How Applying Improvisation on the Camino Became a Healing Journey
by Lisa Safran
This year, I set out on a journey to explore connecting a personal experience of applied improv in the wider world. I felt it to be an integral part of my grieving the death of my mom. I chose to steep myself deeply in the process of applied improvisation in all my interactions. So began my 160 mile walk on the Camino, from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The purpose of the Camino, in ancient times, was deeply religious. People would simply walk out their doors with nothing but the clothes on their back, having faith in the kindness of strangers to provide them with shelter and food along their journey. That is how they made their way to Santiago.
In today’s Camino journeys, there are several types of Pilgrims:
- Religious Pilgrims
- Spiritual Pilgrims
- Endurance Pilgrims
- Holiday Traveling Pilgrims
- Improvisational Pilgrims (!)
Waking early that first morning, I put on my gear (my annual investment into REI) and excitedly went outside. It was raining! I couldn’t believe it. My first day and rain! As I walked out, fear gripped me. I had no idea of what I was going to find. When I arrived at the end of the bus line, I went into the coffee shop and had what turned out to be my last cup of tea. I looked at the pedestrian bridge I was to walk over and just couldn’t get myself to leave the warmth and dry of the café. A quick call to my sister, Misha, helped motivate me. I finally put on the pack and off I went.
Improvisation is all about moving a story forward.
On the Camino, I was tasked every day to put one step in front of the other and move forward to Santiago. In improv, when you are accepting an idea and moving forward, you don’t always know where you are going to end up. I must admit; I did question my sanity throughout and wonder at various times if Uber was an option.
Lesson 1: Trust Your Scene Partner (or Colleague) OR the Camino!
That first day, I walked a very long 17 miles in the rain. Part of why the day was longer than intended was because I made a mistake. The way of the Camino is marked by yellow arrows and shells and they are very clear guides to help you determine the direction you should be going. They are usually not your average street sign. The arrows and shells are posted to help the walker access the easiest path to avoid crazy detours and cars, most of the time. But, still holding on to a self filled with fear and needing to control the situation, I did not trust the arrows and shells. (In improv, this is like not trusting your colleague or scene partner.) I stubbornly used a GPS map system on my phone. So, instead of arriving at the coast and making a right as instructed by experienced Pilgrims, I followed my phone into a very long detour before I made it back to the ocean.
Using an app like this is great, except when you’re walking the Camino. For me, using a map app was my way of staying in control and not trusting that I would be taken care of without it. So, here lies the humor in using this app – it always got me to where I needed to go, but never took me fully in the way of the Camino. I walked through neighborhoods unmarked, ditches and fields, and my favorite was the two-hour journey through what looked like the back drop to a horror movie. All alone, walking on a dirt road with abandoned barns and dead corn. Fun times! But the app said I was going in the right direction. I would finally make it to the sea shore where I was supposed to be and with the rain coming down, the feeling of gratitude, when I saw the first sign that I was on the Camino again was a welcome respite.
It took me 3 days to let go of this app. Each day that I relied on the app became more painful and laborious.
Letting go and learning to trust can be hard
On the last day of fully depending on the map app, I was led to walk on a busy highway with cars driving toward me at 75mph and about 10 inches of space to walk in, as I carefully plodded forward. In retrospect this sounds crazy, I know. As I walked against traffic, making myself as thin as possible, a man caught my attention from the other side of the highway – He was yelling at me in Portuguese and beckoning me to join him in his big white scary van. Per Wikipedia (and a Portuguese person I later met), there have only been two serial killers in Portugal, so this could have been a safe bet. In fact, general violent crime is considerably lower than what we have in the United States. But based on what I know from movies and sadly, the horrifying violent crime statistics in the US about strange men in white vans, I chose to take my chances with the fast-moving cars. I walked alone singing songs about survival.
Putting down the map app was akin to putting down control and replacing it with trust, support, generosity, and participation with others. Without the device, I would need to be even more present, rely on the kindness of strangers, and use my non-existent Portuguese or other language (otherwise known as gibberish and a great deal of body language) to ask for things. All of this seemed difficult but the upside was that I began to travel with a much more open mind, a curiosity, and openness to meeting other Pilgrims on the road to Santiago. And in general, when not cursing the large cobble stones that were doing heavy damage to my feet, I actually felt happy.
Those first three days of my journy helped me to develop deeper empathy for anyone approaching the principles of improv for the first time. The experience reminded me of how difficult it is to let go and trust the moment.
The very first day without using the apps was also the first day I met other Pilgrims. I also discovered that the way markers consisting of arrows and shells were abundant and usually never led me astray. While there were many times I still chose to walk solo, the Camino began to show its generosity to me that day as I chatted with Pilgrims from Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, and Latvia. If anyone is considering a move to another country, my Pilgrim from Latvia says they are very welcoming.
In the world of applied improvisation, we help people apply the principles of improv to their businesses and world. On the Camino, trusting my scene partner, i.e. the arrows and shells, other Pilgrims, and locals, became one of the ways I applied improv to my world. Once I let go enough to trust the arrows and shells, I reaped the benefits of an easier walk and gained a community. By letting go of MY ideas and controlling behaviors, I became open to all that was beautiful on the Camino.
That was only my first lesson. There were many others. Every day provided me with a new opportunity to connect with humanity around the world. And an opportunity to say yes, and. I walked with strangers—who became friends.
Lesson 2: Accept Offers & Dare to Be Imperfect
On day 4, I accepted the recommendation to hire a transport company to carry my backpack.
I judged myself harshly for this. And sometimes, my judgement was reflected in others. For instance, a well-traveled Pilgrim woman asked point blank, “Where’s your pack?” And when I explained that I hired a transport company, her response was, “You are not walking the Camino way, you are walking the decadent way.”
This woman seemed to have it all together. It was her 15th Camino and she carried a heavy pack and a big stick, while I now carried a small hydro pack and titanium trekking poles. She was the expert and I the novice. My brain was relentless in telling me I didn’t belong there. But two days later, my self-judgement turned to glee as I faced the hill called “The Beast” with big rocks and a 1200-foot ascent. As I climbed, unencumbered, effortlessly up the hill, I said a friendly hello to her as I passed.
That day I also accepted that I preferred to stay (at least on this current Camino) in lovely guest houses and hotels instead of Albergues (dorm-like hostels). So each day, or sometimes the night before, I would determine what town I would end up in and book a room at the local inn.
My routine upon arrival was to take a shower, wash the clothing and hang it up to dry, and then lay down with my feet elevated for 10 minutes. Shooting pains would erupt from my feet, as the blood remembered other parts of the body it had neglected, for the past 6 hours. My feet twitched and convulsed but eventually, all was well. Time to grab a late afternoon lunch and walk around the town and then perhaps a light bite for dinner and early to bed. Rinse and repeat.
Lesson 3: Be Bold and Take Risks
Often, deeply grieving the loss of my mother, I didn’t feel I could connect intimately or genuinely with people. When I finally crossed the bridge from Valença, my last city in Portugal, over the river into Tui, Spain, I seriously considered taking a train to the next stop or skipping the rest of the Camino altogether. My sister was on the other end of the phone as I shared my exhaustion and resistance to continuing. She fully supported me in the idea that perhaps I had walked long enough. I’ve learned however, that I am very goal oriented, so quitting at this stage would have been tremendously challenging. I also questioned if it was exhaustion or just feeling lonely? In improv, the idea is to be bold, take risks even while fearing failure. So why not just continue, trust I’m on the right path and accept that I just don’t know what the answer is, yet; I don’t know where this scene/story is going. So, that’s what I did, but it felt very isolating because I wasn’t connecting deeply with the Pilgrims I met along the way.
Lesson 4: Be Open to Being Surprised
I set out that next morning and within 5 minutes, I met 2 couples from Spain. We walked together for a couple of hours and had a lot of fun despite not understanding each other’s language. After we departed, I ended up meeting a group of moms and daughters. Walking, laughing, and enjoying meals with these moms and daughters filled my heart, even as I ached for the sound of my mother’s voice, the touch of her hand against my face, and the radiance of her beautiful ever present smile. We shared stories with each other, with the 20 something daughters speaking English and translating for their moms. We sang songs from the Beatles as we climbed hills. I shared my loss and they comforted me.
My journey started to fill with joy and laughter and I felt myself changing. My original “character” as I set out on the Camino was that of being the devastated, alone Lisa, in major grief and overwhelm. Suddenly, I found myself having espresso dates in town with Pilgrims I met, tapas with groups of people, and while I wasn’t fully aware of the changes, I knew I was more centered, balanced, and calm as I approached each new day with its various challenges.
The best surprise was when I suffered through walking a couple hours longer than most Pilgrims one day, due to my desire to stay at the seashore. I had heard about a seashell mural where Pilgrims left messages inscribed on shells to add to the growing picture of love, loss, and gratitude. Had I not been determined to get to the seashore that day, I would have arrived at this mural at PPT, otherwise known as Peak Pilgrim Time. Potentially 50 or more Pilgrims might be there enjoying the mural any given morning. But as it happened, I arrived at 3 in the afternoon, exhausted, hot, and cursing the hill I’d just walked up and there she was, and I was alone with her. I stood there taking in the messages and scanning the shells hoping to find a blank one. It seemed like it wasn’t going to be in the cards and then there it was. One single shell available for me to share my message of love with my mom.
Lesson 5: See the Big Picture in Front and Behind You and Make Your Partner Look Brilliant
I found my second lesson when I was advised by a Pilgrim Kerry, to always look back from where I had come.
There were days on the Camino where I would just stop walking and listen. Listen to the sounds, the air, the humming of insects and birds singing. I’d look ahead to where I still needed to go and yes, sometimes did consult the map app but only to get a sense of time. Then, I would turn around and look behind me to where I came from. By saying yes, and to this nugget of wisdom, I got to see amazing views. This was in many ways about making my partner (Kerry!) look brilliant, one of my favorite improv tenets. I am not only appreciating the advice given to me, but acting on it, giving the benefit of the doubt and trusting that she knew what she was talking about! And she did. Some of my favorite moments occurred when I looked behind me. We learn a lot from where we come from.
My mother was a happy person. When I would complain, she would listen with all her heart and let me cry, or be mad about this or that, and then she would squish up her nose at me and tap my nose with her finger and say, “Be happy. Be content. Enjoy life.” In the stillness of those moments, when I looked around in silence, I felt her smile and slowly my heart began to open.
Jim Cranna, my first improvisation teacher used to say, “Play smarter than you are.” On the Camino, I applied that to mean, “Play happier…” If my feet ached, I noticed how great my right ear lobe felt! If I was tired, I sang songs. If sad, I let myself cry, but I did it on camera! And mostly I began to heal my heart. When I finally arrived at the Cathedral in Santiago, a weight had been lifted. Climbing the steps of the cathedral, my heart filled with joy and sadness. I had done it – I walked through grief, through pain, and arrived where so many thousands had before me. Finished.
The impact of my Camino experience:
While I teach people to go out into their worlds and feel bold and to communicate effortlessly in every aspect of their lives, it is something I’ve always struggled with. Don’t get me wrong, I can act as if I’m bold and confident and show up at networking events and do the dance. But inwardly, I sometimes dread every moment and can’t wait to leave. Since returning from the Camino, I’ve notice I’ve had a lot more fun at the last few networking events I’ve attended. Something about walking and talking to strangers over several weeks makes networking with people much easier and more enjoyable.
On the Camino, it was all about walking—and sharing of stories, meals, pain, urges to find a bathroom quickly, whatever! It was also about accepting that we might meet and walk together for a while, and then that might change. Either of us could decide to walk faster or slower and say good bye with no hard feelings. We could walk sharing great stories or just walk in silence. We could walk and discover that one or another was not our cup of tea and just move on. No holding on to a negative story or judgement – just not a fit at that time.
I highly encourage people to find their own journey. It could be the Camino or something as simple as taking a walk down a street you’ve never been on. Do something that takes you out of your control element in a safe way. It’s just one small way that you can apply the principal of improvisation in your life.
Walking the Camino was a very big deal. And now, I want to do another one on a different route. The next time, I think that first day will be much easier, however the 2nd day may not. It will once again be about learning, taking risks, being willing to fail and trusting that there’s a community to support me and I them if I just say, Yes…AND!