Today is the one year anniversary of my arrival in St. Jean Pied de Port, France where I began Le Chemin de Saint Jacques, also known as El Camino de Santiago or the Way of Saint James–a Catholic pilgrimage across Northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. One year ago today, I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth that would guide me within myself and help me to balance my external and internal journeys.
Huruki Murakami’s book, Kafka on the Shore, sheds some interesting light on the emergence and symbolism of labyrinths.
“The symbol of the labyrinth comes from the ancient Mesopotamians. They pulled out animal intestines–sometimes human intestines, I expect–and used the shape to predict the future, They admired the complex shape of intestines. So the prototype for labyrinths is, in a word, guts. Which means that the principle for the labyrinth is inside you. And that correlates to the labyrinth outside.”
The principle of reciprocity lies within the labyrinth. If you step into one outside of you, you are also stepping into the one within you.
Before I walked my dear friend and fellow pilgrim, James, told me that we’re always walking el camino–the way. The voyage itself is just the physical manifestation of the path within. But the way within is typically a very challenging and risky trail to follow. But like a labyrinth, you slowly wind your way to the center, and then back out again. You release, receive and return, hopefully with some clarity of mind and openness of heart.
El Camino de Santiago is a giant labyrinth that sets the stage for you to turn within. Marked by yellow arrows and scallop shells, Pilgrims wind their way over mountains, across valleys, through woods, over rivers, and into the center of their hearts. Everything along El Camino is a poignant metaphor for life’s labyrinth.
El Camino itself, perhaps the most obvious, is the way. The journey of our lives. But it is heavily peppered with many other metaphors. The physical pain a pilgrim endures mark the traumas of our lives. The sunrises and sunsets familiarize pilgrims with the cyclical nature of the soul’s journey. One metaphor I found truly persuasive was the pack I carried on my back. Weighing in at 9 kilos when I started (approximately 18 pounds), my bag was full of the things that I thought I needed. Creams, guidebooks, clothing, food etc. My bag, though not the biggest on the trail, was certainly a burden for my unacquainted frame. Smart pilgrims learn fast, lose the weight or else you suffer. Ditch the things that don’t serve you and trust that your community will provide the things you don’t have when you are in need.
El camino always provides.
The coming and going of pilgrims was another strong metaphor. You meet someone, you walk with them side by side for days on end, and then one day you realize you will eventually move forward or fall behind. Letting your fellow pilgrims walk their own way, and respecting that you too need to proceed the way you feel best, can be hard. Though you may have known them for two or three or fourteen days, they are your support system, your security blanket. Letting go of people is just as hard on the camino as it is in real life. But it was an important lesson for me to learn. I walk my way, you walk yours. If our paths cross and we exchange lessons, you will remain forever in my heart. I do not need to cling to anyone, because I can take care of myself– I am whole.
El Camino taught me lessons about resistance. It taught me to let go, to trust, and to go with the flow. The practice of identifying and then releasing myself from the inner-resistance has served me thoroughly in navigating through life’s challenges and my/society’s heavy-set expectations.
El camino also taught me about magic. In it’s own special way, that trail makes magic. Whether it is the collective energy of the pilgrims who walk, or the sacred and beautiful land, or both! There is something truly remarkable and indescribable about the magic of El Camino. When I finished I thought the magic would go away. That I would only be able to tap into it if I were there, but really the magic was just with me and lying dormant all along. the labyrinth of El Camino opened up the channels for my good-witchery to flow freely.
Arriving in Santiago was one of the most amazing days of my life. Blistered and swollen, my feet rocked 500 miles of terrain and earned themselves some serious street creds. But what I feared most upon arriving in Santiago was how to keep El Camino alive now that I would no longer be walking its sacred path. But again, like the labyrinth commands you must always return to the external realm. You can not stay forever within, you must emerge. But you’ve touched center and can once again be reassured that it is there. Your equilibrium has been rebalanced and you can go about living your human life until the next time you desire to return to that place. The center remains accessibly where it has always been and forever will be, seek it when you need it.
El Camino has lived a very vibrant life within me since the day I finished walking the trail. There has not been one time where I have thought of my 33 days on the trail and not had a volcanic eruption of emotions explode from my heart. Happiness, pride, nostalgia, awe and gratitude frequently swirl within me when I think back on this experience.
So I guess James was right, I was walking the way before, though perhaps with my eyes closed. When I made my pilgrimage to Santiago, I walked straight into the wild labyrinth. Through my journey I opened my soul wide and I touched center. I’ve returned frequently to that place to leave offerings of patience with myself and kindness for others, gratitude for life’s lessons and above all a big bouquet of love upon the altar of my soul.