The Paths We Take Tumble Together

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 5:30am
Photo by Naomi Pincher

The Paths We Take Tumble Together

In the wake of the election results, I’ve noticed an unsurprising trend in my many conversations, in person and online — uncertainty, fear, anger. I know I’m not alone in this observation.

Yet over the week of Thanksgiving, I remembered how I had recently been inspired by my friends Marc and Ed. They fell in love after meeting at a monastery and are now married, and they spent a chunk of this fall on a pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.

The pilgrimage route is known as “the Way of St. James,” and even more commonly as “the Camino,” and has been one of the most popular pilgrimage routes for Christianity since the Middle Ages. According to legend, the remains of St. James were transported from Jerusalem to northern Spain, where he was buried in the contemporary city of Santiago de Compostela. And as Marc and Ed commented, pilgrimages are a “way of praying in a very physical way,” and have traditionally provided the opportunity for supplication, atonement, and gratitude. Together, Marc and Ed decided that their journey would be one of gratitude.

In a blog post written months before their trip, they explained,

“It will be a journey of gratitude for these many years of God’s gift of our love and commitment to and for one another. It will be a journey in which we will hold in our hearts the intentions of all those friends who are supporting us.”

“What the pilgrimage will be in the end, what it will hold, and what it will reveal to us,” they concluded, “remains a mystery as does so much in life.” To find a sense of expansiveness and excitement in the uncertainty of such a well-trodden journey, with its history and spiritual reputation, struck me as such a powerful instance of mindfulness. Marc and Ed were not only choosing to write their own story, but to allow their story to unfold however it did.

In an early post on their blog — about a week into their journey — Marc and Ed began reflecting on the nature of their experience, and how they were to understand the collective journey versus their individual journeys. This, too, seems like a powerful way to “see the world with quiet eyes,” an idea coined by theologian Howard Thurman. “I think it’s fair to say there are really three pilgrimages going on with us,” they wrote.

“There’s our pilgrimage together but simultaneously we really each have our own personal journeys… We walk together, marvel at the stunning sights and visuals, and then there are times that can go for miles and miles in total silence, not a word spoken between us, just walking, just keeping our hearts open to each new day’s offerings.”

Whether we are physically with our close friends, family members, or partners in a given moment — or whether we are merely walking on the street beside strangers — Marc and Ed’s insight can be a general guiding principle for thinking about our fundamental interconnection. We can share our experiences — from expressions of political angst to admiration for a beautiful sunset — with the people we love and know, while at the same time sharing something else larger and more ineffable with all beings. We can walk together, conscious of that togetherness, or we can walk together as we walk alone.

On their pilgrimage, Marc and Ed not only had their collective journey and their independent journeys, but they also shared their walk with all of the other pilgrims on the route with them. They shared the pilgrimage with all the pilgrims before them. And all of their lives have, and have had, something to do with one another. We may not be able to comprehend the reasons for certain current events — related to the election or not — or why there is so much suffering in the world. But we can place faith in our interconnectedness, and know that our actions have an impact on our lives and others, if we acknowledge this shared recognition of humanity.

In terms of the day-to-day, Marc told me that the pilgrimage felt like:

“a very intense daily meditation practice, a long walking meditation where I was aware of every step and where my mind was free to reflect on whatever thoughts arose.”

Marc’s thoughts oscillated between inspiring ones — those that came up as they “climbed high into the Pyrenees or walked through amazing medieval villages that have barely changed in hundreds of years” — and others that were “penetrating and difficult.” Walking during these thoughts serves as a nice model for how to respond to these inevitable shifts we experience in our minds each day — a constant movement through constant change.

Ed supported Marc’s reaction that the Camino was “many things.” Poignantly, Ed likened the experience to being a rock in a rock tumbler, wherein:

“you put rocks of different shapes, sizes, colors, textures, some rough, some smoother into a barrel tumbler, turn it on so that the rocks all bump into and rub up against one another and after the process is complete and you take the rocks out each has been transformed into a new, smooth but different and unique thing of beauty.”

For Ed, “the tumble of Camino life” brought him — and all of the pilgrims — up against “joy, suffering, beauty, anger, frustration, depression, peace, chaos, pain, your past, your present, the unknowns of your future, your inevitable death. You just never knew.”

In a way, every day feels like a journey into the unknown, with the attendant possibilities of danger, defeat, and lost moorings. I try to remind myself, every day, that I can reframe this time as a time of pilgrimage, with attendant possibilities of profound companionship, unexpected strengths, and transformation.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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Sharon, when I came to your paragraph about how Marc and Ed had not only their shared journey and their individual journeys, but also a pilgrimage shared with all the others on the Camino and with all the pilgrims who'd walked the Camino before them, I began to weep, struck by the beautiful truth of our interconnectedness. I find myself looking ahead to January 20 as though I were peering at a vast and terrible storm boiling up on the horizon: "the end of the world as I have known it." But your reminder of how we are walking this path of life together--along with the truth that we can only be where we are right now, that what will happen in the future is completely unknown to us now--is reassuring. Thank you.

I came to the Onbeing website tonight in the hope I would read something to help me to deal with my own personal struggle at this present time. I am on holidays with my husband and 2 young sons, one of whom is our 5 year old son with non-verbal autism and an intellectual disability. My 5 year old son throws us all into a world of chaos on a daily basis often keeping us in a sleep deprived-state and in tense anticipation of the next near-miss, broken plate or food mess, or the next escape from our grip to run towards water or some other object that has caught his attention, unaware of moving cars and the myriad of other safety risks on his path. We came on holidays to get away from it all and I find myself in a state of angst and depression and anger and tiredness. In between these unhappy states I feel moments of peace and gratefulness and happiness because I can see my 5 year old is so much more capable than ever before and not as unpredictable as he has been in the past. We can even take him out on day trips with some success. I loved reading this article because it reminded me that my husband and I are both on this journey raising our sons. We are both on this journey and we have seen how this journey is transforming us as individuals and as companions. It is often easy to forget this as we both struggle through the day-in-and-day-out demands and hardships of our journey. I often take my husbands own pain, frustration and angst for granted and blame him for not giving me some time to re-group. But he is often struggling to have some time for himself too. This article has helped bring this to light for me and reminds me to be grateful that he is my companion and everyday he tries his best on this journey too.

Thank you for writing this, Rachael. With the daily challenge you have at hand, including the constant stress and lack of sleep, I hope you and your husband can both find the respite now and then that is so much more easily available to most others.
Many people allow themselves to become overwhelmed and run for comfort within lives so very much less demanding.
Best wishes for your family.

Your words are so touching, brave and honest. You make me re-evaluate any hardships I have in life right now. Sending you love and blessings. You might google Chris Martin (my son) who works with non-verbal and verbal autistic kid using poetry as a vehicle for expression and writes about this. He's taught me how much beauty there is going on in these kid's fertile minds. Wishing you and your family beauty on your path ahead.

Thankyou Gabby and Jere Martin for your heartfelt comments and Jere for putting me in touch with your son Chris and the work he is doing teaching autistic students poetry and sharing his insights. What wonderful work he is doing, and I feel fortunate to now know of it.

Thank you for sharing this. I've heard similar sentiments from family friends that walked this journey. What a beautiful and symbolic picture of what it means to journey together.

In response to our current climate, I'm borrowing words I heard about from a recent event in Chicago and focusing on proximity and uncomfortableness, to live into intentional proximity with those around me and to engage in experiences and conversations that may make me uncomfortable. This will be a compass and an aid to the unknown ahead.

My Wife Barbara and I were pilgrims on the Camino this Autumn. We were inspired by an observation of Thomas Merton's, that seems particularly relevant at these tumultuous times "“Pilgrimage is necessary”…” Sitting at home and meditating on the divine presence is not enough……..” Thomas Merton

I would like to share this simple process that begins with gratitude and ends with hope... Grace Trail. Thousands are walking it and talking it and I invite all of you to listen to this TEDX , Cracking The Grace Code: I think this may be helpful to many of you who would like to join into conversations that matter. Sending my best,
Anne Jolles, Creator of Grace Trail

This made me reflect on the enjoyable film called The Way with Martin Sheen, where the characters had just as stated here personal and community journeys. It is wonderful scenery too. lovely film

My partner and I walked the Camino in the Spring of 2016. I had hoped for it to be a great spiritual journey of quiet meditation, amazing enlightenment, collective awe and instead and of course I found myself walking with my same old thoughts, fears, frustrations and worries. As they say, wherever you go, there you are - this couldn't have been more true, even though I had hoped it to not be so.

Place doesn't seem to magically transform you completely but intent most certainly does. I have walked the Camino, I lived in Sedona, Arizona - being surrounded with beauty temporarily puts a band-aid on the soul but then you realize you must set your mind to bravely continue to put one foot in front of the other, uncertain as to where you are going and know life is all a big pilgrimage - and we must keep moving through the constant change and uncertainty because the journey will reveal as you said "attendant possibilities of profound companionship, unexpected strengths, and transformation."

I have since moved to a place that is cold, not pretty but full of community where I find myself smack up against all change all at once and if it hadn't been for my pilgrimage and fond memories of it - I'm not sure I would be able to bravely move through it all but now there so many due to conditions in America, that I know are walking bravely next to me.