At the beginning of Melville’s novel Moby Dick, Ishmael explains why he’s decided to set out on a voyage. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth,” he tells us; “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever…it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Since the dawn of history, spiritual seekers have been making pilgrimages to far-flung sacred sites as a means of drawing closer to the sacred within.
I know the feeling. Whenever I find myself stymied in the search for an enduring connection with the sacred; whenever I find myself trudging across an arid plateau, unable to find a path leading further inward; whenever it requires a strong dose of self-discipline to prevent me from chucking my daily practice—then I account it high time to go on a pilgrimage. It’s a time-honored remedy. Since the dawn of history, spiritual seekers have been making pilgrimages to far-flung sacred sites as a means of drawing closer to the sacred within.
Making a pilgrimage is a powerful practice. When we embark, we put the demands and distractions of daily life aside to focus on finding the door that opens to the core of our being. Just as people take vacations to separate themselves from the stresses and obligations of earning a living, we as seekers set out on pilgrimages to separate ourselves from the outward identities and habits that lock us into a transient and limited sense of self. The goal of spiritual practice is to open ourselves to a more potent and enduring reality. A pilgrimage has the power to make this possible. To understand why and to get an idea of how to make the most of the journey, it’s helpful to know a few basics.
A pilgrimage site is a vortex of subtle energy. Every pilgrimage site has its own unique energy.
A pilgrimage site is a vortex of subtle energy, a place where the wall between the effable and the ineffable thins to the point of transparency. Mount Kailash in western Tibet; the area in and around Mecca and Jerusalem; the confluence of the Ganga and Jamuna rivers at Allahabad; Mount Fuji and Mount Koya-san; Kedarnath, Badrinath, and Bodh Gaya are all famous—and ancient—pilgrimage destinations.
What makes these places spiritually illuminating? Is Mount Sinai sacred because God entrusted the Ten Commandments to Moses here, or did the exchange occur on Mount Sinai because it is a matrix of spiritual energy? Is the aura of selfless love, compassion, and simplicity that envelopes pilgrims in Assisi innate to the slopes of Mount Subasio, or does it flow from the life of Saint Francis and those who came here to follow in his footsteps?
Yoga’s answer is “both.” Just as some spots in the human body are sensitive conduits for energy that goes unnoticed by other parts (try tasting with your knee), some places on the planet are sensitive conduits of awakened Consciousness. Down through the ages, spiritual seekers made a concerted effort to find those places and to connect themselves with that illuminating energy. As they did, the awakened consciousness inherent in those sites transformed their individual consciousness; this expanded consciousness in turn further awakened the subtle energy of the site itself.
In other words, as we open ourselves to the illuminating energy that infuses these sites, we allow a new level of spiritual awareness to awaken in us, which in turn further intensifies the illuminating energy in the space around us. If that seems improbably mysterious, think of it this way: As we recognize and sensitize ourselves to the energies in our heart center, the virtues of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness awaken in the hearts of those around us as well as in our own hearts. This same dynamic springs to life between an awakening pilgrim and a fully awakened site.
A pilgrimage is not just a stopover at a famous place on the way to somewhere else. A pilgrimage is a journey of discovery, and the nature of that discovery is shaped by the site itself. In the same way we choose a vacation spot based on the experiences we want to have—a waterfront for swimming or fishing, a cultural center for access to art galleries and opera—we select a pilgrimage destination because we are looking for a specific kind of experience.
Bear in mind that every pilgrimage site has its own unique energy. For example, an aura of selfless love, compassion for all living beings, and non-possessiveness permeate Assisi. Kamakhya, a tantric shrine in the hills of eastern India, embodies the spirit of the Divine Mother and emanates loving maternal energy—tenderness, self-sacrifice, and protection—while Mecca exemplifies the spirit of equality and harmony among various ethnic groups and sects in the vast brotherhood of Islam.
In most cases, we become inspired to visit a particular site after we’ve learned a little bit about it. Building on that knowledge—reading about the life of Saint Francis, for example—will fuel our desire to experience the unique energy of these sites for ourselves.
The more we know about a site, the more we can build a realistic expectation of what we can accomplish by going there. I discovered this for myself when I had the opportunity to go to Kamakhya, a site I’d been hearing about for a long time. My teacher’s teacher had sent him there when he was a young man, and he found the experience deeply transformative. Although he’d shared some parts of his life, in my mind Kamakhya was more a figment of spiritual lore than a plausible destination. Still, when he offered to take a group of students there, I jumped at the chance.
In the months before our departure, I learned as much as I could about the site. I began to understand that Kamakhya is permeated with the unconditional love of the Divine Mother, and that by dipping my fingers into the physical manifestation of the primordial pool of consciousness flowing beneath the main temple, I could touch the wellspring of joy itself. By the time I reached the lip of that underground pool, I knew enough about the subtle energy radiating from there to be attuned to it. Three years later, the effect of that encounter is still unfolding.
Getting the best from any spiritual practice takes preparation, and a pilgrimage is no different.
Getting the best from any spiritual practice takes preparation, and a pilgrimage is no different. We go on our journey to a sacred site with the intention of encountering deeper aspects of ourselves. But because these deeper dimensions are obscured by surface identities, distractions, and habits—and thus remain largely unknown to us—we must set these obstacles aside before we embark. For example, those making the pilgrimage to Mecca abjure all forms of deceit and violence. The men also shed all evidence of wealth, social station, and nationality by dressing in two sheets of unhemmed white cloth during the Hajj as an outward expression of the inner truth that everyone is equal in the sight of God.
In the same spirit, during the months and weeks prior to our odyssey, we can prepare to connect with the luminous energy of our destination by working to shed—or at least loosen—the constricting, negative aspects of our accustomed identity. Each of us will approach this challenge in our own way—by intensifying our meditation practice, for example, or making an extra effort to be kind or generous. And when the time comes to set off, the best course is to travel lightly. Leave smartphones and iPads, busyness, worries, and everyday concerns and habits at home and go—with a light mind and open heart—to discover who we will become in a place where heaven meets earth.