Sometimes life gets the best of us. Weeks or months pass and we feel stuck in old patterns, old stories. We might look outside ourselves to self-help gurus or heroes for guidance, but our culture is sick, and it offers few real solutions to problems of the heart and soul. We might know that the answer is to go within, to trust yourself more. And—sometimes we can’t get there on our own. We need to really shake things up. Me? When this happens, I go on pilgrimage.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve used travel as a way to explore my inner landscape. An intentional journey to a sacred place sends me deep into myself and can bring clarity during cloudy times. It can provide a spiritual reset. A pilgrimage shakes me awake.
Several years ago, I went on a three-month pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. My plan was to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. I wanted to experience the land where my childhood hero walked and taught. I also wanted to connect with the part of me that found Jesus so enthralling. During that trip, I walked the 40-mile Jesus Trail from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. I wandered the Judean Desert, where Jesus lived for weeks eating locusts. I soaked in the Jordan River where he was baptized. I meditated at Golgotha, the site of his death, and at his tomb. The experience shook me awake from a dark period in my life, and helped me set a new course in life focused on re-discovering my true self.
More recently, I went on pilgrimage to northern India to visit the ashram where Neem Karoli Baba lived and taught. Neem Karoli Baba was a modern-day Christ figure who taught that love yourself and love everybody.
Last month, I went on pilgrimage again. This time to southern India. I was seeking to heal old patterns, and to further explore self-love. I traveled to Tiruvannamalai in order to circumambulate Arunachala, a mountain that Hindus believe is the embodiment of Shiva, the god of destruction and rebirth. Shiva is a wild god with many aspects. He represents pure awareness, the deepest part of ourselves. He is lords over transformation, even radical self-love.
I began walking before dawn, silently chanting the mantra Om Namah Shivaya. As I walked, I asked Shiva to lay waste to my old patterns of being and thinking. I asked Shiva to shatter false assumptions. I asked him to fill me with clarity and love. Self-love. By the end of the journey, I was folded over weeping. Tears flowed for four solid hours. I could feel something powerful and real working inside me. I made contact with the deepest part of me, my soul.
Of course, when I returned home from India, the good feelings faded. Back at work, I could feel that I was still the same middle-aged man I was when I left. I was still running my patterns, my shit. And, something big and magical had happened in India. Arunachala—indeed Shiva—changed me. I felt more dedicated than ever to continue with the practices of self-acceptance and self-love that keep me centered. Arunachala was now a memory, but the mountain, and my story about my pilgrimage to it, was alive inside me.
I believe in magic and mystery. I believe a sacred place like Arunachala, with its thousands of years of pilgrims, something powerful can change us. And I also know that we must continue to do the work ourselves every day. We cannot accept others until we accept ourselves, not just the easy parts to love, but the parts we don’t like very much. It’s hard work. It takes discipline and vigilance.
Sure, I would love to be an enlightened being. But at this point, I will settle for self-acceptance with an aspiration for self-love. Pilgrimages are a powerful way to see the world and, at the same time, discover yourself.