Pilgrimage and long distance walking as rehabilitation and therapy: An introduction

For people with religious background pilgrimage has always been an option when there comes a need for spiritual reorientation and consolidation. But now also many among us who are not religiuos in the traditional meaning of the word look to pilgrimage as an answer to our spiritual and psychological needs. For important reasons connected to human health and wellbeing I hope many more will in the future.

As in earlier times, also in our modern time we are going to make our pilgrimages for so many different reasons.

Sometimes we simply want to experience some active holiday weeks, in excotic and fascinating natural and cultural landscapes; we long for the liberating sunshine, and to be with friendly and interesting people. Maybe we just want to be able to reexperience life and living, to see, listen, touch and feel like we did as kids. Other times we really want to reform or transform our personal life, we wish to get out of and liberate ourselves from life’s many prisonlike arrangements and burdens. So, there is never just one motive and one right way to be an authentic pilgrim; the only authentic pilgrim is in the end the one who, for his own reasons, is trying to become a living pilgrim in this living moment – every moment of the day, walking the camino alone and with others.

Today, we know from research and experience, that ‘walking the camino’, that is walking as pilgrims, is a potentially very effective transformative and therapeutic process. Like in the old medieval days and through early human history, modern pilgrimage can also be one of the strongest self transformative and therapeutic processes that we as human beings can use ourselves, without depending on modern professional helpers in psychology or psychiatry. Pilgrimage walking seems in itself to have intrinsic characteristics that potentially makes it into an intensive therapeutic process, therapeutic both in a physical, mental, social and spiritual way. But this potential must be realized be each pilgrim. The pilgrim must all the time do active work on himself or herself in the middle of the long lasting walk, to be able to enjoy the transformative and therapeutic possibilities of the pilgrimage process.

So; after a somewhat long – actually it is a little more than two years since I first came to have a active illness feeling – medical doctors often dont seem to understand those things about a persons subjective feeling of illness – and how important it is both in illness and recovery. Those two years was more than long enough for me. As I had to be involved in a demanding illness/treatment process that I didnt know the end of nor how it would develop. Late in august 2008, after some thinking and deliberation and especially after a socalled dialogue conference in the norwegian health system, I am not sure why it is spoken about as a dialogue when everyone is only talking out of himself about you. They talk to you but forget how to talk with you, and they talk as if they know you without doing what is necessary when one wants to know a person. No one in the helping system did anything to concact me in a personal way in this process. So, I finally came to the decisive point where I wanted and could begin my own rehabilitation process. I decided that I wanted to do it as a pilgrimage walk, and try to restore my functioning and my health as far as it was possible through long distance walking.

On an ordinary – but for me very magic tuesday the 8. september, I could start walking departing from the village of St. Jean de Pied de Port in southern France, close to the Pyreenees, with the intention of trying to move down the whole of the classic Camino Santiago during the next 3-5 weeks, of course depending on my health situation and how it would develop. In reality, I was from the start prepared for having to give up walking after some days and then just return home for more of the degrading dialogue, but happily that didnt happen. And now – I will present you with my experience of the effects of therapeutic/tranfsormative or rehabilitative long distance walking on the Camino Santiago.

Yes, I have done some different pilgrimage projects before; and that is part of the background for thinking that pilgrim walking has some therapeutic and rehabilitative possibilities. As it is, I have done all of the Via de la Plata from Seville to Santiago, and smaller parts of traditional Camino Santiago, from Burgos once, from Leon another time to Santiago. My last walk was Camino Portuguese in feb. 2006, I didnt feel particulary well then, but I did’nt know that I was already under attack from an advanced prostate cancer illness process.
After ordinary treatments by hormones for half a year, and radiation in hospital, the expanding illness process belonged to the past, probably and hopefully, and I wanted to use my golden chance to experience the rehabilitation and therapeutic possibilities in pilgrimage walking that I have been writing and lecturing about the last 4-5 years. So, I have to tell a little more about the immediate backgrund: The last 2-3 months before I started my walk, I have been totally down into the dark, mentally and physically, mostly from late damages after radiation and hormonal therapies. But probably also from stresses related to my work and working colleges, who not always are able to behave without transferring some extra burden and pain onto you. It seems that I had some sort of mental ‘breakdown’ or falling apart in early summer, but the truth is that I dont know what this thing – a breakdown – really is. Anyway, the fact is I no longer could do nothing, and did not do anything for some time. I just had the experience that I was falling, I just fell and fell, and every direction was downwards. So the only thing to do after I understood what was going on was to learn to take part in is fall, not being scared or try to stop it, but doing like some kind of parachuter. Just falling into some dark abyss of anxieties, worries, fatigue and pains, and melancholia, and often no place to turn, no one supporting to turn to. In mid-fall there is no easy solution for anything, just teach one self to do the falling, and darkness becomes the only color – or every color is dark.

But then, slowly something started to change, and the last 2-3 weeks of august gave me some new hopes. I became mentally and bodily a little stronger or less weakened, and almost back to a more normal self, wanting to do things again, especially walking for my health.

My theory of long distance transformative walking; some important principles

To be able to use pilgrimage walking as a form of therapy, it is necessary to do some thinking. I know, many of yopu don’t think that is necessary. But I have seen and experienced that in our modern living we do many activities because the media is creating a ‘high’, we just do it because everybody is talking about it. It is like that with pilgrimage walking; people do it without the necessary preparations, and the result is that they have no chance to tolerate the hardships and efforts invoved in long distance walking. Genuine pilgrimage walking can never be a touristic experience alone, only when you start to destroy it by using motorized supports and preplan the whole walk with transport of luggage and five stars hotels rescuing you every day from your real self. So, to avoid thios degrading of pilgrimage walking to a touristic activity, one has to do some thinking. You need your own personal theory of pilgrimage walking that you bring with you to the road and into the long and often lonely walk.

1) I have some time ago written a little article about the ‘theory’ of transformative and rehabilitative long distance walking….that is, how one best should do long distance walking with a transformative or therapeutic intention……and basically, now I wanted to do my own pilgrimage walk along the lines that I have drawn in this article.

2) The first and most important thing is to get onself deep into the walk….and its conditions and landscapes….that is into a socalled a liminoid or a liminal situation….where one manage to pass and get outside of the limits and threshold of ordinary social living….a there comes a new opening up in life…of life…….it is very important that one is conscious of leaving behind as much as is possible of one’s ordinary life attitudes, practices and arrangements that keeps one imprisioned in the same place and spot in life and in oneself, so to speak.

3) And from there, continuous, uninterrupted and silent process of walking will by itself and through its cumulative effects on body and soul; do much of the transformative work……but supported by the experience of communitas, of sharing and togetherness with other pilgrims along the way….it will activate the creative and innovative abilitites in ones body and soul….starting a sort of rebirth process…..a second birth….and noe one knows who is going to be born this time….!!!! but ones own resources and possibilities starts to reorganize themselves….finding new patterns..around some new focus points ……and you gradually can sense this dramatic and extatic feeling of a new birth.

4) I am going to write small reports every day, on how my health and personal situation responds to the walking process…both mentally, bodily…and spiritually….and I hope to inspire others to use honest pilgrimage walking (that is: not some sort of holyday walking, as easy as possible) as a therapy and rehabilitation for different kinds of human problems and suffering as it used to be in history, that is, pilgrimage walking as an important tool for transformative experience.

5) And, by the way – for me this is an important point as I walk the camino. I am hopefully going to create some music – walking in itself generates creativity and an opening up of your own creative resources. So, I’ll make som modest music and tunes for walking and walkers, and other loosers in this busy and so overflowingly successful world.

So, see you the coming three-four weeks, afoot and on the open road: «for one who is typically healthy being sick can even be an energetic stimulant to life, to more life» (Nietzsche).

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