By Mishelle Shepard
Have you taken a look at some of the travel book titles lining the shelves? “Travel and the Art of Zen,” “The Art of Pilgrimage,” “Women’s Best Spiritual Travel Writing.”
A whopping 46 pages of titles when I last checked Amazon.com. Sure, it’s hard to tell a mass marketing scheme from a cultural revolution, but even if it is just part of a consumer trend for all things spiritual, I’d still say, more power to ‘em.
10 Countries in 8 Days
Anything to put an end to the “cart- me-around-10-countries-in-eight-days” tour package or “plop-me-on-the-beach-and-serve-me-pina coladas-around-the-clock” vacation variety.
Finally, a renaissance of the pilgrimage, and a reflection of the true meaning of travel, which seems to have lost much of its significance somewhere between the Bourgeois Age and the late great Thomas Cook.
If our stressed-out, over-worked, consumer culture has forced us to take the greatest joys of life for granted, then it seems appropriate that the ideal place to appreciate them again is while on an escape from the daily grind.
The Natural Path to Pilgrimage
The cross-cultural experience is a natural path to the spiritual–taking the sojourner outside what’s familiar, offering an occasion for understanding, sensitivity and learning that’s uncommon in the quotidian.
But, turning your vacation into a pilgrimage doesn’t have to mean sacrificing London for Lourdes or Miami for Mecca. Making travel meaningful definitely won’t happen by simply jumping on the newest destination bandwagon.
Cousineau (“The Art of Pilgrimage”) believes in “pilgrimage as a powerful metaphor for any journey with the purpose of finding something that matters deeply to the traveler,” and says the key to experiencing the “soulful journey” lies in the seekers’ intentions.
“The difference between landscape and landscape is small but there is a great difference between the beholders.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
When preparing for a trip, how much time do you spend deciding what to pack, planning every detail and taking care of business before you go? Yet to make travel sacred the key is preparing yourself psychologically. Leave on the trip knowing some aspect of it will change you forever, and it will.
We share a universal longing to escape, but some experts argue that the reality of what tourists seek today is not what traveling should be all about, a truth suggested by the very root of the word, “travail,” they say. In other words, it’s not meant to be without challenges. But since blessed with the concept of the modern-day tour, we have sought to homogenize, comfortize and insulate.
And we’ve squeezed out some crucial aspects of the journey. We have to plan, to learn, to take initiative and responsibility, if we want to claim the full experience. We must invite the unknown, not shield ourselves from it with the armor of an agent, a guide, a group, and a translator.
Not that it isn’t possible to create a meaningful connection this way, but there’s no escaping the need to venture off unprotected. Whatever type of experience has worked to make you feel a deeper connection to what’s meaningful to you, try to evoke those memories before you leave and seek out such moments again.
- Think back to a moment of a trip that touched you somehow–where were you when it happened? What were your surroundings? What were you doing?Writing alone in a street side café watching the city wake up? Or contemplating your favorite piece of artwork up close for the first time? Or standing in the footsteps of an ancestor in their hometown, physically in the present but filled with the past?
Making your travel more meaningful means not avoiding risks and challenges, not over-planning, and making a point of defining your intentions.
- What do you hope to get out of this trip? An answer of “relaxation” is no more right or wrong than one of “a new meaning to life,” as long as you’re honest with yourself. Mentally listing each of your intentions for the trip and why it’s important to you will help you become more aware of whether or not those intentions are being fulfilled.
“Traveling makes one modest” –Flaubert
“Shifting your awareness” may sound like some guru’s catch phrase, but it really does work. We espouse the tendency to do too much in our enthusiasm for travel, which is counterproductive to evoking its deeper meaning. Loneliness, homesickness, fear, embarrassment, and even shame are the necessary travails of travel. But oftentimes, we drown these lessons out in over-planning, over-packing, over-scheduling, over-socializing, and under-appreciating.
- Do what’s most meaningful to you at the moment, even if it’s simply taking a roadtrip to Mom’s. Then, no matter where you are, ponder your surroundings with curious wonder, notice the little things, contemplate the new and the familiar.
- Whatever works best for you to capture the moment–through drawing, writing, photography, meditation, prayer–whatever you call it, make the time for it while you’re gone and take the time to reflect upon it when you return.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” –Mark Twain
The pilgrimage is self-directed with a purpose of personal and spiritual growth.
One friend of mine adds meaning to her travel by enjoying regular meditation retreats as a necessary diversion from her chaotic pilot’s career. Another absorbs all the historical information he can and entertains his travel companions with surprising facts and anecdotes.
Many devote their vacation time to favorite hobbies or sports–following the Regattas or golf tournaments, taking lessons in cuisine, painting, or architecture.
- One way to capture a greater meaning in your travels is by making a cultural connection–spending some time in one place and discovering its depths, learning the language, meeting the people, volunteering, working or getting involved in the community in some way.
Even the European shopping tour or the family trip to Disneyland can evolve into a pilgrimage with the right effort and become a journey that illuminates the inner path as much as the outer destination. Whatever your journey, if you focus your interests and intentions to make it a pilgrimage, you’ll certainly reap rewards — spiritual and emotional and intellectual.
Messages that resonate beyond the world of travel: Well-defined intentions, enhanced awareness, time for reflection all work as catalysts in deepening human connection, compassion and understanding. Re-emphasizing travel as pilgrimage has the power to re-familiarize us with the travails of all growth.
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