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The Power of Pilgrimage
by Gregg Levoy

"When your ship, long moored in harbour, gives you the illusion of being a house....put out to sea! Save your boat's journeying soul, and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may." ~Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara

Lake Superior is an inland sea. In terms of sheer size it is the largest lake on the planet, more than 1200 miles around, and one of the most volatile, capable of whipping itself into a frenzy of 30-foot seas, and famous for its shipwrecks. It is also one of the coldest. For most of the year, the water temperature is in the mid 30's, about as cold as water can be without turning into something else. During the hand test, Ann Linnea found that she could hold her hand in the water for only nine seconds.

Kayaking around the lake would be the most dangerous thing she ever did.

The idea first came up five years earlier, when Ann and Paul Treuer, a longtime friend, bought a couple of used kayaks and after their first exhilarating runs on the lake, he said, "I bet we could kayak around this whole lake," to which she replied, "Yeah, right."

Nothing would have come of it, except that that little seed happened to drop into fertile soil: "the part of me," said Ann, a former Forest Service naturalist and marathoner, "that always wanted to do one long wilderness adventure." It was further nourished by the part of her that, as she said, "knew that I was approaching the end of some kind of life cycle, the life my parents lived, the life I thought I was raised to live: wife, mother, home, good citizen. I wondered, is this the fullness of what I can be doing? I wanted to reset the course of my life, to come to clarity about what the gift is I'm supposed to return to the world, and I thought the trip could teach me."

"My purpose was to find a purpose, to find the deepest courage in myself, to look for the extraordinary growth, not just the ordinary, day-to-day growth, which is certainly valid, but it was the kind of incremental journeying my whole life had been about. I wanted to step outside of that, to really open the door wide, which is why I liked the symbolism of Lake Superior. It was so wide I couldn't see across it, couldn't see what was on the other side, and that was just the magnitude of change I was inviting. To grow beyond the expectations we're raised with is a radical act, but one I felt was necessary to claiming my full self."

"The question that I brought with me on the trip, and kept asking over and over, was 'Am I doing the most I possibly can with my life?'"

The Quest in Question

Questioning is at the heart of spiritual journeying, of literally leaving home for a time to go on a pilgrimage, retreat or vision quest, of removing ourselves from the duties and dramas, the relationships and roles that bombard us with messages that may be distracting or irrelevant or even destructive to an emerging or affirmative sense of self, and that interfere with our asking for responses to our burning questions--Who am I? What matters? What is my gift? What is my purpose? To whom do I belong? What can I believe in? What on Earth am I doing?

In taking a spiritual journey, we're calling on God rather than the other way around. We're "crying for a vision" as the Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk called it, the one that may reveal our true vocation, our real name, our purpose. But simply taking up a bedroll and hitting the road won't generally suffice to alert the forces of enlightenment, which require more than just moving around. Whether we make a pilgrimage to the Ganges or Graceland, maintaining a spirit of observance and self-reflection is key. We must be intent on spending time searching for soul, moving toward something that represents to us an ideal--truth, beauty, love, perspective, strength, serenity, transcendence, sacredness. 

Without this intention, our pilgrimages are only vacations, our vision quests are struck blind, our retreats are not also advances. We're merely tourists and window-shoppers. Perhaps we're even escapees, people in flight rather than in quest.

In taking a proverbial walkabout, in leaving home and the distracting fusillade of activities that often keeps us from ourselves, what is in the background becomes foreground, what is overlooked has the chance to get looked over, what is waiting in the wings is given an entrance cue. We ask for a vision or a calling, and the faith and intestinal fortitude to follow it. Spiritual journeying, whether we walk around a holy mountain, kayak around a lake, or sit in a single place on a five-day meditation retreat, is about interior or exterior movement toward the deep self. A geographical journey is symbolic of an inner journey for which we long.

Pilgrims, says theologian Richard Niebuhr, "are persons in motion, passing through territories not their own, seeking.....completion or clarity; a goal to which only the spirit¹s compass points the way." Sometimes that motion is religious and sometimes secular. Sometimes we design our own journeys and sometimes we follow in the paths of those we revere: pacing the garden where 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 we journey with the body, on a bicycle trip through the Holy Lands or a kayak trip around a Great Lake, 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. 

Our approach depends on our primary way of experiencing the Spirit. Sometimes we 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. 

The trip Ann and Paul eventually took in the summer of 1992 was, as Ann described it, "a self-designed midlife rite of passage, which I chose to make rather than it choosing me, and I chose an arena in which I was the most skilled, comfortable and inspired." She chose kayaking because "I learn best by using my body, by moving until I have insight." She chose a wilderness trip because "all my life I have sought wild places for good counsel." And she chose Lake Superior because "it was really important to me that the journey take place in my own backyard, rather than someplace exotic."

Rites of Passage

In Hindi and Sanskrit, the word for a pilgrim-site means a ford, a crossing-place, a point of transit, and people seem most inclined to take spiritual journeys--as Ann did--at just such points in their own lives, points during which those burning questions often arise. These journeys are indeed rites of passage, rituals we enact to help us cross over into maturity and ascendance of one kind or another--from ignorance to wisdom, sleep to awakening, woundedness to wholeness, from being lost to finding our way. 

Spiritual journeys follow what Robert Atkinson in The Gift of Stories calls the "sacred pattern," the same three-fold progression of separation-initiation-return as rites of passage and heroic myths; the same process of surrender-struggle-recovery common to 12-step programs; the same architecture of beginning-middle-end as story-telling. We open a door, step across a threshold, and return through it from the other side. We leave an old life behind, experience a life transition up close and receive its thorny wisdom, and then head home and hope to follow through on whatever we learned.

Rites of passage, however, celebrate not so much the separation or the return but the passage, the initiation, the processional of a single spirit toward transcendence, the revelation of the sacred to the initiate. The psychologist Carl Jung felt that the process of individuation--the work of becoming yourself as distinct from the furry warmth of the herd--is the result of a series of such initiations, all of which begin with an act of separation from the status quo, and thus separation anxiety.

The experience of the holy, however, says author Sam Keen, always involves trembling. Quakers quake, Shakers shake, holy-rollers roll, dervishes whirl, prophets stand knock-kneed before God. Spiritual journeys are formidable because, like all rites of passage, they necessitate that we leave our old selves behind for a time, leave the trappings of identity and status, and move to a place where no-one knows who we are, or cares.

On the day they were planning to leave from Ann's home in Duluth, Minnesota, they stood by the shores of Gitchee Gumee, as the Ojibway Indians once called the lake, and considered the judiciousness of starting out in 30-mile-per-hour winds, four-to-seven-foot waves, and a small craft advisory for crafts such as Ann's 17-foot sea kayak, Grace. They'd managed worse storms, but they worried about the message such a departure might send to their already fretting families: that they would be taking unnecessary chances.

Her parents were slightly aghast that she could leave her children, a third-grader and a sixth-grader, for the whole summer. Her husband couldn't understand why she had to be gone so long (over two months). One friend wanted to know if they had really considered the dangers, and another pointed out that if no woman had ever circumnavigated the lake, there must be a good reason. 

"There weren't many people who said, 'Oh, that's really a great idea.' In fact, there were none. It was very tough being on the receiving end of not only my own doubts, but everyone else's. It's really hard to stand in your own truth when everybody around you is telling you 'Why don't you just keep things the way they are?'"

They did postpone their trip a few days, hoping for better weather, and meanwhile suffered "the disappointment of remaining put when one is ready to leave." When the weather didn't break after several days, they decided to head out anyway. The forecast, according to their weather-band radios: strong winds, low clouds and fog, four-to-seven-foot surf, and a small craft advisory, which, though they didn't know it then, would become the weary refrain for much of the trip--the coldest and wettest summer in a century.

Going in Circles

Although modest, the currents that move around Lake Superior do so in a counter-clockwise direction, and Ann and Paul were heading clockwise, against the currents, because they wanted to hit the wildest stretch of the lake, the north side, early in the trip, because "it just felt right," and because it was symbolic: it was following a very ancient pilgrimage tradition, that of circumambulating a holy site in a clockwise direction.

At a deep level, we all associate journeying with circularity. We buy round-trip tickets, whether our actual trajectory there and back is circular or not. It's as if we recognize that every journey is essentially a journey toward ourselves, a circling around some mysterious core of life that we can only glimpse while moving, just as it's easier to see through a screen while moving your head back and forth. Every trip, then, and especially one undertaken with sacred intention, is the enactment of a pilgrimage, a mirroring of the planets that wheel around the sun, the clock's arms swinging around time's center, dancers carrying their streamers around the maypole, oxen turning around a well, drawing up water.

Even the word pilgrimage, in some languages, refers to this circling. The expression for it in Tibetan, for example, is "to turn around the place," a place that is often referred to as a "center." The word hajj, the journey to Mecca that every Muslim must make at least once in his or her life, comes from an old Semitic word meaning "to go around, to go in a circle." Whether it be around a person, a shrine, a temple, a lake, a mountain, a country, or even, as some have done, around the world, a simple mathematical principle defines the purpose of circumambulation: by drawing the circle, we define the center. By circling the lake, Ann was turning around the axis of her one desire: to locate her own center and to know it from all sides. The circle, Carl Jung once said, is the classic symbol for wholeness, or God, and the circular path an analog for the way toward it. We are always being drawn toward it, says June Singer, and yet "to fly straight into it would be like a moth darting into a flame or the Earth hurtling itself into the center of the sun," or a kayaker taking a hard right and heading straight for the center of Lake Superior. So we maintain an orbital tension, close enough to feel the heat, but not so close we burn our wings. We can do no better, said the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

"I am circling around God, around the ancient tower
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don't know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song."

And yet, because we have the image of wholeness imprinted on our souls, a deep impression where the ancient tower once stood, we are, in a sense, always at the center, always in Benares, dipped in the Ganges, always in Jerusalem, wailing at the wall, slipping notes to God, touching our remembered glory. 

At one point during Ann's voyage, she glimpsed the center. One evening about a third of the way into the trip, she stumbled onto the ruins of an old stone altar, a miniature Stonehenge, whose rocks were stacked ten feet high on a narrow terrace above the shore. In the presence of the indigenous, she saw a vision of her own life that she described as "fleeting, like a deer startled at the edge of a clearing who quickly disappears into the safety of brush. But I know I saw it." It was an image of herself as "finally able to embrace spirituality in everything I did." Or rather, re-embrace.

There was a time in her life when she had an unabashed relationship to what she calls "spirit." In junior high school, she once wrote a vocational paper about being a missionary, and her parents told her "don't get so carried away with the religious stuff," a comment she unfortunately took deeply to heart. She got the message that if the passion she had for spirit was to be accepted, it would have to be tempered. "It wasn't until I went around the lake that I returned to  that pure passion for a spirit-filled life, and felt encouraged to follow it."

What that meant was, among other things, taking a step away from the institutions where she had taught for many years, schools and environmental education centers. "I always had to be very careful about how I presented ideas about spirituality. But I was really ready to bring spiritual presence--meditation and prayer, open discussion of spirit and mystery--into my work in a way that was uninhibited. That was probably the biggest truth I discovered on the trip: that I wanted to have the courage to make spirit be at the foremost of everything I did."

Thomas Merton once said that here is a hope built into our psychology that we may somehow find our way back to "the source and center of religion, the place of revelation and renewal." Ann Linnea's grueling pilgrimage in the wilderness, a journey of more than 1200 miles and 65 days, long stretches of which were spent entirely alone when she and Paul decided on different routes, and the daily practices of journaling, prayer, ritual and asking for dreams, enabled her to find the coordinates of her own center, to find her way back to her deepest courage, the courage to "live beyond a focus on safety and security," to reset the course of her life.


Ann's pilgrimage also set her on course for a difficult period of transition once she returned home and had to try and translate the level of physical courage she learned on the trip into the emotional courage she'd need to make the changes. The toast she made with Paul on the last day of the trip, with a bottle of Kahlua passed between them, was most appropriate: "To a good trip and a fine friend, and for the courage to deal with all that lies ahead," part of which was the realization that, as she put it, "the most vulnerable time for new truth in our lives is immediately after its discovery."

The next day, in flat, calm seas, they returned to 26 people waiting on the beach in welcome, and quickly realized that they had made no provisions for the transition back. Paul, for instance, began teaching at the university within two days of returning, a culture-shock of no mean proportions. Ann, who had "no intention of simply slipping back into my old routines, "wished she had talked more with her family and helped them understand "that I'm going to come back tremendously changed, and not to expect me to go back to business as usual. I also wish I'd called a circle of friends to meet with me every few weeks in those first months, to give me a chance to share what I'd learned, and help me re-enter." 

Part of re-entering involved dealing with a few basic physical matters and brushing up on some lapsed social skills. Her sense of hearing had become so keen that all phone ringers had to be set to mute for weeks. Her sense of smell was so acute that she couldn't walk down the street without being besieged by the smell of the neighbors' garbage cans. And she had virtually no ability to engage in small talk. "The inevitable question, 'Did you have a nice trip?' left me dumbfounded, unable to speak. I was really out of sync with people."

Another part of re-entering involved what she hoped would be the reform of her marriage of 22 years, which she described as "unemotional, businesslike and efficient." Her intention on returning, she says, "was to work hard to strengthen my family and marriage, to try and include more emotion, more spirit and passion. But clearly there wasn't room for that. What I needed was not what he needed, or wanted."

Nine months after the end of the trip, Ann took off her wedding ring, which didn't come off easily, and said to her husband, "It feels to me that we're moving into a different kind of relationship here, and it's not about a traditional marriage." After another nine months of working hard to make the transition from marriage partners to friends who wanted to continue raising their children together, and of unravelling some of their entwined roots, Ann and the children moved to Whidbey Island in Washington state, and Ann co-founded, with a friend, a seminar and teaching business called PeerSpirit, whose motto, fittingly, is "in service to the circle," and whose three guiding principles are that leadership rotates, responsibility is shared, and ultimate reliance is on spirit.

Ann's experience in making the transition back home is instructive of a critical phase of spiritual journeying---the return---in particular the fact that while you were out there circling around the ancient tower, those you left behind were doing the dishes, feeding the baby, and going to work as usual. In other words, they were not on retreat, so they can't possibly know what you've seen or heard or felt, and they want to know, or maybe they don't. Either way, it's important to be sensitive to this on returning to the Ordinary World. 

While away from it, you've been removed from many of the normal laws of human exchange and conduct, the imperatives of time and obligation, sometimes the comforts of home. You've been on the road, in the wilds, under a spell, deep in the tropics of meditation. You've climbed a mountain, slept out under the stars, breathed rarified air. You've been accountable to no one, worn the same clothes for four days on end, and had the bathroom all to yourself.

Re-entry is a sort of decompression, and like returning from a deep sea dive, it's best handled slowly. If you move too fast, you endanger yourself, and your experience. In fact, it's one of the simplest ways to sabotage a spiritual journey. A good rule of thumb is this: whatever promises you made to yourself during the journey, whatever insights you gained and intentions you set, you will need to defend them against the tendency of life to level all uprisings, to stomp enthusiasm and optimism and hope and certainly rebellion back into low relief. After big openings often come big closings. After highs, lows. After breakthroughs, breakdowns. As the Buddhists say: after enlightenment, the laundry.

So post a guardian at the gate, some part of you who's job description is to gently but firmly remind you when you're in danger of undermining the purpose of your journey.

Orpheus would be a suitable choice of sentry, and his story is instructive here. Orpheus, whose lyre, it is said, moved even the stones to follow him, lost his wife Eurydice to the bite of a snake. Bereaved, he went to the underworld and tried to persuade Hades to let her return to life.

His music and lyrics were so beautiful that all punishments were suspended for the day. Tantalus forgot his thirst. Prometheus' liver was given a rest. Sisyphus just sat on his rock and listened. Hades finally relented and granted Orpheus' wish, but on the condition that while leading her to the upper-world, he not look back at her until they had passed the portals of the under-world. But just as he reached the outlet, Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness or doubt that Eurydice was still following him, looked back, and she instantly disappeared.

If you forget that you have changed while on your journey, that you come back followed by another whose spirit you sought, that you made promises that must be kept, and that there are conditions to your transformation, you¹ll jeopardize your mission. Know that your vision will follow you back and must be incorporated into your life, and the lives of those you know. The best way to communicate your experience to others is not to talk about it, but to live it.

© Gregg Levoy. 2000. 

Gregg Levoy is the author of "Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life" (Random House 1998)--a selection of the Book of the Month Club, Quality Paperback Books, and One Spirit Book Club--as well as "This Business of Writing" (Writer's Digest Books). His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Psychology Today, Omni , Unity Magazine, and others. A former adjunct professor of journalism at the University of New Mexico, he currently lives in Tucson, Arizona and travels extensively conducting Callings workshops. His website is www.gregglevoy.com.


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