The Power of Pilgrimage—Part 2: Designing Rites of Passage

Tips for designing spiritual journeys—retreats, pilgrimages or vision quests

Posted May 23, 2017

Spiritual journeying, whether you walk around a holy mountain or sit on a pillow for a five-day meditation retreat, is about interior or exterior movement toward the deep self. A geographical journey is symbolic of an inner journey for which you long.

In Hindi and Sanskrit, the word for a pilgrim-site means a ford, a crossing-place, a point of transit, and people seem most inclined to take spiritual journeys at just such points in their own lives. These journeys are rituals you enact to help you cross over into maturity and transcendence of one kind or another—from ignorance to wisdom, sleep to awakening, woundedness to wholeness, lost to found.

They follow what Robert Atkinson in The Gift of Stories calls the “sacred pattern”—the same three-fold progression of separation-initiation-return as rites of passage and heroic myths; the same process of surrender-struggle-recovery common to 12-step programs; the same architecture of beginning-middle-end as story-telling. You open a door, step across a threshold, and return through it from the other side. You leave an old life behind, experience a life transition up close and receive its thorny wisdom, and then head home and hope to follow through on whatever you learned.

Rites of passage, however, celebrate not so much the separation or the return as much as the passage in between, the initiation. The psychologist Carl Jung felt that the process of what he called individuation—the work of becoming yourself, as distinct from the furry warmth of the herd—is the result of a series of such initiations, all of which begin with an act of separation from the status quo. And thus separation anxiety.

The experience of the holy, says author Sam Keen, always involves trembling. Quakers quake, Shakers shake, dervishes whirl, prophets stand knock-kneed before God. Spiritual journeys are formidable because, like all rites of passage, they necessitate that you leave your old self behind for a time, leave the trappings of identity and status and familiarity, and move to a place where no-one knows who you are, or cares. Just as all pilgrims on the hajj to Mecca are required to wear the same tunic, in taking to the road yourself you wear the cloak of anonymity, the prospect of which may fill you with a certain dread, or, if you’re lucky, relief.

Some suggestions for spiritual journeying:

1) Many spiritual teachers recommend guides for extended meditation retreats, vision quests, and pilgrimages deep into nature. It’s useful, and occasionally critical, to have the guidance of someone who’s gone this way before you, who knows the ropes, is familiar with the psychological and physical terrain, can help prepare you for what you might encounter, and who provides the motivating element of leadership.

2) Feel free to design your journey to suit yourself, drawing on any practice that keeps you focused on the goals of Spirit and the deep self. Make music, sing songs, paint pictures, write in a journal, practice yoga, walk all day in the wilderness, or just sit still. Pray, read holy books, or stare fixedly out the window. Abstain from talking or sleeping or socializing. Consider fasting to remind yourself that you’re hungry.

3) Focus on a central question or two. If you understand not even the answers, but merely the questions that animate your own journey, if not your life, you’ve understood a lot. Like pilgrims to the ancient Oracle at Delphi in Greece, you must come bearing questions, with the hope that the meditations, contemplations, dreams and rituals of your journey may offer some answers, although as the writer P.L. Travers once said, “You must ask your questions knowing that there is nothing to be gained, only a purpose to serve, and seeking not so much to find as to be found.” Still, you need to know what you’re looking for, and by having a clear question, you’re halfway to getting an intelligible answer.

What question, then, is at the heart of your pilgrimage and your life? What question were you put here to understand? You’re after questions that don’t arise solely from the intellect, but from a crying need to know, an existential thirst, a deep mystification. You may have questions about something you seek: What is my purpose? To whom do I belong? What can I believe in? Who are my teachers? What is the name of the dragon in my life? What changes must I make? How can I use my talents? How can I serve the world? How can I know God? Where am I going and how can I get there?

You may also have questions about visions or callings you’ve already received: How do I make community? How do I learn to forgive? What conditions foster cooperation between people? How can healing and laughter be combined? How can conservationists work with business rather than against it, to protect the environment? How does the mind influence the course of disease? How can I raise compassionate children?

Nothing shapes your journey through life so much as the questions you ask, says Keen, who himself wears a small silver question-mark on a chain around his neck. Imagine, he says, how different lives would be that were propelled by the question “How can I serve others?” versus “Where can I get my next fix?” Or “How can I be the most authentic?” versus “What will the neighbors think?”

It helps to keep in mind that your questions may not have singular answers, but multitudes of them. The principles of “brainstorming” have taught me that even our questions ought to be framed as if this were the case. Rather than asking “Who am I?” we might ask, “In how many ways can I be myself?” Rather than asking “Where is my place in the world?” the question might be better put, “In how many ways can I experience a sense of belonging to the world?”

4) In awaiting answers, cultivate patience on the order of years. Patience communicates to your soul that you have faith in it, in its intimacy with the creative force of life, and it grows out of an understanding that the spiritual journey, whether taken on foot or in the heart, is largely pick-and-shovel work, though it’s also worth every step. It’s about taking up the pickax every day and digging, chipping away a bit at a time at your stony questions. It’s about taking up your walking stick every morning and making at least some progress toward your distant destinations, feeling your way like a bird that travels for thousands of miles guided only by instinct and the whisper of magnetism.

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