Maria Corno, Somatic Movement Educator and teacher of the Functional Voice Method, is a passionate and experienced walker on the ancient streets of the pilgrims. Gloria met her at the end of May, during her stopover in Viterbo, and later in Rome, when she finally arrived. The interview was made afterwards, via Skype.
Gloria- Dear Maria, I had dreamed to interview you while I joined you on a short section of the via Francigena, but here we are, at the computer, via Skype! I couldn’t manage to disconnect from my hectic life, even just for a couple of days, in order to get into the rhythm of the slow progress, walking…but now that your walk is over, maybe it’s easier to tell something…is it true?
Maria- Yes, it is actually true: while walking, words go somewhere else, in a way. You need some distance to process the experience made, because during the walk words fade into the background. Even when you meet other pilgrims you don’t usually share through words, because there’s a tuning on little concrete things, and the encounter itself is meaningful, and there’s no need for words. So I like the chance to reflect about it now, it’s congenial to me: thoughts and reflections about the experience made are emerging now, over time.
You mean that during a walk you experience a kind of nonverbal communication with nature, with yourself, inside you, and you don’t need much talking.
Well … there’s actually a process of evolution. It’s like meditation: at the beginning there’s much inner dialogue. Whatever we do, we are used to follow our experience with an inner commentary: we can speak it out or leave it in our head, but there’s always some kind of talking happening, as if the experience itself would not be valuable without words that makes it meaningful. While walking, little by little, this ongoing inner talk ceases, but you need to walk for a long time: at a certain point, after days of walking, you realize that the mind retreats, and you have the precise sensation that it drops to a lower level. What remains in the foreground is the bare experience, as it is. At that point you open up to a different way of living where other channels can be opened, and the sensory channel, perception and intuition come to the foreground. When I say intuition, I mean the ability to grasp things in the moment, being in tune with the experience in place, without any need for elaboration and reasoning.
You mean also in a physical sense? As a way to return to our animal nature?
Exactly! Sometimes, on a long walk, I think I can guess what the consciousness of the archaic, pre-modern human was. You reach a magic state in which things happen: for instance, when you are wondering whether you are on the right path, and you raise your eyes and you get a signal, or when you are thinking about someone and you meet him/her, or when you need something and you get it immediately. All this kind of things are common when you are walking: they may sound like coincidences, but who walks long distances knows that they are not. Or, rather: they are coincidences, but not haphazard. We could perhaps think of them as synchronicities. I heard so many stories during the walk about encounters that happen at just the right time, and needs met at the right time.
There is a synthony of sorts that’s established with reality around you, or rather, with what you perceive.
Exactly! And when you are not in tune — even during a walk there things go awry and there are difficult phases— when you don’t get what you need, you realize that it is because you are not in tune, in that moment!
Are you saying that you realize it immediately? Do you maybe notice that the body gets more tired or feels some kind of discomfort? Would you say that being in tune makes you feel in a better physical condition, giving you more strength?
I don’t know if we can speak about a cause-effect relationship between being in tune and being shape. I didn’t really mean that, but being in tune with your body is for sure one of the conditions of the state I just described.
Can you say a bit more?
I would say that during a walk the most important ‘work’ to do is on the body. The body is the main instrument, even in its most humble aspects, like the feet, for instance. The feet are the basic instrument, and taking care of your feet reflects the care you need to give to your body during the entire walk. Our body is not used to walk long, day after day. In ancient times we were used to it, but not anymore, and that is why walking long is hard work, an effort, and it requires a sort of ‘reshaping’ of the body.
Can I ask you if your feet have changed somehow since you first began to walk, years ago? Is there anything different that you feel in your feet?
I don’t know, I can’t really answer this question. But I would say that I have a kind of ‘work in progress’ sensation in my feet; for example, I put my feet on the ground in a different way now, and I feel a kind of new integration in my feet. Maybe later on I will tell you a bit more about it, but now I would like to say something about the care of the body. The walk puts a strong movement in the body, and at first you feel your metabolism getting faster, toxins going away, your muscles get sore….I like to call this stage with the name of an alchemic stage, rubredo: it was the stage of fire, when everything burns and melts. At this stage I would say there’s an a sensation of overload and of the extraordinary working of the body.
Of internal movement….
… an internal movement that brings along a mental movement, dreams, thoughts, etc…. During the walk you learn how the care of the body is really essential. You learn the care of the body as a form of devotion and dedication, because if you don’t do it you will get hurt, if you run too much you will get tendonitis, if you don’t stop at the right moment you might get a blister, if you walk too much you will not manage to walk again afterwards. That is why listening to yourself and taking care of your body is essential : massaging your feet in the evening, eating right food, sleeping, respecting your own rhythm in every moment…this is real discipline, a great exercise. It may sound commonsensical, but taking care is the fundamental practice of a walk!
How wonderful! Listen Maria, did all work you have done on the body throughout your life have an influence in your way of perceiving your body and taking care of it during the walk?
For sure! During a walk everything is easier and more natural if you have already experienced some kind of intimacy with yourself and with your body, as we did in Body Mind Centering (BMC). In the end, embodiment is exactly this ability to be in the body. If I didn’t have this experience, this key let’s say, I really think that I would be less aware and less present to myself, and I probably would have hurt myself much more. To be more precise, I found myself at ease with those aspects of the body that I had had a chance to explore with BMC: knee ligaments for example, which are really put to a hard trial during a walk. During a walk you can develop a dialogue with those part of your body that you know and had experience with while they are under stress, and so you are able to take care of them in the right way. I also had the chance to offer some touch experience, feet ‘massage’ and back and legs balancing. Someone said to me: “You have fairy hands!”.
Lucky them! I find interesting that you speak about body discipline, care, love, I would say, for the body. Today we are used to an obsessive way of taking care of the body —,and I am thinking about all those magazines and newspapers inserts about health, aesthetics, diets, cosmetics etc…
It is true! I talk about a care and discipline of the body that is not oriented to a type of beauty or performance, but is connected to a very humble sense of the body: washing your socks every night, washing your t-shirts, massaging your feet… This kind of physical activities puts you in contact with your basic needs: the appreciation of sleeping when you are tired, of eating when you are hungry, of drinking when you are thirsty. These things are almost forgotten, because it is not so common to be so tired to fall asleep and get up fresh the morning after. Physical fatigue gets healed through sleep, mental fatigue doesn’t.
As we were saying before, it is the reemergence of an animal nature.. There’s a correspondence between the physical needs and their satisfaction.
Yes, yes…it is a paradox, but all the mystics and the great personalities, especially in the Eastern traditions, know that: the discipline of the body develops a different relationship with the mind.
In what way? Can you talk more about that? Was there any meditative aspect during your walking on the Via Francigena?
Absolutely yes! The walk is a “practice” to me, not in the sense of a sport practice, but similar to yoga or meditation. I can say then that a walk is a kind of spiritual, meditative practice to me, because, as I said before, at a certain point your mind changes. At one point you clearly have the sensation that, while walking, your mind finds the right place in relation to the body. I realized it especially during my very first walk, the longest I ever made, 50 days long. At a certain point I really felt that the body and the mind were in a different relation, because the mind was no longer so much in the foreground. I would say that while the body rediscovers its right place, the mind as well has the chance to find a better place, maybe a possibility of integration. I say “mind” but at that point you don’t really know if you are talking about the mind, the heart or the body! One day, while I was walking and singing, I remember I had the deep impression that maybe my feet were singing, or maybe it was my heart walking, or my mind maybe…this, I think, is an expression of integration.
Can you give us another example of integration?
It appears in different ways, for example in the fact that you need fewer words and you don’t have as much need to talk about your experience. I feel that the mind, at a certain point, doesn’t run forward nor pre runs the experience. I could say a lot about it, but the easiest thing to say is that the mind is in the experience. During a walk you come to the day when you realize that your mind is no longer ahead of your feet, but it is exactly above your feet. I’m talking literally, not metaphorically! You really have the sensation that the head is exactly above the feet, and you no longer need to go ahead with the eyes and the thought. A pilgrim friend of mine I met on the walk says it like that: “You’re walking but you feel like you’re standing still!”. Generally speaking, it’s as if there’s less need to suppose, plan, schedule…more and more you are one with what is happening, in every moment.
I wonder, Maria, in which way this different state of mind finds a relation with the eyes. How do the eyes feel while looking at the landscape and following the path? I suppose there is a rhythm of walking and a rhythm of the eye looking at the landscape. Don’t you ever have the feeling that the landscape comes to you?
Yes, I like this idea of yours about the eyes. It is true that the very first time I experienced the feeling of the head being connected to the feet I came to realize it thanks to the eyes, because they didn’t go forward, they didn’t anticipate my walking. I was very much thrilled about it: the gaze opens and things come forth. And again, you don’t know if it is just your eyes opening, or also the skin, the mind, the heart. And you just receive. There’s a motto I learned on the way: “The tourist visits, the pilgrim is being visited”. It’s really like that!
I understand, how nice! A beautiful experience!
Of course, it’s not always like that. But as we said before, when you are not in tune you have the privilege to realize it. In everyday life we are often so much out of balance that we come to blame someone else for it! During a walk you are alone with your walking, without restriction of any type (only the ones your mind invents…), and there’s nothing else to do. If something goes wrong and ‘wrong’ things begin to happen, you often realize that is you being out of place, because maybe you lost sight of important things or you are too worried for something. For example, I have a very bad sense of orientation and I am often worried about taking the wrong turn, and I can say that every time I got lost I realized that I wasn’t present in the right way, even if the road signs were maybe not so perfect.
And how was it when you got the wrong way? What was it like for you to feel worried?
I have to say that during this last walk I never went the wrong way, because the via Francigena is an easy path, with good trail marks, and I was in my own country, and it was easy to ask someone in case of need… so this time the orientation was easy. But in my experience every time that I took a wrong turn it was my responsibility, because of my lack of tuning with what was happening outside: I was either distracted, or closed in my thoughts or too much worried… that is to say there was something preventing a fluid going. But it also happened that a wrong turn led to something beautiful: for example, a meeting that I would have never made on ‘the right path’! And this is also maybe dealing with intuition and being open to the experience. Or sometimes you just take the wrong way and you go back, you walk some extra kilomoters and that’s it, you pay the price for your distraction and you make the experience…
You were talking about the mind before, about a kind of “motor mind stillness” This leads us to talk about spirituality. It is often quite hard for me to speak about this: the mind, the spirit, all the opening to something which is present but is not only the mind or the body, it’s all in one…apart from the fact that you often stopped in places of worship, like convents or similar, can you tell us how you lived the spiritual side of the walk? Was it a pilgrimage for you?
This is a big issue, and I am reflecting about it these days. I’d like to write something about it. Today a lot of “lay people” walk on the ancient streets of the pilgrims, but a pilgrimage is an historical, sacred and religious practice – not just Christian. Every religion and culture has its own sacred pilgrimage practice. Pilgrimages are sacred because of the places they cross: the via Francigena for example leads you to the tomb of the Apostle Peter and crosses the city where you find old relics of saints that used to attract pilgrims (moreover, pilgrimage routes were established on archaic places of worship). Going to holy places has a precise meaning for believers. But even non-believers can find a sort of “secular sacrality” through the experience of walking in these places. There are places that more than others can arouse a sense of the sacred, even for non-believers. These places recall the sense of the pilgrimage walk, which is not just moving, but walking with a precise intention, which can be spiritual, or dealing with a personal evolution, or just a simple break in life.These places help the pilgrims to remember the sacrality of what they are doing, because they have been associated with sacred intention (believers think that these places are guarded by the angels and saints met on the way ). But I think that what is sacred is the intention itself, and that is why we can say that every pilgrimage is sacred: even by dedicating one of our lives to walking, we can say that this time is sacred. It is a time when we purposefully open up to the extraordinary, by walking, researching, and therefore listening. This is what I was thinking about while walking on the Via Francigena, which is travelled by pilgrims as well as by hikers and tourists: what makes the difference is the intention you’re walking with. A relic or a convent doesn’t make a holy place: it is the particular way of walking, the awareness and respect that make these places “holy”.