The Dynamics of Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey which people experience that transports one to a higher plane of consciousness. It is a profound ritual which take place in all religious cultures of the world. They share a number of common characteristics which are total separation from one’s everyday society, a liminal state (process of journeying) and the re-integration into society.  I will be exploring the dynamics of the  pilgrimage experience drawing mainly from various cultures of the world.

In many cultures especially indigenous cultures of the Americas, a pilgrimage in the form of a “vision quest” is an integral component in the growth of a person. The vision quest is an essential part of an young person’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. Without a vision, life is meaningless. It is a requirement for man to seek a vision; moreover “they had to live out and give expression to their visions — it was through their vision that a man found purpose and meaning to life and to his vision.” 1

The force of a vision is a truly transformative event in one’s life, affecting conduct, mode of life, as well as character. It alters the very fabric of life, enhancing its tone and structure in a mental, physical, and spiritual way. Previous ambitions and aspirations often were discarded (reluctantly) for the pursuit of the vision.

With this point in mind, I think that studying this idea of vision quest can be applied significantly in our highly materialistic, techno-based culture which is very disconnected from the natural world and the inner world of spirit and mind.

As for the vision quest, I feel that in our materialistic world today many are hungering for a vision, a connection with the deeper world of nature that is so crucial to human development. It was certainly true that the visions were a mandatory prerequisite for a shaman in older indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures, but all boys fasted for visions whether they became shamans or not. This encouragement to respond to the inner psychological stimulus and unconscious projections began at an early age. Being a hunting society, it seems contradictory that men were encouraged to cultivate an interest in the other-worldly when the immediate, more realistic concerns to the environment for survival would seem more important. But the frustrations of life also demanded some kind of supernatural resolution. While the men were hunting, they had to be alert, focussing on the visible outer world, but at the same time they couldn’t turn their attention fully to the inner world. This illustrates a balance in lifestyle that is crucial for a healthy human being.

Another tradition I would like to mention that uses a vision quest  in the development of the human being is the Tohono O’odham people of South Western US and Northern Mexico. They have what is called “The Salt Pilgrimage” in which the young men embark on a ceremonial journey to the salt beds to get salt to use and to trade. The pilgrimage itself pushes the individual to the limits of his physical abilties opening him up to a spiritual experience that is profoundly transformative. Through the acquisition of dreams comes power. From very young, they start training the boys physically by running to prepare for their pilgrimage, when it was time for the salt expedition. The actual gathering of the salt was done a day after the ocean was viewed during the vision quest. After all the salt was harvested, the “new men” walked into the sea which was transforming in itself, for the sea was a very mysterious and frightening place for the Tohono O’odham people. “To them it is the edge of the world fraught with power and death.” 2 Cornmeal and prayer sticks are thrown into the sea for blessings and sometimes “men were taken and engulfed by the sea. If a man was drowned, it was taken as a summons of the supernatural. After the connection with the sea, “the neophytes run on the beach: a strenuous test of powers.” The things seen during the run were omens for the individual’s future career. The events of the this pilgrimage never fail to give visions to the participants involved.

In the West, traveling for spiritual enlightenment is an ancient discipline. Traveling unifies people who travel in a group and allows one appreciate one’s life in a deeper way.

Christians make visits to Jerusalem to visit the land of Jesus’ childhood and the gospels of the Bible, Muslims from all over the world have travel to Mecca for the Hajj. Ashrams, convents, and monasteries welcome guests who wish to study and pray in a retreat setting. Dojos, Temples, and Shrines in Japan once operated this way, but now they focus primarily on social aspects and less on spiritual development. Something about being away from your usual life makes introspection and spiritual discovery easier – if you help it to happen.

Intent is a vital ingredient for any travel you do with the hope of spiritual growth. Visiting shakuhachi temples in Japan offer more to a practitioner than one who doesn’t play the instrument. Traveling with a group of like-minded people has benefits; your shared orientation can provide shorthand for discussing the things you see and learn.

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