Updated: Sep 6
The yellow arrow is one of the most iconic images of the Camino de Santiago. Along with the famous scallop shell, yellow arrows are painted on trees, walls, roads, fences, pavement, buildings, etc.… They mark the route for pilgrims walking or biking to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain each year. They give comfort to pilgrims knowing they are heading in the correct direction, inching closer to the end of the trek. They also give pilgrims relief when the arrows appear just at the right time after thinking they've accidently turned right instead of going straight.
Can you get lost on the Camino de Santiago? Seasoned pilgrims will tell you If you are paying attention to the yellow arrows, it is almost impossible for you to lose your way. “Paying attention” are the operative words in this passage of advice.
My pilgrimage from Porto, Portugal to Santiago, Spain was the first Camino experience for me. This three week journey was also a critical stage in my effort to advance my mental well-being, to practice trusting myself and others, and to continue placing myself in scenarios to rewire my 50+ year old trauma brain. Every day was (and still is) a test.
For the first leg of my pilgrimage, my gaze was glued to the ground, paying attention to the miles and miles of the cobble-stoned ground in front of me while methodically lifting my head to search for the next yellow arrow. The last thing I needed was a rolled ankle from the cobble stones or being lost somewhere out in the remote countryside.
I was walking in a total control and self-preservation mindset:
Be Safe. Be laser focused. Get to point A to B and then onto C, on time, on schedule, without injury--- with perfection. I explained this in more detail in STORY 1
This control and self preservation mindset is an unadulterated example of how a trauma brain fights against you in the quest to be the new conductor of your thinking, your decisions, your responses, and your actions. While controlling my safety, I was failing to keep my head up long enough to notice (and appreciate) the beauty of the Portugal people, the other pilgrims, the omens, the architecture, the history, the sweet smell of churned dirt, the colors across the fields, and the many layers of the mountainous landscapes along the way. At the same time, I was thinking, “how can I pay attention to finding the faded arrows, or the arrows hidden behind the overgrowth if I’m distracted by the acres and acres of countryside vineyards, the wise old villagers playing board games under the shady tree, the horses, the medieval churches, or the wild lilies growing on the hillside?” I will surely miss an arrow and get lost.
Perhaps getting lost, finding your way back and seeking new truths is precisely the intended pilgrimage experience.
In the book The Alchemist, the King of Salem provides many insights and words of wisdom for Santiago (the shepherd boy and main character) before he departs on his quest for his personal legend. One of the stories the King shares with Santiago is “the secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”
The King’s story begins with a boy’s search of the wise man. After finally reaching the wise man’s castle, the boy waits for hours before he finally meets him. The boy tells the wise man he was there to find his personal legend. The wise man tells the boy to take a look around the palace and then return to him in a couple of hours.
“Meanwhile, I want to ask you to do something," said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. "As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.”
The boy proceeded to walk around the palace while keeping his eyes completely focused on the spoon. Two hours later, he returned to the wise man, who asked him:
“did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that it took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?"
The boy was mortified and acknowledged that he had not noticed any of those things. He was only focused on not spilling the oil the wise man had entrusted him to take care of.
Then the wise man tells the boy to go back through the palace and "observe the marvels of my world".
Relieved, the boy picks the spoon back up and returns exploring the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste of the food and wine that had been offered. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.
“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?" asked the wise man. “Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone."
“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you,” said the wisest of wise men. “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”
The spoon with the drops of oil that must not be spilled represents the essential task, or Personal Legend, that we must never lose sight of. However, we must also remember to live responsibly in the moment and appreciate the journey we are on.
When I was too focused on the oil on the spoon (i.e. my self-preservation; staying on course), I missed the grandeur of the palace (i.e. the spiritual beauty of the pilgrimage; the wonders of the world beyond my horizon; the lessons of getting lost). If you focus only on getting from Point A to Point B, you will miss the natural and man-made marvels of the world. There’s much to be gained by holding your head up high, getting outside of our comfort zones, setting and resetting your perspective, being still, trusting the omens and the universe, and experiencing the vast variety of cultures in the world.
Enlightenment is not an end sum game. We can enjoy what the world has to offer us and at the same time, be captivated by uncertainty and what we have around us: our family, our friends, our world, our careers, and our humanity. That’s the secret to happiness.
Now, it’s your turn to complete this commitment to yourself. Fill in the blanks.
When I was too focused on the oil on the spoon (Your essential task; Personal Legend), I missed the grandeur of the palace (the marvels of your world). I will remember to live responsibly in the moment and appreciate the journey I am on by doing what and how.
About the 15 Stories of Virtue from the Camino Santiago
My entire world and reason for existence came crashing down in 2020. The crash and dismantling of who is often referred to as Michelle, produced a true, phoenix-like rising of a new and stronger Dawn. There was only one big test left for this newer version of me and that was to put all of this healing to the test —a spiritual pilgrimage to the Santiago Compostela in Northern Spain.
Part of the purpose of a pilgrimage is to share your journey and express enlightenment with others upon returning. I have chosen to do so through what I am calling the "15 Stories of Virtue". Virtues are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop our guiding principles for living. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have explored and adopted. I am releasing a short story each week on the virtues below illustrating the healing, the omens, and the lessons from the Camino Santiago. Read more.
These Are My 15 Stories of Virtue
2. Watch the Horizon and Your Spoon. Now Live
3. Trust and Keep Walking Up Next
4. Goals, Not Ambition
5. You Have Enough
6. Practice Reason, Not Judgement
7. You Are Plenty
9. Decline the Invitation
10. Forgive and Keep Walking
11. Close Chapters
12. Choose Joy
13. Slow Down and Be Still
14. Release the Weight
About Dr. Dawn Emerick
There is nothing more powerful than learning from and sharing space with people with lived, learned and recovery experiences, self-awareness, and professional application. Dr. Dawn Emerick confronted her childhood and adult trauma after witnessing how her own unresolved trauma was affecting the way she engaged her children, family, friends, peers, co-workers and teams- especially when her childhood trauma was triggered daily by a bully boss. The combination of Dawn’s childhood and adult trauma, healing, astute self-awareness, her 30 years of non-profit and county/city government executive leadership experience and stories from the field, creates the ultimate learning, coaching and mentoring environment.
Dawn is a hurt leader, a TEDx speaker, Mental Health First Aid instructor, a certified change management practitioner, and podcaster. You can now add a LinkedIn Learning Instructor to her portfolio. Visit Dawn Emerick Consulting for more information on upcoming trauma-informed leadership and workplace training.