This Walk Will Change Your Life

If you’re struggling to believe in your purpose you need to step outside of your daily environment and go on a long journey, a quest, as I like to think of it and rediscover human skills and conditions that we seldom use these days.

A few years ago I had lost my self-belief. I felt stuck in a corporate job and for years there had been a little voice inside of me that wanted to be heard. Although I had no idea what that voice would really say if it was given half a chance.

And that voice continued to gnaw away at me until one day I found myself emailing my boss my resignation notice. Thereafter, I did the only thing that made any sense at the time — I went travelling and put distance between that old life and me.

Those travels eventually took me to the foothills of the Pyrenees, about to walk across a country at the start of an 800km pilgrimage. That journey is known as the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, a walk that millions have made over the centuries. The classical route starts in a small town, St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, and continues over the mountains into northern Spain, eventually finishing at a cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostella in northwest Spain. On average it takes between four to five weeks to complete.

When I returned from it I felt a new power inside me: I wrote a book and I began speaking in public about the experience. Ultimately I found my voice.

The experience of walking across a country with nothing more than a small backpack and the clothes I was wearing taught me how to be the hero of my life in four key lessons.

Lesson #1: You Can Never Be Fully Prepared

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”— Lao Tzu

The first day’s hiking is almost certainly the hardest — climbing 1,500 metres (that’s higher than the tallest mountain in the UK) over the Pyrenees and into Spain. I’d had little time to prepare (I’d put myself on the Camino within a month of hearing about it) and my fitness at the time was no better than average. Therefore, my introduction to the Camino was a tough experience! And for many, it’s a barrier in itself for doing the walk. I have met many people who’ve expressed an interest in the Camino but have talked themselves out of it because of the thought of that first day’s climb.

And that’s a shame because in reality as long as you’re in average shape and you’ve broken in a good pair of walking boots, it’s manageable. The path is steady and it’s not like climbing a sheer mountain face, so you can take your time to take in the stunning Pyrenean scenery. And the wildlife is a major distraction; wild horses are munching their way through the path side vegetation and birds of prey circle everywhere.

You experience an amazing feeling of elation at the end of the walking day, as you arrive into the little village of Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the mountains. As knowing you can accomplish such a climb is like passing a personal point of no return and you feel fully committed to walking the remaining 775km.

The lesson learned is that once you’ve exposed yourself to what’s possible there is no going back. And the only way to discover that is to face your fears and make yourself vulnerable.

Lesson #2: Walk Your Own Walk

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost

Many people start the Camino on their own but they soon make friends and walking companions. I was no exception and after five days of walking, I befriended a small group of international walkers, becoming the eighth member of “The Team,as we called ourselves. It was a fun experience walking together. We shared meals, dormitories, planning and our backstories. And it was tempting to always walk with The Team.

However, I needed to figure a few things out in my head. To do that, I required my own space. So as hard as it was, on some occasions, I broke away from them. I’d either take an alternative path along the Camino or walk at my own slower pace.

In my own company I would spread out my arms and feel the afternoon breeze; turnaround and look at hills I’d passed over; take the time to really taste local produce, such as grapes I picked from the vines in the wine country or the white asparagus I was handed one morning; stop and talk with locals in some of the villages I passed through and take side trips off the trail. Whereupon I discovered a hidden monastery as well as the resting place of 12th-century knights — The Order of Santiago.

I was allowing my curiosity to run wild, having my own adventures, and fully observing the richness of the world as it unfolded around me. And fresh ideas began to flourish in my mind and my diary notes became more descriptive. To make your mark on the world, to be original, you have to see things with a fresh pair of eyes.

Lesson #3: Persistence Pays Off

“I will persist until I succeed. Always I will take another step. If that is of no avail I will take another, and yet another. In truth, one step at a time is not too difficult. I know the small attempts, repeated, will complete any undertaking.” — Og Mandino

There is one stretch of the Camino known as the Meseta, or the ‘mind’ section, which is a flat, shadeless, open expanse of mainly agricultural fields. Villages are infrequent and carrying enough food and water each day is essential. Nobody seemed to look forward to it and some people skip it altogether and take the bus from Burgos to Leon.

Walking across it, especially under a Spanish summer sun, is an arduous experience. You have to adapt; we got up earlier, leaving at dawn so as not to be walking in the sun all day. The sunrises were spectacular and with very few people on the road at that time, it was a very peaceful start to the day.

Although the never changing scenery certainly requires you to go deep within and all members of The Team needed a push to get through it. However, village by village we broke the Meseta down and none of us were ever tempted to take the bus. On that stretch not only do you build physical endurance you also develop mental stamina.

The Meseta taught me that if you are clear about a distant goal, as long as you take daily steps towards it, you build faith and that takes you through the tough times when they arrive. And that was the way to adapt to the Camino overall. Walkers break it down by region, city, town and village; building persistence on the way.

Lesson #4: Living Your Dream Inspires

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” — Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

One of the most amazing experiences of the Camino is being reminded of the capacity of human generosity. Everyone along the Camino goes out of his or her way to help you on your pilgrimage.

From free meals and accommodation at monasteries; sharing communal dinners; villagers stopping to talk and help with directions; fellow walkers helping to patch up each other’s walking injuries; volunteers at pilgrim hostels; food and drink handouts, the list goes on.

On the Camino and in life, in general, I’ve come to realise, that when you are truly impassioned about something people will go out of their way to assist you with it. Think back to an experience in life where you have demonstrated a real belief in something. Did a boss encourage you, did a teacher give you special attention, did a friend give you a gentle nudge, have you ever been approached to be a mentor? All of these things have happened to me in the past, I just never made the connection. Acting on a purpose is contagious.

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