Pilgrim’s lessons for 21st century challenges

1 February 2013

College of Nurses co-chair JUDY YARWOOD shares some touchstones or life lessons for today discovered by a friend while following an ancient pilgrim’s trail.

Wading through the reading pile gathered over the year is one of the joys of holidays.

This year a friend’s reflections on a pilgrimage she’d recently completed caught my eye. Known as ‘The Camino’, this Christian pilgrimage, dating back to medieval times, has people from different points in Europe walking to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compestela. While the penitential aspect for pilgrims of yesteryear has faded, this more and more popular walk can provide spiritual solace in an increasingly spiritless world, along with physical and mental health benefits. Reflecting on this life-changing experience, my friend identified six touchstones – or lessons for life, if you like –

for challenging times. All of which, are, I think, relevant for those working in the health sector, which if nothing else, is certainly facing challenging times! See what you think …

Context is everything, so picture two sisters walking the Camino from a small village in the south of France. This involved walking over and around the Pyrenees and through four provinces, in both hot and cold weather, for 30km each day. The journey was mentally relaxing, spiritually uplifting, emotionally and physically challenging, and ultimately, a reminder of important ‘life lessons’. 

Lesson 1: Get over yourself

When getting by in only two sets of clothing, sleeping in cramped accommodation with up to 120 strangers, and walking some days with inadequate food or water, the ability to ‘get over yourself’ and find humour in every situation was critical. 

The key to ‘getting over yourself’ is self-awareness. How we see and experience the world is only how we see and experience it, no one else. We all carry well-buried self-limiting beliefs, negative attitudes, and expectations about ourselves and others that unwittingly hold us back or tie us in knots. And when faced with challenges, when push really does come to shove, we will find we can actually do more than we may ever have thought possible. ‘Getting over yourself’ requires making no assumptions about anything and avoiding judgements, having no expectations (of anyone or anything), and adjusting quickly to change. If we’re really clever, deliberately setting our intentions for each day and deliberately choosing the attitude we want to take into each day lifts our game and energy levels immediately.

Lesson 2: Self-care

Despite adequate preparation and preventative measures, leg injuries and blisters struck a week into the walk but recovery was relatively quick. Numerous pilgrims who weren’t fit or adequately prepared had a miserable time and struggled from the outset.

The key to self-care is embracing the ‘if it’s to be, it’s up to me’ motto. Self-care is our own responsibility and we can’t blame others for what we may or may not have done to date. Good, ongoing self-care strategies are essential to cope with everyday life and ordinary challenges, as well as extraordinarily difficult times. This necessitates healthy eating, regular exercise, reducing negative stress, having a range of strategies to manage multiple stressors, and having enjoyable, fun things in our life. Keeping one’s health and wellbeing is critical because if it’s lost,other losses inevitably follow.

Lesson 3: Let go

The best laid plans can go to pieces. It happens. Despite intentions to walk every step of the 800km route, leg injuries necessitated bus travel for a few days. 

The key to letting go requires us to stop railing against things we have no control over. It means identifying the things we can control and identifying the things that aren’t in our control – it pays to know the difference. It requires us to see the new situation simply as it is. There is no point analysing it to death or going on about it; alternative plans are needed, as is getting into gear, quick smart.

Lesson 4: Be in the present moment

Without the need to be ‘doing’ anything else than walking, the opportunity was to be truly human ‘beings’, fully engaged in the present moment – i.e. this minute, this hour, this morning.

The key to be in the present moment is to stop wasting energy and time looking back to how things were or looking too far forward on how things might be. It is easy to ruminate endlessly on grievances, missed opportunities, past successes, or disappointments. Too much focus in the past or on the imagined future means we miss now – the present. The challenge is to remember that this moment, this day, will never come again. The past is gone, the future isn’t known, and there is no guarantee we’ll have a tomorrow, so all there really is, is now. We need to focus on that.

Lesson 5: Ask for help

The help of strangers was relied on for clarifying directions and finding transport, medical facilities, accommodation, banks, and shops. 

The key to asking for help is to understand it isn’t a sign of weakness; instead, it is a sign of self-awareness. It is about realising that sometimes time is of the essence and input sooner rather than later is the best option. 

Lesson 6: Receive gracefully

On a number of occasions, villagers and fellow pilgrims offered food, drink, medicine, help with accommodation, and unsolicited, much-needed directions in random acts of kindness.

The key to receiving gracefully is to ‘get over ourselves’. People most used to giving freely to others may find it strange and uncomfortable being a recipient of other people’s generosity or kindness, yet receiving is the other side of the giving coin and needs embracing. A reminder, too, that gratitude needs to extend beyond an immediate need to all that is good and great in one’s life. A ‘gratitude list’, reviewed daily, is one way to do this. Entitlement attitudes and deficit thinking are best avoided.

There is nothing new about these ‘life lessons’ – they are as old as time itself. Yet in the busy-ness of personal and working worlds, and in the context of extraordinarily difficult or challenging events, they can be forgotten. There is no time like the present then to start anew. ✚

The touchstone lessons were written by personal management coach Sue Dwan of Dwan and Associates © 2012.