“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Last month, a survey by the travel industry found that a majority of Americans changed their vacation plans this summer because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic. But not everyone canceled their vacations entirely; travel spending has been almost as high this summer as it was in the summer of 2019. Some would-be adventurers simply found ways to do the exotic things they’d planned to do overseas in less exotic places. One of my friends, for instance, went bungee jumping in North Carolina instead of Costa Rica.
For my vacation, I did the opposite: I went with my family to a fairly exotic place to do a distinctly unexotic thing. I went to Spain and took a very quiet 100-mile walk.
To be more precise, I walked the Camino de Santiago, an ancient network of routes that leads to Galicia in the North of Spain, which has attracted travelers from around the world for more than a thousand years. It was the second time I’d made the weeklong pilgrimage, navigating through rural villages and over Roman roads to the famous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James the Apostle are believed to be held.
Many religious traditions involve pilgrimages, which are, according to the scholar Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj, “the physical traversing of some distance from home to the holy place,” motivated by sentiment or belief and undertaken as an act of devotion. In northern India, tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims (yatri in Sanskrit) walk from their homes to the holy city of Mathura each year. In Japan, people walk the 70-kilometer Kumano Kodō across the Kii Peninsula to three sacred Shinto temples.
The Camino de Santiago is the most famous pilgrimage in my own Catholic tradition and has attracted millions since it was established in the ninth century. It largely fell into disuse in the 20th century before becoming popular again in the 21st, partly thanks to the 2010 movie The Way, in which Martin Sheen’s character walks the Camino in an attempt to come to terms with his son’s death. The number of pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago more than doubled from 2009 to 2019.
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Why do they do it? For one thing, walking is one of the best exercises we can engage in for health and happiness. In 2008, one group of researchers asked sedentary people to walk regularly and found that the activity made their participants less depressed and gave them more vigor. A 2016 study showed that regular walking increases happiness and improves mental health among the elderly.
But this hardly justifies a trip halfway around the world—one can go for a walk nearly anywhere. Travel agencies aggressively market the Camino as an adventure, which perhaps convinces some far-flung wayfarers to make the journey. This perplexes me even more, however, because an adventure it is certainly not, unless your idea of thrill seeking involves a monotonous, repetitive act carried out for hours a day. There is no danger besides the occasional village dog, and no huge challenge beyond the sore muscles and blisters that come with walking 20 kilometers a day.
The secret of the Camino is really its utter lack of thrills. The quiet monotony is initially hard to deal with. At the beginning of the journey, interior shouting torments the modern pilgrim, who is generally unaccustomed to being understimulated. A thousand thoughts about life’s exigencies bite at the ankles; one is tempted to stop at every roadside café offering Wi-Fi to check in on the outside world. But by about day three, these torments begin to subside as the walk begins to slow the mind to the speed of the body at a pace that is natural and unforced. The walk becomes a long piece of music—andante, of course—that neither lags nor hurries.
If one surrenders to the music, the Camino becomes a form of extended walking meditation, a practice in many religious traditions. “Each mindful breath, each mindful step, reminds us that we are alive on this beautiful planet,” the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote of walking meditation. “We don’t need anything else. It is wonderful enough just to be alive, to breathe in, and to make one step.” In his book Three Mile an Hour God, the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama mixes Hanh’s Buddhist interpretation with his Christian faith, writing that the speed at which humans walk “is the speed the love of God walks.”
For me, the most transcendent effects of pilgrimage appeared after a few days. The Camino is all about walking, not arriving, which forces one to live in the moment and (at least temporarily) to abandon the fruitless chase for lasting satisfaction through bigger accomplishments and better rewards. On the Camino, one realizes that fulfillment cannot come when the present moment is merely a struggle to bear in service of the future, because that future is destined to become nothing more than the struggle of a new present, and the glorious end state never arrives. If we want to find true satisfaction, we must instead focus on the walk that is life, with its string of present moments.
Each present moment, in turn, provides small satisfactions we miss when the focus is only on bigger and better, as the author Greg McKeown writes in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. For example, one morning an hour outside the medieval city of Caldas de Reis, we spied the oddest flower we had ever seen, the blue passion flower, originally native to South America but now contentedly at home in Galicia. Alien-looking antennae sit atop threadlike tricolor petals, which bloom out of perfectly symmetrical leaves. We stared at it, transfixed, for 10 minutes. This would be an impossible dalliance on a typical day, which my family and I tend to spend running for worldly prizes that pale in comparison—literally—with the blue passion flower. If we had spent the Camino thinking about the weight we were losing by walking 100 miles, or about how the Camino pics might make people envious on social media, we would have missed the flower entirely.
Such a forced separation from ordinary ambitions temporarily rightsizes one’s life. The Dalai Lama likes to say that each of us is “one of seven billion.” By this, he does not mean that you are insignificant or just like everyone else. Rather, he encourages all of us to zoom out from our narrow, earthbound perspective on my life, my work, my relationships, my money. This is difficult ordinarily; it is easy on the Camino. As I walked, I envisioned myself as one of 7 billion people existing briefly on a timeline lasting millions of years, from the past into the future. I considered the insignificance not of my life but of the worldly details with which I usually distract myself from metaphysical truths. I thought, for example, how truly trivial it would be in the broad scheme of things if I lost my smartphone or dented my car.
While the steps mark each present moment, an uninterrupted day of walking offers a different sort of rightsizing. One day is the perfect span of time to focus in prayer or meditation on the good of another. On one of my walking days, my focus was personal: my son, who is a deployed Marine; another day, it was global: the people of the world suffering from poverty and conflict. This focus created a sense of love and compassion for the objects of each of my intentions, and I finished with a concrete resolution to act accordingly.
Meditation is far from the only transcendent purpose that walking can serve. Many have written about the so-called savoring walk, the practice of focusing on the positive events in your life while walking, which helps you savor happiness. I practiced this all throughout the coronavirus shutdowns in my city, circling my neighborhood nightly after dinner. Those walks are some of the sweetest memories I have of that period, and I have continued them since, inadvertently preparing for my Camino. Almost at the moment I began the journey, my gratitude began to bubble up—for my family, faith, friends, and work, but also for a cool drink of water, taking off my shoes, and a soft pillow at night.
The Camino, despite my best efforts here to describe it, is fundamentally an ineffable experience, and a highly personal one as well. Life is “your road and yours alone,” the Sufi poet Rumi wrote. “Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.” Whether you are traditionally religious or not, and whether you travel to a famous place or just go to your favorite woods, an unhurried pilgrimage can change your understanding of your life. It shrinks your life down to dimensions you can apprehend, yet makes it feel strangely full—perhaps for the first time in a long time.