Since the rock-climbing accident that paralysed me and took me to the brink of leaving this world, I have come close to dying another five times. That has only been the occasions I’m conscious of and there have no doubt been many near misses of which I was blissfully unaware.
The author Richard Bach said, “Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.” As I am still very much here and alive, I keep looking for what there is to find; onwards and forwards with unfolding purpose.
Whenever life gets interesting – some might say traumatic – I find myself like an onion. I keep peeling to expose new layers. It is always a process of discovery, even when it is painful. I have learned to embrace the process with curiosity, intrigued to discover what I will learn and where it will lead. When this process of peeling hasn’t arrived with me through ‘wake-up calls’, then it seems I can’t help but seek ways to step out of comfort, as if every cell in my body is shouting “more, show me more”. I am driven by a deep sense that not a moment of this journey for which I have chosen to come here can be frittered away. In this life I am on for maximum experience, like a crazy Disney rollercoaster ride through the journey of meeting myself.
What surprises me though, is the change that happens when I least expect it; not in the midst of near-death drama or on an adventure way out of my comfort zone, but in the more sedate times that on the surface it seems are insignificant in terms of life change.
The most recent of my Quest 79 rides was what I named ‘The Continental Way’. It was a five week cycle journey following about 3000km of the Atlantic coast of France and then across the Pyrenees to join the Camino de Santiago through northern Spain. In comparison to other rides it seemed simple: European roads, no gravel or even potholes to negotiate, and certainly no rickshaws and donkeys. Beds could be found when camping got too wet, communication was relatively easy and the level of drama was low. However, long days riding, fiestas and sleepless nights in the proximity of snoring Spaniards made this ride feel like a bigger test of endurance than ever before. It felt far from the contemplative, transformative experience that I might have expected in following a pilgrim’s trail; far from Martin Sheen’s portrayal in the film ‘The Way’.
Here is a sample of ‘My Camino’ experience
It took me a week to arrive. Until I watched the sun sink and burst amber across the foaming surf, until I collapsed with five hundred kilometres of arm- ache into the cosy cocoon of my tent in the woods of La Crabasse L’Eau, my soul had been missing: lost somewhere in the tide that has swept me from racing to journeying, from athlete to adventurer. The tide that I have swirled in for a decade.
We began our journey in the tiny Breton village of Hopital-Camfrout, once home to a leprosy hospital and the beginning of others’ Caminos. In theory we were pilgrims, though I’m not sure what we sought beyond a quiet place to rest our bodies, clean water and food. Maybe that’s part of the mystery, not knowing what we’re looking for until we find it.
It was my penultimate continent of the Quest 79 rides. Camping close to the breaking waves of the Atlantic, I was lulled to sleep with mosaic images of places and faces of the previous three years. I’d been handbiking a rollercoaster around the world. Every lump and bump is recorded in my arms. Every smile and kindness of all of the rides is entrained in my heart. Perhaps that’s why the heavy clouds that had hung around after the effort involved in Paralympic success had finally cleared.
The Camino wanders between pretty villages with old stone churches and shuttered houses with colourful window boxes, alive with invitations to ‘Peregrinos’ – the Pilgrims – to sample the menu of the day or take a bed in a hostel. The Peregrinos are guided by the iconic symbol of the ‘Way’, a painted yellow Concha (shell) shining bright on blue, with a bold yellow arrow beneath indicating which way to go. Everyone walks with purpose in their stride, the ‘Way’ beckoning to move onward and forward. The path is often at the roadside or crosses it as it twists across fields, and as we pedalled by we exchanged calls of “Buen Camino”. I wondered about each person’s journey: Why were they there? What was their story? Why did they walk?
The rhythmic circles of propelling a bike seemed to lull each of us into a quiet inner space. A feeling of peace arrived with me, each day a moving meditation. My brain had emptied and let go somewhere in France. Beyond the next pedal revolution and immediate survival needs, I wasn’t trying to figure anything out. But when the riding stopped and our intriguing group reformed, the contrast to the quiet of the day was radical. My friend Paco was on! Fast, busy, bossy, somewhat frantic, an embodiment of frenetic Spanish culture. Pamplona felt a shock after weeks on the road: it’s narrow old streets oozing with life, it’s heartbeat pulsating strong. Crowds and tapas flowed fast around cobbled alleys famed for the running of bulls. Paco beat at the pace of Pamplona, his energy constantly buzzing. I longed for sleep, for restful recovery, but separation is hard when you’re enmeshed in a small team so instead I stayed with my companions, watching them consume incredible quantities of tapas and beer that my stomach churned at the prospect of.
Paco pedals a bike as fast as he lives, so following his backside up the road became a familiar view over the weeks. Riding the final kilometres in to the many spires of Santiago de Compostela, I reflected on the month gone by. Paco had taken control of everything, a benign, kind sort of dictator, and I had let go and gone with his flow. The journey had not been a consciously contemplative passage and I hadn’t been deliberately seeking any answers for life. The closest I had felt to a spiritual experience was incredulity at the size of Spanish gin and tonics, and watching the sun setting into the Atlantic surf. I hadn’t really thought about anything much, or been aware of seeking. However, through the following weeks, I noticed myself feeling and being very different. It seemed the Camino had taken me through a transformation. Maybe the most profound changes are those not thought about or ruminated. I could sense moving away from a known life with familiar ruts toward something new. There was total uncertainty in every single aspect of my life, but accompanied by a sense of excitement instead of fear.
How do we enable transformation?
We all have a natural tendency to want to grow, transform, and live life as fully as we can. Psychologists would argue we all have an internal drive to experience deeper fulfilment; ‘self-actualisation’ is the term often used. In busy lives in a busy world, how do we allow ourselves time and space to experience transformation? In my experience of daily life, my brain can’t often figure out the solutions for what or how to change. When patterns of thinking have become so engrained, I struggle to find ways to let go. The trying to figure things out and the experiencing of familiar ‘stuck’ emotions can become a vicious cycle.
When I think about riding across continents, the core ingredients that I have come to enjoy are: the arrival of new experiences, the disappearance of old habits of thinking and doing, the getting to know myself more, the inspiration of friends and strangers, and gaining other perspectives on the world.
If five weeks riding across a continent isn’t your thing, or you have life circumstances that mean you can’t just up and off (but check if that’s really the case or just an excuse), then maybe these core ingredients are a clue as to how to create transformation-supporting experiences in our ‘normal’ life.
We can start by changing small things in our every day. As the saying goes, ‘If we always do what we always did, we’ll always get what we always got’. Mixing things up always makes things interesting and takes us to new places even without physically travelling. Some ideas: start a new hobby; pick up an old one you used to love but for some reason left; learn a new skill or subject that gets you excited; change your social habits to meet new people; spend more time alone; connect with nature; give yourself space; get some coaching; read; meditate; make a growth mindset your way of being. Engage with activities that help peel away the layers and look for what lies beneath. As sages and yogis have done for centuries, ask yourself the question ‘Who am I?’, and then dare to venture into new territory that enables you to discover more of the answer.
The hardest part is the bit before the transformation. The part where we are stuck in a rut, paralysed by fear or negative emotion, no clue what to do, unable to figure things out in the logical ways we believe we should be able to. Our power comes in not fighting the fight, but being willing to let go. When we leave the solution-seeking, over-thinking habits behind and allow ourselves to enter a vacuum sort of space, then expansion naturally arrives. I find being in nature a particularly powerful enabler. Our energy starts flowing again, creativity is unexpectedly ignited and new paths unfold in a somewhat effortless way.
It also strikes me that these core ingredients I mention are quite prevalent for many of us in our Covid-19 lockdown world: so perhaps we all have an opportunity for transformation just now.