Guest blogger Cameron How ’20 provides a reflection on ten timeless life lessons based on his time walking the Camino as part of a W&M summer study abroad program.
It’s an age-old question, “How do you change your life?” …The Camino is known all over the world for being transformative; in fact, that is why I walked it. But when you are doing something that is expected to transform you, how are you supposed to approach it? How do you act? How don’t you act? What do you think about? Which questions do you ask? While thinking about these questions last April, long before we took our first steps in Leon, but well after the Camino had begun for me in spirit, the only answer I came away with was, “There is no one right answer.” For me, the Camino meant an opportunity to, on my own and in the company of other people, think carefully and critically about who I am and who I want to be. How was I transformed? Well, I came away with 10 lessons on happiness and a deeper commitment to getting out of my own way using the power of sincerity, love, and story.
The night before I left for Madrid, my dad and I had a conversation about happiness that would shape what the Camino would mean to me. After I unloaded the incredible readings, movies, and discussions from the prior week’s class about what makes people happy, my father asked me whether I had considered what gets in the way of happiness. More specifically, he encouraged me to think about the things that sit in the back of my mind and the back of my heart that keep me from being happier, more than just what to do to be happy. The poem, “the fix” by Nayyirah Waheed best captures this idea, “Getting yourself together. What about undoing yourself?” (90) Because of that conversation with my father, I spent most of the Camino contemplating how I get in the way of my own happiness, not just what to do to become happier. Ultimately, I came away with more than 10 lessons on happiness and also 10 lessons for undoing the parts of me that get in the way.
Lesson 1: Ritualize Your Life.
Our lives are determined by our rituals or the specific behaviors we intentionally engage in day-to-day. In the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” (Ben-Shahar 10). The Camino taught me that success and happiness are not determined by grandiose acts but by ritualized practices. The Camino was not accomplished all at once, nor did it begin the day we took our first steps in Leon. The Camino was accomplished by deliberate action intentionally practiced every day. For example, while walking the Camino we woke up around 6:30 a.m., walked between 13 and 18 kilometers, took at least two breaks, tended to our blisters and other ailments, and (if we were smart) put Vaseline on our feet, every day. Before the Camino officially started, we met once a week to practice packing our bags, envision the journey, and build relationships, among other things. We even went on a hike to prepare! This methodical and ritualized approach is supported by two of Gretchen Rubin’s Secrets to Adulthood, “By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished,” and “What we do everyday matters more than what we do once in a while.” (11).
I know that in the past, when I haven’t ritualized my life, my time becomes subject to other people’s demands, and I often become so intimidated by the enormity of the tasks in front of me that I don’t even try. As I wrote in my journal on May 29th, “Impromptu demands on my time and energy don’t allow me to accomplish what I want to.” The Camino taught me that by instituting rituals I can achieve the things I want to whether it is hiking across Spain, writing a 10-12-page paper, or becoming happier. In the words of Tony Schwartz, “Incremental change is better than ambitious failure… Success feeds on itself.” (Ben-Shahar 9).
Lesson 2: Be Here. Be Now.
May 29th was one of my best and most difficult days on the Camino. During our journey from Santa Martina del Rey to Astorga, I remember peering to my left as I began walking the seemingly infinite trail of red clay. Taking in the magnificent landscape of red bleeding into green, with mountains and earth as far as my eye could see, was the first moment I ever truly experienced awe. I remember being swept away in the landscape, breathless, and peaceful. That moment was an incredible testament to the power, meaning, and happiness that can be found by simply being present.
As I preceded along the trail of red clay, I remember getting lost in worries about the past and the future. It was only our second day of walking, and I was anxiously anticipating the hundreds of kilometers to go (as blisters were already forming), and I was nervous about building new relationships with new people in a new country. The miles I walked along the red clay, before reaching Dávid’s glorious oasis, were some of the Camino’s hardest for me. Perhaps I should have listened to Buck’s advice from the movie Buck, “You can’t live in two places at once.”
For me, the hardest moments on the Camino were those when I was focused on my trepidations about past and future actions. But my happiest and most meaningful moments happened when I was most present. As I wrote in my journal later that night, “I was most alive and awake when I was learning from other people. When I was simply with them or with myself and not worried about other things.”
Lesson 3: This Is All There Is.
Perhaps the most salient message I gleaned about happiness from our readings, movies, and ultimately walking the Camino, was that happiness must be found in the ordinary events of everyday life, not just in extraordinary moments. Finding happiness in the ordinary is ‘all there is’ when it comes to cultivating a happy life, because happiness found in extraordinary moments is fleeting at best and can otherwise be disheartening. As O’Connor says in Happy at Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy, “Happiness is a lot smaller than we think, often found in the details and moments when we are not looking.” (7). My experience walking the Camino was so rich because I was able to find meaning and happiness in the everyday aspects of the journey such as: hand washing my clothes, taking off my boots after a long day, admiring the landscapes, community meals at our Albergues, and walking and talking with other pilgrims. Getting to the St. James Cathedral in Santiago was only a small detail in the mosaic that made the Camino so meaningful to me.
This is not a culturally intuitive lesson as, in the words of Tal Ben-Shahar, “Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys.” (19). We are taught from an early age that happiness and meaning come from getting the desired result, not doing things the right or authentic way. Our parents reward their kids for getting an A on a paper or doing their homework, which deprives them of enjoying the activities themselves. In the words of Gretchen Rubin, “If you reward people for an activity they often stop doing it for fun.” (11). Our culture, society, and parents teach us the opposite of what the Camino taught me about happiness. The Camino taught me that happiness must be found along the journey otherwise we will never experience it.
Lesson 4: Pay Attention to Your Attitude and Practice Gratitude.
During our final group dinner on June 12th, my table discussed how our attitude shapes the judgments we make about how things are. My biggest take-away from that conversation was that judgments about whether things are good or bad, or right or wrong, are heavily determined by our attitudes. As I wrote in a postcard that night, “Our judgments are a reflection of us, of our attitudes, values, and expectations more than they are a reflection of what is actually happening.” For example, we arrived in Santiago on June 9th. We had made it! But when the Reves Center forgot to book our rooms for our first night in Santiago, some students became anxious and aggravated while other remained calm and happy. We all experienced the same event regarding our accommodations, but it affected people in widely different ways depending on their attitudes. As I wrote in my journal that night, “Much of happiness depends on your attitude toward what life hands you.”
The Camino also taught me that happiness is not cultivated by what we have, but rather by the gratitude we practice toward those things. On the Camino, a hot shower, laundry machines, digestive crackers, and even level ground to walk on, all came with small doses of happiness because of the relative comfort they brought while walking the physically demanding Camino. During a happiness interview on May 31st, a young woman from South Korea said, “Happiness is in the small things, it can also be about contemplating life’s purpose, but the essence of happiness is in appreciating the small things such as clean laundry and a hot shower.” This is a lesson Rio tried to teach us on our very first day of walking, when we stopped for our first Camino lunch, and he said, “Would you ever enjoy a meal this much in the U.S?” The Camino taught me that happiness can be drawn from things that typically go unnoticed in everyday life, if we choose to practice gratitude.
Lesson 5: Comparison is the Root of All Suffering.
During a conversation with Rio of June 1st, he said, “Comparison is the root of all suffering.” I understood this to mean that, whether we are comparing ourselves to our past or future selves or to someone else entirely, psychological suffering requires comparison. After reflecting on Rio’s words, I realized that my psychological suffering comes from perceiving myself as less than or having less, which is only possible with comparison. This lesson was widely supported in the happiness interviews I conducted. On May 28th, I spoke to Matthew, from Calvin College, about happiness, and he said, “A meaningful life is that which speaks to your own subjective values… I have learned that what other people value is valid, too. Just because you don’t value something doesn’t make it less valuable to someone else.” Matthew went on to explain how watching people live their lives, from an independent point-of-view rather than a comparative one, both on the Camino and elsewhere, liberated him from a lot of envy and disappointment. On June 5th, I talked with an Australian couple who said, “Happiness is being at peace with yourself and who you are.” They then said that happiness is cultivated by knowing your own limits and living according to your own values and means, not according to other people’s or by comparing your values and means to others.
Perhaps part of the reason so many people suffer in the world today is because society pressures us to compare and evaluate our own success and progress against other people’s. In Happy at Last, O’Connor describes how consumer culture, and more specifically media such as television, movies, and magazines, encourage us to not only compare ourselves to the best in the world, but how they also give “us a distorted image of reality.” (50). These things also teach us that, “If we just buy the right things, we will be happy.” (48). By letting go of comparison I have been able to focus on understanding myself instead of envying and pursuing what other people have and associate with happiness.
Lesson 6: Everybody Walks Their Own Walk.
Our journey, whether it is to a Cathedral in Santiago or toward meaning and happiness in life, is uniquely constructed by our own genetics, experiences, and choices. We are all different, and we all navigate and interpret the world in different ways, and that should be celebrated, not restrained. As Dante says when writing a letter to Ari in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, “You have to be who you are. And I have to be who I am. That’s the way it is.” (184). The Camino taught me that everybody walks their own walk at their own pace in the way that is true to themselves.
In Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, when Siddhartha is talking with Buddha about the limitations of his teachings, Siddhartha says, “Salvation has not come to you by means of teachings. And thus, nobody will obtain salvation by your teachings. You will not be able to convey and say to anybody in words and through teachings what has happened to you in the hour of enlightenment.” (24). Here Siddhartha is saying that the road to enlightenment or happiness is one that must be taken individually. No teaching can contain or transfer happiness, for happiness is something that can only be experienced for oneself and cultivated on one’s own. Happiness is not something you can glean solely from the external world.
This message about the individuality and even variability of what happiness looks like was also conveyed in a Happiness Interview with Otila, from New Zealand, on June 1st, when she said, “Happiness is different for everyone, it can’t be taught by other people, you have to figure it out for yourself. Happiness can also mean something different to you at different points in your life and that is okay!” The notion that everybody walks their own walk on the Camino, and in life, and toward happiness, is essential to accomplishing both pursuits. It is only when we honor who we are and who we want to be, as opposed to substituting other people’s visions for those things, that we can be fulfilled.
Lesson 7: We All Fight Our Own Private Wars.
In the book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Ari’s parents both taught and lived the idea that, “We all fight our own private wars.” (359). In fact, the whole book was about the way Ari fought his own wars, such as unraveling his identity, emotions, and relationship with Dante and how he was influenced by the private wars of the people around him, his mother and his brother’s incarceration and his dad’s experience in the Vietnam war, for example. The same was true on the Camino. For me, the entire Camino was nothing more than me battling my own private wars while listening to, learning from, and supporting others fighting theirs. The Camino taught me that, while our wars are indeed fought privately, we gain power and strength from sharing our wars with others. When we share our private wars, we realize that, while our battles are different, our enemies are often similar.
On June 5th, a bunch of students went to a Café Bar in Portomarin. Once we settled to eating our dinner, Emily asked the table, “What is your greatest fear?” and people told stories of loneliness, regret, and disconnection. As we navigated an intense conversation, searching for any common threads or themes that touched each of our deepest fears, we eventually concluded that people’s deepest fears are centered around shame or the fear we might do something wrong, something that would make us unworthy of love and belonging, especially from those we care about most. For me, and I believe for everyone at the Café Bar, it was hard to be vulnerable and to share our fears and plights, or our own private wars, because we feared that others would view us as unlovable or unworthy of love and belonging once they heard our truths. Paradoxically, however, sharing our own private wars, in the context of the Café Car and the Camino as a whole, brought our cohort closer together and with that sharing came love, belonging, and authentic human connection.
Lesson 8: Have the Courage to be Vulnerable.
The private war I fought throughout the Camino came down to vulnerability, which I defined in my journal on June 2nd as, “…having the courage to acknowledge your own imperfections with yourself and with others. Vulnerability is leaving yourself open to being loved for who you are and loving others for who they are.” I struggle with vulnerability. When other people share their private wars, I default to problem solving and/or trying to fix their issues rather than by sharing my own issues or challenges in response. I sometimes use questions to avoid divulging my own struggles as I am petrified that acknowledging my wars will make me unworthy of love and belonging. As Rio pointed out to me during a conversation on June 4th, being a ‘fixer’ and not sharing your struggles is a super masculine thing, “not only in the traditional male sense, but also with thoughtful and sensitive men.” Like Ari stated in an imaginary argument with his father, “I’ve learned not to talk. I’ve learned to keep everything I feel buried deep inside of me.” I have learned how to bury away my feelings from my dad as well. (260). And, on an emotional level, I associate keeping everything inside with being masculine.
Intellectually I know what Nayyirah Waheed says in her poem “yield.” She wrote that, “It is being honest about my pain that makes me invincible,” which is why I set an ambitious intention toward the beginning of the Camino. (169). In my journal on May 29th, I wrote, “I will try to relate, empathize, share more, be vulnerable, and open myself up to being known more in conversations. I will not just ask questions and try and fix things, which seems to be my intuitive default setting.” Having the courage to be imperfect is something people on the Camino dealt with in different forms. On June 1st, in my Happiness Interview with Otila, I asked Otila whether she tossed a rock at the Cruz de Ferro, symbolizing her leaving something behind. She said, “Our fears, or things we want to leave behind, are part of who we are, and we should embrace them and that is okay. They are part of us. We can’t leave them behind.” These words stick with me. And, while sharing my imperfections seems intuitively backwards, the relationships I formed on the Camino helped me learn the lesson I wrote on my postcard on June 1st, “I need to be vulnerable to grow, it is the pathway to undoing myself.”
Lesson 9: Love is the Most Important Thing.
To me, love is the connection between people that grows when we allow ourselves to be deeply known and vulnerable with one another. My happiest and most fulfilling moments, both on the Camino and in life, have been when I feel deeply known or deeply loved and have reciprocated that feeling. In fact, I believe the Camino was so transformative for me because it fostered deep and meaningful connections with people from widely different backgrounds that led to William & Marty moments like those described above. I think this is due to several factors: talking and thinking are all you have to kill the time (and thinking on your own gets tiresome after a while), the physical and mental harshness of the experience binds people together; and everybody shares something profound in common… they decided to pay to walk several hundred kilometers in their free time in search of some higher purpose or meaning. For these reasons, the Camino taught me something that Siddhartha stated was “the most important thing of all… being able to love the world, not to despise it, not to hate it and me, to be able to look upon it and me and all beings with love and admiration and great respect.” (95).
Lesson 10: We Are the Stories We Tell Ourselves
Every day we assign meaning to the world around us. We develop stories about events in our lives, who we are, and what people think of us, all of which filter our experience. As I warned myself in my journal on June 2nd, “Once we assign a story to ourselves, we give ourselves permission to experience the world through the lens of that story.” Because the Camino fosters such deep connections so quickly, I became keenly aware of how people, including myself, experience the world through the narratives they tell about who themselves. And how once we change the narrative, we change the way we perceive the world and the way the world perceives us. For example, I began the Camino with the narrative that anytime I deflect sharing my own struggles and instead try to help other people solve theirs, it is because I am thoughtful, I am caring, and I want to help, which is the masculine and right thing to do. While some of those things might be true, throughout the Camino, as I reflected upon who I am and talked deeply with others, I decided to tell a different (more sincere) story, that my aversion to sharing also comes from my deep fear that in outwardly acknowledging my struggles I become unworthy of love and belonging.
This lesson, that we understand the world based on the stories we tell ourselves and that we have the power to change them, gives weight to a quote Rio shared with me during a conversation on June 4th from Love and the Time of Cholera, “He allowed himself to be swayed by the conviction that human beings are not born, once and for all, on the day their mothers give birth to them, but rather that life obliges them, over and over again, to give birth to themselves.” The Camino taught me that we all have the power to give birth to ourselves anew through the power of story. As a reminder, on June 12th, I wrote on my final postcard that, “This whole trip has been about engaging with others and how those interactions help us develop a more honest and sincere relationship with ourselves and give use the power to tell new stories about who we are.”
I believe that to truly maintain and integrate what I learned on the Camino in a real and meaningful way, I will need to use the 10 lessons I learned from the Camino to undo the parts of me that get in the way of my own happiness. To undo myself, I have been diligent about intellectually maintaining and deepening the lessons I learned on the Camino and integrating them into everyday life. Since returning to the United States, I have ordered and read several texts that explore happiness, vulnerability, and meaning in life, including: the full text of Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, and Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. In addition, I started: keeping a journal where I record meaningful experiences and how I feel about them as well as interesting concepts and quotes I come across; keeping a booklet of rituals, where I track the days I practice behaviors I want to ritualize; priming myself in the mornings by practicing controlled breathing techniques to increase energy levels; practicing gratitude for three minutes every day toward three things I am grateful for; and ritualizing the act of doing one vulnerable thing every day. Even while I am engaging wholeheartedly in these practices, I feel like there is so much more I can and should be doing to maximize the impact the Camino experience can have on my life. While the lessons I learned have become more intellectually vivid through research and practice, they have yet to crystallize emotionally or intuitively.
For me, integrating the Camino in a real and meaningful way means undoing myself with more intentionality and understanding. It means engaging more wholeheartedly with vulnerability, as “vulnerability is the pathway to undoing.” Cultivating a ritualized life in which you are – deeply present, seeking happiness in the ordinary, cognizant of attitude, practicing gratitude, comfortable walking your own walk, and courageous enough to acknowledge your own private wars and share them with others – is no easy task, but it starts with love and connection. As Nayyirah Waheed says in her poem “seek”, “You will find your way. It is in the same place as your love.” (126) Love is cultivated by letting the most vulnerable parts of us be known. I believe this is the secret to undoing, but it is so incredibly hard to practice and maintain because this kind of authenticity requires that we tell new and more sincere stories about who we are and what gets in the way of who we want to be.
How do you change your life? Well, one way is to walk the Camino! The Camino taught me that, through thoughtful introspection, discussion, and reflection, we can design and live lives filled with happiness and meaning. It also taught me that changing my life required me to undo the parts of me that keep me from being who I want to be. Whether it is the 10 lessons of happiness I derived or the handful of rituals I now use to maintain this new, delicate balance and life direction, I believe, ultimately, that walking the Camino changed my life because it reaffirmed that I have the power to do so.
Ben-Shahar, Tal. Happier. McGraw-Hill, 2012, pp. 1-27.
Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Digireads, 2015.
Meehl, Cindy. “Buck.” 2011.
O’Connor, Richard. Happy at Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010, pp. 1-53.
Rubin, Gretchen. The Happiness Project. HarperCollins, 2015, pp. 1-37.
Sáenz, Benjamin. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Waheed, Nayyirah. Salt. Createspace, 2013.