Dear Friends,

We are at home in Takoma Park, Maryland, still going through  Camino withdrawal. In late November Mitchell did several presentations for the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center about what we had learned. The announcement text and pictures are below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell and Ann-Mari.


Lessons from the Long Walk

Dear Still Water Friends,

My wife Ann-Mari and I recently returned from a thousand mile pilgrimage walk, from Le Puy-en-Velay in southeastern France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.

Most days we walked for eight to ten hours, following a trail that pilgrims have used for 1200 years to reach Santiago de Compostela, where, according to legend and the Catholic Church, the relics of St James are kept.

We walked through mountain forests, plateau pastures, and croplands. We passed through small villages, enchanting medieval towns, and, from time to time, through moderately sized cities.

We traveled light, carrying several changes of clothes, toiletries, rain gear, and a few lightweight modern marvels: a digital camera, a cell phone, and, for half the trip, a tiny computer (stolen in Pamplona).

Most nights we stayed in simple dormitories available only to pilgrims. Many were offered and subsidized by municipalities, counties, or regions, and by non-profit groups formed to support pilgrims. Some were private dormitories and pensions, owned by former pilgrims, whose primary intention was to support pilgrims. And some were simply businesses, offering accommodations to pilgrims willing to spend more.

We were part of an international stream of pilgrims following the same trail — during our 80 days of walking we talked with hundreds of other pilgrims from more than 30 countries. Some were short-timers, walking for one to three weeks during their vacation. Many of the short-timers came back year after year until they reached Santiago. Many pilgrims walked only the 500 miles of the Spanish section, the most well-known part of the Camino. And a few were truly long distance pilgrims. One of our favorites was a petite, energetic woman in her sixties, traveling alone and speaking only German, who began her 2000 mile walk from her home in Leipzig, Germany.

Since we’ve been back we’ve been asked many times, and have asked ourselves: What have we learned? How have we changed?

These are not easy questions. It is much easier to talk about the details of the trip — the enchanting fog-filled days walking over the Pyrenees or the spiritual energy we felt sitting in the simple Templar church at Eunate. However, I believe they are worthwhile questions. I’ll begin here identifying three areas in which I believe my understanding deepened and hopefully through the discussion this Thursday evening at Crossings and this Sunday in Columbia, these notions will develop.

Learning number one: spiritual and emotional set-points

I gained a better understanding of what maintains and changes my spiritual and emotional set-points. (Set-point being another way of saying my point of homeostasis or equilibrium.) We had a great time. There were better days and worse days, but overall we were happier, healthier, and more at peace than we usually are at home.

Being on the trail was not a tinkering with our daily routines, but a radical change. In terms of the degree of change, it was similar to being on a long meditation retreat, but many of the conditions of the change were different. I was not in the protective enclosure of a retreat center, and I wasn’t doing it away from my family. I walked with Ann-Mari, and for the last five weeks, with Juliana, our 21-year-old daughter. Now that we are back we are thinking about what it was that allowed us to feel so happy, healthy, and at peace, and how we can create similar conditions in our daily lives here. The conditions we have identified include:

  • Most of each day was spent outdoors in physical activity.
  • Our daily responsibilities and our To Do lists were radically reduced.
  • We had time as we walked to fully share our joys and appreciations, as well as our hurts, regrets, and sadnesses.
  • Our plan and direction for each day was clear: we followed the trail markers for 10 to 15 miles.

Learning number two: we create our own realities
I gained a deeper understanding of how we create our own realities. There are some commonalities for everyone on the trail: there is the walking, the trail signs, places to sleep, places to eat, and the landscapes, buildings, and people along the way. I was fascinated and deeply touched by the tremendous variation in how people interacted with these shared commonalities. For some people the Camino seemed primarily to be a task to be accomplished. They took pride in how many miles they could walk per day and focused on what they would do after this task (the walk) was completed. For some it seemed primarily to be a traveling pub crawl — they looked forward to ending each day with a group of pilgrims sharing food and drink. Some pilgrims, both Catholic and non-Catholic, were drawn to the historical churches. They explored them with interest and took time to sit quietly or pray in each one. For some pilgrims the natural world was of great interest — they noticed the changes in the flora and fauna, took delight in encountering a new species of slug. These are just some of the ways people experienced the Camino, and, of course, the categories are not mutually exclusive.

For myself, when I was anticipating the walk I framed it in terms of a thousand miles of walking meditation. To a great degree, that’s what I got and enjoyed: hours and hours of breathing and stepping and calling myself back to the present moment. I also enjoyed greatly the conversations I had with other pilgrims who also saw their time on the trail as a time for practice and transformation.

Learning number three: increased appreciation for the practice of mindfulness and for Still Water
A third learning for me was a deepening of my appreciation for the practice of mindfulness and especially for our practice in the Still Water community. When the Pilgrimage to Santiago blossomed in the 9th to 14th centuries, the beliefs and practices of the Catholic church were deeply meaningful and motivating for pilgrims. One walked to Santiago to become closer to Jesus, to partake of the energy which emanated from the relics one encountered along the way and in Santiago, and to receive indulgences from the Church that would reduce one’s time in purgatory.

My experience was that today, the Catholic-ness of the pilgrimage is greatly reduced. The primary exception was that in some of the historic towns and cities there were special masses for pilgrims each day, which many pilgrims, both Catholic and non-Catholics, including us, attended. Also, a few Catholic monasteries and lay communities along the way offered prayer and spiritual support for pilgrims who wished to stay with them for several days — an offer which, apparently, few pilgrims opted for. But that was about it.

Although there were committed Catholics we met along the way, included several priest pilgrims, they were a minority. For most pilgrims, the Catholic church had little significance in their lives, even if they were nominally Catholic. As one young Spanish accountant explained to me: “My grandfather went to church all the time. My father went sometimes. I never go.”

However, many of the people I met on the trail seemed to have a thirst for spiritual meaning in their lives. And often, as they explained their searching to me, they seemed frustrated. They knew what they wanted, but didn’t know how to get there. I felt grateful that I have the the practice of mindfulness, and that I have spiritual teachings, teachers, friends, and communities in my life.

I was aware, also, as we walked that there were few organized opportunities for people to reflect on the spiritual significance or what they were experiencing. I recognized that one of the most important things we do at Still Water is to create spaces each week for people to come together to explore their inner worlds, and, when they are ready, to share from their hearts with others.

In my experience, this didn’t happen on the Camino. One could do it for oneself, if one had the background and discipline, but it wasn’t supported by an organized community.

Because I find it myself so nourishing, and have seen how it has transformed others, I came home with the desire to create more spaces each week in which people can both go within and share with others.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

Santiago to Home

November 11, 2008

Dear Friends,

Ann-Mari and Mitchell arrived home on November 1, after having been away for just over three months (and walking for 80 days). Juliana stayed on in Spain to travel. 

Our last day of walking together was Sunday, October 26th. We started the morning in Pedrouzo, 21 kilometers from Santiago. Enjoying the walk in the crisp and sunny weather, we reached the outskirts of the city in the late morning, and arrived at the cathedral in the old city center the early afternoon.













Mitchell, the Cathedral, and the miracle shoes


 Arriving at the Cathedral we had a sense of accomplishment — we did it! — and some feelings of disorientation. For so many days the direction was clear: follow the Camino trail markers. Now, the trail had ended.

Apparently many other pilgrims shared this feeling. Sitting at a cafe table, we could pick out the newly arrived pilgrims in the stream of people passing by, and it seemed to us many looked both joyful and adrift. At the Pilgrims’ Mass at the cathedral the next day, the priest seemed attuned to the emotions of the recently arrived pilgrims and spoke about the meaning of the journey to Santiago. In his life, Saint James brought people closer to Jesus and to God, the priest said. As pilgrims, we had come closer to what is important in our lives. It might be phrased in Christian terms, or in might  be phrased in more general spiritual terms: closer to light and to love. We can consider our arrival in Santiago as a beginning as well as an ending, an opportunity to continue the inner journey and the opening of our hearts.

After a rainy day of errands in Santiago, the three of us took the bus to Finisterre, the westernmost point in continental Europe and a traditional final destination for many pilgrims. Finisterre, from the Latin “The end of the earth, ” is a region associated both with the legend of St. James and with pre-Christian spiritual practices.


The harbor at Finisterre


At Cape Finisterre, looking west at the Atlantic Ocean

From Finisterre, on the morning of October 29th, we returned to Santiago. Ann-Mari and Mitchell left that afternoon for Madrid. Juliana stayed on in Santiago, and then decided to complete her pilgrimage with a three day, 90 kilometer, walk back to Finisterre. 


Saying goodbye at the Santiago bus station

Saying goodbye at the Santiago bus station


We are grateful to the many friends who have followed our journey and encouraged us with their good wishes. And we are pleased that our blog was of interest to others who found their way to us through cyberspace.

We know there are some large gaps in our entries, so we are not yet done with this blog. In the coming weeks we will post more stories and photos.


Warm wishes,

Mitchell and Ann-Mari

October 25, 2008

Dear Friends,

We are still walking, now just one day from Santiago de Compostela, and still finding each day an adventure.

Juliana adapted quickly to the pilgrim life and has been a helpful translator and cultural guide.

We solved one of our blog posting difficulties by buying a memory card reader — and created another — most of the computers on the pilgrim trail use dial-up modems and are too slow to post our photos.

We look forward to sharing more of our stories and photos. Thanks for your encouragement.

Mitchell, Ann-Mari, and Juliana

The Pyrenees

Ostabat to Saint-Jean-le-Vieux – September 17 – 18 kilometers (11 miles)
Saint-Jean-le-Vieux to Orisson – September 18 – 12 kilometers (7 miles)
Orisson to Roncesvalles, Spain – September 19 – 19 kilometers (11.5 miles)
     (21 kilometers for Ann-Mari, who went back for the sandwiches)

From Ostabat we followed the valley that leads to the foot of the Pyrenees, stopping for the night in Saint-Jean-le-Vieux. Early the next morning we walked four kilometers to the remarkably preserved medieval town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Saint John at the Foot of the Pass), one of the most popular starting points for pilgrims who walk the Spanish Camino.

Our first stop was the Pilgrim Welcome Office run by the Friends of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques. The multi-lingual staff was very helpful, giving us information about the trail ahead and allowing us to hook into their broadband service.

After buying shoe laces and insoles for Mitchell´s boots, and a guide book to the Spanish Camino, we began the climb to the pass, first in sunshine, then in mist, then in rain and fog.

We stopped in the late afternoon at Orisson, halfway up to the pass, the last accomodations on the French side. In the evening, the skies cleared enough to give us a beautiful view of the mountains.

On the next day, Mitchell´s birthday, we walked over the Pyrenees on the route used by both Charlemagne and Napoleon, following Roman roads in places. There was thick fog on the way up, which made the low birch forests look like fairy tale illustrations.

Descending in sunshine on the Spanish side, the colors of the landscape changed entirely, to brillant gold and purple of the gorse and heather growing together on the dry slopes beside the trail.

We spent the night in Roncesvalles, a monastery town five kilometers below the pass, which has sheltered pilgrims for more than a thousand years. We learned that in recent years, about 40,000 people a year pass through Roncesvalles, almost all of them pilgrims.

Simple Living

As we walk across France and enter into Spain, our days begin with a very simple routine. We wake at 6:30, pack up, eat, put on our boots, and begin walking.

Mid-morning, we have our “morning meeting” — a blend of preschool circle time and the Plum Village “Beginning Anew” practice. We give a greeting, sing a song, and then voice appreciation for each other or for those who have encouraged us in some way. For example, Mitchell might appreciate Ann-Mari for being willing to stop at a church he wanted to see, or Ann-Mari might appreciate someone we met the day before who was especially kind.

Often our appreciations ramble into conversations. With miles of trails stretching ahead, we don´t feel rushed. Morning meeting can go on for hours.

After appreciations, we share regrets and sorrows. We talk about actions we wish we had done or not done, and sufferings we now feel for whatever reason. Often our regrets and sorrows concern a comment or action one of us perceived as insensitive. Sometimes it is just the sharing of a sadness, for example, that a museum one of us especially wanted to see was closed.

When appreciations, regrets, and sorrows have been shared, we move on to “news and announcements”: intentions for the day, stops we want to plan, or things to buy, such as stamps or postcards. Knowing that we carry everything we have with us, we have little desire to accumulate more things. Sometimes we talk about how few possessions we need to be happy on the pilgrim trail, and reflect on how many things we have at home.

While daily life is usually simple for us here, it is not always idyllic. We are often foot sore. Somedays are less pleasant than others: we have walked through soaking rains and shared dormitories with loud snorers. Sometimes, too, the complexities of modern life reach us here, such as having to double-check whether our electric bill was paid, or arranging for a phone call with Juliana, who is traveling in Mexico.

We continued walking through the beautiful agricultural landscape of the Pays Basque. At mid-day we passed an empty chateau. Next to it was a park-like garden with large magnolias – unusual in Europe – and other eye-catching plants, including four immense trees at least one hundred feet high. We remarked to each other, “Those look just like redwoods.” Later a cafe owner told us that they are indeed redwoods, Sequoias, the tallest in Europe, and that the garden is a registered historic landmark.

We entertained ourselves on the trail imagining how saplings could have been brought there from the New World two or three hundred years ago.

That night we stayed with seven other pilgrims in a municipal gite in the now small village of Ostabat. During the Middle Ages Ostabat housed 5000 pilgrims each night, in inns for the wealthy, and in shelters and hospitals for the poor.

The town of Ostabat

The town of Ostabat

We crossed over a narrow river into Pays Basque (the Basque region) and immediately noticed Pelote (Jai Alai) courts in every village and bilingual French/Basque signs.

We watched corn being harvested by the truckload and were tempted by the ripe figs and peaches on trees close to the trail. As we passed by a village garden, a man called to us, and over the stone wall he handed each of us one of the apples he had just picked from his trees.

We stayed at a gite on a working sheep farm – Botohegueia – and were touched by the generosity of the owner. At dinner, tasty food and drinks kept coming. After breakfast, she said, “Wait a moment,” and brought out plates of boiled eggs, bread, fruit, and cheese. She knew there would be no place on the trail to buy food until late afternoon, and she wanted everyone to leave with supplies for lunch.