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26 August 2019

Making Ourselves by Walking - 10 Things I learn about Adult Development from Walking the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage (Part I)

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“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more;

wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.

By walking one makes the road,

and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again.

Wanderer, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea.

― Antonio Machado, Campos de Castilla

I spent the early part of August (2019) at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado and Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I went to connect more deeply with self, others, and the land. I was not disappointed. Both places are spectacular, with huge mountain cliffs, verdant landscape, and small but peaceful bodies of water. Shambhala Mountain Center has The Great Stupa and Ghost Ranch has at least two labyrinths to deepen inner connection. I also engaged in meaningful interactions with many people during my visits to these sacred centers. The physical space and the interactions I had with others were reminiscent of another time and journey.

This month marks three years since I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage that runs from Southern France across Northern Spain. In July 2016, I took a break from my doctoral studies to answer the call to pilgrimage. I was intent on finding answers to some of life’s commonly asked existential questions – who am I, really? and what am I doing here?

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is one of the most popular pilgrimages today. Many people who walk the Camino usually do so for religious, health, and cultural reasons. They want to find God, to be awakened, or to experience France and Spain’s culture. People also walk the Camino to overcome crisis, improve physical health, meet new people, and find clarity about their purpose and identity.

People have been walking the Camino since the 10thCentury. Catholics were the first to walk the path. In the 12thCentury, the Camino became the largest pilgrimage along with Jerusalem and Rome. Although it started out as a Christian journey, people from all religious traditions and those with no religious affiliation now walk the Camino pilgrimage. To be accurate, not everyone walks the Camino. Some people cycle, ride on horseback, or travel by car and buses. Provided a pilgrim can demonstrate evidence of having completed at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) by foot, or 200 kilometers (124 miles) by bicycle, the authorities in Santiago issue a document known as a Compostela, which traditionally constitutes the papal pardon granted to pilgrims. I didn’t walk the Camino to be pardoned of any sins, unless doubts about selfhood and uncertainty about my purpose in life are moral offenses. In that case, I may have been the greatest of sinners.

Walking the Camino pilgrimage changed my life. The “I” who took the first step on the Camino de Santiago in St. Jean Pied de Port in France on July 22, 2016 was not the same “I” who collected a Compostela (completion certificate) at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela in Spain 5 weeks later.  I experienced my inner and outer worlds in new and profound ways. I saw more clearly how I held my multiplicitous social labels and identities – Black, Jamaican, immigrant, outsider, and a history of material disadvantage – as problems that defined and limited me. I came to know and experienced the Self in ways that included, yet transcended, these labels and identities. Because of these experiences I came to view going on pilgrimages as a potential for advancing adult development.

Adult development, like pilgrimages, is a journey. The effects of a pilgrimage experience continue long after the pilgrim arrives at the sacred cite. As with adult development, the pilgrim only arrives to continue on to the next destination, and the next, and the next, and so on. Pilgrimages can be a catalyst for endings and for new beginnings. They can be a kind of in-between space or transition from one way of being in the world and making meaning to another. They invite us travellers to step outside of ourselves, to attend to the world in fresh ways, to be open to discovery and wonder, and to develop new meanings, habits, identities, and callings that contribute to human flourishing and the unfolding of life and love. Are these practices and experiences much different from those associated with developing? The Spanish poet Antonio Machado observed that we make the road by walking. What if we also make ourselves? Here are 10 lessons I learned about adult development from walking the Camino pilgrimage. Because of the length, I present these lessons in three parts. Below are the first five lessons. Buen Camino!


Paradox along the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage

  1. Asking the right questions can pave the way and catalyze development

Before starting out on my pilgrimage journey, I was intent on finding answers to some of life’s BIG questions: Who am I, really? What am I meant to be doing here that is mine to do? What is God? And what is real? Those questions dominated my personal, professional, and academic interests before and during the Camino. They were my constant companions. I did, as the poet Rilke counseled, lived the questions and also attempted to walk my way into new answers. Perhaps it was the meeting and uniting of those questions that called me to go on a pilgrimage. I believe that the existential questioning; the search within for a stable Self and purpose; the movement towards those questions, self, and purpose; and the integration of all these into life before, during, and after a pilgrimage helps create the fertile ground for shifts in meaning-making.

  1. The Self is an important guide in supporting shifts in meaning-making

Prior to walking the Camino, I denied my experience of living in-between my deepest sense of Self and the social identities that I inherited, borrowed, claimed, and projected, and between living as an immigrant in various countries and feeling as an outsider in my own. I belonged nowhere, but felt compelled to be everywhere.

The pilgrimage was a metaphorical junction where my various identities ran into the Self, and left me emotionally and spiritually paralyzed and disoriented for months. At the same time, my initial encounter and subsequent engagements with Self became an important factor in my developmental journey. This Self served as a meaning-making guide and was at the center of my journey guiding me along the way as I traversed both material and spiritual terrains.

  1. Adult Development is a journey where we arrive at each stage or level to continue on

Before setting off on the Camino, I thought that arriving in Santiago and getting my Compostela would mark the end of the journey. As I walked, I heard fellow pilgrims talking about going onto Finisterre, translated to mean “end of the earth”. I then thought that arriving at Finisterre was the end of the pilgrimage. I was wrong on both counts. Three years later, and I still find myself walking the Camino. Sometimes I walk it in my dreams and imaginings. Other times, I walk it when I hear about loved ones going on their own pilgrimage journey. I also walk it when I work with university students, adults in literacy programs, and my developmental coaching clients who are on their own journeys. I know how important their journey is and that it continues wherever they are now.

Although developmental models typically have a final stage or level, we arrive at each stage to advance to the next one. I support the observation that we include and transcend the qualities, experiences, and meanings of earlier stages, and that we also sometimes fall back or regress to earlier stages. Nonetheless, developmentalists continue to gain insights about more advanced stages of meaning-making. The implication is that we continue to develop. Even though some of us do not know for sure what is ahead, we suspect that the journey continues. Adult development is as much about what is known as it is about what is unknown. We journey on!

  1. Knowing the map gives hope on the journey

Before I started the physical Camino journey, I received a book of maps outlining different routes, descriptions of the terrain, and information about places to stay and eat. The book was quite detailed. It was clear that the person who compiled this book of maps knew the way. Many pilgrims used it and trusted it. The map was helpful to me, especially on days when journeying was especially difficult because of the long distance, the scorching heat, or enduring hunger. Referencing the map while in those states brought some relief by just knowing what was ahead and where. Of course, knowing what was ahead did not shorten the distance, cool the temperature, or satisfy my hungry. Knowing gave me hope, though, and calmed my worries of collapsing on the Camino. Knowing what lied ahead provided enough strength to make it to the next destination alive.

The various models of adult development are like maps outlining the terrain of our growth. They are not guesswork. They are based on decades of researching thousands of people’s lived experience of meaning-making in a complex world. I have learned that the maps can be trusted even while they are not the territory and do not yet adequately accommodate for the diversity of human development experiences. For example, many mapmakers do not acknowledge the unique developmental challenges of people of African descent who have to battle with real internal and external forces of racism/White supremacy, colonization, and post-traumatic slave syndrome, which if left unaddressed can stunt development or result in fallback to earlier developmental stages.

Knowing that there are maps that reveal the developmental terrain brought me hope during periods when I felt lost, alone, and disoriented. Developmental maps bring relief to many who fear they are on a long deathly road to nowhere, who are burning up from the heat of society’s impossible demand, and who are hungry for growth and deeper meaning.

  1. There are gains, losses, and growing pains as we develop

I knew to expect some pain on the Camino. My partner and I walked in July and August and so we expected that it would be hot. We knew blisters were likely. There were unexpected pains as well. Being a vegetarian, it was usually challenging to find food. I can’t imagine what vegans went through. I experienced a surprising pain as I neared Santiago and the ‘end’ of the pilgrimage. I was sad to come to the end of the journey. I had experienced and learned so much. I could not help but think there was more to experience and learn on the physical pilgrimage. I was not ready to graduate and move on to whatever was next. I even fantasized about turning around and walking back in the opposite direction and to keep doing that until I felt ready to move on. However, as tempted as that was, it was time to return.

I also experienced pain from other things I had lost. It is not uncommon for pilgrims to lose and gain things on the Camino. Some people lose weight and walking sticks while others gain new perspectives and relationships. I have talked with pilgrims who end up marrying someone they met on the Camino and some who divorced their spouse afterwards. I lost my grandmother two weeks into my pilgrimage journey. Her passing is my most devastating loss to date. She was like my mother. I lived with her until I went off to university at 18-years-old. The day she passed away, I walked the longest distance of the pilgrimage. I remember feeling numb and speechless. I had no words. No energy. I knew the time was coming when she would pass on because she had survived four strokes and was getting weaker. Still, I was not ready when the time did come. Her passing was a big loss.

My losses continued after the pilgrimage. While these subsequent losses were different, they still felt like a kind of death. I had lost certain ways of seeing the world, my relationships, my work, my god, and my sense of self. I have come to realize that as we, and those we serve, change and develop our intimate relationships are also impacted. While we gain new perspectives, we lose old ones. As a result of some of my changes, my partner and I almost separated. I had changed too much for her and we didn’t understand much about how and why those changes had happened. Our developmental gains are also losses. That is the paradox of development. As Jennifer recently shared with me, “development is not simply gaining new perspective, it also involves losing old perspectives.” There were days I wished I still saw the world in the old ways, but that’s not to be. In those moments, I experience both the sadness from the loss (of old perspectives) and gratitude for the gain of new ones. As we develop, a door closes, the world opens up, and love expands.

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