Pilgrimage: Journeying in the body and landscape

Perhaps as a result of lockdown related ennui, I have been thinking about sacred journeys. 

(In order to avoid the frustrations of travel porn I will provide a link to a previous piece about taking inner journeys via pathworking techniques Walking the Narrow Road.)

When we scan the vast landscape of human religious experience and expression, the act of Pilgrimage is almost universal in its scope. Moving from our place of origin towards a sacred site is an undertaken in religions both theistic and non-theistic. Whether it is the ground zero of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, A Sufi Saint’s tomb or Canterbury Cathedral, the power and significance of a spiritually meaningful journey should not be underestimated.

In the introduction to their wonderful and encyclopedic guide Britain’s Pilgrim Places Nick Mayhew-Smith and Guy Hayward make the following observation:

“Meaningful journeys are one of the few universal patterns of human behavior, seeking out special places where communities share their memories, spill out their hopes and fears. They are places where all can find wholeness, be part of something bigger. They are open to all.”

Whatever the destination particular to our chosen religious or magical path, the Pilgrimage represents a very physical expression of our devotion and longings. We are no longer armchair aspirants, rather our internal journey, in pursuit of meaning, is gaining a very physical and spatial expression. Whether undertaken independently or with the support of others, we are acknowledging that staying-put is not enough, we need to hit the road. 

Our journey usually begins long before we step outside our front door. We may have spent months or years planning and anticipating this journey. Finding the time, the funds and the support of others to make this possible all contributes to casting a powerful spell upon such undertakings. Often the amount of sacrifice needed to make our pilgrimage happen, profoundly encapsulates the importance of that destination as an embodiment of our spiritual intentions. I have clear memories of what it has felt like as I began a journey to a large Pagan gathering, a road-trip to monastery and even my preparations to see a band like Fugazi whose music captured my politics and desire for authenticity. 

As we travel, our hopes and expectations sharpen our senses in a way that creates story. Aspects of my own Pilgrimages feel etched in my memory: what I drank in the airport, the challenges of negotiating a foreign public transport system and those meals with fellow pilgrims where time slowed down and deep connections were made.

Pilgrims at the Ka’ba in Mecca

On the road we often meet fellow travellers and we resonate with a shared knowledge that often remains unspoken. We connect with the perseverance needed, the aspirations shared and the badge of honor earned via the journey. We have a common mythology as someone who was willing to step-outside mundane time in pursuit of new truths. Symbols and shared songs while on the way add to the creation of a temporal community. Markers such the white robe of the Hajj pilgrim or the Scallop Shell of the Camino walkers, mark us as changed. 

Given that Pilgrimage often involves journey to the remains of a Saint or beloved spiritual teacher, as we travel we enter into a new relationship with both time and death. When we travel with intention we enter a liminal zone between life and death. We have uncoupled ourselves from our static, safe bases (if we ever had them) and we are forcing ourselves to face change and the finite nature our lives. In the light of our mortality how are we to live? What are we doing with the time we have left and how does the life of our saint exemplify how we might do things differently?

We might fantasize about the Pilgrim as being an embodiment of rugged individualism, but such ableism has little place in the reality of mobility and sensory challenges that many of us experience. Even if we travel alone most of us have benefited from the support of a community that has helped get us there. They become “a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) surrounding us and cheering us on in spirit via thoughts, spells and Instagram messages. 

Recent connections have been made here between bipedal movement through a landscape and the type of trauma processing that occurs via trauma therapies such as Eye-Movement Desensitizing Reprogramming (EMDR). In a way similar to the bilateral tapping or use of moving lights that encourages eye-movement, travelling through a landscapes creates a rhythm that seems to allow us to make sense of things in a way that linear problem-solving alone fails to do. The home-spun wisdom of “just go for a walk” may not be bad advice and in my own experience as a somewhat nominal runner, I often find that the rigors of a sweaty and breathless 5K run often allows access to previously unconsidered wisdom.

Discovering Wisdom: The Canterbury Tales

Sometimes the sense of magical space that we inhabited during pilgrimage can make the readjustment to normal life quite bumpy. Perhaps the expectations we had were too high and we are making sense of disappointment; perhaps the freedom of the road makes a return to our previous life impossible? Intentional journeys create change and no change is without a cost. 

Personally I am taking time to recollect my own past journeys and I am savoring the way in which their magical atmosphere changed me. With lockdown still a reality, I am breaking out the maps and my walking shoes and warming up my imagination for what is to come. ☺ 

Here’s some more inspiration from the brilliant British Pilgrim’s Trust to inspire you:

“Pilgrimage (n.): A journey with purpose on foot to holy/wholesome/special places.

People have made pilgrimage across countless geographies, cultures and eras.

To turn a walk into a pilgrimage, at the beginning set your private ‘intention’ – dedicate your journey to something that you want help with, or for which you want to give thanks.

Pilgrimage is for everyone, promoting holistic wellbeing via pilgrim practices and connecting you with yourself, others, nature and everything beyond.”

Steve Dee

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