A few days ago, during a rainy evening as I sat down with a cup of hot tea (one of the simplest constants I have created for myself to deal with the variables in life) and was scrolling through a blog on my phone, I came across a few sentences that seemed simple yet powerful. In that moment, I could not fathom where the power lay within them or how I could approach it. The paradox was that the blog provided affirmations to fight physical allergies and infections but it was my mental faculties that seemed to be grappling with the larger meaning of the words used in that specific order. When I dug a little deeper online, I realized that they seem to be inspired from the book You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay and they were:
I release the pattern in my consciousness that created this condition.
I am willing to change.
I love and approve of myself.
In essence, they spoke of change, of an inner transformation. Of letting go of my past to be able to fully step into my future.
Today, as I meandered through playlists on travel and philosophy, I came across the TED talk by David Whyte titled ‘A lyrical bridge between the past, present and future’. In that he shared two poems inspired by his niece, Marlene McCormack’s hike along El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And those are magic words in my world.
El Camino de Santiago, or the way of St.James, encompasses many trails stretching across Northern Spain, from the south of France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the western coast of Spain. Today, tens of thousands either walk or cycle the Camino de Santiago every year undertaking an epic journey of 500 miles driven by various motivations spanning sport, religion, nature, adventure etc. El Camino de Santiago has been declared World Heritage by UNESCO and the First European Cultural Itinerary.
The drawing of the scallop shell also serves as a symbol of the Camino: the grooves in the shell represent the many roads of the Camino coming together at a single point at the base of the shell (Santiago de Compostela). Another great visual reminder of paths.
Ever since I first found the courage and calling to give travel a tangible form and came to understand how it is so much more than the physical act of exploring a new city, I have been fascinated, compelled and consumed in fact, by the existence of this trek to Santiago. The symbol of the scallop has appeared over and over through different channels into my daily life, thousands of miles away from the actual location and someday I hope to make this journey. One such appearance was on the cover of a book I picked up while in Greece titled ‘Making a Pilgrimage’ by Sally Welch that delves into the true meaning of journeys big and small.
In his talk, Whyte threaded the narrative of Marlene’s experience on the trek with a deep sense of openness to change that connected with the affirmation I mentioned earlier. To me, it was a sublime merging of pieces of truth from two sources: travel and philosophy, which to the discerning traveler are but the same essence in different forms. Whyte spoke about working with the conversational nature of reality and how reality is actually this “frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you”. And he ended his talk beautifully by explaining how in that very frontier, when we realise that reality requires of us to be as open to the falling of the leaves as to the appearance of the first blossoms, we understand the bridge between what brought us to this moment, who we are right now and the different version of us in the future that will arise once we have perceived the latent possibilities we hold within.
The analogy of the very route the pilgrims/travelers take to the path of our life is something that is probably more obvious. However, what was different about this narrative was the tying together of one’s past, present and future with the very moment one finds themselves at the so called “completion” of the trek which is nothing but a new beginning. He devotes some minutes to that moment when Marlene is standing at the edge of the cliff and realizes that she is the only one who can make it across the ocean into her future.
Whyte also describes the three rituals that travelers on the path are asked to undertake once they have crossed Santiago and have now arrived at Finisterre, or ‘the ends of the earth’ as the Romans called it, for it is at this point that the land falls off leading into a watery horizon.
- The first is to partake a Tapas plate of scallops to pay respects to the very symbol that has guided them all through their journey. In the words of Whyte, “this first ritual is saying: How did you get to this place? How did you follow the path to get here? How do you hold the conversation of life when you feel unbesieged, when you’re unbullied, when you’re left to yourself? How do you hold the conversation of life that brings you to this place?”
- The second is to burn something they have brought along (in the case of Marlene, she burns two postcards and a letter)
- The third is to leave behind one piece of clothing they have used on their journey to get there (Marlene leaves behind the very boots that she walked all the way in)
And this brings us to the affirmation. The ability to say “I am willing” is actually the courage to take a step into the very frontier where the line between who I think I am and who I think I am not is erased. It is the ability to perceive a version of myself that is different from who I think I am, remembering fully well that much of what I am today was something I never thought I could be. For each of those rituals indeed can be practiced by every traveler on every journey, by every person in every day. One does not need to reach Santiago to behold a better version of oneself: one that is definitely not immune to reality but is better by being more flexible and thereby more in tune with reality, as it really is, not as one would like it to be.
There is of course no harm in dreaming of how we perceive a better version of our reality and giving it everything we’ve got to get closer to it in some form. After all, imagination is the arrow we shoot towards a target that only we can visualize and it is a powerful force. But what was interesting to me from this talk was that so often I am focusing on that arrow that I am resisting the possibility of a different reality. In the process, I am incapable of fully appreciating the present. So often I have my version of Santiago sketched out in such detail in my mind, that I forget to consider it may look different when I actually arrive. The important thing here is to keep walking and to stay true to one’s self. To keep sight of the path I intend to take while accepting that along the way, life may reveal other aspects I am currently unaware of. How and when it changes me as a person is something I can only perceive when I look back.
Whyte sums it all up in a manner that only a poet, a philosopher and a traveler all in one can manage to do beautifully:
“So this is “Santiago,” the supposed arrival, which is a kind of return to the beginning all at the same time. We have this experience of the journey, which is in all of our great spiritual traditions, of pilgrimage. But just by actually standing in the ground of your life fully, not trying to abstract yourself into a strategic future that’s actually just an escape from present heartbreak; the ability to stand in the ground of your life and to look at the horizon that is pulling you — in that moment, you are the whole journey. You are the whole conversation.”