Eva Michaelsen on El Camino

Eva Michaelsen on El Camino

Eva Michaelsen is from the small village of Alken in the Danish Lake district. She is educated as a coach and process consultant, and has a background in visual arts and eurythmy, which is a meditative form of movement, a sacred dance, and the art of expressive movement. She has made the 800-kilometer El Camino pilgrimage three times, and works with others through guided pilgrimages, lectures and walking meditations.

Eva’s path and mine intersected as a result of a trip I took to northern Denmark, at a time when I was only just beginning to embrace the concept of life as a journey. After a few decades of concentrating solely on the goal, the prize, and having an attitude that everything was a means to an end, I was exhausted by continually reaching my “destination”—and finding it wasn’t where I wanted to go. By always chasing the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," I missed out on a lot—and felt perpetually thwarted and frustrated. I can still revert to thinking it’s all about just “getting my diploma,” but the more I practice keeping my focus where my feet are—and it is practice!—the more I can appreciate that the way will become clearer as I move forward, to take time to pay attention to my fellow “pilgrims,” and recognize I am indeed part of something bigger than myself.

I hope you enjoy this conversation with Eva as she takes a trip down Memory Lane in describing her Camino experiences, and shares how those jaunts have shaped her philosophy of living in the present. 

Meg: Can you describe El Camino?

Eva: El Camino in northern Spain is an old pilgrim’s road from the French border in the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Millions of people have traveled its 800 kilometers over the last 1,000 years to the grave of Saint James—Santiago in Spanish.

The Camino has a long history. Buildings, churches, monasteries everywhere remind you that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have traveled here for centuries.

The holy shrine with the relics of Saint James is situated in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So it is not an ordinary grave, but a shrine downstairs in a crypt. From Monte de Gozo (the “Mount of Joy”) about 4 kilometers before Santiago you can see the towers of the Cathedral, so you follow the signs—yellow arrows or scallops which have marked the way from the Pyrenees.

It is a great moment to arrive. The last few kilometers you walk through the town. You face the Cathedral and are welcomed by the artistic jewel of Pórtico de la Gloria, a marble entrance with Biblical scenes and Christ and St. James in the middle of the column.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: Image credit: Creative Commons.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: Image credit: Creative Commons.

Inside before entering the Cathedral there is a central marble column where you place your hand with thanks for a safe arrival. There is a deep hole in the shape of a hand in the marble from all the millions of pilgrims who have held their hand there.  When you walk into the crypt, the silence is sometimes very “thick,” even if there are many people. You end the ritual with embracing the sculpture of St. James behind the Central Altar.

After that you go to the Pilgrims Office to get your “diploma,” the Compostelana, which proves that you have walked from the Pyrenees, or wherever you have walked from. At least 100 kilometers—it is the last 100 kilometers that counts. Then you take part in the Pilgrims Mass which is celebrated every day at noon.

For many people, arriving at Santiago is the goal of the pilgrimage and all the rituals are of great importance. For people like me and many other who are not Catholic, but spiritually open-minded, Santiago is a great experience, and arriving makes you still and thankful. You have managed. And you see that you definitely took part in something which is much bigger than your personal life. Many of us, however, are longing to continue, to walk further on to the coast, to stay moving, which you have now got used to during the last 4-5 weeks.

Meseta pilgrimage

Meseta pilgrimage

There is evidence that many pilgrims during the medieval times continued to go west beyond Santiago, to the Atlantic Coast, to Finisterre, or “The End of the World” as it translates from Spanish.  It is said that pilgrims burned their clothes in Finisterre—a symbol of having fulfilled the pilgrimage and been “new-born”—and threw their walking sticks into the ocean. And actually Finisterre is also the place where you find a lot of St. James Scallops on the beach. So Finisterre is an extension of the Camino, but on the other hand part of it.

You can also say that the pilgrimage is a symbol of your life journey. You walk from the beginning—the birth—and end up at the grave—of St. James—and at The End of the World.  The interesting thing is—the Camino is never ending! Once you have been there you have it for the rest of your life! It continues in you!

Meg: What is the significance of the scallop shell?

Camino de Santiago scallop shell

Camino de Santiago scallop shell

Eva: The scallop shell is a symbol of the Camino de Santiago. According to one of the legends of Saint James, he once saved a drowning horseman, who at the time of the salvation was covered with scallop shells. Another legend tells about St. James’ dead body arriving on a boat on the Galician Coast, and for that reason the scallop is connected to him.

The shell is an old symbol for Venus, and the shape itself has a feminine form: open like a hand. It is also a Christian symbol of Mother Mary—and the pearl inside the shell is the Christ or Logos. And pilgrims also used the shell for practical reasons—as a spoon for instance!

Meg: Is there is a "season" for walking the Camino? Do you generally go at a particular time of year? And what is an "average" length of time to complete the walk?

Eva: You can walk all year. But I would avoid July and August, because of the heat and because of too many people! April and May are wonderful. Spain is still green and fresh. But September and October are also great, and the temperature is still nice. I heard of a German woman who every year walks from the 24th of December to the 6th of January during the most holy time of the year.

Five weeks is an average length. It took me 35 days from France to Finisterre—almost 900 km. And then you need some time to relax, and "land" before you go back home. 4-5 days in Finisterre is fine!

Meg: How do you define pilgrimage?

Eva: Originally, pilgrimage was a spiritual journey to a sacred place. In my opinion modern pilgrimage is still a spiritual journey to a sacred place, but I think you can be a pilgrim everywhere, even in your daily life. Now, it seems to me, that pilgrimage is an inner journey and that you are free to believe in what you believe, you can be a Catholic or Protestant or Buddhist or just a free spirit.

To be a pilgrim is more a state of mind, or an inner condition, which arises when you come more and more into the walking experience. It is walking meditation to a sacred place within. You can also call it an opening to a spiritual experience, Presence, Stillness, “God” or whatever you like. It is beyond words and difficult to describe, but most pilgrims agree, that there is something, which is like a gift, that they bring back home, and which maybe makes them change things in their life.

If you are prepared or even if you are not, pilgrimage has for most people an element of it-has-changed-my-life. It is of course the inner journey I am talking about.

If you walk to a sacred place or on a road where pilgrims have traveled for many centuries, you are in touch with a special energy. But it is also about your inner condition and ability to be in touch with life on a very basic level. You walk every day, carry as little as possible, you are kind of homeless, feeling “rich” because you have nothing.

Simple living, moving slowly, often in silence, feeling free from daily life and schedules, it opens your mind, because you have plenty of time. And when you get into that rhythm of walk-eat-wash-sleep, which is all you have to do, you feel the power of Now, you feel strong, you are in touch with your heart,you feel in touch with your inner sources. And you feel in touch with or even connected to the wholeness in life, to all living beings. It can deepen your life, it is an invitation to go deeper.

You have plenty of time, time that you maybe never have had before, to think about the deeper questions such as: What is the meaning of life? Where do I come from? Where am I going to? What is my task on this Earth?  You get solutions and creative ideas to different life questions. Or, maybe new questions. Or even answers to questions you didn’t ask. Inspiration comes every day on the Camino.

The quote from Hans Christian Andersen, our national poet/writer that “Traveling is living,” is very true to me.

Meg: Why have you walked the Camino and why do you consider it a pilgrimage?

Eva: It is my “heart subject” somehow. It has become my destiny. I have walked the Camino for different reasons. It always had something to do with I needed to think over things, I needed to find myself. And I needed a connection with my inner spiritual guide. To get free from old thoughts and find my source.

The first time in 1997 I needed a break. I knew that walking in nature would be good for me, and I loved to visit all the wonderful churches in Spain, I was very interested in art history and in spirituality. I realized when I started to walk the first day, it was like something I had always done. It was like recognition, I felt very familiar with it. I found a way!

In 1998 I needed to “walk myself free” from a relationship, and I felt I came deeper into the feeling of being a pilgrim. I was writing in my dairy every day, not about where I had been or what I had seen. Much more my inner experiences. My feelings. My ups and downs. I came more into the magic of being a pilgrim than the year before. Feeling the stillness in nature or in the small churches, where you could sit and just light a candle. Meeting with other pilgrims, always exchanging the question “why do you walk” inspired a lot of deep conversations.

I finally arrived at what’s called “the end of the world,” Finisterre, a little harbor on the Atlantic, I went into a bar to have coffee, after almost 900 kilometers. Someone was reading a Spanish news paper, he looked familiar to me, but since he was Spanish, I thought I might be wrong. Suddenly he talked to me in Danish! He didn’t know anything about the Camino, he had arrived there with a sailing boat from Aarhus, my home town, and the boat was on the way all around the world. I asked where he lived in Denmark, and it happened to be just 300 meters from where I lived. No wonder he looked familiar.

Since then, we have been together. I found my husband on the second Camino at “the end of the world.”

Most people have told me that you can have a question or a subject that you want to work with on the Camino. Like me having “to walk myself free from a relationship.” But you don’t know what will come to you. You can have your expectations, but the Camino may show you something, which you didn’t think of at all!

The third time I walked the Camino was in 2006. I had been through a personal crisis and needed to find myself again. Since 2001, I had given a lot of talks on pilgrimage and worked professionally with the subject, so I also felt it was good to be in touch with “the real thing” again. I was older and it was much more easy to go into the inner silence, and find the Camino state of mind again. I had great experiences and somehow I got back my inner strength. I found myself.

I cannot say when or where I will go next time as a pilgrim. I need to hear “the call” first. It is not something that you just do, like going on holidays. I need to have a reason, a question to go.

Meg: How is walking conducive to meditation?

Eva: Walking is very basic and very human. The rhythm of your steps can be considered as a sort of “breathing” with the Earth. When you walk for long distances and for several days it can be like meditation. The rhythmic repetition has a calming effect on your body and soul.

Walking makes it much easier to focus for some people, than when you sit and meditate. When you are sitting still, you easily fall asleep or your thoughts are very busy.

When your body is included, it can be a help to focus on breath, steps or movements.  Walking meditation is a very deep and wonderful way to come into your body and soul. You can walk with your breath, you can walk with difficult emotions, you can walk with other people in your heart, you can walk with “chi” or life energy.

Walking meditation is to be here and now, mindful walking, enjoying and knowing that you are walking not to get to a goal—the goal is the way.

Meg: Have there been any powerful aha moments, as far as discerning your purpose or direction?

Eva: There are always many decisions to be made and new directions to be taken. The powerful aha moments on my learning journey have always been finding the courage to do things, to follow my heart and my intuition, even if things from outside look risky or tough.

Because always, the way evolves while you walk it. You can’t plan everything in detail, you can’t control things. You just have to start at a certain point, find your direction and start walking.

A fundamental experience from pilgrimage is to follow the longing of your heart and to be honest and true to yourself. What else is worth following, in the end? When you get old it is not important how much money you made, but that you have had a rich life.

Meg: Can you describe an experience where a stranger made a difference in your day?

Eva: Once I walked for four days along the west coast in southern Denmark, just being close to the sea and sky. Coming home, I hitchhiked and got a ride with a person who told me about his four weeks of hiking in the wilderness of Lapland.  His words were: “There you are a free person on all levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.”

His words planted a seed and a longing deep inside me for longer walks, for the freedom.  At that time I had not heard about any pilgrim roads at all, or had any idea that I would be working with pilgrimage as a professional.

But maybe my feet knew something. They always took me on long walks. And over the next years, his words came back to me again and again.

Meg: Have you ever had an experience where you took a wrong turn, literally or figuratively, and found something that you wouldn’t have wanted to miss?

Eva: Isn’t it so, that you are sometimes very lucky to take “wrong turns”? Because you find something unexpected and something which is very valuable for you?

As far as a specific location, Venice is a place to take wrong turns, to get lost. Just to find another lovely spot. Like in the labyrinth: you get lost, and you find yourself again.

I once had worked too much, too hard, too long and in a very difficult situation. It was my own choice though—I could have stopped earlier. So my wrong turn was that I didn’t listen enough to myself, and I ended up with all the well-known symptoms of burn out and stress.

Even though I was subsequently not able to work for about six months, I wouldn’t have missed that time. The healing process was to relax and to walk and just to be. It was springtime and summer and fall and a completely new journey started. I was outside most of the time, I was doing nothing for a long time.

And slowly I came back to “life” and energy again. I found my spiritual practice again, meditation, which I had done for many years, but somehow left it behind. And I relearned the healing power of walking.

The lesson was: slow down, keep it simple and be who you are and be true to yourself.

Meg: When and where was the first time you traveled alone and what were your biggest impressions of that experience?

Eva: I was 19 years old traveling alone in Southern France with my tent. One particular experience was a weekend in the Pyrenees with heavy rain and stormy weather. I was totally alone, feeling very lonely, my tent was actually flooded! All the other people around me were families. And the next train would not leave until Monday.

I found somehow, I could deal with it, find my own center.

Stay in my tent until it’s over and move on, search for a community with other people I can find something in common with as soon as I can.

So I have been in my element traveling ever since. Of course I can feel lonely sometimes. But I can deal with it, and even see clearly that the loneliness will not last forever….or sometimes even listen to: what is the loneliness telling you?

Meg: A lot of people question their “inner voice,” or intuition, fearing it is just wishful thinking. Has that been an issue for you, and, if so, how have you dealt with it?

Eva: On the Camino in Spain, I once passed a museum with very old wooden Madonna sculptures from 11th or 12th century. Some of them were really “worn out,” missing arms and limbs. But it didn’t matter. They were so powerful in their simplicity. I was in a very open inner condition, and two of the Madonnas really touched me:

One of them seemed very warm and soft, very feminine, as if it said: “I am with you. I support you. Whatever you do.”

The other one seemed more clear and masculine, as if it looked through me, and knew all my thoughts and my whole life, but also very much supported me.

For a long time, maybe the next year or so, I sort of “contacted” my inner image of those two Madonnas, when I needed an answer. I would start writing in my diary: “Dear two Madonnas. I am doing this and that, and I have the following question to you….” And then I got their answers by writing on. They gave their contribution from their two different archetypical qualities, which for me was very helpful and gave a sort of wholeness to my questions.

So yes, inner voice and guidance can absolutely be helpful. In “normal” life we easily forget it. But when you are on the pilgrimage, you remember it again.

Meg: Can you describe an instance or experience in which you felt self-doubt or fear, and, how you dealt with that?

Eva: Once I was in a situation of great inner pain, sorrow and fear after having not listened to my own inner voice and all the other signs that should have told me to react before. I had lost position, friend, job and identity, to some extent.

Well, intuitively I felt that the only thing I had left was my breathing. So I started to breathe, consciously and mindfully while lying in my bed without being able to sleep. And after a while, maybe half an hour, it struck me that breathing was life itself. So I started to see a little tiny light in the situation: I was alive! Breathing is living!

And maybe after another 15 minutes of breathing consciously I felt lighter. But not only that—my pain and fear was also lighter and more transparent. The heavy burden was lighter! Then the words of the Lord’s prayer came together with the mindful breathing.

And suddenly I found myself observing my pain and fear as energy. Just energy without a story. And the process continued the next days—not to identify with the pain and all the stories. Just to observe it as only energy. It sounds like something you can read in the books. But it was a glimpse of a real transforming experience.

Meg: Is there an example that you can share of an experience that you considered an affirmation that you were ‘on the right path,’ so to speak?

Eva: I was in the Yunnan province of China having one week to travel alone, before I would travel with my husband. I didn’t really know in which direction to go. There were many possibilities, but I had a limitation of time.

I thought I could get some inspiration in a bookstore in Kunming, the “capital” of Yunnan.  I went directly to the shelf with English books among hundreds of thousands of books in Chinese. One book touched my hands. I knew exactly it was meant for me. The title was “Watching Pilgrims Watching Me.” And me being a pilgrim!

I didn’t buy the book, but gazed through it. It was written about the border of Tibet. I was not conscious that deep inside I had a longing for the Tibetan spirituality! Then I just knew—I must go there!

And I went to find a bus ticket, which was not that easy! The next day I traveled around 12 hours in two very old buses to the north, to the Tibetan part of Yunnan. I got off in Shangri La, Zhongdien, and spent some impressive days there. Not planned, just by “accident.”

I met a population with so much heart and warmth! Their dances, their temples and monasteries were full of healing power. It made me calm and grateful. I was another person after that. I felt I was in the right spot and path in the right moment. It was almost designed for me!

Meg: Can you share about a couple of your biggest life lessons?

Eva: Being a pilgrim opens your mind and eyes to life and is full of deep life lessons. One of them—the way evolves while walking—has been very helpful in my daily life. Especially when starting new projects, when you don’t know whether it will be successful or not. Or when you cannot control the outcome—and you really never can! But if you start with one step, and then the second, and then the third, it gives you confidence and it grows by and by. This lesson has taught me to relax, and to be open to the right ideas. And you don’t need to be perfect with everything from the beginning. Everything will grow in its own rhythm.

Another lesson is to surrender. You have to accept certain things in life. And if you fight against them, you are sure to lose!

In Galicia, on the Camino in Spain, you can almost be sure that it will rain, sooner or later. I once went out and it was pouring down. I could have stopped walking for that day, but I was kind of curious. The rain continued the whole day. First it was wet and uncomfortable. And I also felt cold. And all the time I thought, where can I stop?

Suddenly, after a couple of hours, I felt, “OK, come on rain!” I felt fine. Though wet, muddy, and dirty, my soul felt fine. And deep inside me I knew—this will pass. It is not permanent. Just say yes and surrender. After 30 kilometers, I arrived at the hostel and got one of the last beds. And the inner feeling was great. I felt I had so much to give other people. I was open and relaxed.

To surrender is easy, I think, when it comes to the physical, like rainfall, or being sea sick—you know it will pass! But when it comes to an inner condition—fear, pain, sorrow or a stressful atmosphere—it is easier to be caught by the emotion. For me to picture being in the rain, or once when I was really sea sick, helps me to surrender.

Meg: One characteristic of a pilgrimage can be a search for forgiveness and to repair wrongs done. In particular, there is a belief the more hardship, penance or remorse, the more forgiveness. Could you speak to this?

Eva: Search for forgiveness or repairing wrongs by suffering…well…It seems to me the “old way” of looking at it. Today, it would be more like: Are you able to forgive yourself or others? Are you able to change negative patterns? Are you able to give the best you can to your relations?

My last Camino had elements of forgiveness. I had to forgive somebody, and in the end myself, for being unconscious. It was a long process, which started the whole longing for the Camino again around two years before. And certainly I felt it was hard work. But the Camino was the right medicine for me. I sort of walked into more and more forgiveness. The thing is that your heart becomes soft, open, filled and light on the Camino. And in that gifted state of mind you are closer to forgiveness.

Penance and remorse are words that belong to pilgrimage traditionally. And maybe for a few people it is still like this. I would say that modern pilgrimage has to do with being in the now and accepting who you are, and not with a Middle Age mind where you look back at all your mistakes. The change can start now, and it is never too late.

The inner journey makes you look at your life from a new perspective. You can’t walk or run away from yourself.

Photographs are courtesy of Eva Michaelsen. 

Related Links:

Eva Michaelsen www.movimento.dk

The Camino: www.santiago-compostela.net / www.caminodesantiago.org