It’s just over two months since my Korean flatmates left Logroño, carried away into the darkness one morning in a taxi bound for Barcelona airport and then onwards, by plane, back to Seoul, family, friends and home. It’s amazing how quickly that time has passed and how things have changed, both for me and for the city, since then.
We stay in touch via iMessenger and my friends tell me that they’re all well. After 14 days quarantined in a hotel at Seoul airport they’re now reunited with their families, back at work and returning to a sort of normality (albeit, as they say with a little sadness in their hearts, “It’s a masked reality”).
They’ve asked me to send them photos from the Camino when I restart the Way and I’ll be happy to do it. It will be like we’re together once again and they’ll be able to walk it ‘virtually’ with me, until the day they’re free to return in person and finally arrive in Santiago, and then Finisterre, themselves.
Meanwhile, I’ve had the privilege of sitting out my social isolation in this beautiful, ancient and historic northern Spanish city, which initially meant marvelling at its empty streets and soulful silence from the little balconies of my rented apartment (during the 6 weeks that any form of venturing out for exercise was forbidden). Then gradually witnessing the city’s awakening from slumber, as streets full of joggers, cyclists and walkers suddenly appeared at 6am on the first day that exercise restrictions were eased. And now, as more and more freedoms return, seeing Life breathing itself back into the city centre and cathedral square. Pavement cafés are filling up with animated and gossiping teenagers, shops are opening their doors, and old men are lining the benches of Logroño´s plazas and parks once again.
I‘m very conscious of what a great privilege this has been; spending these lockdown months in a country I love, in a city on the Camino that I love and, through my deliberate choice, largely on my own. When the Coronavirus pressed the pause button on life-as-we-know-it and gave us empty cities, plane-less skies and a level of peace and quiet we’d never seen or heard before, being here alone provided me with a unique and very special opportunity.
I’m a reflective person by nature and walking Caminos has helped me to accept, explore and value this part of my nature in a way that my life BC (Before Camino) did not. But theglobal lockdown provided me with an invitation to ‘go even further inwards’, which felt somehow unique and new. With no walking to occupy me, no beautiful scenery to enchant me, and only limited exposure to distractions like TV, radio or social media (my conscious choice at that time) I was left with just myself…and a different, more concentrated, more honest inward journey began; one that I welcomed as the `once-in-a-lifetime´opportunity that I believe it was.
I found myself looking closely at my story, my memories, my rabbit-holes and bear–traps (the ones that catch me and hold me for a time…time and time again). I spent days on end with the ‘Me that I used to be’ and the ‘Me that I strive to be’ and I learned that neither has any real substance or useful purpose in reality; they’re both just part of the story that I tell myself. Some days I danced with joyful Me, laughed with playful Me, shook my head at deluded Me, raised an eyebrow at vain Me, cried with shame-filled, sad & hopeless Me or smiled gently at approval-seeking, doubt-riddled Me.
But I also began to realise that there was a central, centred Me; a Me who didn´t chatter as much as the other parts did…in fact…a Me who didn´t chatter at all. But who would say, on occasion, “Ah…yes…now I see” and it did see. It saw that ´the chattering parts´ weren´t bad, weak, evil, ego-ensnared, low-vibrational, masked, falseor inauthentic parts, they were actually all real and rightful parts of ´the whole Me´, which I’d never had enough compassion or insight to see before. I saw that each of those ‘rejected, unacknowledged’ parts was justbattling to do the best they could to keep ´the whole Me´ feeling safe, loved and protected at stressful or challenging times.
And, like a clear and quiet morning gradually lighting what was dark before, I saw why ‘finding unconditional love for ourselves’ appears to be the most difficult life challenge for every human being alive. To truly love, I believe, we must first see, understand and accept the entirety of the person or thing that calls for our love, exactly as it is. And, perhaps most importantly, I believe that begins with us.
If we begin our quest for self-love by telling ourselves “These parts of me are unacceptable and need to be resisted or improved” or, worse “These parts aren’t really me at all and I’ll do whatever I can to ignore, deny or to disable them”, then we’ve fallen at the first hurdle and we´ll always be looking outwards to another person or thing to save us or to make usfeel complete. We are complete. I am complete…exactly as I am. At times I´m joyful, at others playful, sometimes deluded, frequently vain, occasionally angry, but probably as sad, hopeless, shame-filled, approval-seeking and doubt-riddled as the next person; maybe I´m just a little less afraid to talk about these things at times.
And what´s the benefit of all this soul-searching and insight? Will I now be completely accepting of all parts of myself at all times? No…because I´m a human being.
Will I now be endlessly patient, tolerant and considerate of others at all times? No…because I´m a human being.
Will I try to be these things in future? Yes.
Why? Because I recognise that the centred, central part of me is actually the wise and ancient voice of gentle compassion. Compassion for all things, myself included. And I realise that what it is actually saying (and has probably always been whispering to me under the myriad of chatter) is “Ah…yes…now I see…this is how to feel Love“.
And what do I believe Love truly is? Well…that´s another story, for another day…
In 2018 I did something back-to-front, I walked the pilgrimage path of the Camino de Santiago backwards. Starting from Spain’s most Westerly coastal town of Muxia, I crossed the country from West to East, via Santiago de Compostela, and into France through the Pyreneean mountain range, which acts as a border between the two countries . In ancient times this was the way that virtually all pilgrims returned home again, having completed their pilgrimages to Santiago.
Twenty years ago, following the popular revival of this Camino, ‘walking backwards’ would have been considered slightly unusual, a tad unsociable and even a little eccentric. But it’s a practice that’s gaining in popularity now, with many more walkers choosing to undertake it, and even acquiring its own name, Facebook page and related pilgrimage documentation. It’s called the ‘Camino Retorno’ (the way back) and its official symbol is ´the spiral´.
I have many wonderful memories of special moments on that return Camino, but there is one in particular that I’d like to share with you today, because I keep learning something new from it, each time it comes to mind. The most recent ‘spontaneous remembrance’ happened during a service of Mass that I attended last Sunday, in my neighbouring town of La Oliva.
It concerns my visit, during that Camino, to an artist’s home and studio called ‘La Casa del Alquimista (The Alchemist’s House) which also offers accommodation, on a donation-only basis, for pilgrims wishing to spend the night. It was not directly on the Camino, but required a detour of several kilometres, a detour that I wasn’t intending to make, but for a set of happy coincidences which told me that I should.
That morning I’d stopped at a cafe and got chatting to an American woman who was close to reaching Santiago, having walked the length of the Camino, heading the normal way. I asked her what had been her most memorable experience so far and she told me about a small community of “artisan Hippy-types” who were displaying their artwork and sharing their philosophy with anyone interested in stopping as they passed by. She said that she loved the positive feeling that she took away from the place, told me “You must stop there!”, and gave me the name of the small village in the hills where the community could be found.
A Balsa Valley, Galicia, on the Camino de Santiago
A couple of days later I found myself close to the village that the American peregrina had described, set in Galicia’s beautiful A Balsa valley. It was nearing the end of the day, which had been a hot one with a fair amount of road walking, when I found myself climbing a long and winding stony path. I took a breather on a conveniently-placed bench by the path-side, took off my backpack and drank some water, to cool down and to re-hydrate. Then I noticed, in front of me, a small sign to ‘La Casa del Alquimista’ and the words ‘Gallery’ and ‘3kms’ pointing off the Camino route.
I debated just ignoring it, thinking “Do I really want to add 6kms to my walking total now, just to commune with some positive Hippie-types, inspect their artwork and ‘take a positive feeling away’ with me?” But something about the strangeness of the whole day (which may turn into another blog post one day), and the insistence of the American woman, told me that it was important and would be worth the extra effort. So I set off down the detour path…the road less travelled, if you like.
When I arrived at the house there was no-one in sight and it was eerily quiet. The American woman had talked about a thronging and vibrant community, with children and animals running round, paintings and hand-crafted items on display and a welcoming, “buzzy” vibe that felt infectious and which drew you in. I began to ask myself if I was at the right place. But outside the house was a lovely, under-cover seating area, with stools fashioned from logs of wood, Bohemian-type furniture and large, patterned cloth covers draped all around, and that gave me heart that I might be where I was supposed to be.
La Casa del Alquimista
I went up to the half-ajar door that led off from this area and called out “Hola!” to attract the attention of anyone who might be home. No reply. Undeterred, having just invested 3kms of walking in the hope of a worthwhile experience, I tentatively entered the house and ventured another “Hola”, a little more loudly, as I approached another half-open door. And that was when Antonio appeared.
For a moment I was taken aback because he looked so familiar but, when he offered to make us both tea and invited me to sit outside and wait, my memory pulled out the relevant corresponding file and I realised that this was not the community I’d been told about but, rather, the home of a man who was something of a Camino institution; mineral artist Antonio Bello, who I’d seen talking at length on a film that had been made about the spiritual aspect of the Camino, some time before.
Antonio Bellowith one of his mineral works of art
Antonio reappeared with the freshly-made tea, explained that his son and daughter-in-law were out shopping and suggested that we sit down and talk, which we did, uninterrupted, for more than an hour. Our talk was incredibly wide-ranging. He listened as much as he spoke. And he said many things to me that I remember; the whole experience vastly repaying any physical investment I’d made in walking the extra kilometres that day. But there was one particular thing that I felt moved to share here. The thing that came to mind during Mass last week; particular words that he spoke to me during our conversation. And these were those words:
“The Way of the Rose is a hard one. To reach the flower you must climb the stalk and the stalk has thorns that can harm you. They can cause great pain and, in some cases, even death. You have to understand this if you want to choose this way”
A couple of weeks before, again during Mass, I’d found myself thinking about why the Catholic Church’s doctrine appears to be so wedded to the concept of suffering, pain and sin, most particularly in its depictions of Jesus, bloodily crucified on the cross. This wasn’t a new theme for me; it was one that puzzled me at length while I walked the Northern Camino route in the Summer of 2017. I wrote in my journal at the time that, just for once, I’d like to see a more hopeful image of Jesus in a church somewhere to redress the balance…and was greeted a few days later by the statue shown in the photograph below:
That ‘different perspective’ is one of the main reasons that I chose to begin regularly attending Mass at the church in neighbouring La Oliva, during my time in Fuerteventura. The sermons that the priest gives are so human, positive, realistic but full of love. In the first Mass that I attended he spoke about “taking whatever speaks to you from the Bible, or any source (a conversation, a song, something that you read) no matter how small, and feeling free to disregard the rest”. He said “You’ll know when you hear words that are meant for you. You won’t need anyone else to interpret them for you. That’s your job”, which resonated with me as ‘the truth’.
He teaches enjoyment of life as it is…”a relaxed coffee with your neighbour; the admiration of a beautiful woman or man that you see; making a quiet moment for someone who needs it; investing the effort to find harmony with someone whose opinion is different to your own”. He talks about “Being grateful every day for all that we have: our health, our families, our good fortune to live as a free men and free women.”
His mantra is ‘Take maximum enjoyment from these things, the little joys of everyday life, rather than suffering with pointless desire for things we don’t have. If we focus our energy on gratitude and harmony, within ourselves and with others, what we desire will take care of itself.’ It sounds strangely similar to ‘New Age thinking’ but, more to my point, it sounds like the truth to me.
Last Sunday his message was ‘Actions matter far more than appearance or words and true belief in the Love of God is simply living that love through our example. We stop the spread of hatred and intolerance by not responding with similar negative energy when someone treats us unjustly, thoughtlessly, manipulatively or with disrespect’. And that’s when my memory of Antonio’s words to me were triggered, and when I finally understood one of the main reasons why suffering features so prominently in the doctrine of the Christian faith.
The way I see it now, if we choose to live and act from a place of Love, then we will suffer, because we will encounter people who, for whatever reason, treat us thoughtlessly, carelessly, on occasion manipulatively and with disrespect. This is the reality of human life, human relationships and human interaction.
We all have sensitive egos and we always will have, no matter how many meditation, psychotherapy, religious re-birthing or Ayahuasca sessions we may choose to undertake. Such practices may well help us to peel back the layers of our identity, to develop greater understanding of ourselves, our limitations, our automatic reactions and our untapped but enormous potential and gifts. But fallible, sensitive human beings we all are and so we’ll all remain. I think this is an inescapable fact of life.
Mineral artwork by Armiche Bello León, from La Casa del Alquimista
Even Jesus, seen as the epitome of ‘the Divine in human form’ for all Christian believers, is shown within Christianity’s most sacred text (the Bible) demonstrating anger, frustration, impatience, exhaustion and, even in the moments before his death, severe spiritual doubt. Why? Because, as well as being divine, he was also human and so are each of us.
What I now understand far more clearly is that, each time I choose ‘the Way of the Rose’ (which, for me, is the path of gentle, non-aggressive and non-retaliative strength), I will feel pain. My ego’s pain, which will always want me to defend it, which will urge me to ‘respond in kind’ when faced with open or covert aggression from others and which will have to suffer the wounding of its ego pride when I don’t.
Choosing a gentler, more considered, less immediately-satisfying response takes effort, control, reflection, wisdom and grace. But I believe it’s a skill that we all have the capacity to learn. And I don’t mean ‘silent, passive acceptance’ either. I mean ‘active acceptance’. Finding the words or actions, when we feel an absence of respect from others, which demonstrates our non-aggressive strength. A strength that is mature, noble, wise, creative and healing; for ourselves and, potentially, for others…if they choose to take up the opportunity and make the effort to reflect on what, between us, took place.
I’m under no illusion that it’s easy. I realise, from painful personal experience, that there’s a turbulent ocean of emotion between cherished theory and effective practice, day-to-day. But I believe it’s a painful path worth walking because its destination is inner peace. And, I also believe that, the more we choose to adopt it, the more we help to generate and create peace in the lives of others too.
Antonio Bello died a year ago in January but I know that the way he lived his life touched many people and the wisdom he shared with me, during that hour we spent talking together, will continue to help me in the years ahead. He believed, as I do, that we’re all here to walk our own particular ‘Life Camino’, that each of us has a different Way of the Rose, and that it’s up to every one of us, if we accept the challenge, to discover exactly where our path leads.
So, to anyone who consciously decides to make that choice, I wish you a “Buen Camino”, a safe and healing journey and many spiritually-enriching encounters along your Way.
“What you have despised in yourself as a thorn opens into a rose.“
La Casa del Alquimista continues to operate as an art gallery, a peaceful place of reflection and personal meditation, and a donativo-based overnight stop for pilgrims walking the Camino (no fixed charge; you give what you feel moved to). It is now run by Antonio’s son, Armiche, who I’ve never met but who, by all accounts, has inherited his father’s artistic skills and open-minded, open-hearted way of living. If you’re interested in finding out more, their Facebook page can be found at the following link: ‘La Casa del Alquimista’.
I’ve been told in the past that I have ‘a way with words’. Sometimes someone says it when I write something that appeals to them. Sometimes it’s when I’ve listened to what someone has said, responded with the underlying message that I’ve heard, and been told “That’s exactly what I was trying to say but I couldn’t find the words”.
But creating this blog has taught me that ‘finding the right words’ to share my true thoughts and feelings is a bit like deciphering an obscure, internal code and more challenging than I originally thought. And maybe that’s the important and personal message for me. ‘To learn how to do anything well, you first have to start doing it and then you just have to keep trying...’
Last week a friend took the time and trouble to send me some thoughtful feedback about her views on my last post (Blessed be the Navel-gazers). She included things that she agreed with and things that she saw differently. And responding to that feedback was a great learning exercise for me in how to practice what I preach.
Some points she raised immediately rang true for me and will definitely help me in writing future blogs. Others showed me the limitations of language and the many different ways that what we write and say can be interpreted by others. But one of the most interesting questions she posed was “What if being true to ourselves has the potential to hurt others?” Should we still choose the path of personal truth?
It took me a long time to find the right words to respond to this, which helped me greatly in getting to the core of what I truly believe (beyond the simple slogan ‘We should all be true to ourselves!‘). And this was the gist of my reply:
“When I talk about “Being true to ourselves” I don’t mean “Telling everyone exactly what we think of them” I mean “Not pretending to ourselves or others that we’re feeling something we don’t feel or that we’re agreeing with something we don’t agree with”.
I mean recognising that any uncomfortable feelings we might have in particular situations (eg: anger, impatience, irritation, anxiety, fear) will always have an important message for us about something we’d rather not face and are worth inward reflection (if we want to learn more about ourselves and about our relationships). And, if we find that the message is so important that we need to give voice to our feelings, then choosing the least provocative and most respectful way of doing this. Because only by adopting this attitude can we have any hope that the other person will truly hear us (ie: speaking from a place of compassion for ourselves and for others).
I believe that we only truly learn how to do something well by actually, repeatedly, doing it and then learning from our experience. And, I also believe, we only build true self-respect by being as congruent as possible (ie: living outwardly in line with what we believe inwardly).
Anyone can adopt the “I’m right and you’re wrong” stance, or the “I’ll agree with you just to keep the peace” stance, but it takes compassion and skill (which only comes through practice, trial and error) to learn the “I think I have something valid and worthwhile to say, but it differs from what you believe” stance. And, importantly, to allow others to do the same. And this is the skill that I’m learning how to hone and develop in myself through my personal relationships and through my blog posts.”
I do believe that ‘finding our true voice’ in any situation is an important, respectful and honourable thing to do and that constant avoidance of this can lead to us becoming disingenuous, at worst two-faced, and more distant from our best, and truest, selves. I don’t think that we just show disrespect to others when we behave in this way, I also believe that we dishonour ourselves. Because not ‘giving a voice’ to what our heart truly feels, in the most mutually-compassionate way we can, may be a one-off choice, or it may become a habit and then our normal behaviour which, ultimately, helps no-one.
The more often we speak from a place of personal truth the more often we demonstrate the belief that this person is wise enough and strong enough to hear what I feel in my heart and, it’s my belief that, the risk of doing this with people we have close relationships with is outweighed by the potential reward of deeper, more honest and more loving relationships as a result.
BUT, and it’s a very important ‘but’, it’s the way in which we do it that will reveal the truth of what we’re feeling inside.
If we speak from a place of aggression (be it open or passive, through our tone or the use of clever, undermining words) I believe we create energy that neither reflects true compassion for ourselves nor respect for others. If I do this, what I hear (when I take the time and trouble to reflect on it) is the repressed anger or fear of my most vulnerable self, which felt that it wasn’t being treated with the respect that it deserves. Or that someone else was giving voice to beliefs that felt threatening to my own, and which I use as an anchor for my self-image, self-belief and identity.
And, particularly if I express that anger or fear in the form of judgement of another instead of asking myself “What triggered those feelings within me?”, then I’m missing a valuable opportunity to learn more about myself and about why I behave in the ways that I do.
To me, compassion is a gentle practice and discipline, a loving practice and discipline, an open-handed way-of-being rather than a finger-pointing one. And I believe that self-compassion and compassion for others are inseparably bound together, because the way that we speak to and deal with ourselves will be reflected in the way that we speak to and deal with others, and vice versa.
I think that the more we open ourselves to looking closely and compassionately at the most vulnerable and needy parts of us (which every one of us carries around inside us, whether we’re prepared to admit it to ourselves or not) the more we allow the possibility that this part will have a voice when we speak in dialogue with others. And, because we’ve given that part of us the respect of being truly seen and heard, it won’t speak in aggressive or defensive language, but rather, it will help us by finding calmer, kinder and clearer words to speak; words more likely to build bridges, rather than to burn them.
But I also feel the need to add a proviso here, about seeing things as they truly are. There will be people who deliberately choose not to hear us, no matter how compassionately, calmly or clearly we form our words. This may be because ‘not hearing others’ has become an effective coping strategy for them; amuses them in some way; or leaves them feeling that they’ve ‘retained the upper hand’, all in an attempt to, inwardly, feel more secure.
These are situations, relationships and people that are uniquely individual and personal to each of us and I believe we must each make our own decisions about how best to deal with them, from a starting point of loving-kindness for ourselves.
When I walked my first Camino in 2015 I stayed overnight in the Convent hostel of León and met a young Spanish man named Matías, at breakfast the following morning . He spoke perfect English, but was trying to encourage me to converse in Spanish, when my grasp of the language was virtually non-existent at the time. I became more and more embarrassed and frustrated with myself, at my lack of ability to converse, and more and more reluctant to continue the friendly conversation. But my reluctance, embarrassment and frustration disappeared in the presence of this young man’s persistence and gentle kindness. He simply looked me in the eye, smiled, and in very a gentle tone said “It’s OK…just try…”
I believe that, whether I´m trying to find the right words to express my true feelings in a particular situation or to build longer-term bridges of mutually-respectful and honest relationship with others, it’s always worth “just trying…” to give my true feelings a voice.
It will seldom feel easy. I may look ridiculous and be embarrassed at times. It needs acceptance that I could meet resistance, ridicule and, on occasion, aggression and rejection from others, particularly if they´re unwilling to look at and deal with their own sensitive and vulnerable selves. But, just as any of us has experienced when learning how to ride a bike or to speak a new language, the stumbling, the getting-it-wrong, the looking or feeling stupid are all just a necessary and integral part of the learning process itself.
I know from personal experience that acknowledging, respecting and giving a voice to my most vulnerable self within, repeatedly and often enough, builds my level of courage to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway‘ in almost any situation in life. I believe that when we do this, hesitatingly, gradually, but more and more often, we build our sense of inner dignity, truth and strength. And I’ve learned that when others instinctively feel this within us they respond to it positively, and ultimately benefit from it, if they’re seeking the same within themselves.
But this is a slow and gradual growth process, a process that comes from within and that draws from within rather than always looking outside for acceptance, validation and love. It’s a process that requires us to ‘see ourselves as we truly are’, without judgement, and to recognise both the vulnerability and the value of that person. Only then can we begin to see every encounter with others as a new opportunity to give our truest self a voice and to silently encourage him or her with the gentle words “It’s OK…just try“…
There are few things that engage the human psyche more completely than a good story, well told. Whether it’s the story we tell ourselves about our past, our lives, who we are or who we want to be; the one we tell about other people, and their relationships with us; the story of the world and how magical or doomed we believe it to be; or the multiple and ever-expanding stories of our history, our ancestors and God…our appetite and capacity for story creation and elaboration seems universal and insatiable.
Ideas that seem too difficult, obscure, unpalatable or uninteresting can be made simple, illuminating, engaging and satisfying when wrapped up in the enticing package of a story. Everyday lives that feel immensely challenging, too rooted in ‘the real world’ or spirit-sapping in the physical, mental and emotional demands that they place on us can be softened into tolerance with the comfort of a good tale. And each of us is, in some ways, a walking, talking, acting and reacting compilation of the stories that we’ve accumulated and progressively placed our faith in during the course of our lives.
Every encounter and relationship that we become involved in carries the seed of a story within it, which we help to sow, water and bring to some sort of blossoming happy ending or tragic fruition. To be a human being is to be a lover and co-creator of stories, whether we like it or not, and our only free choice seems to be in the sort of stories that we choose to co-create.
We can tell ourselves that we are (or should be) above these things, that our level of conscious-awareness, awakening or enlightenment enables us to rise above the ‘illusory Story World’ that surround us. But the truth is that history, our dreams or any overheard conversation about a deeply personal matter will prove the lie of this self-professed belief. To be a human is to be a creator, sustainer, teller, reteller and liver of stories.
My personal storybook took an unexpectedly enlightening and enjoyable turn this week, when I was invited by my brother to make Facebook posts of 7 black & white photos, on 7 consecutive days, depicting my everyday life with no additional explanation or comments. My initial reaction was “I like the fact that you asked me, but I don’t take part in these sort of nomination challenges because they don’t fit with my internal image of who I believe I am (ie: my story of myself). But then the plot thickened…
My niece, who I love dearly, added a little ‘Love’ reaction to my brother’s invitation…and that set me thinking. My Facebook posts tend to be ‘positively-inspiring’, ‘thought-provoking’ or ‘spiritually-uplifting’ in nature and focus, with the odd ‘personal update with photos’ sprinkled in for good measure. But here was Sally telling me (in my own version of this particular story) “I’d love to see more of your everyday life”. So my internal dialogue of “I don’t do this sort of thing” became “I’ll do this one ‘viral Facebook challenge’ but I won’t nominate anyone else…because I don’t believe in these challenges in principle”.
My first post was of a picture that I have pinned up in my current home; a Spanish motivational message, printed on a paper napkin, that I made a cardboard frame for and carry with me to put up wherever I find myself.
I have various motivational and uplifting sayings pinned up around my current home so, I thought rather cleverly, I’d post a different photo of these each day as a way of continuing to share positive messages and maintain my principle of ‘not really doing these Facebook chain-reactions’.
But, as I wandered around that day doing different things, two realisations slowly worked their way into my consciousness. The first was “That would make a good picture of what I’m seeing today!” and the second was “If you’re not going to post photos of what you’re actually seeing and doing, what are you really sharing of yourself and what’s the point in taking part?” So Day 2 wasn’t a motivational message, it was a photo of the uplifting and naturally-beautiful coastline of Fuerteventura, made all the more striking for being in black & white.
By Day 3 I realised, with surprise, that I rather enjoyed taking part in this social media exercise and also that I enjoyed seeing the photos of friends’ lives, with no explanations. The experience of seeing what they’d chosen to share, admiring the creative photos that some had selected and adding a little more information to ‘my story of each person’ were all things that gave me great, and unexpected, pleasure. So my thinking about the exercise changed again into “Well, if it’s given me this much pleasure it might give other people pleasure too so, with a little tweeking of the wording (inviting some friends to take part, rather than challenging them), my Day 3 picture included an invitation to someone else to take part; as did each subsequent day after that.
And the whole experience reminded me of things that I’ve already realised in the past but, somehow, had forgotten again. Most importantly, that when I stop telling myself who I believe I am, when I stop striving to live in line with my principles and just allow myself to be, that a peaceful sense of ease descends on me and brings with it the easy joy and pleasure that comes from little, deeply-human things. I was reminded that I feel and embody genuine love for myself and others when I think, feel and act from a place of openness, gentleness, non-judgement, curiosity and ease. And, as this particular ‘windmill in my mind’ began turning again, I also remembered something about the Inuit culture and belief, which a close friend once explained to me as we walked the Caminode Santiago together. A belief best explained in the following three words…
Isuma-tu, means a sense of wisdom, a deeper knowing which, when people tune into it, allows them to becomeIsumatu, meaning storytellers, in their own right. And that, if they do this often enough, they eventually grow into Isumataq; people capable of creating a space for others to share and experience their own stories, without judgement, in a gentler, more self-accepting way which, in turn, allows their own inner wisdom to awaken, to reveal itself and to truly flourish.
We are meaning-making beings and we make meaning through stories. We not only have ‘our Story’ about our past, our present and the potential of our future, stories are the cipher through which we decode everything in the world around us. Stories do not distract our mind from other things, they are the way that we assimilate information and create a functional or dysfunctional sense of ourselves, our experiences and other people.
Sometimes we use historical stories, from our own lives or from our collective human experience; sometimes we use the ‘current accepted story’ of our society, or of our secular or religious communities; and sometimes we use fictional, fantastical or mythical stories, that connect to something deeper within us, the imagination that lies within.
The mind is an immensely powerful creative gift and its fuel is the imagination. The imagination is how we, as a creative species, created every man-made thing that exists on our planet today. It is the foundation and cornerstone of every discovery and advancement in scientific thinking and of the physical manifestation of that thinking into technological progress and material reality.
Our individual imaginations are one of the ways that God empowers us to embody the force of creation within our lives. We can allow that creative force to enslave us, to ‘put the Fear of God’ into us by repeatedly belittling ourselves, and wasting the power of our imaginations on a story given to us by someone else. Or we can praise, worship and embrace ‘the Love of God’ that our imaginations represent, by honouring the unique and powerful gift we’ve been given and by using it to create our own never-ending, Life-enhancing stories.
When I allow myself to be human, when I take pleasure and joy from little things, when I think, feel and act from a place of gentleness, non-judgement and ease, these are the times when I feel I am writing and sharing a worthwhile, meaning-filled story of myself. A never-ending story of discovery, learning, acceptance, love, gradual adjustment and growing inner peace. And, in repeatedly returning to this realisation and trying to embody it day-by-day, I am also trying to create a small space where others might feel moved to do the same…
Integrate, connect, draw a line between your mind, your body and your heart. For me it’s about telling a story and those are the characters. We show up each day and we write each chapter, each page, each sentence by integrating those three things: our Mind, our Body and our Heart…Namaste”
I’m living for a few weeks in the northern part of Fuerteventura, close to the large and developed tourist centre of Corralejo, but nearer, geographically, to its lesser-developed and more charming coastal cousin, El Cotillo. Where Corralejo boasts a nature reserve, miles of sand-dune beaches, frequent English signage and a touristy ‘main drag’, El Cotillo has a smaller, rockier, wilder coastline, a more hand-painted, bohemian atmosphere and little cafes and restaurants where locals can often be seen and heard.
Corralejo is where the large surf schools congregate and little ‘tutor groups’ of students, keen to learn the challenging craft of ‘riding the waves’, are seen dotted along its beaches. Some groups are stretching their limbs in unison, others are collectively lying prostrate on their sand-beached boards, but all end up excitedly paddling out on their eventual virgin voyages to commune with the vast and endlessly-inviting waves.
El Cotillo, in contrast, is where the novices progress to, and where those ‘bitten by the surfing bug’ are seen standing at the water’s edge, sand between their toes, eyes fixed firmly on the sea before them, boards held reverently at their sides. They’re reading the wind and watching the waves, before launching themselves into the advancing tide.
The conditions there are more unpredictable, the surf is stronger, the waves are larger, and the currents can carry a hidden menace beneath their surface swell. But surfing must have the same addictive quality of any other strong compulsion because, despite the many red flags all along the beach when I visited there this week, the surfers just ignored them and, using their own internal barometers of safety, kept wading out repeatedly to meet and ride the incoming tide.
Watching them, as the light slowly dimmed, was a beautiful and awe-inspiring experience. Not just because of the skill that several of them displayed but, even more so, because of the time, effort, patience and perseverance that the majority employed. Time and time again they paddled out, sat waiting on their boards for the ‘perfect wave’ then attempted, valiantly and often unsuccessfully, to harness its power and to ride it, upright, in to shore. At first sight, it looked like ‘95% preparation and effort’ and ‘5% fun’. But, like all things, with a little more watching and a little more reflection, I began to see it in a different light.
I began to see the pleasure that the whole process gave to them, from the initial ‘reconnaissance on the beach’, right through to the final ‘catching of the wave’. How completely absorbed and committed they were to each part of it. How each phase contributed to the honing and refining of their judgment, physical strength, flexibility, balance, confidence and eventual skill. I began to understand why the atmosphere of El Cotillo, with its larger ‘experienced surfer’ population has such a laid back, contented, quietly-confident and easy-going feel.
I mentally contrasted it with Corralejo and its fast food franchises, its high street chain stores, its ‘Fish Foot Spas’, ‘Vape Emporiums’, and waves of restless, roaming tourists looking for ways to fill their attention and their time…and I began to understand. One group of holiday-makers was connecting with the natural force of Life and strengthening its force within them, and the other was seeking distraction and perhaps, in the process, subduing their spirits and souls.
I believe that when we willingly and repeatedly engage with Life, in all its natural manifestations, we slowly hone our confidence, enlarge our perspective, discover what we’re capable of and what latent potential we still have within. Some of us, like the surfers, do this by testing ourselves physically, others choose to take up the mental or emotional challenges offered to them by Life.
It reminded me of something that I’d jotted down in my journal one day, while I was still living on El Hierro:
‘When we loosen our tight grip on fear, we balance ourselves with Life…and when we balance ourselves with Life, fear loosens its tight grip on us.“
It was a phrase that came to me from nowhere, when I was watching the sea crashing onto the rocks at the harbour town of La Restinga one day. I wrote it down and then thought “That all sounds very poetic, simple and well, but how on earth do we ‘loosen our tight grip on Fear’?”
But this week, watching the surfers, I think I saw how…
I’m a person who likes to read. My favourite topics are ones that circle around or dive straight into the ‘bigger questions’ of life. What is Love? What is God? Why are we here? How should we live? These are questions that have been posed and answered, in various and often conflicting ways, since the beginning of time, language and civilisation itself. Anyone who’s ever felt baffled, frustrated, wounded or enchanted by questions such as these – often following painful or challenging experiences in their lives – is in good company.
They’re questions that’ve been chewed over by some of history’s greatest minds (eg: Socrates; Plato; Leonardo da Vinci; Mahatma Gandhi; Leo Tolstoy; Carl Jung; Snoopy the Dog) all of whom reached their own conclusions and then tried to convey them through their theories, their writing or their established ‘schools of thought’.
Each new theory, philosophy, scientific explanation or religion adds another dimension or ‘wave’ of theology or opinion and they all contribute, in their own unique way, to forming part of the great, relentless, unfathomable ‘Sea of Knowledge about Life’. But like the ‘novice tutor groups’ on the surfer beaches at Corralejo they only really offer us the basic principles and ideas that give us the confidence to enter the water. Everything that comes afterwards, in the form of our own personal experience, is where the real learning takes place.
That’s why, by facing our fears whenever they confront us, by taking note of any warning flags but then using our own barometer of safety (our intuitive voice within) we learn how to gradually build our unique and individual strength and resilience and we slowly begin to ‘balance ourselves with Life’.
We learn, through experience, which wave of opinion we should let pass and which we should catch hold of and attempt to ride. We learn that we are not just harried by other people’s strong and strident opinions, but that we have many conflicting and bullying ones of our own. We learn to test our judgement about situations and other people, in order to enlarge the boundaries of our self-belief.
And, little by little, we learn the value of repeatedly paddling out to meet each new experience that Life sends our way. We learn how to whole-heartedly focus our attention on engaging with each experience, and on any waves of emotion that come trailing in their wake. And, over time, we begin to notice that Fear is slowly releasing the tight grip that it once held on us, and that our balance is starting to become good enough to stand up for who we are.
I’m still firmly in the ‘novice class’…but I’m slowly learning…
(If anyone is curious to learn more about surfing in general, or about the best locations for surfers of all abilities in Fuerteventura, http://ciudadsurf.com/is a great website to visit, providing a range of information about the sport, its equipment and its mental, physical and health benefits).
This week I visited the South of the island and took a walk along its linked and seemingly-endless stretch of golden, sandy beaches.
I set off with the intention of exploring a little, walking to a ‘Spit’ of land I could see in the distance and then returning to my starting point to sit and soak up some sunshine before heading back home. But, like most of Life, the initial plan was only the starting point and the real meaning behind it was hidden in what I encountered and experienced along the way:
Little rocky outcrops to pick my way over, draped in various shades of luminous green and studded with gem-like limpets and sinister, scurrying crabs.
A gentle surf-line of ebbing tide that whispered “Surrender your naked feet to my tender touch and cooling flow”; a Siren’ssong that I was happy to be seduced by.
A fortress-line of tiny sand castles being skilfully constructed by an army of tiny hands; each strategically dotted along the length of the beach. None within sight of each other, but all driven by the same tiny human need to design and construct something visible, something tangible on the endlessly-shifting sands.
Long, expanding rivulets of incoming tidal water that temporarily blocked my path, each one offering me the choice: ‘Wade in and get your feet wet or make a cautious, drier detour and take the long way round’.
And so the walk went on…and on.
Hotels, surf schools, sun loungers and parasols came and went, slowly retreating into the distance, as mountains, desert plains and endless ocean and sand lay waiting for me, invitingly, up ahead. Constant desert landscape to my right, vibrant, dancing ocean to my left and only beach, and more beach, the pathway in between.
It was the sort of moment where philosophical thoughts begin to form and so they did…slowly and comically at first:
“Life’s a beach and then you die…”
But then “I’ll have to let go of my original plan soon, walking out to the Spit of land, and consider heading back. I suppose I’ve failed in my objective for the day.”
“How human”, my inner voice said, “to focus on the failed objective and not the joy of the little things that surfaced in its place”.
As I retraced my steps I thought more about this, how the feeling of failure is always linked to comparison and to somehow falling short. Comparison with our original plans; comparison with other people; comparison with unrealistic standards or ideals of perfection, in behaviour, in selflessness, in appearance or in measures of achievement. And I thought about how we continually dampen our spirits and dull our inner light each time we choose to take this ‘thinking path of comparison’.
I looked out at the sunlight glistening magically on the moving water. I looked out at the solid horizon of mountains silhouetted in the distance and I felt the spirit of peace that they both convey, in their own unique way. One dancing, vibrant, life-filled kind of peace. One calm, solid, silent kind of peace. And I thought “Failure is just a meaningless human construct. Comparison is just a human and limited way of thinking, living and being, hard-wired into us through generations of conditioning and a daily ritual of repetition.
Neither of them has anything to do with this all-consuming Spirit of Life that I can feel all around me and, fleetingly, within me too. Neither of them has anything to do with finding, creating or cultivating peace within or with sharing that inner peace with others in any way.
This can only be done by accepting my ‘imperfections’. This can only be done by sighing and smiling at my human need to continually judge, myself and others, and then by letting all feelings of ‘failure’ around those judgements go.
Our whole lives are really all about letting the liquid tide of dancing light sweep in and wash away the ‘sand-castles’ that we build around who we think we are, or who we think we should be. And then looking up, looking around us, looking at the beautiful, inviting horizon…and continuing to walk the endless and unfolding beach of Life ahead…