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The Power of Pilgrimage (Part 1 of 2)

The importance of leaving home to seek answers to your most burning questions.

In searching for answers to the mysteries in your own life, whether they’re basic questions about meaning and purpose or conundrums about your connection to spirit, you can leave your house, go out under the sun and the stars and simply ask those questions that seem obvious but often aren’t: Who am I? What really matters? What is my gift? What do I need to hear? What on Earth am I doing?

Questioning is at the heart of all spiritual journeying, of literally leaving home for a time to go on a retreat, pilgrimage or vision quest; of removing yourself from the duties and dramas, relationships and roles that bombard you with messages that may be distracting or irrelevant or even destructive to an emerging or affirmative sense of self, and that interfere with asking for responses to your burning questions.

In taking a spiritual journey, you’re “crying for a vision” as the Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk put it, the one that may reveal your true vocation, your real name, your purpose; the one that may come as a dream, a fantasy figure, a voice in the head, an animal encounter, an overpowering emotion, a sudden inspiration or surge of creative energy, or a chance meeting out at a crossroads. You’re practicing the art of following callings, because spiritual journeys, like calls, involve a break with everyday life.

“I went to strip away what I had been taught,” Georgia O’Keeffe said about her retreat to New Mexico from New York City in the 1920’s, “to accept as true my own thinking. This was one of the best times of my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing, no one interested, no one to say anything about it one way or another. I was alone and singularly free.”

In taking a walkabout, in leaving home and the distracting fusillade of activities that often keeps you from yourself, what’s in the background becomes foreground, what’s overlooked has a chance to get looked over, what’s waiting in the wings is given an entrance cue. You ask for a vision or a calling, and the faith and intestinal fortitude to follow it.

You may or may not get an answer, but what’s important is not ceasing to ask. Perhaps you mispronounced the question, or your timing wasn’t right. Perhaps you received an answer and didn’t recognize it, or the answer you heard wasn’t the one you wanted to hear, so you ignored it. Maybe you need to travel still further on your journey, around the next turn in the road, over the next pass, into the company of someone you have yet to meet.

Pilgrims are people in motion, passing through unfamiliar terrain, seeking completion or clarity. Sometimes that motion is religious and sometimes it’s secular. Sometimes you design your own journeys and sometimes you follow the footsteps of those you revere—pacing the garden Jesus paced, sitting beneath the tree where Buddha saw the light, praying in the chapel where Merton prayed, visiting the house where Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, walking the same streets of a village in Mexico or a shtetl in Russia that your own grandfather once walked.

Sometimes you journey with the body, on a long walking meditation or a bicycle trip through the Holy Lands, and sometimes with the mind, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell did early in his life by holing himself up in a cabin for five years and doing nothing but reading, which the Hindus called ynana yoga, the search for enlightenment through knowledge and the mind.

Your approach depends on your primary way of experiencing the Spirit. Sometimes you make the journey entirely in private, in solitary retreat or solo vision quest in the wilderness, and other times in crowds, like the great pilgrimages to Mecca, Benares, Rome, Jerusalem, and Compostela in Spain, which more than anything resemble enormous migrations.

Simply taking up a bedroll and hitting the road, though, won’t generally suffice to alert the forces of enlightenment, which require more than just moving around. Whether you go to the Ganges or Graceland, maintaining a spirit of observance and self-reflection is key. You must be intent on spending time searching for soul, moving toward something that represents to you an ideal—truth, beauty, love, perspective, strength, serenity, transcendence, sacredness, whatever.

Without this intention, your pilgrimages are only vacations, your vision quests are struck blind, and your retreats are not also advances. You’re merely a tourist or window-shopper. Maybe you’re even a kind of escapee, someone in flight rather than in quest.

Something like a Law of Spiritual Enthusiasm seems to dictate what sort of response you get to your inquiries, your intents and purposes, and highlights the importance of being earnest. The hungrier you are to learn and be guided, the more you’re taught and the more you allow yourself to be taught. You can’t fake it, though. Soul and Spirit know when you’re being sincere and when you’re just smiling and saying cheese.

In part 2, we'll explore how to design a spiritual journey or rite of passage.

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