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July 1996, Volume 3 Nr 11, Issue 35


To be a pilgrim is to be consciously on a journey. We are each more or less (or un-) consciously, on the journey of our individual life. Those who have undertaken to consciously direct their heartsteps, following a call of spirit, are pilgrims. The call may be very specific, directing one to a precise pathway, or it may be a vague longing, urging one simply to move. Anyone who heeds this call may be called a pilgrim.

A perennially popular book (my 1976 copy was the 10th printing and it is still in print) by Sheldon B. Kopp, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!, is subtitled The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients. Written a couple of decades before the explosion of awareness in the larger community for myths and stories consciously sought and ingested, Kopp's book weaves ancient tales such as Gilgamesh with his own experiences and those of his patients in a way that foreshadowed the bestsellers of Pinkola-Estes, Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell.

Pilgrimage is a fine metaphor for any psychotherapy. Psychotherapy etymologically means healing the psyche. There are as many paths as there are pilgrims. Some involve the modern tradition of professional guides with Ph.D. or MSW initials by their name. I have seen others do pilgrimage as diverse as intensive martial arts training, writing through the fires of illness to acceptance, coming out of the gay closet, support groups - such as the early C. R. (consciousness raising) women's groups and the more recent mythopoetic men's groups. The tasks and the goals are quite similar in each case: integrating the personality, healing, wholeing the pilgrim home to oneself and community.

Some of the issues I want to mention include:

  • The prevalence of pilgrimage tales in world traditions and collective cultural imaginations.
  • Ancient Pilgrimages followed continuously for centuries.
  • Inner and Outer Pilgrimages - simultaneous and complementary.
  • Being Waylaid
  • Relativity of Time
  • Difference between Pilgrimage and Hero's Journey.
  • Pilgrim Identity

On Being Waylaid

Dante's Divine Comedy, perhaps the greatest classic of pilgrimage Europe has produced, begins "In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost." Thus Dante abruptly begins by recognizing that he has somehow strayed from the path, the perpetual pilgrim path of a righteous man. He awoke in a dark, frightful wood, and that is the way any pilgrimage begins - by becoming conscious that one is lost, right where one is. In our well-fed routine, we wake to face desolate loneliness and dearth of meaning. The dark wood is the confusion as we see our familiar distracting surroundings remove their masks and reveal themselves as voracious thieves of time, value and meaning.

There are manifold layers of pilgrimage in Dante's life and in his masterpiece, and centuries of scholars have and will explore them, but remember that Dante introduces the great journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise by acknowledging that he has in the past been on the righteous path and doesn't know how or when he lost his way.

This is reassuringly familiar. How many paths we have begun in earnest, like an exercise program or a diet, or a plan to meditate every morning at 5:30 a.m., from which we've strayed until we awoke, flabby and unenlightened. There are larger and smaller such resolutions. I chose the diet-exercise-meditate triumvirate because it is typical New Year's Resolution material, easy to recognize. It is sad how ungenerous we are with ourselves, with vicious judgments of "failure, loser, lazy, bad."

We may take heart from our myths - being waylaid is not uncommon, and may even be part of the pilgrim package.

Siddhartha, in Hermann Hesse's creative embellishment of a buddha's pilgrimage to enlightenment, gets waylaid for years with the courtesan Kamala. A careful reading notes that he learned from the experiences he had there, too, but mostly he was lost, distracted, unconscious.

Even Dante had to be prodded along by his guide, the poet Virgil, as he was distracted by the storytelling souls, and loitered in horrified fascination at the spectacles of punishment in the circles of hell.

The pilgrim continues to move toward her goal as long as she remains conscious. She may be waylaid however. The highwaymen include illness, injury, television, romance, distraction, illusion. Thus may we stray from the path unawares. Fortunately, it's all grist for the mill of becoming, but there are skillful means to avoid the highwaymen. A creative pilgrim may perceive them as simply ephemeral clouds, or even transform them into guides.

Pilgrim Identity

To call oneself a pilgrim is to latch onto an ancient community alive now. Paradoxically, it is also to commit to a solitary project.

The community of pilgrims is our tribe. Humans are social beings and the sense of belonging satisfies us to our depth. This tribalism can be perverted to an elitist tendency to judge those outside the community as subtribe, less-than. More useful is the recognition that pilgrims are sangha, the conscious community of compassionate seekers. You are not alone. You may take refuge in your refugee status.

Ultimately, the pilgrim recognizes that everyone is in the tribe, all people are pilgrims, more or less awake (and don't be so sure you know who's who in the awakeness department, either). First, a pilgrim finds comfort in the community of seekers who are like him, on a very similar path. This may involve fiercely identifying with a discrete group for a while, especially if one requires safety for healing. Some such communities are self-help groups such as ACOA and battered women. Pilgrims may emerge from such groups politicized and humanized, carrying their gifts to the larger community. At some point, the pilgrim recognizes the truth that people - "all sentient beings" - are the sangha. We are all refugees.

At the same time, an intensely personal, individual pilgrimage occurs. An existential pilgrimage to find the empty-full whole-hole of the sole-soul.

This very personal, interior pilgrimage which simultaneously. Traditional walking pilgrimages - to Mecca, Santiago, or the source of the Ganges, for instance - find the pilgrim in a rare headspace for a western world mind. There is time, rhythm and very little distraction. One is amazed to find, when the speed of the external stimuli are slowed, how much cacophony is in one's own mind. As in meditation, one may find the mind cavorting, dancing, tumbling, shrieking like a monkey. The surprise is that your mind didn't get busier to compensate for the quiet environment. It has been monkey mind all along, but as long as the external and internal both kept a breakneck pace, swinging from branch to branch chattering, informing one another's agitation, there was nothing to compare.

Wanting to slow down is a nearly universal desire among readers of Metaphoria. However, the initial discovery of our agitated minds and our poor ability to control them, leads to self-recrimination, though it could lead to humor instead.

Many people are actually terrified to spend time alone in quiet. They are afraid of what they'll find in their own minds. Many of us are addicted to doing, busyness, distraction. Pilgrimages, including the Mecca, psychotherapy, mid-life quest or meditation practice, help us learn to be with ourselves.

A quick note on hospitality: This is a somewhat quaint notion in an almost completely commercialized world, but throughout most of history, hospitality has been a survival issue. One of the greatest sins in the Bible is lack of hospitality, for in the harsh Middle Eastern wilderness one's life depends on it. Medieval European pilgrims depended upon the hospitality of all those along the way, villagers, farmers and monasteries. While pilgrim traffic also contributed to commerce, freely-offered hospitality was critical to both the temporal and spiritual life of hosts as well as guests. And, from hospital to hospice, the tradition of caring for those in need grew as expressions of hospitality. To care for others is a need within all, so I encourage each of us, as pilgrims and as hosts, to act upon the impulse to care and be cared for.

Relativity of Time

On a traditional pilgrimage, one walks. No jet planes. No trains. No cars. No horses. No camels. One person with two feet. Human-powered. Being out of doors, carrying very little, moving at three miles an hour, time itself changes.

Our relationship with time, most readers will recognize, is highly controlled and frankly artificial. Our actions, our meals, our relationships, are usually tied to the hands of a clock. The frustration of this imposed inhuman schedule was expressed by a Woody Guthrie cartoon, "Punching the clock.", a sketch of a fed-up working man slamming his fist into a time clock as springs and bolts and numbers fly out of the smashed device.

In big and little ways, the clock roboticizes us. When people are seen as interchangeable cogs, and clocks as unchanging overseers, you get such stupid scenarios as my fellow New Englanders driving to work on black ice which will surely melt when the sun comes up - but heaven forbid that Clock should allow them to wait two hours.

There is an interesting phenomenon which often occurs when lay people spend retreat periods in Benedictine monasteries. The Rule of Saint Benedict specifies a very strict, deliberate and unchanging schedule. Every day the offices of prayer are at the same time:

Matins - midnight Sext - noon
Lauds - daybreak None - 3 p.m.
Prime - 6 a.m. Vespers - sundown
Terce - 9 a.m. Compline - bedtime

This has been so for centuries, perhaps the oldest continuous timeclock in the Western world, with thousands of monks and nuns punching in and punching out, well, punctually.

Many of us wonder what could be relaxing or nourishing about such a schedule. It reminds us of the rat race clock-watching we already do four to seven days a week. But, combined with many other elements (which may include chanting, solitude, communal work, silence, and conscious devotional prayer) this is a human and Earth-based schedule.

Few people in the "modern world" are on such a schedule. While the time crunch has many of us wake at dawn much of the year, we don't counterbalance that by retiring early. Au contraire, eight or nine p.m. is prime time and few people over the age of twelve are expected to be in bed much before the eleven-o'clock news. By the time that Jay Leno completes his monologue, the long-sleeping monastery is breathing a pause before the gentle arousal to attend matins. The monastery is perhaps most like a single organism at this midnight office, rolling out of sleep, rolling into chapel, murmuring and singing, and then rolling over, back to blessed sleep. The monastics and their guests are on a solar clock, much more attuned with human body rhythm, and therefore with our spirit's rhythm, than the odd clock of commerce.

The odd clock of commerce has so completely supplanted the sun himself that we are barely aware of the change, though our bodies and spirits know. And the change from human, solar time, to commercial time occurred in less than a century. A century ago hospitals and newsrooms stayed awake all night, and few others. As we approach the millennium, the clock of commerce never sleeps.

The clock of commerce does not have the ponderous tic toc of a grandfather clock, which pendulum swings slow and steady and, through it measures time, its sound is eternity. No, the clock of commerce eats time, ravenously, with a frantic tickertape clacking, like the stock exchange in old movies. And it doesn't chime the angelus hours, but erupts in alarms at chaotic intervals, alarms which are bright and loud and we call advertisements. Their unpredictability keeps us on edge. They are sophisticated but obvious seduction, distractions to keep us anxiously sleepwalking, promising what they can never deliver: fulfillment, beauty, peace, love.

Such gifts cannot be bought. We've known that since childhood, it's a favorite platitude. But it's hard to counteract the hundreds of messages to the contrary we encounter each day. Unless we, in equal measure, with equal fanfare, supply uncommercials to ourselves and each other (e.g. those random acts of kindness, a few conscious breaths...) then our egos are willing to believe you can buy love.

Pilgrimage is about the journey to consciousness. It is exactly not sleepwalking. If you have the opportunity to do a traditional pilgrimage, such as walking across Spain to San Tiago, or across Poland to Jasna Gora, you will soon succumb to the solar rhythm and the sovereignty of the weather.

Hundreds of hikers every year trek the Long Trail here in Vermont and gratefully submit to the same light and meteorologic gods. In fact, our hiking trails, forest or desert, are even less touched by commerce than those great old Christian pilgrimages I just mentioned. Shelters and blazes and cairns are everyone's responsibility, precisely because no one owns the trails.

The spiritual pilgrimage aspect of hiking is made clear when you read the logbooks. In shelters and covered boxes are bound books for travelers to write in. Some enter name and date but most make comments which are like advice or prayer, or both. Personal, heartborn poetry, unselfconscious praises to gaia in all her gowns, humor, practical advice. While hikers travel in ones, twos, rarely more than threes (and always single file), they form a community via logbooks and mutual trail maintenance.

When thousands of Ukrainians and Poles congregate for one of the ancient rural pilgrimages, they serve one another as a present community, carrying, as do the trailside logs, prayers and names and advice.

Pilgrim Tales

There is something in us that recognizes, yearns for, and goes on, pilgrimage. The developmental tasks are forms of pilgrimage. That is why our perennial tales are full of people who travel - from one life to another, one land to another, one place to another. Among the most basic archetypes are the Hero and The Wanderer. From Galahad to Dante to Carlos Casteneda in the West, from Monkey to Padmasambhava in the East, there are tales of journeys mysterious and fanciful in realms of geography and psyche.

There is a distinction between the Hero character and the Pilgrim in traditional tales, therefore they instruct different parts of one's psyche. The Hero may make a pilgrimage as one part of his tasks, but the Hero's journey is not classically a pilgrimage. Nor is the Pilgrim a hero. The main difference is the deliberate nature of pilgrimage. Whether from shrine to shrine in Medieval Europe, or to Jerusalem, or to North America, a pilgrim has a specific path and goal. A pilgrim consciously places her foot on the path which will transform her. By contrast, the hero is surprised into adventure. While characters recurrent in these tales, such as the king's youngest son, are often set in the hero path by a political crisis, it is not a path of their choosing. They are thrust into the wild world by circumstance. A moving and mysterious device in the oldest hero tales is the animal - often a white hind(deer) - who leads the hero astray, away. Heroes generally have supernatural, that is symbolic, spirit guides - an animal a wizard or a nymph encountered at critical turns in the journey. Pilgrims however usually have human guides, including ghosts.

At Pilgrim at Mid-life

That baby-boomers are getting older is not news, but we still flinch if that qualifying suffix is misplaced and we are told that we are getting old. We can still find flimsy comfort - denial - if we say "older" because, of course, everyone is "getting older", even babies. "How old is he?" asked about a toddler never implies that the child is old. So, yes, we are "getting older", we can say that without jeopardizing our "youthfulness." But it jars us, more accurately it terrifies us, to hear that we are "getting old."

While glorification of youth - its beauty, energy, potential fecundity - is natural, even healthy, there is a pathological hatred of age in the land now. There is a "fundamental lie" that Mark Gerzon eloquently unearths in his recent writings on mid-life, a lie so pervasive that most westerners accept it unconsciously. That lie is, simply, that to be young is to be whole and complete, while to be old is to be broken, damaged, incomplete. How we swallowed such an obvious lie so well and in so short a time period is frightening testament to the power of media we all love to believe has no such sway, at least over me.

There are not any lasting societies that have discarded their elders. Becoming old was, and is, honorable. And, by the way, it is inevitable.

The classic schmaltzy song, "Young at Heart" is one old standard I don't like. What a creepy thought that is: old people with adolescent fourth chakras. A lifetime of practice, many decades of experience, should produce an old heart. What is an old heart like? I can't say from experience, but my acquaintances whom I perceive as having old hearts display such traits as patience, equanimity, serenity, generativity, humor, wisdom, authority.

But an old person with a young heart feels like a tragedy. Imagine such a person: caught up in peer pressure (the shadow side of identifying with a community), self-focused, buffeted by unharnessed immature longings, unable to mentor, stunted.

Our cultural disease of overidentification with young but adult results in severe devaluing of all other ages. It is said that 80% of television actors are between 25 and 40 years old (who generally play characters 5 - 10 years younger.) Pervasive contempt for childhood, for the teens, for middle- and old-age is endemic in our culture. If one stands back just a bit, one can see these patterns clearly. And it is so bizarre! I cannot overstate that impression.

There are many mid-life pilgrims. To say the timing is "classic" is to invoke Dante and Odysseus and The Wife of Bath. The journey at mid-life may be a pilgrimage - that is, conscious - or not, but journey it will be. The carrot and the stick are both a yearning toward wholeness. Mark Gerzon expressed beautiful change of bearings: "...our old compasses no longer work. The magnetic fields alter. The new compass that we need cannot be held in one's hand, only in one's heart."


The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

Robert Pirsig

Once in a while it hits people that they don't have to experience the world in the way they been told to.

Allen Keightly

Any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you...Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary...Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't it is of no use."

Carlos Chastened, The Teachings of Don Juan,

As different streams have different sources and with wanderings crooked or straight, all reach the sea, so Lord, the different paths which men take, guided by their different tendencies, all lead to Thee.

Hindu Prayer, in J. James, The Way of Mysticism, 1950

Let a Christian follow the precepts of his own faith, let a Hindu and a Jew follow theirs. If they strive long enough, they will ultimately discover God, who runs a seam under the crusts of rituals and forms.

Swami Nikhilananda, Perspectives on a Troubled Decade, 1950

If a man wishes to be sure of the road he travels on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.

Saint John of the Cross

All know the way; few actually walk it.


This middle the noble path, namely: right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, right meditation...Which leads to insights, leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to perfect enlightenment, to Nirvana.

The Mahavagga of the Vinya Texts, between 5th and 1st centuries B.C.

"Solvitur ambulando." It is solved by walking.

Bruce Chatwin (from The Songlines)

1996 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

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