If a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, how does a journey into the depths of your soul begin? Often with pilgrimage. Pilgrimage offers you opportunities that cannot be measured in miles. Perhaps it can’t be quantified at all. Still men have been doing it for millenia. The appeal is something that never loses it’s luster. Here are some of the things I have learned from pilgrimage.
Poverty of Spirit is the Worst Form of Destitution
When I was in graduate school, I was taught that poverty was the cause of all man’s woes. People just need housing, food, education, and opportunity. If they have that, they can be happy. When I went to Egypt, I saw some of the worst poverty I had ever encountered up to that point. Hollow cheeked people begged in the streets. Laundry flapped overhead in the sand blown air. People slept uncovered on the cold concrete. But what I didn’t see was hopelessness or even sadness. I saw ordinary people giving to those without. I saw laughter in the eyes and huge smiles on their faces. In their hearts was warmth and acceptance that I don’t routinely see here. These people embody the belief that life is as God wills it to be. They are able to find happiness and hope just in breathing. Whatever these people lacked in material comfort, they made up for it with a fullness of heart. It’s not poverty that holds us down. It’s poverty of spirit. Someone who has a hopeful spirit cannot be accused of being poor nor can they live in sadness.
I host sacred travel tours. That means people – sometimes complete strangers – come with me. As you might imagine, they are not all in a great place when they arrive… and that’s okay because that’s why some of them come! All of them are not nice, healthy people. If you are looking to escape your life or worries through pilgrimage, there is one problem with that. You take you with you. And you are quite likely your own biggest problem!
Fortunately what also happens when you are traveling with a group is that there is a group energy that can sweep you up, if you allow it to. This can give you a chance to see another side of yourself. When you see that you can be different, it just may be the thing that allows you to choose to express that other side of yourself. If you stubbornly persist, however, you really can be miserable anywhere.
Take the Scenic Route
Some of the most beautiful, powerful, energetic places on earth are far off the beaten track. You might have to travel for days by camel, walk up steep hills in the snow, or drive down pothole filled dirt roads to arrive at a place that has no running water, no toilet, and no telephone. Getting to the gold inside of you can be the same way. It’s not always easy. It’s not necessarily convenient. It may not even be all that appealing when you first glimpse it. Give it a chance to unfold. The gift is there. When you get beyond it, you may find that those are the most precious memories of your life. It’s not always about getting there as quickly or as comfortably as you can.
It’s amazing at how long the pyramids have stood. We can still gaze at facade of the library at Ephesus. The catacombs in Rome are still there for us to enjoy. Eventually, though, nature will reclaim everything. Everything we do, everything we think, everything we are will just be dust some day. Even if we push back the jungle as in Angkor Wat and Macchu Picchu, nature will reclaim what is Hers someday. For me that becomes an invitation to seize the day. Throw off the inhibitions and limitations and live fully before my time is up and my contributions are lost in time.
How do you hear the voice of the Creator over the traffic? How can you hear it over the television set? Can you see the Great Spirit through all the light pollution? If you are like me, you’ll find it hard. But go out in nature with open eyes and you can see Mother Earth and Father Sky in every blade of grass, every cloud, every creature, every gust of wind. Most importantly, you can’t help but to identify it within you. Nature balances and heals. When we separate ourselves from nature, when we control it, cultivate it, bend it to our will, and destroy it, we kill the thing that sustains our very life force. When we join with it, it brings us back to our own natural center, to our rhythm.
I don’t know about you, but my pilgrimages rarely feature concrete, air conditioning, and buildings. Nature is always center stage.
Nature has a wonderful rhythm. Spring follows winter. The sun rises and sets in a predictable pattern. The tides go in and out. Rain provides sustenance for life. Plants grow in sunshine. Animals eat plants. Bugs decompose animals. It’s all a wonderful self-sustaining system. So are people. The body knows how to heal itself if we give it the right tools to do the job. Contentment is the baseline for humans as long as we live within nature’s rules. But we don’t, do we? When we lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, dominate, control, or even play small, we destroy our inner peace of mind. When we spew ugliness out into the world that comes back to us. You really can’t be happy if you go against yourself. When you live with no pretenses and give others the same respect and freedom, you find that the issues that used to matter really don’t anymore. Life’s just great just as it is. Find your rhythm and live it.
Some people ask me to tell them about my experiences or my thoughts because they want to have it for themselves. You can’t catch spirituality vicariously. It’s not something that anyone can give you. It’s not outside of you. It’s what you are. My having or sharing an experience won’t make occur for you. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. What I get from one trip to the next varies. Even if I return to the same place, it’s never the same. How can it be? I am different each time. All I do for others it to make the experience available. It’s up to the traveler to say yes and be present once he is there. No matter how many books you read and how many stories move you, you are not going to really know in your core what the words or stories mean until they become your own.
Loneliness is a Function of Disconnection
As a rule, I don’t experience loneliness. I used to think that it was because I have a large family and there was no space for it. Now that I understand what it means when people say “a crowd is the loneliest place,” I realize that loneliness is about connection. When I went to Turkey, I felt harassed. I felt like I was a customer rather than a valued human being – a thing, a commodity, furniture. I felt like I was standing outside of the energy of life. I could make one-on-one connections, but there was an overall disconcerting and disconnected feeling everywhere I went. The big picture was not at all connected. It felt like I was never on solid ground.
Was it because of Turkey? I think at least partially, yes, because it didn’t feel that way in Cappadocia. Places have energy too. However, it was a reflection of where I was in my life at that time, too. After all, sacred travel shows you where your life is out of balance. That experience highlighted for me that loneliness is a choice. It may take some risk to connect to others. It definitely takes some work, but it can be done because we all want the same thing! When we withhold, it’s because of fear. Show someone it’s safe to connect and they usually will. Don’t give too much of yourself away and it will be safe for you to do so too. That was really uncomfortable lesson, but it was also really empowering.
During the time I was in Italy, it was unseasonably cold. I hadn’t packed for that. And the day I had planned to visit Ostea Antica, it rained steady buckets for hours and hours. When you go to England, you know to always be prepared for cold and rain. It might be rainy for five days out of seven.
Had I chosen comfort and decided to stay inside or give up my plans, I would have missed out on precious days in paradise. Instead I enjoyed the surroundings so much that the rain just became part of it. It was neither annoying nor pleasing. It just was. I wasn’t particularly physically comfortable, but I was spiritually delighted. I have memories that I’d not give up for anything.
They say you have to get out of your comfort zone to grow. When you do that often enough, being uncomfortable is no longer challenging. You know you can endure it. And you might even find some hidden surprises there that make it worth the trouble.
Going on a Pilgrimage Isn’t Necessarily a Spiritual Experience
Going on a pilgrimage is no guarantee that you will get anything of value out of it. How you do anything is how you do everything. If you live life as if it’s a drive-by experience of things to check off your list, you will have a long list of “accomplishments” that mean nothing, that teach nothing. If you are fully present in your back yard you might get more out of that ten minutes than someone who goes halfway around the world in search of that same experience.
There are places in the world of massive power and inspiration, but it takes more than that to feel it. It takes your presence and intention. If you have presence and intention, you can feel that power anywhere. The world will show you what you need to see if you go with an open heart. Say yes to what is there.