Coaching as Pilgrimage

Walking coaching DartmoorCoaching and pilgrimage – what’s the link?

My son returned last week tired but happy from walking the last stretch of the Camino of Santiago di Compostella with his youth group.  The ‘camino’ or ‘Way of St James’ is a 500 mile long walking pilgrimage route that’s inspired seekers since the Middle Ages. It had become fairly dormant but since the 1980s its popularity has grown, though these days it’s commonly taken as a secular pilgrimage – you can  watch this video about the camino to find out more.

I’d talked about ‘walking the way’ with a close colleague Margo Russell almost 20 years ago; becoming a mum in 1998 put that wish way down my list of priorities.  Later when Margo’s death robbed me of my travelling companion I pretty much abandoned the idea.

Over the past few months, as preparations for my son’s walk gathered pace, I felt a resurgence of the impulse to set foot on the pilgrims path and noticed how the metaphor of pilgrimage resonates with coaching.

Like the pilgrim, coaching clients remove themselves from the bustle of daily life and together with their coach create a space to think and gain new inspiration. The journey taken is often like a pilgrimage; the process of change involves crossing a threshold leaving behind comfortable certainties and habits. Change involves stepping out into the world in new ways, onto an unknown path. We’ll have a goal, our ‘Santiago di Compostella’, and break it down into manageable chunks, like the day’s walk between hostels, but the walk is made a step at a time.   We might tell each other we are in control but the truth is we always walk into an unknown future; the process of coaching is an adventure that often takes us in wonderful and unexpectedly ‘right’ directions.

At its most powerful, coaching is about courageous engagement with ‘big’ questions; questions about what really matters, what it means to lead, how to live well, how to stand and be true to ourselves and our deepest vision – the kind of questions to take on pilgrimage.

This sense of pilgrimage especially resonates when I’m taking clients or students out onto Dartmoor for a session of ‘walking coaching’; this summer as I walked on the moors I played with the idea of being carried along by the pilgrim’s path and remembered David Whyte’s poem ‘Santiago’ – which captures that feeling in words far better than I can.   Buen camino! 

The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall – and the way forward
always in the end, the way that you came, the way
that you followed, that carried you into your future,
that brought you to this place

Excerpt from “Santiago”  From Pilgrim 2012 David Whyte

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