Effortless Effort (Day One)

Early morning, I walk out onto the old cobble-stone street in a small French town of St. Jean Pied de Port. A little drizzle in the air would soon become the least of my worries. As I am huffing and puffing up the mountain, 50-something-year-olds pass me by and I wonder if should've prepared for the the physical challenge of this pilgrimage. I thought I was in decent shape -- intense yoga retreat in Central America, climbing an active volcano in Guatemala, underwater caving in Belize. Plus, I had trekked the rough terrains of Himalayas, so why would the French Pyrenees be any harder?  Well, it is. Maybe it is that I'm ten years older now, or it is the wonderful desserts in Paris last week.  :)

It’s steep and foggy. The uphill climb is exhausting my lungs, my calves are turning into jello, and I can barely walk fifteen minutes without needing more oxygen. Under the heavy pack, my back and shoulders also add to my woes. Just about everything hurts. There's nothing along the way -- no food or shelter. And it is cold. There is one small refugio that I already know is full, so my next stop is after 28 kilometers of a rigorous uphill climb. I am not prepared for this.

Despite the doubts about my physical capability, I am mentally excited to step-it-up in the spirit of cultivation. I know that if I get through this day, I will make it to the end. Still, a big If. :)

The fog starting to lift around two o'clock 

As I continue my struggles up the mountain, I notice an old Japanese man walking on the left side of the path ahead. With a pole in each hand, he’s moving slowly up the hill. He has to be hurting more than me but his steps are slow, deliberate, persistent. Just seeing him, I have an epiphany: I am using the brute-force technique.  There is no grace; it is about an accomplishment to get somewhere. This old man, though, walks with a stillness that allows him to find an alignment with his natural rhythm.  

Like the Japanese man, I start walking as slowly as I can and synchronize my breathing with each footstep.  Gradually, my pace picks up but there’s no more pushing or pulling in my mind. There is no conflict, no worry, no anxiety. It’s just one foot in front of the other. The same mountain that felt like my enemy in the last hour is now my ally, supporting my feet and my spirit. Instead of push-stop-push-stop cycle, I start to find my dynamic balance. A task of climbing a mountain has turned into a beautiful meditation.

When I pass the Japanese man, I send out my heartfelt gratitude to him for teaching me this lesson. For the rest of the 20 kilometers, I walk with effortlessness -- stopping only once to eat my sandwich.

Finding the “right” amount of effort is key. I tend to oscillate between pushing too hard or not trying hard enough, but it’s really about finding the effortlessness in between. By the time I reach the Refugio, my body is sore but my mind is fully at ease. I'm ready for the remaining 872 kilometers.

From the Camino Journals April 30


  1. a beautiful reflection! effort without tension, a gentle intensity -- glad that you articulated this :-)

  2. This was inspiring... thanks for passing along the Japanese man's lesson :)

  3. Trishna7/26/2010

    Guri, if this was just day one, can't wait to learn more from your insights over the next 5 weeks of your pilgrimage :) Thanks for taking the time to share, even if it is retroactive :)

  4. Thanks guys! Glad it was useful.

  5. How beautiful Guri! "I tend to oscillate between pushing too hard or not trying hard enough, but it’s really about finding the effortless-ness in between" - I will try to remember this reflection next time my heart tells me that I am pushing too hard (I am sure the kids will appreciate it :)