The Mountains and the Valleys…

There was a time when I would regularly visit a Chinese restaurant with a friend, partly because we enjoyed their food, which was delicious, but also because we’d visited Hong Kong together and it was an unspoken way of recreating a shared good memory from the past. We were always given two fortune cookies at the end of our meal and one that I particularly remember and liked said:

"To reach the highest mountains, sometimes we must cross the deepest valleys"

At the time, I had a habit of collecting these fortune cookie sayings, partly because I’m a pushover for a philosophical quote but mostly because they seemed to be largely inspirational, in their own, unique, fortune cookie kind of way. But the thing I most liked about them was how frequently they also incorporated the reality of the harder aspects of life, that can sometimes bring us down so suddenly and debilitatingly to our knees. For all their ‘fortune-cookie-pop-psychology-soundbiteness‘ I could still hear the echo of an ancient and essential truth within them.

And so it is with all things that speak to our hearts and souls, I believe, everything that touches the place of sacred truth that lives within us, whether written or spoken, read, seen or heard. Something inside us is stirred by it and whispers a quiet but unmistakeable “Yes”.

I heard the fortune cookie saying “To navigate your way successfully and positively through Life, you must accept your feelings of both sorrow and joy as an integral part of it because, if you deny this truth and choose to wallow in one, or falsely cling to the other, you will forever be mired in the no-man’s land of ‘half-living’ and ‘half-feeling’ that lies in between. It’s only by recognising the truth of these two opposites, accepting them as part of Life, feeling gratitude for them and facing them bravely, that we keep moving forward and keep learning along the way.”

If we try to artificially sustain one experience or emotional state we put immense psychological and spiritual pressure on ourselves because, in doing this, we fight the very nature of Life itself. To feel Life in all its fullness, and to accept that there’s a purpose in that fullness, having something important and inherent to teach us in and of itself, is the best way to leave ourselves open to hearing what it is that God is trying to say to us. I believe.

Sometimes we’ll hear His message in the experience of the ‘high’ or ‘low’ itself; sometimes in the effort and determination it took to reach the point where we were heading; sometimes by reliving the experience in our telling of it to someone else; and sometimes just in personal reflection and/or prayer. The gift of the message comes in many forms and ways but the important thing is having faith that there is a message, and allowing ourselves the time and space to hear it. More often than not, in my case, it’s been a message about valuing the gift of Life itself, in one form or another, recognising the value of the people within my life, or coming to appreciate the intrinsic value of myself, that lies at its core.

Our mountains can feel higher and something to truly celebrate, when we take the time to reflect on them with feeling, our valleys of darkness can feel less deep, when they help us to appreciate and be grateful for what we had, or what we have. And both can give us the perspective and encouragement to keep on going, when we find the courage to share them with others and so prove to ourselves that we truly are not alone.

This inspiring video illustrates the joy and wisdom that can be found, when we allow ourselves to fully experience both the real and symbolic mountains and valleys that come our way as part of Life. I hope you enjoy it and can take as much from it as I did.


Sometimes words don’t work.
Sometimes a candle-lit room, accompanied by the sound of rain, says more than the greatest philosopher.
Sometimes pain is our greatest teacher.
Sometimes those that give us life try to destroy us.
Sometimes time doesn’t heal our wounds.
Sometimes choosing life is harder than giving in to death.
Sometimes friends become our family.
Sometimes healing hurts more than the injury.
Sometimes we must let go in order to receive.
Sometimes we don’t live happily ever after.
Sometimes we must create distance, in order to find ourselves.
Sometimes we must embrace our fear and sit with our grief.
Sometimes tears come without reason.
Sometimes it is better to receive than to give.
Sometimes it is “and” and not “or”.
Sometimes there is no explanation.
Sometimes stillness is the best medicine.
Sometimes breathing is all we can do.
Sometimes we are shattered.
And sometimes…
we are held.

(Poem by Carli Youndt, from the anthology Held: Blessings for the depths’)

Why not take all of Me?

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 the global 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 beartraps (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, false or 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 just battling 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 us feel 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…