12 Life lessons re-encountered while walking the South West Coast Path
The rugged cornish coast threw its ancient wisdom heavily at me. Through salty air, sweat, pain and tears of joy, through fear and courage and relief. Going uphill, going downhill and simply going on. I felt I revisited another piece of life’s lessons behind every corner.
NAIVETY IS CRUCIAL
Being naive is usually something to be frowned upon in this age of information. But here is the thing: A certain kind of naivety is not only desirable, but rather essential in order to start things that are bigger than us. If we already knew everything about the risks and the pain that we’d encounter, we would never set out. More than once the thought crept into my mind that if I had known about all this before, I would not have been sure if I had made it. If I even would have found the courage and the strength to start this adventure. That’s why it is often harder for us to tread a well-known path. The weight of the knowledge about excruciating steep hills and pain-in-the-ass strenuous steps will drag us down before we even set one foot onto it. And sometimes it will keep us from setting out all together. We bury our dreams before they even see the light of day.
Dreams require naivety. Require limitlessness. They require phantasy and an irrational belief in their possibility. Only with these tools we are enabled to let them unfold to their full size and then set out for them. After all, naivety means nothing other than being carefree, being a child, being pure curiosity. Without a doubt.
And to maintain this naivety again and again, despite all our experiences, is a challenge, but also crucial to keep going, to keep starting anew and to view the world with fresh eyes.
FALL IN LOVE WITH THE PATH
We believe we find satisfaction in stasis. In the destination. In reaching that milestone. But we have to find contentment in the flow, along the way. Because the different landmarks pass by very quickly and sometimes we even take another path and skip the originally pursued feature altogether.
But the path, the flow, life is still beautiful. And in this we must comprehend its beauty. Because after all, the view from the mountain would only be half as breathtaking if we hadn't already run out of breath many times on our way up. In the end, we don't just think back to the summit, but to how we mastered the ascent.
Falling in love with the path initially and not only afterwards, with all its challenges, surprises and twists and turns, brings us perhaps the greatest contentment.
Because life is movement and not standstill.
LACK OF MOTIVATION IS SIMPLY FEAR OR TIREDNESS
When you do something big and strenuous, you are likely to feel a lack of motivation after the first rush of excitement wears off and the obstacles start to haul stronger on your tiring body. So walking the south west coast path, it wasn’t long before this lesson hit me again.
As long as I can remember I have been telling myself that I was lazy in moments where motivation was at a low point. And being lazy was in a family of overachievers and a society who worships overachievers a death sentence. It was always something I dreaded. I feared that if I gave in to my 'laziness' I would fall into an abyss from which I could never recover. Never achieving anything again, never completing any tasks again, never feeling curiosity and the thrive to start something new again. I had been battling with this concept in my head for years. Answers came slowly and in parts over many years. During a period of long time travelling and slowing down I finally gave in to this feeling (for the first time consciously and with the curiosity of an investigating psychologist): I simply just stopped doing things when motivation hit a low. What might seem like common sense to many people, felt for me, after a lifetime of pushing myself to keep going or at least beating myself up if I couldn’t, like a tremendous act of revolution. And miraculously, I did not find an abyss that would drag me down until all days’ end. Miraculously, I found my curiosity, my creativity, my longing to do things rekindle after a while of idleness.
I had learned that I could trust the void to spit me out on the other side again, that it was safe to take a break.
Being confronted with this feeling of 'not wanting to keep going anymore' during my days of walking, I quickly remembered that life-lesson again. I took breaks whenever I needed them and I felt my motivation recovering alongside my energy. Yes, it was that simple: If you are tired, sleep, if you are hungry, eat.
One day however I was stunned. I had rested for quite some time and I still did not want to carry on. On the contrary: I would have rather stayed in my bunk bed at this tiny horsebox-accommodation overlooking St. Ives and pulled the blanket way over my head. Where was my excitement? Where was my longing for exploration?
And then I realised: It was fear. Fear, my old friend, had sneaked in over night and sucked all my motivation out of me. A couple of days back I had had quite a fright on a very desolate stretch of the track and remoteness was something that I would be confronted with again that day. So my body had decided to stay in bed rather. Stay safe. I dragged it out with me anyway. It was the day I found my beacons. But that’s another story. In this moment I learned again, that laziness does not exist, and that lack of motivation is simply fear or tiredness.
COURAGE IS BORN OUT OF FEAR
I am not a fearless person. On the contrary. I am full of fears. Reasonable fears. Unreasonable fears. Helpful fears. And limiting fears. At times I have wondered if my second name was fear, so well known are we to each other. And for a long time in my life I resented it. I resented myself for it. Because I long for adventures, long for being in the unknown, long for dancing in the wilderness.
Until one day I read this sentence by Nelson Mandela: 'Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.' That’s when I realised I had it all wrong. I didn’t long for being fearless. Fearless people are not the ones I admire. I do envy them for sure. For it makes it easier sometimes. My admiration however belongs solely to the brave ones. To the courageous ones. And being courageous does include being scared in the first place.
Courage can only be born out of a place of fear. Courage lies in the ‘anyhow’. Without fear we simply cannot be brave.
So all the times I was beating myself up for being fearful, what I was really doing was denying myself the acknowledgement of my bravery. Yes, I was scared as hell lying in that tent in a thunderstorm at night, but there I was: Staying through the whole thing anyhow. Yes, I get shaky knees and my heart starts racing like mad every time I climb a high tower. But so what? I climb it anyhow. Everytime. Being maybe more fearful than others, allows me to train my courage more often, to get more familiar with my fear. So when it sneaks up on me again in the middle of nocturnal darkness or waylays me on a lonesome path, I can sit with it like with an old friend, pour us some tea and thank myself for simply being there, anyhow. Knowing that if I want to live a courageous life, I have to be willing to live with fear.
CURIOSITY GETS ME UP THE HILL
From time to time, like in life so on the path, I got confronted with tiring ascents and limited views of my way ahead. But no matter how many stairs and steps there were, how much the sun was burning down on me or how the weight of my backpack was dragging me back down, I realised what kept me going upwards was always the same: curiosity.
The longing to find out what new land I would discover from the top. Would I already be able to see that little village that I should reach soon? Would I finally get to that point which I had started seeing on hilltops an hour ago? Was there maybe a secret beach hidden in the next valley?
Sometimes I would stumble upon flocks of startled sheep or excitingly chattering choughs. Once I even found myself surrounded by innumerable rabbits, playing and running gleefully through flowers of purple. I would see lighthouses in the far distance and lonely houses on cliff tops. And sometimes there would only be disappointingly nothingness. I would find that the top had not been the top at all and that around a bend I would have to climb further. Or I would find that in reality there lay still many valleys between me and the point I thought I was approaching.
But whatever it was, I could be sure to be surprised, to find something unexpected - and afterall, isn’t that the magic of life?
THERE IS BEAUTY EVEN IN TIMES OF STORM
It had started to rain. Wet and cold it was drumming against the thin layers of my clothes. A strong wind, gathered over the sea, pushed me from side to side, making it hard to find a steady stand on this slender path along the cliffs of Ligger Point. The invincible force that is nature: Bending everything down to its will that had dared to leave the security of house or hole. I closed my hood tighter around my head, my eyes only opened as small slits, sheltering against the onrush of air. Far below me the waves were breaking furiously against Perran Beach.
A seemingly endless blurr of beige merging with the whirl of white, blue and green. A raw feast of colours. Breathtakingly beautiful. There is beauty even in the eye of a storm, in times of disturbance.
Life is not black or white, good or bad. It’s everything all the time at once.
TAKE BREAKS. PAUSE. ENJOY THE VIEW.
Often we rush through life. Rushing through the day, rushing through the week, rushing through the month. Our minds set firmly on the evening/weekend/that particular goal. So naturally I found myself rushing along the path. ‘Still many miles ahead, I should get going’, I said to myself. But then I stopped. Hadn’t I come for the walk, for the views, for being in nature? And now I wanted to ‘get the miles done’ as quickly as possible? That was just mad. Yes, it would take longer to get to that village tonight. But I had the whole day in front of me. I could easily spend some more minutes on this bench. I could indulge in hour-long lunch breaks, huddled behind the sand dunes, reading the way too heavy book, I had not been able to resist to bring, and watch the waves roll onto the beach.
I had come for these moments and now I wasn’t going to miss them in order to fit my life into yet another schedule.
This is the one life I have been given and it is precious and fast-moving and wild. I want to take the time to appreciate it. The coffee break with friends, the slow mornings in bed with a loved one, the pages of that great book that are read while having a cup of tea, the minutes spent looking at the beauty of this night’s moon appearance, the moments when I close my eyes to feel the sun’s warmth. Moments when everything and everyone seems to stand still, when life pauses. When we pause. When we take a break, take a breath and soak in the view of this wild journey that is our life.
ENJOY YOURSELF WHILE YOU CAN
Sometimes I struggle to fully enjoy situations while they are happening. My mind might already be worrying about the future or still be caught up in the past. But the truth is: I don’t know what lies ahead. I don’t know how the day will unfold. I don’t know what the future holds. But what I DO know is: the future does not change by worrying. I can’t control it by feeling bad or anxious. My worries have no influence on how it will develop. Realising again that I have no control over the future and that whatever will happen will happen, I thought I might as well enjoy the ride.
I might as well enjoy the moments that I have now. Because if they are good now, they will remain to be good for this moment, even if I encounter any difficulties further down the road. Today can still be a good day, even if it does not end well.
How often have I judged things just by their ending? I have called moments and relationships regrettable when they had come to an unhappy end. But that has only robbed me of the joy and acknowledgment of all the goodness in the present. The future does not define the present and the present does not define the past. In a world where nothing lasts we need to learn to fully enjoy the fleeting moments of greatness that are given to us.
IT IS NOT A RACE.
So sometimes you will meet other people, and you will keep going at the same pace, on the same path, for quite some time. Until one of you will get ahead and the other will stay behind. and it’s fine. It’s not a race.
Everybody has to do it in their own way and with their own bodies, their own minds and their own struggles.
It doesn’t matter if you are in front or behind, if you meet new people or not, you will do it in your own way. You will make your own experiences and these will be just as valuable and validate as other peoples‘ experiences. Don’t compare yourself. Everyone’s journey is different. And it’s okay to take your time. Allow yourself to slow down.
JUST KEEP GOING
One step at a time. Even if you are slow today. Even if it’s hard. Even if you think you can’t keep going today. Even if you are scared. Even if it starts to rain. Just keep going!
It will be ok. And sometimes it’s also ok to just stop and take the bus. Because you don’t have to keep going at all costs. Push yourself a bit, but don’t push yourself over the edge. Listen to your body. Listen to your needs If you think it’s safer for you, if you think it’s necessary for you: Take the bus. Accept help. It really does not matter. It is not cheating.
And I promise you, it will get easier again.
There are good days. And there are hard days. And after the hard ones, good ones will follow again.
And even if you think everything sucks: try to keep going, because good days are waiting for you!
FIND YOUR BEACONS
Beacons will guide you the way, when you can’t see it yourself, when the darkness wraps you in uncertainty and dread.
Unconsciously they had always been a huge part of my life: Role models, people who had already been doing the thing I wanted to do and didn’t know how. I looked up at their light and their guidance and found the necessary reassurance.
The day I found them on my track was a day I had been scared of a particular isolated and tough leg that lay before me. I set out, uncertain, a bus plan as backup in one hand, all the courage I could muster in the other. At first I only met dog walkers and tourists - people that would only share a few minutes of my path and then trodd back to the village. But it wasn’t long before my first beacon arrived. I had just taken a short break to take off yet another layer of clothes, when he passed by in the shape of an elderly but wiry-looking man with a big rucksack on his back and a map attached to his jacket. Another backpacker! He definitely looked like he was in for the long run. I hadn’t met any other backpackers in days. And there he was: Tramping determinedly in the same direction that I was headed. This meant I wasn’t going to be alone on the track. For an hour I followed behind him. Sometimes he would disappear behind yet another corner, boulder or hedgerow, but then I would see his pack wobble happily up another steep hill. He became my beacon that day, shining light onto a path that had lain in the dark for me. When I passed him by an hour later, my confidence had been restored. I knew that even if I wouldn’t see them all the time, other backpackers were all around me. I knew that I was not alone and that I only had to look out for my beacons and I would find them.
And all along I thought I was looking for answers. But I really had the answers already.
What I was actually looking for was trust. The confidence to look into an uncertain future and to be sure I would be alright. No matter how it unfolds.
It didn’t come in a grand gesture. It was building up gradually, with each day and each step that I took into unknown terrain. With each little moment of success and each day mastered. And when I had come to the end of this path I felt it rooted deeply inside. I felt at peace.
And I knew then that it was trust in myself. Trusting myself to be able to manage things. Trusting my power, my wits, my decisions. And learning that I could rely on it. For good.