[Melanie's note on June 26, 2019: This piece was drafted on August 30, 2018 – almost a full year ago. I was reading old un-published posts and I especially resonated with this draft. I've published pieces of this before, but I like how this flows and ebbs, like a river in no hurry. It's to inspire my current writing on goals.]

Today, I meditated to morning prayers by Benedictine monks, ate a breakfast of toast and homemade peach jam, and set out for the Cruz del Ferro (Iron Cross), which rests in the mountains after León.

I took it slow today, ascending to the cross, and when I arrived I was struck by a feeling of not being ready to end my journey. For indeed my journey on the Camino will end in two days, before I reach Santiago — in a town of 65,000 called Ponferrada. There, I’ll catch a train to Madrid, a plane to Tel Aviv, and a bus to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, the holy land. In this city, I plan to help a friend facilitate summer camp for Palestinian youth, who will visit Plum Village later this year. My heart is fully committed to this path, and joy arises when I imagine meeting the children and sharing joy and my love of mindfulness with them.

And yet this choice includes sorrow that I will not be “completing” the Camino de Santiago this trip. Since I began the Camino in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on June 28, I knew that not reaching Santiago was a possibility. I had six weeks to walk, give or take a few days. Fast walkers blaze through in four weeks, the guidebook plans for 33 stages (or days), and a relaxed pace is five weeks. And yet I didn’t set Santiago as a goal: I didn’t know how quickly I’d walk or how many rest days I’d need.

The Camino as a practice of aimlessness

My intention was to remove any pressure on my body to move quickly, and to ease my mind from pushing. I did not want to turn the Camino into just another goal, with landmarks, progress reports, and towns that had to be reached on certain days.

I wanted to go slowly, respond to my body with immediacy when it asked for rest, and to let the days unravel spontaneously. And that’s what happened: I stopped walking if my body was tired, if it was unbearably hot, if I met a person I wanted to continue to know, if an alburgue with a garden touched my heart (or stilled my mind in a way that allowed me to write). I took joy in my slowness, even adapting the snail as my trail mascot. To be slow is to have nowhere to go! I delighted in this practice of aimlessness.

The Camino for me unfolded in a beautiful and delicate way; each day I woke up without an alarm to the sounds of birds chirping and pilgrims packing. I would eat a banana and bread with jam, and start walking until reaching a town six or ten kilometers away. There I’d stop for a Spanish tortilla (the most delicious egg and potato quiche-like thing) and a tea or orange juice, settle down with a friend for a quick chat, and then prepare to walk until lunch.

Lunch would be another ten kilometers away, and if I encountered good company, I might stay and tell stories until the afternoon. Maybe I’d stay in that town, or walk with someone til the next one, or go on until I found something curious. Then I’d look for an alburgue (with a garden or a nice name), check in for a bed, shower and do my laundry by hand. It’d be early afternoon by then, siesta time in Spain, and the entire town would be sleeping (at the very least, not working). I’d follow suit: resting, napping, writing in my journal, daydreaming.

When the town awoke at 5pm, I’d again venture outdoors to walk around, grab a snack and a Coca Cola, and start looking for a dinner spot, or buy groceries to cook with friends. Dinner would be simple, a pilgrim’s menu of roasted chicken, salad, French fries, maybe macaroni with chorizo (I stopped being a vegetarian on Camino day 2 when my body craved protein and there was no tofu in sight). And then I’d write, talk, and relax until bed around 9:30 or 10pm.

Sometimes, all of these things happened; other times, few or none.

Learning to walk

There is a rhythm to these days, and the body learns to walk. The feet develop blisters and then calluses strong enough to stand hiking boots for eight hours on trail. The hips become adept at carrying backpack weight. The knees buckle at first and then the body learns how to care tenderly for them, walking with a bounce in the step, going slowly. And the mind adjusts, explodes in thought, slows, clears.

I have learned what is good for my body: lots of stretching for the tendons, calves, hamstrings, hips. Sleeping in hotel rooms now and then. Shampoo and soap is sufficient to be clean; no conditioner or additional body wash is needed. Foot massages daily. Quiet space for soaking in the sunshine and meditating, shade for resting. One liter of water per ten kilometers, or more if hot outside. Salami and bananas as emergency food, perfect for energizing the body for one or two hours. Tampons and pads for periods (so I’m not bleeding on everything I touch — this happened). Epipen in case of analphylaxis. A backpack that fits my frame and doesn’t weigh down on my shoulders. Walking slowly down hills, walking with others for energy, walking alone for focus. The body is clear in its needs, and in stillness, the mind clears itself to listen.

The practice of setting goals

I have been processing the concept of goals for the past few days, realizing my aversion to setting them, seeing them as preventing freedom of choice in the moment. This aversion has roots in childhood: I’d set big goals to chase and pour my whole heart into them. Everything from getting the top score on a history exam to running for student body office to getting into a good university to getting a consulting offer to learning to code and becoming a software engineer.

I was tired of goals at the beginning of this Camino, and now I’m somewhat afraid of them. If I had decided on Santiago as my goal, perhaps I wouldn’t have freedom to stop in a rural town because I intuited it would begin to rain (which it did — thunderstorms for two hours and I was cozy in an alburgue), or to stop after only 13 kilometers because I made a friend at lunch. Goals, when stuck to with single-minded focus, can limit freedom and curiosity.

And yet I am beginning to see the beauty of choosing goals and striving for them.

When I wanted to reach a particular town to see friends, the anticipation of seeing my friends energized me, encouraged me in my steps. There was freedom in choosing to walk faster: I would consciously stop for fewer photos and snack breaks because I wanted to walk during the cooler hours of the day and still see my friends. And there was freedom in prioritizing meeting up with friends over wandering.

A few times, I experimented with setting goals that challenged me. On day 28, I committed to 17 kilometers straight on the Roman road from Calzadilla de los Hermanillos to Reliegos, after already walking 13 kilometers from Sahagún. This was the farthest distance I had walked in one day and I was starting the long part (without breaks) at 1pm, when the sun was at its peak. For this goal, I threw my whole body and mind into finishing; there was no other choice. Water and a bed were ahead; in spite of blisters, zero shade, and barely any water, I had to keep going. When I reached Reliegos (thanks in part to the cheerful encouragement of Ralf, from Cologne, Germany), I was deeply satisfied. To reach a goal is the kind of satisfaction that hits me deep in my body, allows me to order a soda and drink it without any issue, to eat a pilgrim’s meal with joy. It’s fun to experiment with the limits of the body and mind and to touch them, and to reach that goal through challenge.

A year ago, Scott asked me if I wanted to bike with him and his friends to Marin on a Saturday morning. The distance was far, and I didn’t consider myself a strong biker, so I declined and asked why he would do something physically challenging like that. Why not do something easier on the body, why not rest while biking? And he responded: because there’s a fantastic view, Melanie! You get to enjoy making it to the top.

I didn’t like that perspective then, I thought it full of striving — and doesn’t Buddhism include aimlessness as one of its signs?! I understand it better now. People set goals to motivate them, to give energy and focus, to allow them to see and experience more.

Could I have set Santiago as a goal for this Camino?

Creating spaciousness and having Santiago as a goal would have meant less attachment to spontaneous decision-making, more sticking to a schedule, longer days of walking.

I don’t think it would have worked for this particular journey. To set Santiago as my goal from the beginning would have ruined the trip in my mind. I would have pushed through pain, worried about rest days, and gotten angry at my own physical limitations.

No, I’m glad that I didn’t create plans, that even plans at the beginning of the day could evolve as the sun migrated in the sky from east to west.

How can I set goals for my life while allowing space for whatever arises?

I start with the values I want to live by: love, curiosity, equanimity, humility, and gratitude. These are my foundation throughout external change.

At Plum Village and along the Camino, a vision for life has slowly revealed itself:

  • To contribute to and live within a community of individuals with shared values
  • To honor my family and communicate with them frequently; to demonstrate my love and gratitude through action
  • To create conditions for partnership and my own family
  • To be in nature as much as possible: by walking, camping, farming, biking
  • To make art: writing, pottery, mosaics, spoken word, dance, song, poetry
  • To deepen my spiritual practice and walk the path of a dharma teacher
  • To be peaceful and create spaces of peace and healing for others — whatever their faith or background

My values and vision for life are my foundation, allowing me to discern what is the wise course of action. These don’t change very often, and require lots of consideration to change.

Out of these pillars, I can brainstorm possibilities for action:

  • Study peace education
  • Long walks like the Camino, 88 Temples walk in Japan
  • Pottery course

And devise specific goals:

  • Fulbright scholarship to study peace education
  • Finishing the Camino de Santiago
  • Visiting my family in Japan in September
  • Taking a intensive pottery course in Japan
  • Helping out at the retreat for Palestinian children at Plum Village at the end of October

It’s this implementation that’s flexible and open to change should other opportunities arise.

Goals of many colors and sizes

Sometimes, the goals I set will require only my own focus and commitment (for example, finishing the Camino or taking a pottery course). And sometimes, goals will be bigger in scale and orchestration, requiring the contribution of many people (e.g., starting a technology company or building a sustainable spiritual community). Larger-scale goals with the involvement of many people require deeper commitment — but even then, should another calling beckon my heart, there are others who can execute the original vision.

I think of the Palacio del Gaudi, an incredible building with a stunning second-floor chapel in Astorga, designed by Antonio Gaudi. What most people don’t realize, perhaps, is that Gaudi resigned from the project after 14 years of building, and another set of architects continued to build on top of his vision — adding an attic, failing to incorporate the full ventilation, rejecting the complex roof for a simple black one. And many bishops and religious folks contributed to its funding. Visiting this building reminded me that many hands go into creating works of beauty — and I cannot carry the burden of large-scale goals on my own. They require people with shared vision building with their full hearts, working alongside me.

Flexibility on the path

I know that ideas and curiosities will arise that the mind has no ability to predict. All I can do is to keep an open mind, not get too attached to any accomplishment, and use my values and vision to discern whether to diverge from the original plan.

It’s from this place of stability and wholeness that I committed to volunteering in Jerusalem: my whole body and heart were saying YES and my mind simply needed to figure out how. In this case, my vision for being in nature and spiritual growth manifested in walking the Camino; the challenge was to let go of the expectation to finish it.

I am not as afraid anymore about knowing who I will date or where I will go or what job I will take. I know that I have strong values and vision of what I want, and a heart that makes clear when something feels right. And at that point, it requires a steady mind to listen and the resolve to follow my curiosity and love wherever it may lead.