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

Pilgrim Age

Across the globe, seekers travel, on quests to find what they lack in their usual existences. On this island there are hundreds of festivals to choose from over the non-winter months, as well as smaller gatherings where groups come together for ceremony, music, and colloquy. Magick happens.

Around fires on every night of the year, humans meet, exchanging moods, stories of others and of themselves, offering thanks for the good times, prayers for that which we dream of. Moving away from our homes, into the wider realm of the outside.

As someone who has links to several informal groups of one sort and another, I find my life shaped by the journeys I take, criss-crossing my island (and occasionally beyond!) on a regular basis. I love this semi-nomadic lifestyle, and even with my ongoing health issues as long as I pace myself I can manage. The cost may appear prohibitive to those who only travel on holiday; when one is familiar with the nonsensical process of advance purchase train tickets and has hospitable friends all over the place, as well as a decent set of compact camping equipment, travel becomes possible on a low budget.

Some of the places I make my Pilgrimages to are old favourites, regularly visited for more than 10 years. Many are new sites, which greet me with a mixture of faces known and unknown. Spending evenings nights and days in a place with other people, doing rituals (sometimes more overtly occult than others), takes me out of the usual round; although in some ways it has now become my ‘usual’.

This urge to move away from our homes, and meet with certain people in a special place at a particular time, seems a primal and eternal quality of our species’ character. Phenomenologically the main activities at such gatherings are universal. Food, drink, sitting in a circle, music and conversation, dancing, appear with regularity whatever the ostensible ‘reason’ for meeting. A fire often focuses the gazes, and acts as the unifying centre of the space.

From a magickal perspective, such journeys are equivalent to a long ritual process, culminating in the eventual arrival and then the ceremony which occurs. The SOI depends upon the glamour associated with the destination, e.g. one visits a healing shrine for healing, or a place holy to a particular deity to encounter that presence. Psychogeographical fans treat a pilgrimage as an active artwork of discovery, often encountering synchronicities and open to the interactions provided by the entire process. Using each step to power up a servitor, or visualised as a move towards

I hear of ever more of such opportunities each year. It feels sad when I have to decline once-in-a-lifetime chances to go on adventures, and I am currently trying to make sense of this week’s lack when it should have provided days of walking that would have given me enormous pleasure, and a huge sense of achievement. A group is making a long journey this September, looping around the country from London via the West Country and then Wales, back to London, visiting many old sacred sites with the intention of empowering them. This is enhanced further by the presence of a Huichol shaman from across the ocean, whose family has been practicing pilgrimages to their sacred sites for hundreds of years.

But the weather is torrential rain, and I won’t be nearby as I expected to be. I am trying to understand this new narrative.

Perhaps there is no sense to it though, and this is just a sad I have to take on board.

A few days later…

I haz a happy! 🙂

A last minute invitation to an extra date on the pilgrimage itinerary and the willing complicity of my partner meant I did get to attend for one night!!!

We drove 38 miles to Dartmoor, along roads, smaller roads, lanes, and a track. We reached the end of the tarmac, presumably the ‘car park’ marked on the map.  It was notably lacking any other vehicles. Hmm… Both laden with the essentials (tent, sleeping bags, sheepskins and drums, water, torches and a detailed map), we navigated across the moorland avoiding the worst of the boggy bits, wondering exactly where we were headed. Nearly an hour later, having miraculously spotted two tiny stone slab bridges across unfordable rivers, we reached the stone circle, two hours after the appointed time to meet for the night. It was empty.

We spotted a distant figure and followed it for a few minutes before realising this was a trickster will-o-the-wisp avatar, merely a man walking his dog and not in fact another pilgrim.

Downhearted we returned to the stone circle, as dusk fell. Faced with the option of staying alone on the wild windy landscape, or a long trek back across the moorland followed by an even longer drive home through the night, we paused, to notice where we were, and to leave the offerings we had brought to the spirits of the place (a bouquet of plants from our garden). A large fern leaf, some willow, fennel flowers, a large sprig of rosemary, a few pink flowers, tied with another strip of willow. As I placed this in the circle I pushed down hard, into the ground, feeling the magic of the place and my magic mixing together. Slightly perplexed and faced with a feeling of mild peril, we had just reshouldered our baggage in order to return to the car when over the horizon two figures appeared; one of them walked with a familiar rangy gait, and as soon as we heard his dulcet tones we knew it was our party.

Filled with relief at having spent those extra minutes following a trickster (thanks be to Loki!), and hanging around a while instead of immediately returning (despite the knowledge this had left us unlikely to reach the car before dark), we hailed them with waves and smiles.

Our little tent went up, the rest of the group arrived and assembled a tipi tent, a fire was lit in a brazier fuelled by wood carried by them from the other car park where they had set out from.

It was so nice to meet people, some old acquaintances and friends, others we had not met before. How so many fitted inside the space is one of those miraculous phenomena of such events! There were songs, chants, amazing poetry, prayers, drumming, casual remarks and tales shared around the fire, a chaotic mix of the formal and informal, from which new traditions will doubtless develop once the people there have reflected upon what worked well, and what might assist the flow of sharing ritual space in future.

Different Drummers at the stones of dawn

Pilgrims at the Stones of Dawn

These hours are the engine that drives the rest of the experience, the time of Magick, done for its own sake, rationale left behind, flowing with the ways the spirit moves (in) us. Inspired words are spoken, thoughts thunk, and gestures take on significance above and beyond the normal. As the loss of Self, the lessening of Ego occurs, if feels like the world has possession of my form. ‘I’ transmits sound to the group, where ‘I’ is the locality itself, acting through the presence of the human bodyminds.

Free of usual identity I could indulge in possession, alone amongst a group, secure and isolated, which the ‘I’ of that moment found very liberating. Lost to myself amongst a throng of companions, I felt the personality of the place, of the earth beneath me, arrive and act through me to cast spells upon the world, quietly and without fuss whilst the voices rose and fell around me, within our circle.

At 2am we two reluctantly left the main tipi to retire to our sleeping quarters, as for us the next day was a normal work day. Wind whipped around the canvasses, humming as it passed the guy ropes, the rhythms of traditional and new songs drifting across the grass to our ears as we drifted to sleep.

Awaking at just after dawn, we emerged to see the group clustered around the largest of the stones, and spent a while chatting with friends, throwing a stick for one of the dogs present (both very well behaved), before tatting down and walking back across the moor to our car. Sheep, red cattle, and early morning humans out for a stroll/run greeted us with sounds ranging from indifference to friendly remarks. In the landscape of green and grey, any flowers stood out like a trumpet call, foxgloves deep purple against the streams. After breakfasting on croissants we drove back along the old twisting track, the narrow lane, the single lane road, the two way road, and then a bit of dual carriageway, to the usual world, in enough time to start our weekday routine; aware of the sleeping pilgrims behind us, wrapped in blankets in the tipi, who were headed for mountains later that day. Glad we had made time to connect with their longer trek.

In the depths of the ceremony I felt a deep sense of why I need to do these things, go physically away from ‘me’. One can choose to reach a state of overview wherever one is, of a different perspective on things (especially oneself and one’s normal world) in a psychological sense, but to embody this difference, to remove all cues of identity which our home surroundings provides, to make that effort to traipse for miles into unknown territory on foot carrying only things necessary to the event, taking risks, these elements resulted in a profound awareness of the moment.

We each take away melding memories, the remnants of our shamanic returns, those medium sized ideas and motivations now discovered, to power the quest for how we can each affect the future in our own style whilst in harmony with the wider self, as manifested, shared, and enjoyed, as we chanted and sang and drummed together through the night.

A pilgrimage, then, allows us to escape, to travel away from the normal in geographic space. But we could do that by going anywhere; why do we seek out the communal destinations we do? Each place has its own particular answer, but in a more general sense we travel to a place which allows us to meet others in time. Past and future travellers go to the same destination, focussed on the present moment throughout the journey, on each footfall, the weight we carry with us each second. Meeting similar journeyers, our attention cannot eventually help but be caught by thoughts of those who preceded us, and those who will follow. The destination reached, our physical movement stilled, our time-trapped minds are free to wander across the chronosphere, picturing those who trod these ways before, and those who will inevitably follow, each pilgrim’s tale unique as well as the same, sharing so much with here & now.

At this intersect of the physical surface of the globe, and the imaginal vertical axis of time, we transcend our Selves, having reached some where special.

Each of the eight solar sabbats can offer occasion to share this quest, albeit on a tiny scale, knowing that we join not only our immediate groupings, but as part of a far wider pilgrimage with thousands of locations across the globe. Connections forged and refreshed, common bonds of mutually assured ecstasis. Make the most of this weekend’s Samhain/Hallowe’en parties, see them as the pilgrimage opportunities they are, enter those worlds beyond the Ordinary in your own ways. Take a moment, however short, to appreciate the magick of gathering together.

Pick up your bed and walk.