Pain and Intentionality

Walking about 6 hours a day for the past two weeks has brought me a lot of pain. Today is a good example: I trekked 5km on a continuous upslope, and then 12km on a very steep, rocky descent to the town I’m currently staying in. The albergue I’m in for the night is a converted chapel, taken care of by a Spanish family, where there are no bedsheets on the mattress and 20 people sleep in the same room. I took the iciest shower of my entire life because there wasn’t any hot water, and limping down the stairs to the main garden is fairly painful, given that my knees are pretty sore from the downslope this afternoon. The following stagger across the garden due to sore ankles, sore knees, and squashed toes only serves to remind me of the suffering of the day. It’s a variation of my everyday existence for the past two weeks.

Not going to lie, picking my way downwards through the rocks today, painstakingly planning my steps so that I wouldn’t twist an ankle, was pretty discouraging. I couldn’t walk at my usual pace, the sun was only getting hotter, and I knew I would only arrive at the hostel after 3pm: a grand total of 8 hours on the road. My knees were killing me, and so was the fact that there were a bunch of young, energetic kids basically sprinting past me on their way down.

What has gotten me through many days, despite this pain, isn’t necessarily a suddent revelation or certainty about my purpose on this pilgrimage to motivate me forward. Many times, it’s forgetting the pain, becoming numb to it. After a certain point, I get used to it. Accepting the negative parts of the pilgrimage and not dwelling on them allows me to look up from the ground and appreciate the more beautiful parts of it: the endless mountains, the wide blue sky, the metre-high weeds rustling in the wind, an eagle gliding overhead, even the tiniest ladybird creeping over the leaves. Six hours gives me a lot of time to feel pain, yes, but also time to look up and see more clearly. It’s a strange mix of appreciation, impatience, wonder, tiredness, and clarity that I noticed in myself as I walked over the past few days.

One of the things which helped me to look up more and notice beauty in my surroundings has been photography. I didn’t realise how powerful the act of taking a photo could be: it made me actively look for aesthetic qualities rather than just walking and seeing, opening my mind to notice more about where I am, making me more present to my surroundings. It affected the way I saw and remembered things, and how intentional I was about engaging with the environment. Walking gave me more time to appreciate every single part of the journey, much more than any other form of transport could, and photography enhanced this appreciation for and observation of what is around me. While it may not take away the pain, it allowed me to realise that what I saw as negative aspects of the journey were parts of the bigger picture which also included incredibly positive moments, which went more easily unnoticed.

On reflection this is also very easily applied to my life and the convenient focus and dwelling on negativity that is present. While pain isn’t always good, I realised that sacrifice and finishing a goal sometimes does take blood, sweat and tears. Dwelling on them doesn’t help me, especially when there are many other positives that I could be looking up at. If I’m intentional about it.

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