I lived for quite a while in South Asia, and while there I often studied and practiced with yoga and Buddhist teachers.
I can’t count how many times I’ve packed my bags and traveled to some far-flung destination seeking a respite, only to find that my mind—surprise surprise—was right there to greet me in the same old agitated way.
My hopes of discovering peace of mind were thwarted by the screeching speakers of a Cambodian wedding next door that lasted for three days, or the ambitious jackhammer-wielding construction crew just out the front door of my Delhi guest room. Then there was the Tibetan monk tasked with delivering daily meals to my silent retreat cabin, who wanted to come in and chat about American pop stars.
Travel is one of the best practices I know. A voyage—especially to a foreign country—forces us to come to terms with aspects of ourselves we might not confront in our everyday lives. Things come up when our environment is foreign. There’s an edge of excitement that can easily flip into anxiety.
What starts out as a journey to find peace can sometimes end up being anything but peaceful. Often, when we are confronted with things that challenge our outlook of the world, we struggle with being shoved out of our comfort zone. We may push back by fighting to maintain our sense of identity. We demand, we plead, we manipulate: “Please stop this nonsense and let me go back to my fantasy of how I think things should be!”
Yet, this is precisely the value of a pilgrimage: it shatters our identity, so that we can reintegrate around a more up-to-date sense of who we are. And who we are is new every moment.
What is a pilgrimage?
Pilgrimage can mean a day trip to a temple or sacred place, or it can denote a metaphorical journey lasting decades. It can be a visit to a place of religious significance or to meet a master of wisdom. What characterizes pilgrimage as opposed to holiday travel is that it evokes elements of both an inner and outer journey. There is a sense of inviting the unexpected.
A pilgrimage is more than just a journey. When we set out on an adventure with the right intention, we set in motion a process that can transform our lives. This is the point of pilgrimage: transformation through travel. So what is the right intention to take if you hope for your pilgrimage to bear fruit?
Pilgrimage is a lesson in letting go of expectations and accepting what is. We may set out on a journey, seeking peace or wisdom or healing, with an idea of what that might look like. However, we might get exactly what we don’t want. We might order an appetizer and get a plate of fried tarantula (true story!). This thwarting of expectations is part of the process. What our higher wisdom has in mind for us might be something else entirely—and we may not always like it.
When we take the first step on a pilgrimage, we hand over control to divine intervention. We accept that we cannot control outcomes and surrender to the process of becoming who we truly are. It may sound easy, but it can be excruciating to come up against a hard no when we have our heart set on some desired outcome. So there is a huge amount of trust involved, and a willingness to be with whatever arises along the journey.
Pilgrimage is about opening the mind to new possibilities. In order for a new perspective to arise, we have to release expectations of how we thought our journey (or life) would unfold. We let the path reveal itself regardless of our preferences. We learn to to be flexible in the face of sudden change or conflict.
When we can appreciate the ups and downs with equanimity, then traveling becomes a joyful practice of observation. Rather than judging unfamiliar traditions, we start to see that there are other ways of doing things. From how to eat to how to relate to death, family, and intimacy, all cultures treat these things in their own way. Once we see new possibilities, we can question whether or not our own lives feel in alignment.
When I spent a year in Mysore, I realized that American culture had ingrained in me certain values that I took to be truths. For example, I grew up believing that chasing material wealth will result in happiness.
When I lived among South Indians, I started to see things differently. When I made my yoga practice a higher priority than making money, it was the first time in my life I’d actually relaxed fully. It made me happy in a way that earning money never did.
Obstacles as mile markers
Obstacles are part of the program—in fact, I think they are the program. Learning to respond with grace to situations falling apart is an integral skill for a pilgrim—and for life!
We journey to meet a teacher, then discover he is at the place we just left. We take precautions against respiratory illness, only to get stomach flu. We sign up for a private interview with a guru on the day he has fallen ill. We reserve a guesthouse months ahead of time, only to show up and have no room. Then we can’t sleep all night because of the thumping disco beat of neighborhood festivities, only to get the email the next morning that we were invited to the party.
Faced with these events, we have choices. We could scream and shout (as I often do). Or, we can throw up our hands (as well as the corners of our mouth) and take a deep breath.
Pilgrimage is, above all, an opportunity to see our expectations for what they are—illusions created by conceptual mind. These illusions are what most of us base our entire lives on. Once we see that, we can let go because we realize there is really nothing to let go of.
I think what characterizes a pilgrimage is that we are forced to face our fears head-on. The whole point is to expose the ego’s sneaky ways in order for transformation to occur.
Pilgrimage is not for the faint of heart. But then, neither is life. It requires a certain amount of stamina and strength. The best made plans can fall apart in an instant. There is wisdom in learning to let go of our agenda. We learn to tolerate the tension of ego straining against its imagined edges.
If we are up for this wild ride, and an opportunity to test our limits, pilgrimage is powerful medicine. It’s an invitation to awaken every day of our mundane lives to the path of greater awareness.
Challenge: Make a pilgrimage date with yourself!
Spend an afternoon (or longer) being a pilgrim. Visit someplace you’ve never been (bonus points if it involves spending time in a culture that is foreign to you).
Take a trip to Chinatown, or a natural history museum, or a little town you’ve heard of. Schedule a weekend retreat in the mountains.
Go with the intent of discovering something new. Trust your instincts rather than your devices. See who crosses your path and what surprises might arise. Bring a journal to record your observations.
Leave me a comment about it—I’d love to hear how it goes!