How I Learned the Meaning of 'Satyagraha'

A labyrinth created by pilgrims on the side of the road
When you are a woman walking alone, you attract all kinds of attention. Having consciously made the decision to be a little bit more reserved than usual as to not attract too many "talkers," it is still challenging to keep to myself.

In Roncesvalles, I arrive at one of the two restaurants that serve dinner for pilgrims. The waitress walks me over to a table of four pilgrims whose meal was already in progress. Just to be polite, I join the conversation. Spanish and Portuguese seem to be the common language in this group of an older Spanish man, a young Portuguese guy, and a Spanish lady. We actually have a very meaningful conversation on topics ranging from walking alone to vegetarianism (a major topic of discussion at each of my meals since this is not-at-all normal in Spain) to spirituality. Right after the meal, we walk over next door to the church that is having a special mass for the pilgrims, since many people actually start the Camino in Roncesvalles. Pilgrims are quietly gathered in the beautiful church, in anticipation of a start to a new journey.

Once the priest starts the prayers, we stand up a few times and bow as the mass continues. You can practically hear the soreness in the muscles every time the entire crowd gets to their feet. My stubborn muscles refuse to move another inch for the day, so I place my hands on the bench in front of me to help me stand each time. Just then, I notice something odd. The Portuguese guy is doing the same thing and his hand happens to touch mine ... not once or twice but three times, even though there's enough space in front of him. Strange, I thought. I didn't even know him, prior to the dinner. He then turns around and asks (in the middle of mass) what kind of perfume I’m wearing. As my doubts of his intentions quickly get confirmed, I head to the door as soon as the mass finishes. He follows and asks what time I’m starting tomorrow and that we should walk together. Wanting to put an end to whatever his intentions were right away, I explain to him very clearly and compassionately that I plan on walking the Camino alone.

Surprisingly, by the next day, I had a stalker situation on my hands. This is the last thing I would expect to deal with on the pilgrimage. Another evening, at the Refugio, the Portuguese guy ends up getting a bunk-bed right next to mine. That's more-than-a-bit odd when there are over a hundred beds spread across about a dozen rooms. Still, there’s not much that I can do. There’s really nowhere to run to. Not just in this town, but even in subsequent towns, he always makes the effort to locate me and happens to be walking at my identical pace. It continues for a week.

My first response is agitation at the sight of this person and a tendency to change plans if he's anywhere around me. But I know that constantly thinking of avoiding someone is not the mental space that I want to be in during a pilgrimage. My second response, though, is to tune in for a subtle lesson that I need to learn from this remarkably awkward situation.

I meditate and soon realize that there are three things I need to do (incidentally, these three things are useful in facing any conflict). One -- maintain internal balance; accept that this is the issue I currently need to address and as, with everything in life, it will also change. Two -- generate compassion for the offending party; And to do that, there has to be total non-violence in the mind. You can oppose a certain action or issue, but hatred and anger towards any particular person simply blinds us. Three -- be steadfast; whatever clear action is taken, remain unwavering in that position.

I’ve frequently thought of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (meaning "holding firmly to Truth") movement as a remarkable tool for India's Independence. But there's actually a deep spiritual basis which can help address any conflict, however big or small. In trying to hold onto what is true for you, the struggle always has to be along the lines of strict non-violence (in body and mind). I’ve heard this word -- Satyagraha -- many times but with every round of practice, I'm starting to understand its depth and strength.

Even with this situation, as soon as I make a firm resolve to practice 'Satyagraha', my experience of the situation changes. I'm making myself very clear at the level of words and actions, but I am no longer reacting to the external circumstances. I'm surprised to see that once I make that mental shift, it really doesn't take up much of my mental energy anymore.

Ironically, after a week of this situation, a random event changed my circumstances and I never run into the Portuguese guy for the rest of my walk. Satyagraha works. :)


  1. Oh for the stalker and wow for the lesson in Satyagraha. Am glad you were safe.

  2. Akshay Sheth7/29/2010

    It needs a lot of mental discipline ....which you have.
    Share what happened which changed the situation ...it would be interesting too....a strong mental force would have favoured it ?

  3. Wow.This reminded me of a paper that Neil did on Satyagraha towards the end of the school year (perhaps when you were on this journey)...I will need to show him this story for him to understand how to apply it in our lives today... thanks for sharing.

  4. experiential learning at its best!

  5. wow.

    how powerfully liberating.

    thank you for such an inspiring lesson.