The 9 Life Lessons I Learned on the Camino de Santiago

Sunrise in the Pyrenees, Day 2

Yeats once wrote, “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.”

After walking nearly 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago, I fully understand that sentiment.

The Camino was an intense physical challenge; I walked for five weeks, averaging 15 miles per day. I endured blood blisters, sunstroke, and severe muscle cramps, and sometimes was so much pain I could barely walk.

But mentally, it was even harder. Some days I was so sick of being mired in my repetitive, negative thoughts I wanted to throw my walking sticks and catch the next bus to Pamplona.

But in the end, I toughed it out and learned a lot of valuable life lessons in the process.

Planning ahead is often pointless.

On the Camino, I realized that I’m a lot more Type-A than I thought. At first, I tried to plan everything; how many kilometers I would walk, where I would stay each night.

A few days in, I realized all of this planning was futile. Why not just stop when I was tired, and eat when I was hungry?

I learned the only way to take the Camino, and life, is one day at a time. Planning for the future is often fruitless – everything could change before your perfectly planned future even arrives.

You can decide to feel joy at any moment.

While walking, I realized that at any moment I could decide to feel happy – it was like a switch I could flip. I could choose to ignore my aching knee or the trash-strewn highway, or the cyclical thoughts swirling in my head.

I would ask myself, “What if I could feel happy, right this second?”, and let go of all my discontent in that moment.

It’s amazing (and somewhat annoying) how well this works.

You don’t need make-up to feel beautiful.

I didn’t wear a drop of makeup on the Camino. It was so freeing; I could wake up and go, and rub my eyes without smudging my mascara.

After a few days of feeling uncomfortable being bare-faced, I started to feel normal. Not to mention my skin completely cleared up.

Foregoing make-up for five weeks made me realize I don’t need make-up to feel confident or beautiful. I can choose to wear it, but I don’t need it in order to feel good about myself.

You’re in it for the long-haul with your body. Treat it wisely.

If you don’t take care of your body on the Camino, you won’t make it to Santiago. Period.

After getting horrible blisters on my feet in the Pyrenees, I realized I would have to quit the Camino if I didn’t figure out to prevent them. So I started slathering my feet in Vaseline several times a day, which worked wonders. I also took the time to massage my calves with a heat rub every night and took rest days when I needed them.

On the Camino and in life, treat yourself as if you’re on a long journey. Because really, you are.

Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s not your problem.

On the Camino, I walked with a group of ten other pilgrims. We sang songs, drank red wine, and somehow became close friends despite not having a common language.

But there was one girl in the group who flat-out disliked me. At first, this bothered me; What’s her problem? Why is she nice to everyone but me?

This taught me a few lessons:

I’m not responsible for other people’s moods or feelings towards me.

I would rather be myself and have some people dislike me than be a watered-down version of myself.

As Laura Jane Williams said, “I’d have to be a pretty beige person to never be pissing anybody off. Beige isn’t my color.”

Everyone has their issues.

On the Camino, you end up having frank conversations within minutes of meeting people. After all, this may be your only interaction – you have to make it count.

Getting to know so many people’s inner lives taught me that everyone – even the most seemingly confident people – has insecurities. It’s just part of being human.

For example, I walked for weeks with a beautiful blond Swiss girl. She danced salsa at every bar, laughed loudly, and generally seemed like the most carefree, confident person.

But one night, after several glasses of wine, she confessed, “The truth is I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing.”

I realized if even if someone who seems so comfortable in her skin is afraid of saying the wrong thing, maybe we all are.

We don’t need a lot of things to be happy.

As much as I enjoy coming home to a comfortable, beautiful living space, in some ways I prefer the simplicity of living out of a backpack.

On the Camino, I had two outfits. Two outfits meant zero choices – I simply woke up and put on my cleanest outfit. Ta-da. Not having a lot of things freed up both time and mental energy.

I know this is an all-to-common platitude, especially on travel blogs, but we don’t need a lot to be happy. All I had was a sixteen-pound backpack, and I had everything I needed.

You have to identify your shame in order to let it go.

One day, while taking a water break, I decided to speak aloud my regrets. After hearing them out loud, I realized they weren’t as scary as I thought.

If you identify your shame, it becomes less threatening.

As Brené Brown says, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.”

So speak your negative thoughts out loud, or write them down. You might find that once you identify them, you’ll be able to let them go.

The people you surround yourself with make all the difference.

On the Camino, as in life, the people are everything.

I met so many amazing characters on the Camino: the hilarious German man who walked in his lederhosen, the adorable Korean family, the smiley Czech guy who called his slivovitz his ‘antiseptic’.

Some people I walked with for weeks, and others I spoke to only briefly. But no matter how long the relationship, I loved the camaraderie I felt with each and every pilgrim. It was like we were a school of fish all swimming in the same direction towards a common destination – and there was something beautiful about that.

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

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