Throughout human history various cultural and religious groups have conducted pilgrimages: journeys of faith to places that were considered sacred. Generally these treks have been undertaken for the purpose of healing, penance, thanksgiving, worship or enlightenment.
All major religions and many indigenous cultures have maintained holy sites of special significance throughout the centuries so that pilgrims could seek inspiration and illumination there. For example, Lourdes, France is a famous pilgrimage site for those of the Catholic faith and India and Indonesia are both home to many sacred places for followers of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Anthropologist Martin Gray has traveled to many of these sacred places and has found several characteristics that are common to all of them, such as natural beauty, unusual or unique physical characteristics of the land, or impressive man-made structures that utilize color, light and sound to create a powerful effect.
The spiritual impact of the pilgrimage is derived from several factors, including the journey itself, the meaning attached to the sacred site, and the intention of the pilgrim who travels there.
The act of traveling to a distant place is important because it requires effort and some sacrifice just to get there. If you are willing to go to the trouble of making the journey, then you are open to change and growth.
The sacred site itself is important because it holds meaning and history for the people who have valued it through time and, according to Gray, may also possess a strong field of vibrational energy.
But the factor that is most significant in determining the outcome of a pilgrimage is the mindset of the spiritual seeker who travels to a holy place. The one who benefits most from such a journey has first done internal work to be free of the tangles of old wounds and resentments. Then a space is cleared within to allow the spark of new growth and creativity that can be inspired by the power of the sacred location.
However, these are tough economic times and travel to France or India or Indonesia is just not realistic for most of us spiritual seekers. A journey to a famous pilgrimage site is a rare opportunity that we would be lucky to attain even once during this lifetime.
But, it is actually possible to achieve the same spiritual benefits by making a mini-pilgrimage right in your own community. There are likely to be many sites of breathtaking beauty and rich history near your town, which can be spiritually uplifting and inspiring to visit.
Now let’s look at some of the details of planning a mini-pilgrimage:
Deciding when to go
Choosing a sacred site
What to do before the trip to get most benefit from your effort
Deciding when to go on a mini-pilgrimage:
A journey to a sacred site can be beneficial to you during troubled times, when you need space for contemplation away from the distractions of daily life. You might be seeking guidance, comfort, healing or a breakthrough while you are on your trek. However, a pilgrimage can also be conducted during a time of great joy, to offer gratitude and devotion for the beauty of life and creation.
No matter when you choose to go on a mini-pilgrimage be sure to treat it as a special event in your life and take care to make plans and be prepared.
Choosing a sacred site:
As mentioned in Part 1, sacred sites of historical significance have certain characteristics, such as natural beauty, unique physical features or impressive man-made structures. The powerful effect of these locations is influenced by the presence of color, light, sound and vibrational energy.
For your mini-pilgrimage it is most important that you choose a place that has spiritual significance for you. Consider whether or not you prefer to be in an isolated area or one frequented by other people. If you feel an affinity for mountains, water, forests, flowers or animals, those factors should influence your choice. You might also choose a place where you or a loved one had a special experience in the past.
Before the pilgrimage:
Set an intention for the journey. What would you like to accomplish on this spiritual trek? Being specific about the purpose of your mini-pilgrimage is important. (For example are you seeking guidance for a decision you must make, healing for a physical condition, resolution of a relationship problem, etc.)
Journal and/or meditate about the purpose of your journey for a few days before you go.
Contemplate the issues surrounding your intention for the journey. What past wounds and resentments are you carrying? What work must you do in order to clear those away before you set out on your trek?
Gather maps and be sure you know your route before you go. Make a list of items to bring with you such as cash in case you need it for an entrance fee, snacks, water, camera, journal and pen. Depending on where you are going, there might be other items you will need such as hiking boots, sunscreen, hat or raincoat.
The spiritual benefit you receive during your pilgrimage will be determined by how well you prepare yourself for the journey, so take the time you need to plan ahead. Again, be sure to journal, read books or sacred texts, meditate or pray before you go to get your heart and soul ready for a life-changing experience.
During the pilgrimage:
Take your time. Walk slowly and thoughtfully toward your pilgrimage site, notice the details of the space around you and appreciate each sight, sound, smell or touch that you encounter. Breathe deeply and slowly and keep returning your thoughts to the intention you set for the journey. Stay open-minded and be willing for the unexpected to occur. Don’t try to force inspiration to come. Just relax and allow it to emerge within you.
Spend adequate time at the site you have chosen. Don’t allow other people, concerns or worries to interfere with this special journey. Force yourself to sit quietly in one place for more time than feels comfortable to you. The purpose of the pilgrimage is to remove you from the frantic pace and fragmented thoughts of your daily life. It takes time to let go of the stress and fully relax into the present moment, so don’t rush this process.
You may want to enhance your experience by listening to special music or you may prefer to just focus on the sounds of nature around you. If it is helpful to you, read some verses from a text that is sacred or meaningful to you and use them for meditation purposes. You might light a small votive candle as well to symbolize your quest for enlightenment, but only if it is appropriate to the space you have chosen and does not create a fire hazard.
Write in your journal, reflecting on all that you are experiencing in the moment: senses, emotions, memories, questions, or concerns. Even record negative thoughts that arise or those things that bring you discomfort. However, don’t force yourself to write. Allow it to come and accept the outcome if no inspiration arises for you in the moment.
When you feel the time is right to bring your experience to an end, spend a little time expressing gratitude for the opportunity to connect with this sacred space. Be grateful for every aspect of the journey, even those things that didn’t work out as you had planned. Carefully pack away the items you brought with you for the journey and slowly make your way back to your daily life.
Again, walk slowly on your return journey. Notice how different things look from the perspective of leaving a place rather than arriving. Keep breathing deeply and slowly to remain in a relaxed state as long as possible.
After the pilgrimage:
Within a few days after you return from your pilgrimage review any entries you made in your journal during the experience. Continue to reflect on the intention you set for your journey: Do you feel you were transformed in any way by the trek? Did you receive an answer or more clarity for your life? Are there things in your life you will do differently in the future? What has been left undone that requires more work on your part?
Now that you have experienced one sacred pilgrimage you may want to begin planning another for the future. You will now have a clearer picture in mind of the type of site you prefer and which sacred elements you want to include in your next journey.
One of the biggest advantages a local mini-pilgrimage has over a long trek to a famous sacred site in a foreign country is that you can go on multiple adventures in one year. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to get to visit a holy place in another part of the world, remember that it is your intention that will make the experience meaningful and transformative.