On the Couch of the Camino - A Therapist Takes a Hike, 2015
What if you could wake up each day, and know all you have to do is take the next step and it would be the absolutely 'right' step? And without fail, if you veered, you could count on being nudged gently back to your path? What if you could move through life carrying only your own baggage? (Maybe even consider letting it go as well). And how would this freedom to truss and simply 'be' ultimately affect a person?
There are few places or experiences as ideal as walking El Camino for exploring these types of questions. It is a 500 mile pilgrimage stretching across northern Spain. "The Way", as it fondly referred to, is marked by yellow arrows and scalloped shells, so no more anxious wondering if you are on the right path. Rigorous enough to keep the ego occupied, it prompts deeper contemplation. The diverse landscape, invites comparisons to the complexities of our own bumpy interior but simultaneously, (by being part of, yet objectively witnessing our surroundings) the opportunity exists to disentangle from what's swirling aroudn us and see what we're left with; who we are in the midst of the busyness of living. Somewhere along the line, I'd read walking El Camino will bring you back to your essence; the first third stripping away attachments to your physical self, the second third; peeling away the layers of your ego, and the third; revealing the spirit of you. I think this statement clinched it for me. I decided to do the walk-about this past September.
I fell even more in love with this planet and all of us humans who are essentially sharing the same short path through life.
The wisdom I gained from the people I met (including aspects of myself I had never seen up close and personal) and the landscape I passed through was invaluable.
What happens when we decide to own our fears instead of them owning us?
Prior to my decision to walk El Camino, I'd always prided myself on being relatively fearless; once grabbing someone in a back alley way who had snatched a woman's purse and another time chasing after a guy who just robbed a grocery store at gunpoint. I've skydived, hang-glided, failed dismally at motor cycle ridiing and am no slouch with a chain saw. It was this bravado which gave me the gumption to walk 500 miles solo....but as soon as I announced my intention, I came face to face with my own fears. And it was not pretty.
This was my first lesson of El Camino; meeting this aspect of myself which I must have been over-compensating for (maybe for much of my life). In the space of a few weeks I boxed myself in with anxiety so great that I completely avoided anything to do with the upcoming trip. I refused to talk about it, plan for it, prepare for it or train for it. I watched as I did all kinds of things in the interest of avoidance. The house and yard were never so clean and manicured.
Here's what I learned. The more I protected the fear by walling it off inside, the more it grew into a monster. I fed it with pure thought alone. My body didn't know the difference between real and imagined threat so it launched into its primal programming of flight, fight or freeze. Since there was nothing outwardly to fight I basically vacillated between flight (distancing myself from everyone and everything) and freezing (sometimes not even feeling present in my body). My sleep worsened, I became highly distractible, jittery, extremely startled and had trouble focusing. I no longer recognized myself.
Then one early morning as I was sitting on the back porch a hummingbird buzzed inches from my face. This happened successively for the next few weeks. In 28 years of living in the same house I'd never managed to attract hummingbirds. How could I not pay attention to this? Turns out Indian wisdom lore equates the appearance of hummingbirds with the advent of very long journeys signaling the need to prepare and nurture oneself for what lies ahead. Weird but also wonderful, right? Their heart beats at 1,200 times a minute, they can fly 60 miles an hour (especially when dazzling a female) and they cover distances of over 5000 miles at a clip. They are incredibly persistent and resilient. But even more interesting to me, at the time, was the fact that they also experience fear (even capable of putting themselves into a torpor state to avoid further pain or injury). They remember their trauma and will avoid the location of the event or similar set of circumstances from that time forward. But this is as far as their fear goes. It does not infiltrate their entire existence, like it had mine.
I wondered...could I be at least as smart as a hummingbird (which might prove a challenge given their proportional brain size is the largest of all birds)? I decided then and there to take a new tack. I would make fear my ally, not my enemy. Just as when we are being chased by monsters in a nightmare, if we turn around and bring them near, we realize they are as tired of chasing us as we are of running from them. They've simply been trying to get our attention, to tell us something. My fear, which by now was monstrously huge, was trying to get me to prepare, to stop my habit of procrastination, to add something new to my repertoire other than flying by the seat of my pants. And so....I bowed to this. I finally got the necessary hiking equipment, I booked my flights, took a few 6 hour hikes and began reaching out to others again. I owned my vulnerability and in the process, ended up getting some helpful hints and kind wishes. I won't say I was completely anxiety free but what I was feeling had simmered down to the normal benefits of anticipatory anxiety. In this state my senses were heightened, I was focused and actually absorbing more input than usual...I felt stronger and....even joyful. I turned the corner and was present again.
Was it the hummingbirds doing? Carl Jung would likely appreciate this huge influence, coining the term synchronicity to describe temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events where life is not a series of random events but rather an expression of a deeper order of one shared consciousness. I tend to agree with our connection to all things as well, believing our sense of separation is mistaken. So, of course, the hummingbird didn't change reality but it prompted me to change mine. We really are capable of making a 180 in our thinking if we allow ourselves this possibility. In fact, flashes of insight tend to precede recovery. Everything about the trip stayed the same but as my thoughts about it changed, so did the entire experience.
So....thank-you Hummingbird. Thank-you 'mind' for being highly malleable. And thank-you for the awesome way life seems to unfold....not always pretty but always pretty darn amazing.
(The hummingbird story didn't end there but I'll save that for another time)