On being a pilgrim, near or far

Tomorrow I leave our small group of pilgrims who have come to India to drink the beauty and spirit of this land and her people to join (literally) millions of people along the edge of the most sacred river in the world: the Ganges.

Since I was a little girl I’ve been coming to India, first to see the Taj Mahal with my parents, and later as an adult to visit my mother and father when they moved to South India for my dad’s job. India is in my bones; the swirl of her colors, poverty, devotion, and pollution all live within me. For years I yearned to be on the inside, to directly experience India instead of always peeking from the outside, like watching fish in an aquarium. I wanted to swim, to breathe the exalted air of India through my gills, to know her song through and through.

Then in 2017, I was invited to co-lead a journey with a dear friend who had lived in India for more than a dozen years. We were to go not as tourists, but as pilgrims. I said yes immediately.

My dream of immersing in the waters of India was realized, both literally and figuratively. We prayed in ancient temples. We bowed and did “puja” with the temple priests before huge marble statues of saints. We dipped in the cold, clear waters of the Ganges up in the north, and from a slender boat on the very same river much further downstream in Varanasi, the water now dark and cloudy, we watched bodies burning in the ghats. I spontaneously wept in front of an ancient carved, painted rock that has been worshipped as the Divine Mother for over a millennium.

I felt that I had come home.

But then, the truth is each place I travel usually feels like home. I am a true wanderer.

For as long as humans have been on the planet many of us have been called to pilgrim, to be wayfarers.

pil· grim | \ˈpil-grəm

1. one who journeys in foreign lands: WAYFARER

2. one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee

I was born in Hong Kong, and three weeks after my birth my parents bundled up the seven pounds of me and we flew on an arc halfway across the world to the foreign lands of Los Angeles. Since then I’ve always pilgrimed, for years with my sister and parents, and then as an adult more and more consciously seeking to drink the sacred nectar of spirit embodied in different places on the planet.

I think perhaps the most honest job description for me is “pilgrim.” Sometimes I think I should settle down somewhere, to stop my wanderings in favor of a garden, familiar sights, and perhaps even a small dog to sit in my lap during the cool evenings. But always my soul quests for adventure, for the unknown. I’m like a moth, pulled by the flames of the sacred places, always fluttering from one bright light to another. Each new place satiates me, fills my cup to overflowing. The prayers and thanksgiving permeate the marrow, and the devotion of my fellow pilgrims fills my belly.

And then I am pulled again, hungry for the bright spark of the divine.

As a pilgrim, I’ve been blessed to walk all night with millions to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. I’ve meditated in the pyramids of Egypt and sat in the still darkness deep under the pyramids of Teotihuacán. I’ve walked the Inca trail and watched the sunrise over Machu Picchu, and I’ve hiked Agung, the holiest and most revered volcano in Bali, in the dark, blasted open by the unreal brightness of the stars all around. I’ve sat in Hindu temples and chanted for hours in Sanskrit, and recently sat in the holy of holies in Rocamadour, France with one of the rare black madonna statues, listening to the sing-song of the rosary in French.

The Kumbh Mela, where I head next, is the biggest peaceful gathering on Earth, and considered the “world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims.” My people! Up to 120 million people travel to dip in the Ganges river at one of four holy places, cleansing their sins. We are at the six-year half-way point of that 12-year Kumbh Mela (called the Ardh Kumbh), so the gathering this year in Allahabad will include a few less million people, and five pilgrim friends.

I’m excited and a wee bit nervous. In 1954, 800 people died in a stampede at a Kumbh Mela. That statistic definitely makes one pause, and understand the magnitude of people that descend on one place. One year in the mid-1800’s an outbreak of cholera killed many hundreds of people. But recent years have had no major stampedes and no epidemics; organizers are now using artificial intelligence, downloadable apps, and health officials to keep everything in flow.

We will be staying in “deluxe luxury” tents outside of Allahabad, where we are promised hot water, bathrooms and daily yoga, chanting, wifi and chai. We will see if any of those things actually appear. My prayer is to lose myself in the devotion of so many, in this river of humanity worshipping and cleansing and loving the invisible forces that connect us all.

There are two main groups that travel from all over India, on foot, train, bus, and plane, to the Kumbh Mela. One is the Sadhus, the holy Hindu men and women that live a very simple, spirit-based life. Some travel only once every twelve years from the hidden caves where they live; it is the only time they interact with the public. Others cease their wanderings for a few weeks to worship, bathe in the Ganges, and share teachings. The second group is the pilgrims, who come to “seek instruction or advice in their spiritual lives” from the Sadhus.

After visiting the Kumbh Mela of 1895, Mark Twain wrote:

“It is wonderful, the power of faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear, I don’t know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”

The gathering is so large it can be seen from space. No kidding, go look it up!

And yet, I know there is holiness everywhere. I recently bought land outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, 180 acres of pine and fir and pinion forest on which I look forward to many future pilgrimages. I’m currently reading Annie Dillard’s astonishing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, about a year she spent living in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, “observing the natural world, taking notes, and reading voluminously in a wide variety of disciplines, including theology, philosophy, natural science, and physics. Following the progression of the seasons, Pilgrim probes the cosmic significance of the beauty and the violence coexisting it the natural world.” As a pilgrim in her own home, she opens her eyes to what we normally don’t see and immerses herself in the church of nature.

You can be a pilgrim anywhere if you have the heart and the eyes for it.

To be a pilgrim, choose if you want to travel to foreign lands or to be a devotee of the holy in your home. This choice is not forever, but a way to narrow down your focus. Does your being yearn for different cultures and the unknown, or are you craving to go deep and wide where you call home? If you are seeking to step out of comfort and expand your horizons in unimaginable ways, listen to what part of the planet calls you. Find people who are intimate with the area to take you into the core of the matter, or choose to wander and let your feet find their way into the unexpected. For both of these, you must trust your intuition, and then surrender to the experience. Let yourself be undone, unfettered from your safe dream, and cast into the winds of change and surprise. Don’t wait for the right time; do whatever is needed to carve out the space and resources to travel where you are most called. It may take you a year or two to get ready and gather your resources or your courage; don’t delay. The world is waiting, and things are changing.

I say this because I’ve witnessed so much shift in the short time I’ve been a conscious pilgrim of the heart. For example, many places in Teotihuacan, the great pyramids of Mexico, where we used to have unlimited access have been closed. Machu Picchu used to allow 500 people a day into the site; we would spend hours doing ceremony and ritual and learning the crooks and crevasses of that glorious citadel in the sky. Today 5,000 people are single-filed through the site in a couple of hours. When I travel to Peru or Mexico we can still find some hidden places to simply sit and soak the energy in through our pores, but it becomes a bit more challenging every year. This year in India we spent hours waiting in line for a 30-second glimpse of a revered statute or to briefly touch the samadhi (final resting place) of a saint. The holy places have been discovered, and more and more people are flocking to get the medicine these places offer.

And even for the crowds, it is worth every moment waiting. Every single moment, no regrets.

If you choose (or circumstances hold you) to become a pilgrim in your own neighborhood, I invite you to read Dillard’s book. Her words will set your spirit to soar and to notice the holy that hides in plain sight in your backyard and in the woods or creek or park near your home. All you need is a willingness to be blown-wide open by the tiniest miracles that happen under your feet, above your head, and all around you every day.

I’ll share my experiences and photos on the other side of the Kumbh Mela, and of my upcoming pilgrimages to my new land, which I am calling Serenity, just east of Santa Fe near the little town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. And if you want to come pilgrimage with me, I’d be honored to share with you the holy of the holies, and show you how to find yourself by getting a little bit, happily, lost.