What Is A Pilgrimage: The Art of Transformational Travel

A pilgrimage is always at the least two things--a literal journey and a spiritual journey. Though it involves a geographical moving about, it also requires a psychological shift of the deepest sort. But what makes it a pilgrimage and not a holiday adventure?

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 is above all a psycho-spiritual journey, usually to a place of religious significance or to meet a master of wisdom, with elements of both the inner and outer journey.

A pilgrimage is a lesson in letting go. You set out on a journey, looking for something that is not yet clear. You might get exactly what you don’t expect--and this is part of the process. What your higher wisdom has in mind for you might be something else entirely. And you may not always like it.

What Does Pilgrimage Mean?

A pilgrimage is more than just a journey. When you set out on an adventure with the right intention, you set in motion a process that can transform your life. This is the point of pilgrimage: transformation through travel. This is the subject of my upcoming book, Toward A Secret Sky: A Guide To The Art Of Pilgrimage.

When you take the first step on a pilgrimage, you put your life in the hands of some divine, higher wisdom. You accept that you cannot control outcomes, and surrender to the process of becoming who you truly are. You accept that there is some divine purpose to your life even if it is as simple as tending your own garden. It may not be as grandiose as the plans you had laid out for yourself, but it is your unique gift to offer the world. So there is a huge amount of trust involved, and a willingness to be with whatever arises along the path.

The Inspiration To Travel

Travel--especially in a foreign country--forces you to come to terms with aspects of yourself you might not confront in your everyday life. Things come up when your environment is unknown, unexpected, changing and often challenging. Sometimes you just know that you need a retreat.

So you might pack up your home, put your life on hold, and set off traveling with an open stretch of time ahead of you. You take stock, and discover a new angle on life. Have a few adventures. Maybe make a transition in your career.

What starts out as a journey to find peace, however, can end up being anything but peaceful! Often when we are confronted with things that challenge our outlook of the world, we struggle to maintain our sense of identity. And, if you are still operating on old beliefs that no longer serve you, that might be a good thing. This is precisely the value of a pilgrimage: it shatters your identity, so that you can re-integrate around a more up-to-date sense of who you are.

Pilgrimage and Transformation

Pilgrimage is about learning to adapt to new situations. It’s about opening your mind to new possibilities. You have to release expectations of how you thought your journey would unfold and let the path reveal itself regardless of your preferences. You learn to to be flexible in the face of sudden change or conflict.

When you can appreciate the ups and downs with equanimity, then traveling becomes a joyful practice of observation. Rather than judging unfamiliar traditions, you start to see there are other ways of doing things. From how to eat, to how to relate to death family and intimacy—all cultures treat these in their own way. You can start to question if the way you learned to do things works for you. It gives you options to make changes or adjustments to your own life if you choose to.

When I spent a year in India, I realized that my American culture had ingrained in me certain values that I took to be truths. For example, my culture proposes that material wealth is a way to achieve happiness. When I lived among Indians, I saw a different way of looking at life, that completely changed how I perceive and approach my life. It allowed me to let other aspects of life to take priority. 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.

When Things Don't Go As Planned

You know how to make Goddess laugh right? Make plans.

You journey to meet a teacher, then discover he is at the place you just left. You take precautions against respiratory illness, only to get stomach flu. Or you sign up for a private interview with a guru on the day he has fallen ill. You reserve a guesthouse months ahead of time, only to show up and have no room. Then you can't sleep all night because of the loud music of neighborhood festivities only to get the email the next morning that you were invited to the party.

Faced with these events, you have choices. You could sulk, pout and yell, wallowing in poverty mentality. Or, you can throw up your hands (as well as the corners of your mouth) and take a deep breath.

Resistance is futile. In fact it makes it worse. Pilgrimage is above all an opportunity to see our expectations for what they are-- illusions created by conceptual mind that we then grasp at--and to let go.

Pilgrimage Means Facing Your Fears

Primarily, I think what characterizes a pilgrimage is that we are forced to face our fears head on. The whole point is to expose ego's sneaky ways to a higher wisdom in order for transformation to occur.

But pilgrimage is not for the faint of heart. It requires a certain amount of stamina and strength. The best made plans fall to bits, and things rarely go as expected. There is wisdom in learning to let go of our agenda. You learn to tolerate the tension of ego straining against its imagined edges. So if you are up for a wild ride, and an opportunity to push your limits, I highly recommend going on your own pilgrimage.

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