bought a fresh red pepper for the first time in my life, and ate it, and enjoyed it.  In fact, I find that my appetite for healthy food has increased.

The First Surprise

During the walk across Spain, I longed for a good yoga stretch.  I’d grown so fond of my yoga classes over the last year and more that I really missed yoga while on the road.  On the road I was sure I’d never needed yoga more; after all, I was walking thirteen or more miles a day, with all that means for the legs and back, and I was carrying a pack, with all that means for the back and neck.  I imagined myself a stiff mass of bunched-up muscle and ligament.

So I was very excited to get to my first yoga class in about six weeks, in uptown Hoboken’s Devotion Yoga studio.

What I found surprised me.  Far from being rusty and out of

Balancing in Montauk, New York

practice, I was more balanced.  I could easily get into and hold balance poses that had been more difficult before the Camino.  As I flipped up into a crow pose and held it easily, I felt as if an Olympic gymnast had just taken over my body.

I may have even been more flexible, or unstuck, in other poses that I had never been able to do well — the upside-down wheel, for example, which something in my neck — the knots? — had always made difficult.  But here I was in the most complete wheel I’d ever done, as if my (tight, burdened?) shoulders had at last gotten out of the way.

Experienced yogis will say that the mat is a microcosm of life.  On the mat, you practice being comfortable with discomfort, you practice slowing your thoughts and (I think relatedly) your balance, and you practice being kind to yourself rather than abrupt or forcing.  You also practice concentration.  And all of these things will be directly reflected in your life off the mat.

But in my yoga class, I was finding that what I had done off the mat was affecting the yoga!  I was more mentally, emotionally, and physically balanced.  I may have also been more flexible, less tight.

I had already sensed that I did successfully slow down my thoughts on the Camino, and that I had fewer negative thoughts and emotions, but these things are hard to measure.  The yoga class was, happily, more objective – like stepping on a scale that measures How the Camino Changed Me.  You either fall over where you used to fall over, and struggle where you used to struggle – or you don’t.  And I wasn’t.

And because balance is a reflection of clarity of mind, I think my yoga session confirmed for me that I had somehow reached my goal of slowing down my mind, and with it, the negative thoughts that make for negative feeling.  With the mind racing less, the body can be still; with the mind less mired in anxiety, your body can be calm.  And you can balance yourself in ways you previously couldn’t.

What Caused These Changes?

So the question we need to be asking ourselves is this:  what was it about the last five weeks that put me into such a state of balance? The food?  Certainly not.  The sun?  There are many variables, of course, but here are the ones that I would hypothesize:  the meditativeness of walking; the exercise (and, yes, the sun, a known mood enhancer or anti-depressant); and the sense of purpose.  It’s this last, the sense of purpose, that interests me most.  Because what I want to do now is replicate it in my “real” life.

I want to figure out what I was doing on the Camino that can be brought back with me.  Because if I can’t do that, then a great deal of the value of the experience will be lost to me.

An Unfolding Surprise

While I was on the Camino, I wondered what it would be like to be off it.  Would I be, as Marie Anne always is after the end of a long walk, sad?  I wrote about this from Portugal, after we were done.  At the time, I did not feel sadness about being done.

But then, I wasn’t done.

Simply finishing the Camino did not mean I was done with what I call the Special World.  During our several days in Portugal, I was still away from my Ordinary World.  And so any reaction to the real world would have to wait.

Now that I’m back in the temporary life I was in just before I left for Spain – cooling my heels in and around New York — I’m starting to feel that reaction.

At the post office a few days ago I underwent a petty frustration, and by the time I got back into the car I almost had tears in my eyes.  Back at the apartment, I felt tears come up — frustration, I think, a kind of sadness that I had lost something, or perhaps a fear that I would not be able to find it again.  On the Camino I had felt an occasional annoyance and even anger, but I didn’t feel the kind of existential sadness I recognized early in the week.

I found myself resisting this, and then I found myself saying, Stop resisting.

The next day was different yet again.  I felt no sadness at all.  But I still felt some of what Mom wrapped up well earlier today, on the phone, after I’d said the return to the real world was sometimes a bit disorienting: “Yes, I know!  I don’t know what to do with myself!” she said.  “I walked to the post office, I made a salad and ate fruits again, I did the leaves, I went grocery shopping . . . My body is revved up and ready to go.”

I realize that there is a particular journey that is still going on, one that is not done yet.  I have been telling myself not to develop expectations of what I must be doing now that I am back.  I have been telling myself to stay on the Way – which unfolds only a day at a time.

So this is the challenge I have set myself (a hopeless type-A, I often do better if I call something a challenge):  to come to understand what it was about the Camino experience that made me feel less bad, less often, and made me feel very good, very often, and then to make sure my life after the Camino is designed as similarly as possible.

In the next post, I’ll talk about what I miss from the Camino.  And that may lead me closer to understanding what I had there that I must create here.

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