I've just been on a weekend retreat at a Buddhist centre in north Wales. I booked it before leaving for the camino, but funnily enough being there really seemed to help assimilate the walking experience for me. Also coincidental (or maybe not) that of the 4 or 5 people I talked to there about the camino, one had previously done it and another is probably going to this summer. I'm clearly not the only non-Christian happy to skirt the boundaries of Catholicism for the sake of a wonderful walk.
The theme of the retreat was 'body and breath: earth and air' and - sparing you the most airy fairy stuff - a lot of it was about feeling grounded in reality, in touch with the earth and air and appreciative of the amazing job the body does. There were people there who talked of feeling very cut off from the earth and air, the natural world. I certainly suffer from this when living the Cambridge rat race and it was my first urge when planning this year - just 'be outside more'. So it was interesting for me to note, though not surprising I suppose, that, post-Camino, I feel wonderfully grounded in the outdoors. My usual feeling of desperation to be outside whenever the sun shines wasn't there at all, which is most helpful when trying to sit for a long period of meditation!
There were also a couple of people (meaning women - it was a women-only retreat) who talked about feeling some degree of disgust at their bodies, in general, and as we did specific exercises. This is not something I particularly suffer from (I just make sure to avoid looking in the mirror from behind) but again, post-camino I do have a newfound respect for the sheer functionality of my body in carrying me all that way. Especially feet. My feet are amazing! One of the leaders read a great poem about appreciating legs (the bits I can remember are about how edible babies' legs look and also how much the author loves prepubescent girls' calf-less legs - and I didn't have much luck googling it based on those two clues). I am not blessed with shapely legs but again, wow, they worked hard for me. It is the greatest instrument you will ever have, as the eponymous (to this blog) saying goes.
The other camino-related theme for me was about living with human contact. Both in the sense of living communally, and also with respect to human touch. The Buddhists - especially of the female variety - are a whole lot more considerate to live with than fellow pilgrims, though I guess people are also more minded towards friendly cooperation when on retreat than when walking and/or in tougher conditions. I am by nature a lone wolf but surprisingly I actually enjoyed the communal chores etc this weekend (and after the Camino was completely immune to the shared rooms). The world seems to divide into people who feel really uncomfortable during the extended periods of silence and those who are glad of them. I suspect these map vaguely onto those who were happiest walking alone and those who avoided it at all costs. Anyway, interesting to me that I enjoyed the company when balanced with solitude, and made me think that whatever the future holds I would consider cohabiting again.
The other funny experience of the weekend was a couple of activities that made you physically work with a partner. Some of these were quite innocuous (rubbing their ankles like you were trying to light a fire) but the last exercise had us lying down, pressed back to back in pairs. Cued lots of comments and a few tears from people grieving or missing children or partners. Definitely an odd though pleasant sensation to do this with a total stranger / fellow human being.
All of this feels slightly relevant as I am house-sitting alone in Wales this week with only cats, dogs and horses to talk to and cuddle. Next week I hope to be heading off on my next adventure which will again require my awesomely-useful body to carry me, and on a journey which I suspect will be a much more solitary time.
View from my Welsh bed - not sure that humans can really be top of the reincarnation chain given what a good life these cats lead...