Our attachments to our thoughts cause suffering? I didn’t realize just how true this Byron Katie quote was for me until I walked the road to Santiago and was confronted with a whole bunch of negative thoughts that had been hiding like bandits in the caves and potholes of my mind.
Rising at 5 am every morning, the first greetings were my habitual thoughts. This is horrible. I’m not a morning person. I can’t do this. This is unnatural to me. I really can’t cope with these early starts. These thoughts had arisen in conjunction with the morning sun every day of my life for as long as I could remember. I had believed in them so powerfully, I was convinced that I was born with a ‘morning affliction’, that morning people, afternoon people and ‘night-owls’ were distinctions defined by our DNA. Since my attention to these thoughts had a natural consequence, for example, I felt grumpy and cross, my head was heavy and my body moved in zombie-like fashion, it compounded my idea that it was my body that was to blame, not me.
Once on the road for a few hours, having recovered from the 5 am morning assault, I’d approach asharp climb and look at it with disdain. Like cockroaches, the thoughts charged out of the nooks and crannies of my head space. I’m not athletic enough for this. I wasn’t born with high energy. I shouldn’t be doing this. I can’t climb this. It’s just getting too much. I’m not like the other walkers. They’re all fitter than me. I’m really too old for this lark. Harried by these ideas, I’d climb in a torrid mental climate of desperate suffering; self-pity overwhelming me, I would be beset with bouts of heavy sighing, I’d stop for dramatic gasps of air, and would shake my fists at the sky, cursing the universe at regular intervals for ever having given birth to me. By the time I’d reached the top, I’d be exhausted, more from my thinking and my emotional reactions, than from the climb itself.
Bedtime in the albergues provided wicked attacks on my delicate sensibilities. Men and women shared the dormitories (it was only in one or two monasteries that the different genders had their own sleeping and bathroom quarters). Sharing amongst both genders was a truly gob-smacking experience. No holds barred, men charged about the place stripped to their undies, family jewels bulging from the elastics in what seemed to me to be a pornographic display of epic proportions. I didn’t know where to cast my modest eyes, though sometimes the incredible sights caused me to take furtive glances out of sheer incredulous curiosity! The women weren’t any more discreet. Ladies of every age and size paraded the premises in all manner of bras and panties, some women barely covering anything at all, rushing from the bathrooms with buttocks on display and boobs in full swing, left to right, right to left. I spent half my time in those accommodations trying not to look at people, but being nosy and judgmental, I was not able to help myself. The thoughts arose within me in like big black flies around cow dung. They should have more dignity. They should be more discreet. Certain bodies (especially the ones resembling mine) should be locked up behind bars. There are limits to what we should share. There should be a law protecting pilgrims from these abuses…. Men and women really shouldn’t share the same utilities. I won’t share what thoughts arose when one woman started up a conversation with me in the washrooms whilst busily scrubbing at her scary-looking private parts with a wash-cloth!
Eating also had its testing moments. The pilgrim menus (they were far cheaper than the normal rates) at every stop were loaded with carbs, and manipulating a balanced meal which included fruit or veg was an absolute mission. I should be eating more balanced meals. This diet is damaging to my health. Camino food is unhealthy. These were just some of the thoughts that rose to grab my attention, arrest my imagination and create unnecessary misery along which was supposed to be a happy trek.
Luckily though, before embarking on this trip, I’d learned to question myself whenever I became aware that I was suffering. I remembered the rules of thumb; if I was suffering, it was because I was believing a thought. As Byron Katie says above, thoughts in themselves are harmless. It is our attachment to them that causes all the mayhem. We can’t stop thoughts arising (have you ever tried not thinking?), but we don’t have to give them any attention. We can watch them with amusement, but don’t actually have to act out of them. In all the situations that I found myself, I examined the rogue thoughts that were disturbing my inner peace and did a ‘Byron Katie’ workout on them. This is how my self-convo went:
Thoughts: I’m not a morning person. I can’t do this. This is unnatural to me. I really can’t cope with these early starts.
Me: Hmmm. Funny that. I MUST absolutely be a morning person because I’m up every morning at 5 am and if it weren’t for you making me miserable, am always just fine. And I AM coping, otherwise I’d never wake up, and strangely, I never feel tired on the road. I’m ALWAYS perky when I’m not imagining I’m not a morning person! I suppose that makes me very much a morning person, and you an imposter.
Thoughts: Busted. I’ll go elsewhere and get attention and drama from someone else. I’ll pop in every now again in case you change your mind.
Thoughts: I’m not athletic enough for this. I wasn’t born with high energy. I shouldn’t be doing this. I can’t climb this. It’s just getting too much. I’m not like the other walkers. They’re all fitter than me. I’m really too old for this lark.
Me: Except in dire cases, everyone’s born with high energy; its thoughts like you that stop it flowing! I’ve got legs haven’t I? I just need to walk, I don’t need to be a world-class athlete! I always make it to the top, and it’s not a race; I’m allowed to walk slowly! I’m just as good as the other walkers, because they’re not much further ahead of me, and these days, I tend to get ahead of them! And the majority of camino walkers are in their sixties and seventies, so me in my early fifties is very young indeed!
Thought: Where do I go now? Tell you what, I’ll hang around in the background in case you want to feed me with your attention once more.
Thoughts: They should have more dignity. They should be more discreet. Certain bodies (especially the ones resembling mine) should be locked up behind bars. There are limits to what we should share. There should be a law protecting pilgrims from these abuses…. Men and women really shouldn’t share the same utilities
Me: I’m the one who should have more dignity by respecting other people’s choices. I need to learn from them that my body is just fine the way it is in all its imperfections. If I had their levels of self-esteem, I would be naked too, not giving a fig about what other people think. Men and women SHOULD share facilities, since we’re all the same in the end.
Thought: I rely on your lack of self-worth to give me life. Oh well, there’s nothing here for me anymore. Goodbye. I’ll visit every now and again to see if you’ll change your mind and entertain me once again.
Thoughts: I should be eating more balanced meals. This diet is damaging to my health. Camino food is unhealthy.
Me: I’m walking 20 – 25 km a day. I need carbs, and camino life is providing them! And I can buy fruit from the corner shop. And salads are available. I’ve learned that what the body needs, life provides, and I only notice that when I get my conditioned thoughts out of the way!
Thoughts: I’ll be back to haunt you. Just you wait and see.
Me: Give it your best shot!
Examining these thoughts changed the way I felt on my journey to Santiago. I woke up to face the day without my usual grumpiness. It excited me that I could see myself in a different light. I approached the mountain slopes as smug as a bug; I knew I’d be okay and what’s more, I enjoyed walking up them. I discovered this enjoyment when I removed the barrier of my dreaded thoughts. As for the people in the albergues, I looked to them as role-models of the person I am striving to be; open, free and without inhibition. No longer did I look in disgust at what I saw, but in absolute awe. And I ate whatever I wanted once I questioned my thoughts about the food. I didn’t stress about not getting the right vitamins, or whatever else I imagined was lacking. I felt a complete trust that what I ate any given night was indeed what I needed for my journey the following day. I never showed any sign of deficiency. I never felt weak, and was always full of energy.
As Byron Katie has noticed, a thought is harmless unless we believe it. Perhaps you might look to the thoughts behind your feelings of suffering, discontent. What thoughts are you attaching to? The peace that is felt when these thoughts are no longer entertained is worth the investigation. Thoughts will always be lurking, for we are just human and cannot be in a state of not thinking. But we have the power to watch them with interest and refuse to act on them. It’s a wonderful sensation to be free of harmful ideas. You ought to try it.