Fear is the Key…

This post was written at the end of March, but now feels like the right time to publish it…

It’s more than two weeks since my last blog post and what a two weeks it’s been – in all of our lives.  How quickly the world and our experience of it can change.  How effectively Life teaches us to embrace the contradictions of our humanness: fragile and resilient in equal measure; generous or self-serving, depending on our choices and our learned responses to challenges, stress and fear.

My ‘blog silence’ had two main reasons: (1) the practical task of writing and posting the blog while walking the Camino each day, with only a mobile phone and no access to a computer, was more challenging than usual and, perhaps more to the point, (2) I didn’t know what to say.

I knew that this Camino was going to be a significant one for me from the day I decided to walk it but, as is almost always the case, it’s turned out to be so in ways that I didn’t anticipate at that time.  It’s confirmed for me something that I’d already come to understand is an essential truth in my life; namely that the things I fear the most (and do my best to avoid) Life will keep presenting to me in different ways, until I find the courage to finally face ‘the truth of what is’ and to consciously deal with it in a positive way.

Other people’s disapproval has always been a challenge for me and that’s seen me ‘bending myself out of shape’ in the past in an effort to try and keep myself ‘likable’ and inoffensive.  I believe whole-heartedly in the principle of harmony and in trying to create it and sustain it wherever possible.  And, although this does motivate a lot of my actions and decision-making, I’m talking about something different here.  I’m referring to my tendency to be passive or to keep silent when I know I should speak, particularly in the face of passive or open aggression from others.

Last week I found myself facing such aggression from strangers on social media, when the story of me continuing to walk the Camino after Spain had officially closed the route began to circulate and spread on Facebook. I received messages telling me that my behavior was disgraceful, that I should be put in prison and that I was mentally retarded.

I don’t share this experience to illicit any sympathy, I played my part in the creation of it and I accept that responsibility without excuse.  Neither do I share it to try and garner support or to reignite a topic that has now been laid to rest.  I share it because it resulted in an experience that taught me something valuable that I was ready to learn about myself and which others may find helpful too.

I learned that everyone is doing their best at the moment to come to terms with the strange and fear-filled times in which we now find ourselves and that, every day, we’ll each be presented with choices.

I learned that some of us will choose to turn away from or against others (letting fear or prejudice dictate how we react and relate to those who we don’t know) while others will turn towards our fellow human beings, even when they speak or act in ways that feel different and/or difficult for us to understand.

I believe that we were each gifted with compassionate and loving hearts at birth.  But that the world in which we live often encourages us to judge ourselves and others quickly, unfairly and harshly; as a way of masking difficult feelings of insecurity and inner fear that we’d rather not examine or face.

I believe this way of living gradually hardens our hearts, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty, and that it makes us quick to judge, shun and distance ourselves from those who appear ‘different’ to ourselves.

But I also believe that, for those of us who are honest enough to recognise that we all still have much to learn, there’s hope…and that hope comes in the form of our own fear, if we’re brave enough to look at it closely and to see it for what it is.

If we do we’ll see that, almost invariably, our fear is about the unknown.  And, so strong is society’s terror of the unknown and its collective denial of that terror, that we demand the illusion of certainty in all things.  We attempt to define and control all things, to keep our terror in the shadows and at bay.  We turn our anger and our hostility towards anyone who challenges the controls, certainties or ‘status quo’ that keep us feeling safe and, in doing so, we distract ourselves from the truth that Life is always in constant flux and that its very essence is uncertainty and change. 

And, in that respect, I see fear as ‘The Master Key’.  

I believe it’s a key that we can turn one way (locking us ever more securely in fortresses of certainty and judgmental beliefs) or the other way, opening ourselves up to the unknown, challenging and potentially painful experiences we often do our best to avoid at all costs.  

I believe that our experience and quality of life, in the brief time we’re here, will always be shaped, moulded and determined by how we choose to see the world and other people around us; and by how we choose to interact with them.

Fear is natural and human.  It is an instinctive response ‘hard-wired’ into us and designed to keep us safe from risk and harm.  But it has an immense and intrinsic power of its own; a ‘polar power’ with the capability to either unite and create new beginnings, or to divide, diminish and destroy.

If we fail to accept the reality that the fear each of us feels inside is generated by us, from within, then we will always look for external scapegoats to blame for our feelings of insecurity and, in extreme cases, choose to express that fear in verbal or physical abuse and attack.

We are fragile human beings because we will always experience fear, but I believe that we’re also an inventive and resilient species because we can learn how to harness and channel that fear to create rather than to destroy.

We are generous human beings (to ourselves and others) when we can accept that ‘getting it wrong’, stumbling on the stoney path of life, is part of how we all learn.  It’s an intrinsic part of our very fallible ‘humanness’.  And when we find the capacity within ourselves to reach out a metaphorical hand of understanding or a physical hand of help to others (most especially when we feel it’s undeserved) then we embody the generosity of spirit and compassion that is the best part of us.  It’s the essence that lies at the very heart of us and at the heart of all religious and spiritual belief.

When I allow fear to stop me from speaking or acting, I not only silence the voice of my intuition, I also silence the spirit of Life within me.  When I avoid saying or doing something that my intuition tells me I should, for fear of negative or aggressive reactions from others, I allow fear to make my choices for me, instead of consciously making them for myself.

When I choose to stand up to fear or to walk with it for a while,  although it often results in painful and difficult experiences, I never regret the decision and I always encounter heart-piercing gifts of Grace.  Gifts of Grace that bring me face-to-face with my human limitations, ego-based delusions, persistent vanity and the reality of my fragility. But which also constantly bless and protect me with unexpected good fortune and humbling acts of kindness and generosity from others.  

And for those reasons alone, if no other, it’s a path that keeps calling me onwards and one I’ll keep choosing to take.

The Way of the Rose & the Alchemist’s house

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 Bello with 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.

– Rumi

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’.

The Never-Ending Story

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.

“The best moment to be happy is now”

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.

Costa Calma, Fuerteventura

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 Camino de 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 become Isumatu, 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.

Tefía, Fuerteventura

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”

– Adriene Mishler