“Today we are interviewing Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha, a Sri Lankan physician who wrote, “Strangers on the Camino”: a book about a father and son’s pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Welcome Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha.”
Sanjiva Wijesinha: “Thanks for inviting me.”
“Let’s get right to our interview. I enjoyed your perspective as a doctor walking the Camino. Are there any medical benefits to walking a pilgrimage that you can share with our audience?”
Sanjiva Wijesinha: “Definitely! In addition to the spiritual benefits of walking the Camino, there certainly are medical benefits. These are two fold – beneficial effects on the Body as well as on the Mind. Physically, one has the opportunity over four to six weeks of doing all the preventive health activities that doctors constantly keep telling us are the foundations of good health – such as regular aerobic exercise that has the heart, lungs, muscles and joints working, exposure to fresh air and sunshine, eating no more calories than we can burn off by the day’s activity. From a psychological point of view, one benefits because one can let go of all the trials and tribulations of everyday life and allow one’s ‘brain computer’ to defragment itself. You can dispense with things like ‘to do’ lists, work schedules and palm pilot planners, slacken the hectic pace of 21st century life to the natural rhythm of human walking – and concentrate simply on walking at your own place, taking the time to savour the splendour of creation around you as well as the company of like-minded human beings”
“You’re a doctor with a busy practice and a university professor with many students. What do you say to people who argue that they can’t take the time off from their busy schedules to walk the Camino?”
Sanjiva Wijesinha: “As a doctor I often have cause to tell my patients – particularly those with coronary heart disease or diabetes – that they would benefit from modifying their sedentary lifestyle and undertaking adequate physical exercise. The usual response is ‘But Doctor, I just don’t have enough time to exercise! I then gently point out to them that what they are really telling me is that although they have enough Time (since every one of us has 24 hours in a day) Exercise does not come up high enough in their list of priorities. Spending 24 hours a day creating wealth or writing research papers will only make you the richest or most famous man or woman in the cemetery!”
“One of the most useful pieces of advice I received was ‘The Rule of Threes’ given me by Dr Buddy Reid, a Sri Lankan surgeon who I have looked look upon as my mentor. “Make sure” he told me “that you use three hours every week, three days every month and three weeks every year to take time off the busy work schedule that you will inevitably have. Use the three hours to exercise, the three days to read and spend time with friends, the three weeks to go away from home on a vacation with the family. Fitness, Friendships and Family life – these are what constitute success, so make sure you invest enough time in cultivating these three.”
“It has been 3 years since you walked the Camino with your son. It has been our experience that the Camino continues to teach its lessons far beyond the days of walking. Do you have any lessons you’ve learned since you’ve returned? Which ones would you say are the most important?”
Sanjiva Wijesinha: “In my book Strangers on the Camino I have recounted the lessons that we learned as we journeyed along the Camino. I have also listed them all at the end of the book as “Our Twelve Camino Lessons’. After the Camino, it is not so much a matter for me of learning new “Camino lessons” but of having these lessons reiterated in my ‘post-Camino life – and discovering even more examples of how true these lessons are. For example, the first lesson I learned on the Camino (I called it my ‘Camino Lesson Number One’) was this: Live in the moment. Enjoy what you have the good fortune to be doing. Don’t spend every moment of the present planning how to achieve some future pleasure – just enjoy the pleasure of the present.”
“Before I walked the Camino, I must admit I was someone who (or so my wife and children would tell me) seemed to always be in a hurry to finish what I was doing so I could get on with the next task I had set myself! I have realized that after this journey I have become more attuned to living. I am sure the change is doing me good!”
“I have to tell you, it was a let down at the very end of your book when you suggested that the Catholic church used Saint James’ reputation in the service of their own private agenda.”
Sanjiva Wijesinha: “I selected the title for my book because my son and I were truly ‘Strangers’ on this Camino. All the books written in English about the Camino that I have seen were written by folk with a decidedly Eurocentric (more often an Anglo-centric) view. The majority of these authors are Catholics, or at least people who were brought up in the Catholic faith, and as a result, their views are influenced – and in fact constrained – by the faith in which they grew up. My observations and opinions in contrast are those of an outsider – a “reverent heathen” if you will – who has read widely and has more than a passing knowledge of history and the various faiths that men live by. As an outsider looking in, I could (in contrast to the insiders with little knowledge of other religions and religious traditions) view things objectively and with a more open mind. I could therefore appreciate what was good (and I saw much of this) about the Camino and the Catholic church – yet I could also question what I found unsavoury or hypocritical.”
“A good example of the misuse of St James in the pursuit of their own agenda by the Spanish church and State is the “discovery” by the shepherd boy Pelayo of the lost relics of the dead saint in Compostela in Spain, 800 years after he was decapitated in Judaea. The ‘authentication’ (in the absence of forensic analysis and DNA testing) of these bones as those of James the Apostle by the King and the local Bishop, who would both have shrewdly realized the value of acquiring a saint for the people and a shrine for the region, smacked to me of political expediency and opportunism. We must remember that this was the time Christian Spain was fighting with its back to the wall against the Moorish invaders from the south – so what more opportune moment for a holy Christian champion to appear on Spanish soil? This was a champion no less than the first cousin of Jesus himself, the pugnacious Son of Thunder! To “convert” St. James the fisherman’s son from a preacher and an apostle spreading the godly gospel of Jesus Christ into a cavalry officer on a white horse killing Muslim soldiers at the battle of Clavijo – this to me was a gross misuse of the name of St James.”
Banxietyfree: “Also, you say that Christian Churches focus on torture and pain because of our religious statues such as Jesus nailed to the cross or Saints suffering tortures of various types. What do you say to people who think your view is too cynical?”
Sanjiva Wijesinha: “I did not say that ‘Christian churches focus on torture and pain’ – if you read my words carefully (page 56 in the paperback edition), my actual words were: “Why does Spanish Christianity depict the suffering of Christ and the saints in so many of its works of art?” Having grown up in Sri Lanka among followers of four of the world’s major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity) and visited the places of worship belonging to these religions in many countries, I have been struck by the contrast between the images in the Spanish churches I saw and other churches and temples I have seen. Places of worship belonging to other religions are so different – Buddhist temples from Japan to Sri Lanka have serene statues of the Buddha in poses of meditation, contemplation, teaching or even laughter, the colourful paintings and lifelike sculptures inside Hindu temples celebrate the activities of normal human life (even to the extent of depicting the very act of joyous sexual union in temples like those in Khajuraho, India) while Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques refrain from showing any human images inside them. Even Protestant Christian churches – for example Baptist and Methodist churches, and even the “high church” Anglican chapel of my own Oxford college – do not have gruesome pictures of saints being stoned to death, pierced by arrows, stretched out on the wheel, having their breasts cut off or being flayed alive.”
“As someone who was not brought up a Spanish Catholic, as an outsider who can look at these matters objectively, I questioned this. What purpose do all these gruesome images of nasty things being done to good people have in emphasising Christ’s basic message of loving your neighbour and doing good to others? Perhaps you may call me cynical for this – but can you blame me for asking whether they were intended to put fear into the people so they would do as they were told by those who wielded the power of church and state?”
“How did you learn so much about The Way of Saint James? Did you study before leaving for Spain or did you do it along the way? What would you recommend as books, besides your own, for understanding the rich history behind the Camino?”
Sanjiva Wijesinha: “I have always been a voracious reader, and so I already had a fair bit of knowledge about Spain, Christianity and the Camino before I embarked on this journey. Once we decided to walk the Camino, I made it a point to read and find out even more on the subject – in fact I exhausted the stock of books about the Camino at our local library! While on the Camino, I made notes based on what I picked up from those I met and what I saw along my journey. When I returned to Melbourne, I followed up on what I had gleaned by going to other books and sources of information to enhance my knowledge. It was a bit like undertaking a research project! I have listed a bibliography at the end of my book – fifteen books that I have read myself and found useful.
“Joe is planning to walk the Camino this summer with our teenage daughter. Is there any advice you would offer to a parent walking the Camino with their child?”
Sanjiva Wijesinha: I should not attempt to advise Joe and your daughter – because what worked well for us may not be efficacious for them. Each of has to work out our own way of doing things, and find out what would be the right way that will work for us (which may not be the correct way for somebody else undertaking the same task). Let me instead of offering advice, recount what this father and this son learned along the holy trail.
I have spent most of my adult life trying to instruct others – telling patients what to do, giving soldiers orders and lecturing to students – and I have without realising it tried to use the same approach that I use for patients, soldiers and students to deal with my own children. On the Camino I learned to let go – to trust my son to make the correct decision rather than feel I have to tell him what to do, to listen to him when he suggested a different course of action to what I wanted, and at times to follow his advice even when I had an opposing view. After all, if he has acquired a decent education and my wife and I have brought him up properly, he should by now know how to do things as well as (if not better than) his parents! We started the journey as Father and Son – and we finished it as two good friends with a deep respect and love for each other. Walking the Camino by itself is a wonderful experience. Being able to walk the Camino with one’s child, to share the experience and the precious moments with them, is priceless.”
“Strangers on the Camino Author Interview” (part two)
Banxietyfree: Shivantha, after your father walked with you on the Camino he wrote his book, “Strangers on the Camino” but, we’ve heard very little from you. Could you tell us what motivated you to walk the Camino with your dad?
Shivantha: There was no one time when we decided to do the walk. Tha had read my copy of ‘The Pilgrimage’ by Paulo Coelho sometime in 2010. I was living in New York and he was in Melbourne. We chatted on the phone one day, and one of us said it would be such a great thing to do– the seed was sown. Getting it from its initial idea to fruition though was Tha’s work. He read up on it, organized, planned and prepared for it. My initial ideas about the Camino, were that it would open a door of spirituality for me; an opportunity to get closer to nature, God, the universe and a deeper understanding of myself. All of these things were what I thought would happen if we walked. Getting to know my father better and spending time with him after not having seen him for almost a year, was also important to me, but it was ancillary. Little did I realize that that was what was really going to happen. It was more than any spiritual revelation I was to go through!
Banxietyfree: I understand you walked with more weight than recommended for the Camino, did it teach you anything about the extra things we carry in our lives?
Shivantha: One of the biggest lessons I learned on this journey was the realization that we humans are creatures who hoard – we carry so much unnecessary baggage in our lives. And by baggage I mean emotional, social, and physical excess weight. We live in a consumerist society where we are constantly bombarded by advertisements. There’s always something new to make our hectic lives ‘easier’ and I see so many people hang on to things. They cling to trivial objects and memories.
I started with about 17 kg (~37 lbs) in my bag, and after the first few days, I started shedding things I knew I wouldn’t need. It was cathartic; I felt I was lightening my psychological baggage. I left a pair of jeans one day, my razor the next, my contact lenses the third. All the things that I felt I needed for my self-image and vanity were discarded with relative ease. By the end of it, I think I was down to about 11 kg (~24 lbs). Also, living in the moment meant that all the anxiety of the past and the fear of the future were left behind. We lived a physically full day, shed our worries of the unknown and created space within ourselves day by day to start listening.
Banxietyfree: In the book, you were responsible for another pilgrim, Fahdi, continuing the journey. What would you say to people who are not able to complete the Camino and who later feel guilty over it.
Shivantha: Life always throws us a ‘wrong un’, or a curve ball as they say in the States. Even the best-laid plans can turn to waste. Fahdi had spent his first night in a nunnery where lights were out at 9. Being the fun loving, city boy who came with a certain idea of what the Camino was supposed to be, this clearly portended a disastrous next few weeks! I don’t take credit for trying to change his mind. I think he recognized a kindred soul on this journey and someone who could share not only an intellectual conversation, but also a drink and the zest for life.
We all want to get to the finish line – but for some of us this may never happen. If we cannot finish the Camino today, we may be able to do it in the future. There is no shame in that. It is only our fallible ego that chides us when we are down. When we tackled the Pyrenees mountain the first day, I honestly didn’t know if we would complete 800 + km. I was worried that my father may not get through the whole journey. We just took things a day at a time, one step at a time, and we got there.
If for some reason we know we cannot finish it, then look for the beauty and the lessons we learned in the short time we did have on the Camino. If we tried and gave it everything we had, what more can one ask for in life, even if we didn’t complete it?
Banxietyfree: Finally, your father included the lessons he learned on his Camino. We’d like to hear the lessons you discovered on your journey.
Shivantha: There is no ‘end’, there is no ‘someday’, no ‘down the road’. This is a fallacy and game we play with ourselves. Sure, there are many beautiful things we want to have and hopefully we all live to a ripe old age. However, there is only the now, this moment. I don’t mean squander what you have and gamble it foolishly away. We must try and prepare as best we can for what life holds, but if there is something that you want to do, say, achieve, do it, do it now and do it wholeheartedly.
The more I see, the more people I meet, the more cuisines I sample, the more corners of the world I get to appreciate, the more I realize that I am here for such a brief time on this earth and how little I know of the world.
I also saw how people (including myself) are caged by the reality that we know. The other, the unknown creates fear and uncertainty, be it a time, place or person. We have to constantly check in with ourselves, learn not to judge others by the limitations of our experiences and accept those for who they are. This is hard, especially if we are truly honest about who we are. It means accepting ourselves and those we love in spite of their faults, foibles and short comings.
Shivantha Wijesinha is an actor and musician currently living in New York, USA. He graduated with a BA and an LLB from Monash University in Melbourne, before moving to the United States to study acting at America’s oldest acting conservatory, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
He is a martial artist, having studied Jeet Kun Do for the last 2 years and recently released his first full length album ‘Words From Not Long Ago’, where he wrote all the songs, played most of the instruments and handled all the vocal and backing vocals.
“Strangers on the Camino” is now on sale at Amazon.com”