“Uncover what you long for and you will discover who you are.” –Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage.
The mountain is shrouded in the mist, your gait is slow and your breath deep. All you hear is the gentle sound of cow bells and occasional chirps of birds and critters. One moment the trail ahead is illuminated by rays of sun, the next, it's gone and you wonder, if the weather trickster is playing with your reality. It doesn't stop you. You trust the signposts, you follow the pull towards what is hidden, awaiting beyond the treshold. Your entire being trembles. You are nearing the heart of the matter
Walking as sacred practice
In Latin Pilgrimage means "walking through the fields." It refers to the act of walking through unknown territory. To leave the comforts of the known behind to forge new ground within ourselves. To get a little lost to be found anew. Just like a Rite of Passage or the mythical Hero’s Journey or a walkabout, a pilgrimage invites us into the wilderness of the unknown.
Pilgrimage can be a life-changing, transformational experience. A time of letting go of the old to let the new come in. A journey that encourages a new sense of awareness and wonder and brings you into deeper presence with yourself and the landscape around you. It can help illuminate your life journey, perhaps strengthen your sense of purpose, by helping us to focus on ‘what really matters.’
Walking into unknown landscapes carries both medicine and magic for me. When we empty our tired minds of stale stories and outdated realities and imbue our walking with sacred intention, everything carries meaning. Step by step we are called into presence, into breath.
“And did you get what / you wanted from this life even so? / I did. / And what did you want? / To call myself beloved, to feel myself / beloved on this earth. – Raymond Carver, Late Fragment (via The Art of Pilgrimage)
inner and outer Mountains
As a child I roamed the land of my grandparents’ farms, learning the very visceral rhythms and cycles of the land, vegetation, animals and the inherent nature of a sustainable ecosystem. It opened me to the scents, sounds and sights of the seasons of the landscape and connection to the animals from admiring the agile, shiny horses running wild on the wide open fields, sneaking baby calves into the house to play with and sitting by the sow at night, drying the newborn piglets with hay and putting them to her tits. My sensuous connection to the natural world started here.
I fell in love with walking in Scotland. I was 16 and walked with a friend along the Loch Ness, halfway up Ben Nevis and amongst the tumbleweeds on Isle of Sky. The grandness of the highlands called to a deep place in me that I didn't know, but it longed for this wide open freedom, climbing to the top of majestic peaks and experiencing infinite possibility. My hunger for the world was born.
At 21, I set out to travel Asia on a shoestring. Every place I went, the first thing I’d do was to drop my backpack at a hotel or hostel and wander out to loose myself and learn about the area. This was before internet and the need to instantly report your whereabouts to the world, thus, offered a much more immersive, sensuous experience, enhanced by the fact that traveling in unknown territory required awareness and alertness – I was alone and didn’t understand a word of what was going on around me.
Asia introduced me to a more sacred way of life than what I knew from Denmark, where spirituality was a private matter and nothing was held sacred. Everywhere, I encountered temples, sites and rituals from Buddhist shrines in Thailand to the wild Kali Trance festival at the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur and the Tantric Temples and burning ghats in India.
The first time I walked into the Annapurna Range in the Himalayas along rice paddies and across rivers, and deeper and higher into the mountains, I was overcome with an immense sense of surrender. To wander off into nowhere-land, with nothing but a sleeping bag, extra socks and a book, to be fed rice and lentils by sturdy hill tribe women and sleep on wooden benches or straw mats on the floors of traditional clay houses was for lack of better word, liberating.
The simplicity of the mountains felt like relief. Time lost its meaning. I felt closer to source, to the divine, to mother earth than anywhere else. Sacred wasn’t integrated into my vocabulary then, but I understood that walking into the depths of an unknown landscape carried both medicine and sacred wisdom – a revelation that has since shaped my life in profound ways.
“In other words, if the journey you have chosen is indeed a pilgrimage, a soulful journey, it will be rigorous. Ancient wisdom suggests if you aren't trembling as you approach the sacred, it isn't the real thing. The sacred, in its various guises as holy ground, art, or knowledge, evokes emotion and commotion.” – Phil Cousineau
Places of Power
A decade and a whole lot of hiking and climbing later, I came across a book about the Sacred Mount Kailas in farwestern Tibet. It opened a whole new perception in me, and as it's said, when the pupil is ready the teacher appears.
Around 30, I was fatigued with my rather masculine approach to life and had begun to question what I was trying to prove by constantly engaging in adrenaline inducing activities that scared me to death. I was ready for a more feminine approach, to turn scared into sacred. Kailas was sacred. Unlike the big conquistadores of the West, Hindus and Buddhists don’t climb mountains; they pay penance to them and honor them as saintly abodes and holy role models.
For millennia Buddhist and Hindu devotees have made the long journey to pay homage to Kailas and to complete the Kora, a ritual circumambulation of the mountain said to erase the sins of a lifetime. To them, Kailas is the center of the universe, where heaven meets earth and where myth merges with reality. None other than Shiva, the great Hindu God of transformation, calls Kailas his home.
Tibetans believe it takes 108 circumambulations of the holy mountain to reach nirvana, but one has to start somewhere. With a friend I arranged a pilgrimage to Kailas and in 1999 we embarked upon a 4-week journey into this symbolic landscape and sacred site. In my memoir Seeing Red I write about the profound experience of entering a mythical landscape and the physical, emotional, mental and psychological dimensions of a pilgrimage – it has taken me a long time to process this experience.
As with any journey, the integration and embodiment of the experience, the lessons, the transformation that’s occurred doesn't happens in an instant but overtime.
Walking Sacred Trails
Since the Kailas pilgrimage, walking has become a way of life for me. Moving through a landscape, becoming present to the details, we may begin to notice the curvature of land, the undulating hills, the hard edges of rocks, absorbing the soft hues of grass and trees and wild flowers and suddenly seeing the way the light illuminates and cast shadows on the great canvas before you.
Simultaneously, we're traversing our inner geography, getting familiar with the textures, symbols, images and sacred sites of our inner world. By walking, the inner and outer begin to dialogue, and if lucky, we become the landscape, the landscape becomes us.
These days many of us are seeking temporary solace from busy lives and minds in mediation, mindfulness courses and self-help retreats. Walking (and dancing) is meditation for me.
I've noticed when I walk, it takes me a least 2 hours to cleanse my mind of repetitive thoughts and rehearsed speculations, before I might surprise myself with a new thought.
Rebecca Solnit describes this eloquently in her book Wanderlust, which I love.
Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.
Finding Your Sacred Place
I believe there’s an inherent intelligence, a "aliveness" or energy at sacred places and dedicated shrines, and anyone who attune themselves to the place will be able to connect with it.
Mother Earth is said to have seven major power points, each holding a specific energy or vibration. Mt. Shasta in California is the base chakra of survival; Lake Titicaca in Peru is the second chakra of sexuality; and Uluru in Australia is the third chakra of personal power. The fourth is the heart chakra and can be found at Glastonbury and Shaftesbury in England; the fifth of creativity and communication at the Great Pyramid; and the sixth of intuition also by Glastonbury and Shaftesbury, Kailas being the crown and 7th chakra.
But there's a myriad of sacred sites and pilgrim trails in each and every country. The Santiago de Camino is one of them, it's been walked by millions through time. Martin Gray has mapped and photographed sacred sites all over the world, his website is full of inspirational information. A place to wander and wonder and get lost in in itself.
Some places offer peace and power, others might be more confrontative and push you towards those places inside you fear the most. Kailas was such a place for me.
The fact that devotees and pilgrims of many generations have walked there before us lends more power and energy to a site, because their footsteps and prostrations and prayers are embedded in the landscape. Knowing this, feeling it in our bloodstream can help us feel connected to life and the ever-shifting sands of time and space and human existence.
That said, a place need not be famously known or ancient or in faraway lands for it to carry special meaning for you. Perhaps you have your own go-to sacred trails or places?
“The time has come to set out for sacred ground...that will stir our sense of wonder. It is down the path to the deeply real where time stops and we are seized by the mysteries. This is the journey that we cannot Not take. The old hermit along the side of the road whispers, Stranger, Pass by that which you do not love.” – Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage.
Often life will push, compel or otherwise force change upon us, but we can also choose to embark upon our own pilgrimage and imbue a rite of passage with awareness and creativity.
Unlike religious pilgrimages of the past, we do not need to pay penance and suffer. Instead of toiling with a heavy wooden cross, we may bring our personal questions, paradoxes and dilemmas to the walk, to the land, to the breath.
We can thread lightly and walk ourselves into presence – also called mindfulness in our pop culture. We can share the journey with fellow travelers and open doorways to new perceptions and revelations and worlds in each other.
However, for a transformation to occur the willingness to enter into the unknown and engage with the body, the breath, the landscape, the full experience with open, curious beginners' eyes and mind is essential.
Walk well, walk far.
Inspirational Reads / Websites:
Invaluable 48 hours of Joseph Campbell about myth, story and the hero's journey.
Phil Cousineau, the Art of Pilgrimage
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust