Friday, January 07, 2011

A Spiritual Experience on the Camino

Many pilgrims, most with no religion, recount having had a ‘spiritual’ experience whilst walking the Camino even though the majority find it difficult to describe the experience. As a non-theist, I too have found it difficult to explain the spirituality of walking the Camino, leaving aside the history, the religion, the traditions, and the folk-lore. It’s more than all of that.
If we look at the word ‘spirit’ it might help to explain the state one reaches when on a long-distance hike. I have often explained my own spiritual state, after a week or so on the Camino, as being in the ‘Zen-zone’ – when mind separates from the body and the whole becomes one with nature. (This is especially so when walking on the wide open plains of the Meseta).

Spirit (n) L. spiritus

My large, heavy Websters gives at least 18 different meanings of the word ‘spirit’.

1. Breath, courage, vigour, the soul of life.

2. The thinking, motivating, feeling part of man as distinguished from the body, mind, intelligence.

3. Life, will, consciousness, thoughts etc, regarded separate from matter.

What does this mean, “.. the thinking, motivating, feeling part of a person as distinguished from the body and intelligence?”

I remember reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Professor Carl Sagan, the well-known scientist, called “The Dragons of Eden - Speculation on the evolution of human intelligence.” Although it was written over 30 years ago, the information, suggestions, speculations and assumptions he made then are just as relevant today.
In the chapter on the development of the human brain he focuses on the differences between the left (mostly rational) and right (mostly intuitive) hemispheres, suggesting that our pre-verbal, pre-ambulatory ancestors relied on their ‘intuitive’ non-verbal perceptions and cognitions to survive in the world.
“Intuitive knowledge has an extremely long evolutionary history: if we consider the information contained in the genetic material, it goes back to the origin of life.
The other of our two modes of knowing – the one that in the West expresses irritation about the existence of intuitive knowledge – is quite recent evolutionary accretion.”

Sagan says the people in the West have made so much contact with the left-hemisphere functions of our brains and very little with the right, that we find it difficult to connect with our intuitive brain. The scientist Robert Ornstein compares this to the stars being invisible to us during the day, despite the fact that they always there, day and night. ‘The brilliance of our most recent evolutionary accretion, the verbal abilities of the left hemisphere, obscures our awareness of the functions on the intuitive right hemisphere, which in our ancestors must have been the principal means of perceiving the world”.
He suggests that in the meditative state of many Oriental religions the left hemisphere of the brain is suppressed which allows the ‘stars to come out’.

Isn’t this what meditation and spiritual ‘awareness’ is all about? An Eastern guru said, "Enlightenment flowers when individual consciousness merges into universal consciousness. It is an experience beyond mind.”

Spirit - the thinking, feeling part as distinguished from the body and intelligence.

You can pick out pilgrims who have been on the road for a long time. They have calmness about them, serene and laid-back they don’t rush to be the first to leave the shelter in the morning; they are never the first to arrive, they don’t get caught up in the rush for beds. They don’t judge other pilgrims. They don’t complain about the shelters, or the food, or the paths or even the weather. They have become the Camino – the Way – they are in the Zen-Zone.

Is adrenaline? Endorphines? Is it Seretonin that induces that feeling of emotiona wellness? Is it Zen?
“Zen emphasizes experiential wisdom in the attainment of enlightenment. As such, it de-emphasizes theoretical knowledge in favor of direct realization through meditation and dharma practice.”

Walking-Zen is the exquisite state you reach when you walk without awareness. You are no longer aware of the pack on your back or the blister on your heel or the sun on your head. You are one with everything around you and although you see everything, you do not think about them in words, they just are. You just are. You are just walking.

You are in the Zen-zone – having a spiritual experience.


  1. When I was on the camino I came in a sort of "tunnel". Nothing else in the world is important any more. And what you describe:

    "They have calmness about them, serene and laid-back they don’t rush to be the first to leave the shelter in the morning; they are never the first to arrive, they don’t get caught up in the rush for beds. They don’t judge other pilgrims. They don’t complain about the shelters, or the food, or the paths or even the weather."

    I see that as normal civilised behaviour. Everyone should have that attitude, I think. ;-)

    btw, I like your blog and writings on the Camino de Santiago forum

  2. What a great post, Sil! How interesting the threads you weave together. I agree with Rein and the way you describe the pilgrims who have been walking for a while. I hope to be able to be one of them this year. Thank you for bringing back the reason why I want to be able to return to the Camino :-)


  3. Sil, It has been half a year since I returned from the Camino. The flurry of presentations and inquiries as to what it was like, have ceased, and I have gone back to a "normal" life, but in a secret corner of my heart, I have a memory of that Zen-like feeling, and treasure it privately, because few who have not walked the Camino can understand what a treasure it is. I will be eternally greatful that you took the time to comment on my blog, when I was hesitating to go because of the Holy Year, and tell me to GO! And eternally happy that I took your advice!

  4. Great post Sil!

    I tried to explain some of the spirituality and "moments" to people when I returned. The polite smiles made me wonder if I had gone bonkers. I tried a different approach. Meeting with other pilgrims, I asked them if they had "moments" and asked them to describe them to me. They were so closely related that I could offer them the "ah-ha" moments I was searching for and now know, even more, what a special gift I'd been given, having the opportunity to go (and go again).

  5. Wonderful post! Walking does become quite Zen.. doesn't it... you simply become ONE with ALL.

    You also reminded me of a book I had read, loved, then forgotten; Dragons of Eden! Thank you!

  6. a thought rendering from Sil again;-) Wish i had your skills with words and thoughts. To add my gram of hindsight, i was along the Meseta after harvest time, need to be there again in Spring and before and during the harvest to be in balance with Nature - Ultreia

  7. In spring the wheat fields are rippling green seas.
    In autumn they are ochre and gold stubbles.
    Jose Saramango said: "The end of one journey is simply the start of another. You have to see what you missed the first time, see again what you already saw, see in springtime what you saw in summer, in daylight what you saw at night, see the sun shining where you saw the rain falling, see the crops growing, the fruit ripen, the stone which has moved, the shadow that was not there before. You have to go back to the footsteps already taken, to go over them again or add fresh ones alongside them. You have to start the journey anew. Always. The traveler sets out once more."

  8. I could not agree more.
    I am embarking on the walk this August and my only 'goal' is to be one with the moment. I am starting from St. Jean and taking my time.

    Because I have MS it will be my own testament of endurance, but for some reason i am not worried about that. It is just something i have to do. I plan on sleeping under the stars many a nights. Stopping to volunteer at abs when needed then back on the walk...all just being.

  9. Seriuosly good post on this religion v spirituality question. The wonderful thing is that the Camino opens up new horizons within us leading to these moments of simply "being"