The Pilgrimage, Therapy, and Life Journeys

The Life Pilgrimage

Posted May 06, 2013

May 6, 2013

A very nice representative of a publishing house recently asked me if I would be interested in pitching a book.  Of course I was flattered, and wanted to know more.  “You could write about your breakthroughs in therapy,” she said.  “People don’t have time to sit for 10 years in weekly therapy anymore.”

“Well,” I said, laughing, “I think I specialize in breakdowns more than breakthroughs!” The relief of suffering, and the slow climbs over rocky terrain that call for a guide, witness and companion.  There are important moments of insight and connection, and even the seeds of transformation, but more often, it’s the commitment to the journey that counts.  I think the real routes to change do involve doing therapy or something like it for a significant period of time.  I don’t think that deep and lasting changes happen by reading a how-to or self-help book, or even by attending a one-day workshop, though these often do help people.  Change requires an experience and relationship over time.

I am skeptical of peddlers of cure-all “solutions”, because I don’t believe people are problems to be solved.  People come to my office to be related to.  The therapeutic relationship should provide compassion, knowledge, wisdom and skill to benefit the patient, literally “one who bears suffering.”  Therapy is part of the life journey, a regular hour that provides refuge and amplifies the patient’s own healing powers.  Insights do awaken.  Knowledge and skill provide relief.  But the actual relationship, and the awareness that the doctor/therapist is relating to the patient on their journey, is vital.

Therapy is a kind of weekly waystation on the pilgrimage of life.

I have been on pilgrimages before, for weeks and months at a time, and have come to understand life itself as a pilgrimage.  The life pilgrimage, I believe, is a journey towards connection, wholeness, healing, and ameliorating, or at least coping with, suffering.  We grow intimately familiar with personal and global sources of suffering.  Buddha’s First Noble Truth is the awareness that “life entails suffering,” and the suffering he so elegantly uprooted was that caused by the deluded view that the self exists independently, causing us to crave after permanence, resist change, and exist in perpetual dissatisfaction.  From this base arises varied emotional sources of suffering, and these are perhaps not unrelated to the real material sources of suffering that plague us.  (Who wouldn’t agree that greed, hatred, ignorance and jealousy have real world consequences, such as famine, materialism and violence?).  I believe that we must address the personal sources of suffering along with the global, to really reach our capacities as human beings.  It is all related – but you have to start where you are.  The Fourth Noble Truth is not the “Eightfold Cure”, but the “Eightfold Path” to overcome suffering.  The Buddha knew life is a journey, too.  Psychological, biological, social, cultural and spiritual perspectives are vital to this journey.  The journey may be intensely personal, but our journey as Earthlings must ultimately be transpersonal.  The spiritual journey transcends the self, transcends nations and boundaries, and time itself, as we touch the deepest truths life has to offer, and expand them into our lives.  Sometimes the journey requires us to undergo suffering in the hope that our suffering will relieve the suffering of others.

Last year, I went on a Buddhist Pilgrimage with renowned guide Shantum Seth (featured in Perry Garfinkel’s book Buddha or Bust; you can find out more about all of his pilgrimages at  We traveled to the four main sites of the Buddha’s life, as well other important places he walked and taught.  India is not an easy place to travel (or travail) through.  For one thing, you are witness to people living in dire circumstances, though India is becoming richer as well.  Disparities are commonplace, and the contrasts stark, disturbing and abhorrent.  Difficulties over poverty, caste, religious and gender issues are commonplace:  the newspaper is rife with stories that churn the emotions and shock the mind.  That many are capable of generating happiness and solidarity despite difficulty is a testament to spiritual and communal strengths.  I was fortunate to have Shantum as an extraordinary guide, and my fellow pilgrims for wonderful companionship.  Shantum’s unique connections with Buddhists throughout the region, and knowledge as a lay Buddhist teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing made for a very special voyage. 

Below are two interviews I conducted, the first with Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche), Bhutanese monk and film director (The Cup, Travelers and Magicians); and the second with my tour guide, Shantum Seth.  They both speak eloquently about pilgrimage, focusing on Buddhist pilgrimage.  I hope you enjoy them!

Joseph Campbell famously said one didn’t have to travel to the Holy Land – “the Holy Land is within you!”  But as Shantum notes, and I agree, one often has to travel to the Holy Land to awaken the Holy Land within you.  Traveling to any Holy Land, be it the Buddhist Path, Jerusalem, or Mecca - connects us to our ideals and our practices, and connects us to fellow pilgrims, united in the journey.  Two books I read in High School profoundly influenced my life trajectory, and both involved pilgrimages.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X describes X’s transformation after the Hajj, and Siddhartha described a man’s journey to peace.  A friend told me about the Costa Rican Pilgrimage to Cartago, which attracts 1.5 million people every August.  You’ve probably heard about India’s many pilgrimages, like the Kumbh Mela, “the largest gathering of humans in the world”, according to Wikipedia.

It is clear many of us humans are seekers.  We don’t want to just read the news, we want to read the eternities, to paraphrase Thoreau.  Pilgrimage is a lovely way to do just that.  And of course, the real pilgrimage happens when you come home, when the eternities mix with the ordinaries and the ego finds itself in all the usual jams and fixes.  The pilgrimage begins again, with the movement of an inch – sideways or inwards – and then onwards again.

Finally, I don’t want to ever be in the position of “selling” therapy:  I can only attest to the fact that along with education, writing, my Buddhist practice, and relationships to my loved ones, therapy has been the most profoundly life-altering experience I’ve ever undertaken.  I highly recommend you to your own pilgrimage and guide, your personal growth, and the relief of your personal suffering and the suffering we see in the world!

© 2013 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

Occasional Newsletter to find out about my new book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks:
Private Practice:
Twitter:  @going2peace 
Facebook:  Sangha Francisco-The Pacific Heart
For info on books and books in progress, see here and