The past week was spent traversing the immense agricultural plateau of the Meseta and Tierra de Campos. Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert MacFarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought, it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence.
I have noticed that I have fewer thoughts out here than I do at home when I run for an hour, or go on a week-long backpack. On the Camino, instead of a lot of thoughts, I simply have thought: not so much words or ideas as awareness. As Thich Nhat Hanh once put it to a walking companion who asked what he was thinking about: “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m aware of the sunlight.”
Tonight at dinner a young man from Munich, Daniel, told me he sometimes listens to classical piano as he walks. That music is his passion, and playing piano is his daily practice at home. And he knows the repertoire well. But Daniel said that is as if out here he is hearing the music more clearly, more completely than ever before, because his mind has become more acutely attentive and centered in the act of walking the Camino. It is as if the music he listens to has slowed down in order to reveal its structure to him.
What a shock, then, to come from such a contemplative environment into the city of Leon on Monday. There were wonders there not to be missed: the luminous cathedral which, along with Chartres, has the most medieval stained glass in Europe; the “Sistine Chapel of Spain,” the spectacular and unfaded 12th century frescoes covering the arches and ceilings of San Isidro’s royal burial vault; and the sumptuous Renaissance facade and cloister of San Marcos, now a luxury hotel. These are achievements only attainable through the collectivity of energy, artistry and wealth which cities make possible. And I was grateful, even thrilled to see them,
But I found myself relieved today to return to the flowered landscapes and peaceful villages, and to resume the undistracted act of walking that is the Camino’s most eloquent and heartfelt prayer.