The idea of taking a sacred pilgrimage has guided humanity for thousands of years. In ancient and Medieval times, pilgrimage served as a means of reconnecting the individual to their often-religious spirituality. Medieval European Christians traveled to Jerusalem, the Holy Land, under the protection of the Knights Templar. The historical Siddhartha Gautama, more contemporarily known simply as “Buddha”, told his followers to pilgrimage to his birthplace, his place of enlightenment, and the place he offered his first teaching. The Camino de Santiago in Spain sprung into existence after the remains of Saint James were apparently found on the coast of Spain.
Then came the rise of industrialization and Enlightenment thinking. During this time, masses of people flocked to cities for work. There was no longer time for pilgrimage. Production and consumerism overtook the individual. Only a few individuals in the cold, cold north maintained the pilgrim’s mood. They were the Romantic poets—people like William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. They praised words and nature while longing for that old, unattainable childlike spirit, the childlike spirit that the workforce knocked out of the children themselves.
The Romantics are a transitional thread between pious pilgrimage and a new, modern form of sacred pilgrimage. To be certain, pilgrimage never disappeared completely. Thousands of people within various religious traditions still make their yearly rounds. Meanwhile, lay people are beginning to embrace their own forms of spiritual travel. Things like yoga retreats, hiking excursions, meditation trainings, and sacred site journeys are booming.
Taking a Sacred Pilgrimage Rather Than Merely “Traveling”
Author Phil Cousineau has a lot to say about this. After all, he’s a journey leader for Sacred Earth Journeys and the author of The Art of Pilgrimage, perhaps the most prestigious book on modern pilgrimage. Let’s give Phil the limelight for a second here. From his book:
“The purpose of the pilgrimage is to make life more meaningful. Through sacred travel, individuals can find the path to the divine, the ultimate source of life.” And then: “In sacred travel, every experience is uncanny. No encounter is without meaning. There are signs everywhere, if only we learn how to read them.”
Thus more important than where we go is how we go, and perhaps why we go. This is a massive distinction compared to conventional travel where tourists aim to escape the lives from whence they came (at least for a little while). The pilgrim instead uses pilgrimage, though from afar, to traverse deeper into the bittersweet terrains of life—not to escape, but to frame the things of life around a meaningful, arduous journey.
That’s pilgrimage. That’s what Cousineau means when he talks about sacred travel and uncanny experiences and experiencing the ultimate source of life.
Traveling like a tourist, one only gets their toes wet in the vast seas of culture and possibility. A pilgrim on the other hand dives in where it’s deep. There, the swell pulls them freely until they’re moving with the tides of the world that never stop. Being in the world, pausing to integrate a scene, seeking deep conversations, coming to understand the meaning behind a journey—that’s the pilgrim’s mood.
How to Travel Like a Pilgrim and Reboot Your Life Purpose
Phil Cousineau was a student of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, the scholar who popularized the monomythic archetypal hero. As famous as he is for his books on the hero’s journey myth, he’s perhaps most renowned for coining the phrase “follow your bliss” and serving as the primary inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars series.
Within Campbell’s hero’s journey myth is encoded the best advice for how to travel like a pilgrim. Let’s take it from Campbell himself:
“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
The hero before his pilgrimage must “answer the call” to adventure. For us, this looks like an internal call to go abroad and experience mind-expanding traditions of other cultures. There, we slow down, observe, and thus internalize our experiences so we might acquire the necessary epiphanies to help better our lives back home. This represents the archetypal part of the hero’s journey known as “bringing home the boon”. But it can only happen after experiencing a pilgrimage that’s both blissful and challenging.
Outdoor Adventure As A Sacred Pilgrimage
Many are turning to outdoor adventure as a form of sacred pilgrimage. A thorough backpacking itinerary contains all one needs for a meaningful journey. Physical exertion, exploring the sacred (here in the form of nature), and plenty of time for slow-paced reflection are crucial for impactful pilgrimage. The Camino in Spain, a 500 mile hike, is still frequented. The Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast of the United States hosts new hikers every year. In Peru, the Inca Trail is long, arduous, and blends sacred site travel with nature exploration, as do many of the popular pilgrimage routes throughout the United Kingdom as highlighted by The British Pilgrimage Trust.
These forms of pilgrimage teach us that following our bliss doesn’t mean we have to visit a shrine or reach enlightenment. Once we understand the recipe for pilgrimage—the pilgrim’s mood, a slow pace, internalization, etc.—we see how pilgrimage can take place even during a walk in a local park or meditation in our own backyard. Of course going abroad holds a special transformational potency, but let’s not forget that we can still live as true travelers through every waking day of life.