A few weeks after moving into my new place, I had a friend of mine over for some coffee. We’ve known each other since renting a house together in my university town with other students, and both studied psychology, so we were never short of good conversation.
She’s well on her way to finishing up her training as a therapist, and I was very excited to catch up with her and have another good one.
She came in, I made the coffee, and taking our time, we began to catch up. You know, shoes, ships, ceiling wax, cabbages and kings; all that jazz.
She had lost a lot of weight and mentioned that her job was so emotionally taxing on her that she believed it to be the root cause of the weight loss. Ever the overachiever, she had taken on a job working with the city’s refugees as her first post after completing her Masters. She’s an excellent, patient listener and capable of great empathy – which is probably why the job had taken such a toll on her.
Eventually, she arrived at the fact that she won’t be renewing her contract at work, and wanted to take a sabbatical to recover and think about what she’ll do next. She then mentioned that she was thinking about doing the Camino de Santiago (also known as The Way of Saint James, or Jakobsweg in German), as she had heard of people going on the pilgrimage for just that reason.
I happily mentioned that I had walked the way back in 2011 during my exchange year in Germany, and I could not think of a better way to gain new perspective on what steps to take next.
If you find yourself in a similar spot in life as my friend, or even if it’s just time for a change, I have one suggestion above all else: moving.
We commonly forget that we are (literally) not built for sitting still. That it not to say that we should be nomads. There are substantial benefits to setting down roots and investing time in a career, but we evolved to be on the move, and it’s an inheritance down to the bone.
Famed anthropologist Richard Wrangham estimated that the capacity of our hunting and gathering ancestors evolved into walking 10 to 20 km per day for men, and about half of that for women.
Therefore, it only naturally follows that some of our best thinking happens when we are moving. Neuroscience has proven that exercising just 2 to 3 times a week, for 30 minutes each time, already shows some cognitive benefits.
What kind of cognitive benefits are we talking about? Fluid intelligence employs our brains’ improvisatory problem-solving skills and is particularly hurt by a sedentary lifestyle. More movement equals a more oxygen-rich brain – which can think longer, better and faster.
We are biological energy converting machines. All that energy conversion leads to waste products; not least of which, when they build up, hinder our higher cognitive processes.
I explained to my friend that day that the Camino had been the first great adventure I’d ever been on. That at the time I was working through a lot of internal pressures and carrying a lot of baggage. But that this funny thing happened while I walked those dirt backroads of the Spanish countryside. Every day, without fail.
I’d start off my day with a question.
Every day, by the end of that day, I had come closer to answering that question or at least made my peace with the process.
In a way, some of the roads are hallowed ground. Some have been there since Roman times and were used for everything from transporting armies to decisive battles to serving as trade routes and pilgrim trails.
I remember the joy with which I then told her about my adventures on the way, and in particular the simultaneous terror of having to face these questions, followed by the elation of coming to terms with them.
To me, the way was much more than a long walk. It meant deep participation in a part of the human experience. Every frigid desert morning and sun-scorched afternoon was a little piece of what my ancestors had endured for me to be here and now. If even in a fraction of the sense.
Something happens to you when you’re tired, hungry, sweaty, and thirsty, with only dirt and pasture in sight; when your back aches and your feet blister. You know in your mind you will make it through the day because you will eventually reach the next hostel, but you also know you won’t until you actually do.
It’s a world removed from the instantly gratifying gilded cages we’ve made for ourselves.
Suddenly, the conversation in your head changes from “But what if I can’t?” to “I have to and I will.” You then find that, somehow, that clarity taking hold of your mind has a way of decluttering it and leaving only the vital components of whatever it is you are thinking about; leaving only you and that final step to take.
I saw my friend out and wished her the best, offering to help in any way that I could for planning the trip. The important thing to realize is that the answer she arrives at is not as important as how she arrives at it.
As William Blake said:
He who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.
Our life is the sum of decisions made in a series of rooms, and though our friends and family can help, the final decision is one we have to make for ourselves.
You are free. And in life, just like on that dirt path, you are free to move forward, back, or stay put.
Just don’t be afraid of the journey. The journey is the best teacher.
Note: Ideas for this piece include, but are not limited to: Medina, John. Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Pear Press, 2014.
Writer. Researcher. Thinker. Friend.
A version of this post appeared on Medium.com; published here with the author’s permission.