Wednesday / July 24

Pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago: Mindfulness in Motion


Recently, I returned from leading the pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago, the medieval path across the north of Spain. This pilgrimage is much more than a beautiful walk. It is much more than a destination, or the repetition of footsteps along the path. It is more than a tour or an expedition, or even ‘taking a good walk’. El Camino is an outward and an inward journey, a visible manifestation of an inward calling, a journey to the sacred center of the heart and the mind.

Like many people, I have, over the years, attended the latest professional development training programs to learn to listen more deeply to myself and to others, to be more authentic and balanced at home and at work, and to live more wholeheartedly and courageously in challenging environments. Often, these trainings fell short of my expectations or perhaps my expectations were too high. Too often these trainings were all talk and not much useful substance. Recently though, I organized and led the ancient pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago, Spain, and found school leadership lessons in every turn in the road. Perhaps the greatest mindfulness and school leadership lesson along El Camino is re-learning the art of skillful, authentic communication that builds connection and trust.

For many years, I was drawn to pilgrimage as a universal and ancient spiritual practice. This interest drew me around the world, taking pilgrimages to far off places, leading pilgrimages in India and the United States, and then writing about my experience in my first book, The Road that Teaches: Lessons in Transformation through Travel (QuakerBridge Media 2012). Strange as it seems, I found comfort in the rough and tumble of solo international travel in India, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America: getting hopelessly lost, taking a fall, losing my passport. These and much more shifted my perspective of travel as leisure activity to connecting deeply with others, seeing and being seen, and understanding my own vulnerability and the same in others. I came to appreciate pilgrimage as a special type of travel: travel with a spiritual, a holy purpose, a kind of prayer, that carries with it physical, emotional, and geographical elements. Initially, my interest in pilgrimage was in response to my own self-questioning, my wildly curious soul, and a messy mix of inner fearlessness and fear.

Pilgrimage destinations, like El Camino, are places of spiritual significance made holy by saints, the natural and elemental quality of the landscape itself, or places of shrines, temples, burial grounds, or meaningful contemporary events, and they draw people to them in ways that are difficult to name. The pilgrim engages liminal space: leaving, journeying, arriving, departing, and returning. And in this space something magical awakens.

Mindful Communication Builds Authentic Relationships

Mindful communication is a form of the informal practice of mindfulness, which allows us to engage in mindfulness throughout the day by speaking and listening with full attention. Speaking mindfully is communicating in a truthful, authentic way, aware of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and being sensitive to the same in others. It means noticing when you are triggered and using the mindfulness practices we have described in this book to regain a sense of emotional and physical equilibrium. It means choosing words that inspire and promote confidence. It requires that you pay attention to the small signs of distress in others and watch for signs in yourself. It requires recognizing when you are no longer present, when you have tuned out of the conversation. In other words, communicating mindfully is about showing up as fully as possible, with the dignity of your presence, your attention, and your compassion. This all goes back to the core element of mindfulness: being there, showing up. If you don’t show up, you can’t really listen for meaning, for connection and understanding. It’s much like a very, very soft drizzle that doesn’t penetrate bone-dry soil.

Mindfulness is about being fully present to the best of your ability; listening and communicating mindfully as a way of demonstrating focused attention, as well as using the mindful mindsets we have discussed earlier, like acceptance, nonjudgment, and self-compassion. Listening in this way deepens into concentration, and with concentration, you are able to better discern what to say and what not to say. We have all had the experience of talking with someone who “lives in their head,” cut off from the wisdom of their gut, their heart, and their breath. We have all had the experience of speaking about a difficult or troubling topic and feeling un-heard, un-seen, un-validated, and we know what that does for connection. To speak authentically is to practice self-awareness: knowing your strengths and challenges, assessing yourself realistically, knowing your mood, knowing your energy level—all these are drivers of the mindful school leader.

Bring to mind a school leader you know who exemplifies excellence to you. Consider his or her communication style. What are the qualities of this leader? Is this person open, responsive, clear, present, and empathetic?

Even on El Camino, I am continually reminding myself to turn to wonder, to inhabit the moment, to slow down, to practice opening, to practice listening, to find the beauty in moments of quiet transformation, even when those moments are not apparent. It’s said that ‘the road teaches’ us what we need to know. And, an important ‘knowing’ for me as the pilgrimage leader is that it is not important whether I walk fast or slow, but as a leader, how do I support others as they walk the Camino in their own way. Some days I walked with the fastest and other days I walked with the slowest. It was on a day that I had chosen to walk with the slowest of our group, that, on a shady tree-lined path, we met Consuela, an 88-year old farmer, solid as a brick wall, and carrying a wheelbarrow wearing a broad smile under her straw hat. We stopped and chatted, I in my broken Spanish, and she in her broken English. She told me the story of working with her sons after her husband’s death to clear her land to build a stone house that she pointed to nearby. She built the house stone by stone from rubble in adjoining fields. And I shared about our long walk. She smiled knowingly and said:  “No one will ever walk El Camino like you, ever.” Her words were settled deeply within me.

Being Present: Mindful Communication Begins Here

The touchstone of mindful communication is being present. Time after time, I hear school leaders say that being present is one of the most important aspects of their work. We all know too well how easy it is to become distracted. As a school leader, you are called to be engaged fully—whether that is with a colleague, a student, or a parent—and not thinking ahead about the next commitment or what is going to happen at the next meeting.

In walking El Camino, I trained myself to be present each moment, not thinking ahead to the next hill or the next turn in the road. Try this listening practice that I explored while walking El Camino. It just might strengthen your communication.

  1. Pause and take a few deep breaths.
  2. Allow your posture to be open and receptive. Notice if you are tightening or gripping anywhere in your body.
  3. Notice your thoughts, especially judgmental thinking.
  4. Fully receive what the other person is saying before you speak.
  5. Check for understanding.
  6. Respond with open questions designed to ‘open new frontier’ in the conversation.
  7. Respond truthfully and authentically.

Valerie will be leading the pilgrimage again in September 2016. Please contact her at for more information.

Written by

Valerie Brown, JD, MA, ACC is Principal of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC, specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership training in daily life. She is an international retreat leader, ICF-accredited leadership coach, speaker, and author of The Mindful School Leader (Corwin, 2014).

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