The Living Art of Pilgrimage
After a momentous meeting on a pilgrimage to Peru, Dani blew me away with this wonderful blog on pilgrimage! Enjoy!
Intense. Potent. Game-changing. How to engage in the ancient art of pilgrimage in modern life
The term ‘pilgrimage’ can perhaps invoke ideas of ancient quests or religious obligation, even fanaticism; however ‘pilgrimage’ simply means a journey of spiritual significance; a search for meaning or deeper wisdom. This can be a physical journey, usually to sacred sites of significance to the pilgrim’s faith or the human story generally, or it can be a metaphysical journey into one’s own beliefs. What makes a pilgrimage is the pilgrim’s clarity of intent that they bring to the journey and the active choice to experience it. In this context any conscious exploration of the spiritual-self is a pilgrimage. Joining a meditation circle, engaging in a fast, adopting a mantra, returning to a childhood place or indeed walking across sacred ground, are all pilgrimages when the pilgrim holds the intent for healing, transformation and expansion of spirit.
I am a pilgrim and I am a well, happy, modern woman walking a spiritual path and I am not alone. Over the years I have met hundreds of modern pilgrims. They’re not broken, or weird, religious fanatics, nor ‘woo-woo’. They are quite ordinary people, raising families, working and studying, living well, yet they have learnt that pilgrimage is one of the most potent accelerants to spiritual growth available to us in modern life. As an avid explorer of Spirit through walking across sacred ground, and a space-holder for regular pilgrimages in Asia, I have come to understand that regardless of where or how one chooses to experience pilgrimage, there are some common factors that occur each and every time. When the pilgrim is aware and ready for them, it allows for a much deeper engagement in the process. As intense, awe-inspiring and sometimes unsettling as a pilgrimage can be, when we understand the dynamics of pilgrimage, we always return changed forever, expanded, and able to view our lives anew. Pilgrimage seeds us with wisdom and creates an energetic uplift in ways that no other spiritual practice does, but you need to strap-in. Pilgrimage is not for the faint-hearted.
Sometimes I travel to known pilgrimage sites like the Sacred Valley of Peru, sections of Il Camino through the Pyrenees, the trail of the Magdalene in Southern France, the stone circles of the British Isles and the forests of Assisi for example. Sacred Sites that have been engaged with and visited for spiritual purpose through history hold a particularly high resonance for personal transformation. Walking across these sites and meditating in certain hot spots allows the pilgrim to engage with the energy of the land, geometry of the structures and the undeniable field created by the many pilgrims who have walked there before. Sacred sites enable pilgrimages on steroids. And at the end of every year I disappear into the wilderness alone, a kind of wild pilgrimage, to acknowledge the learning and shifts of the year passed and clarify intent and direction for the year to come. The wilderness enables direct communion with the Universal Field, a shift into nothingness and surrender and that’s where all the good stuff lies. In between I enter many spiritual processes in my day-to-day life, with clear intent. You could say I’m a professional pilgrim.
From my experiences and sharing with other pilgrims around the world, it is clear, that the greater the preparation into gaining clarity of intent beforehand, the more amplified the experience and shifts. I have recently returned to Singapore after my main pilgrimage for this year, to the Peruvian Andes hosted by Quechuan and Nakoda Shaman. For eight months prior to leaving for Peru I honed my intent and honoured the process with disciplined preparation. I fasted regularly and meditated daily. I journaled and reached for clarity of intent constantly. As soon as the choice and commitment is made to experience pilgrimage the themes of highest intent start to emerge into consciousness, usually well before the experience commences. I have returned changed. I know my state of consciousness and the lens through which I see my life have changed, because everything once familiar, appears different to me – my home, my children’s faces, their voices, my city, the jungle where I run, the way I teach and write, sounds, smells, tastes, relationships even colours appear anew. And my body has changed, even my skin and my energy field has risen. I am strong and my heart is full of joy. I see beauty everywhere.
Pilgrimage descales the senses and reboots the spirit. There are so many aspects to this year’s experience that I will write about in coming articles and there are many hidden, intensely beautiful moments and insights that cannot be adequately expressed in clunky words or concepts. What has come to me in stunning clarity is the archetypal, dazzling living art of pilgrimage itself.
Dawn Meditation at Borobudur Temple – Creative Spirit Retreat (Thank you to my retreat partner Anna Layard for capturing this image. I was deep in communion and had no idea it was taken, but so grateful to have it.)
So what are the dynamics of pilgrimage as a living art? What happens when we consciously choose to explore the spiritual-self through pilgrimage and our perception and engagement with ordinary reality vastly changes upon our return?
Firstly, engaging in pilgrimage creates a dynamic that blends out inner and outer realities – a sacred ‘third space’. Within this sacred space, this vortex, our ordinary, on-the-ground activities, become charged with spiritual energy and dynamics. Nothing that happens on pilgrimage is outside the living expression of the intent, nothing. Every aspect of the experience is conscious, active and enabling the intent held in the pilgrim’s heart. In this sacred third-space the pilgrim experiences direct contact with spiritual dynamics that could be described by the onlooker as distinctly ‘super-natural’. To open to these incredible dynamics, the pilgrim must adopt, first and foremost, a trust in the pilgrimage process and ability to view all experiences, from triggers to dreams, to natural elements and coincidences and synchronicities mindfully; that is, to remain out of the reactive zone, and maintain a state of open acceptance. When this state of open acceptance is gently held, then the pilgrimage process comes alive, has room to move around us and through us and delivers on our intent, always in sublimely beautiful ways.
At the start of each pilgrimage I will often receive triggers, through people and relationships or potential obstacles to taking the journey for example. These triggers allow a clearing of any restricting mindset, expectation or energy I am holding that must be released for me to go deeply into the experience. Obstacles are perhaps the greatest blessings, as they provide the opportunity to choose and re-choose the intent for spiritual exploration and they raise the desire for it, which are powerful spiritual forces. On my way to Peru this year my flight took me through London and then Miami onto Lima. I hadn’t realized that I needed a US visa to enter a US airport, even though I was staying airside for a connecting flight and not entering the US officially. I wasn’t alone at the check-in counter. Several other travellers, some business travellers, others tourists, were losing their load on the poor staff, as the visa process can take up to seventy-two hours for approval and comes at a cost. Amidst all the reactive noise, I calmly applied online for the visa and asked the staff to check my bags through to London. I was on the move and I knew that refraining from reaction or fear would vastly affect the outcome. I chose pilgrimage. The check-in lady questioned me several times, “But if it’s not through by the time you land in London you’ll be stranded there and unable to take all your connecting flights…” “I’ll go anyway!” I said with a smile and off I went. Despite receiving a message upon boarding that my visa would take the full seventy-two hours to process, it was sitting in my inbox when I arrived in Heathrow thirteen hours later.
Maintaining open acceptance and diving into the sacred third-space of pilgrimage requires inner practice, for me this is meditation, meditative ritual and journaling. By rotating our awareness inward and engaging in beautiful spiritual practices, we embody pilgrimage; that is, we also blend our inner ordinary day-to-day reality with the world of Spirit. In this way we not only observe the experience as it unfolds, but we also feel it. Our energy body is raised and sensitive to the movement of Spirit. Exchanges with other pilgrims are always key channels for learning and when we are embodying the dynamics of pilgrimage we absolutely know when the exchange, conversation, or simply the presence of the fellow pilgrim or experience is significant to our own journey, because the entire energy body hums. It is also very common for fellow pilgrims to receive refractions of the same insights, shared dreams and encounters with the wilderness when on pilgrimage. Sharing these when ‘the hum’ is on provides delicious affirmations that you are steeped deeply in the process and also helps build the wisdom out to its fullest picture.
Simple Connection Ritual with the Divine Mother Mountain of Machu Picchu – Huayna Picchu
Bounty collected from the forest in preparation for gratitude ritual on annual Wild Pilgrimage
A practice that I engage in at the start of every pilgrimage is a simple initiation ritual that acknowledges the intent and every aspect of the experience to come. It commits myself and my groups to the process, bonds the circle in intent, awareness and trust and it activates the spirit of the pilgrimage itself. This ‘spirit of the pilgrimage’ is a living vortex of energy, woven through each of us, the place, the atoms and electrons, the process, the elements, our bodies and energy structures, our DNA, our sense of expectation and the promise of what is to come.
Imogiri, Meditation Site on Creative Spirit Retreats, Java Indonesia
Solar Practice on Neolithic Fire Altar at Qenko, one of the many pre-Inca sacred sites surrounding Cusco, Peru. (Thank you to Trudi Bannister for capturing this image. I was deep in communion and had no idea it was taken, but so grateful to have it.)
The process of pilgrimage is not always comfortable. Any authentic spiritual process requires a shakedown of old paradigms, beliefs and long-held denser energies, in other words, a clearing. A common experience of pilgrimage is clearing the energy body and this can get pretty intense. Clearing can take many forms. In its milder iterations it can occur through the emotional body, perceived as high sensitivity to triggers, unexplained anger or feelings of sadness and almost always expresses through tears. With deeper clearing of long-held limiting beliefs and energy it almost always manifests physically and usually through a temporary experience of cold, flu, fever, skin irritation and interestingly for women, through heavier than usual mensa bleed, or onset of the moon blood outside of regular cycles. In a fascinating recent example, one of the women I was sharing with in Peru, who had been through menopause and hadn’t experienced a physical bleed for nearly a year, had a distinct feeling of her bleed coming on at a highly resonant site call Amaru in the Sacred Valley. She was convinced that her body had released another unexpected bleed as part of her clearing. When she returned to the hotel that afternon she was totally surprised not to see any evidence of this when she took a shower. And then as she hand-washed her underwear in the bathroom sink, the water turned red. Her system had manifested a clearing of an etheric bleed that moved into the physical when the element of water was engaged. I haven’t heard of this before, but I totally get it.
Group Condor & Eagle ceremony at Aramu Muru’s Doorway, Peru. This highly resonant site triggered many individual experiences of revelation , clearing and healing for pilgrims. At the end of the ceremony both a Condor and an Eagle circled overhead – signaling the ceremony was blessed.
The key to dealing with the necessary clearing is two-fold: to drop all resistance to the physical or emotional symptoms and recognize them for what they are and work with them; and to prepare beforehand. Around ninety percent of the pilgrims in Peru underwent serious and highly uncomfortable clearings physically that required medical intervention to navigate for some. The remaining ten percent had engaged in disciplined preparation before the journey or knew they were ordained to support the others. Entering pilgrimage with spiritually aware pilgrims can make the difference between falling into illusion of sickness and separation, or transmuting the clearing into expansion and readiness to receive.
Machu Picchu with fellow modern-day pilgrims (Left to right) Jovy Wan: QHHT Practitioner, Business Owner, Passionate Traveller Trudi Bannister: Psychologist, (with PhD in process), Author, Mother of three Me: Teacher, Author, Spiritual Guide and Mother of two Jane Tumbri: Healer, Reiki Teacher, Entrepreneur and Mother of two
When pilgrimage is activated and we embody its dynamics then the magic really rises. Perhaps the most beautiful expression of this is through the constant and very intoxicating acknowledgements from the wilderness. Over the years I have experienced these wild kisses time and time again and they are common to other pilgrims. At the Lunar Gateway of Tumibamba, as an example, after practicing a sublime Nakoda Eagle Medicine ceremony, a huge Eagle appeared in the sky directly above the site, circled several times, enough for the group to receive it, and then swooped away.
Eagle Medicine Meditation and sacred Breath Ritual, Tumibamba, Peru (Thank you Jane Tumbri for capturing this moment. I had no idea you had and am so grateful you did.)
Eagle siting immediately after Eagle Medicine Ceremony with drum, tobacco, chant and decree at Tumibamba, Peru (Captured by Jane Tumbri as it circled the sacred rock)
On a recent Creative Spirit Retreat in Java, it was the weather that enabled the experience. At the outset of a decree ritual, immediately after opening the Medicine Wheel, a massive storm materialized overhead, and a single bolt of lightening boomed directly above our space. The electricity and sound made every person in the circle scream, loosening their voices for sacred decree. The rain lashed the garden around us, creating such a noise, that each woman had to stand and raise the volume of her decree of truth to be heard. The minute the last women finished, the rain also stopped as suddenly as it had started and we were held in meditation by gentle frog song.
Earlier on the same retreat a sudden and heavy downpour of rain halted our planned dawn meditation at Borobudur Temple. Anna and I met at the hotel lobby at 4am and after a couple of stiff coffees decided we should reorganize the meditation for the following day. We sent a message to the retreat participants that they could sleep in and we had a beautiful discussion in the early morning about acceptance and divine order, even with the weather. The rain passed by breakfast and we had a sunny day meeting artists and viewing works. The following morning provided a stunning dawn and as we walked the temple steps to the summit to meditate, we were met by a large group of saffron-robed Buddhist monks who were circling the top stupa in deep meditation and ancient chanting. It was a sublime visual and auditory feast that carried the group deep into the mystery and beauty of the dawn. We later learnt that this particular Buddhist ritual is only performed once a year at the temple and the rain carried us right to the heart of it on the right day.
Buddhist Monk at Borobudur Temple
And only recently, after visioning in Peru through the night along themes of the Hummingbird Totem, during a quiet meditation at dawn to honour the mystery of Light, I was visited by a beautiful royal blue hummingbird, who flew right up to my ear in the early morning light, just to let me know my process was blessed. These are just a few of many, many examples of affirmations from the Wild Field. I would blow the word count of this article if I were to list them all.
Hummingbird Dawn over Lake Titicaca, Peru
Another interesting and commonly experienced aspect of pilgrimage is the bending of time within the pilgrimage space. Many of us have experienced that feeling when travelling, of long endless days and yet the entire experience seems fleeting once it comes to an end. When we remember those beautiful holidays, they seem like a collapsed world within our memory; a zip file of experience. This is a familiar feature of stepping out of routine and familiar settings and usually getting back to nature and ourselves. However on pilgrimage, this time bending takes on a whole new aspect because the sacred third-space created in pilgrimage is holographic; that is, the intent, process, experience, result and our engagement with it, all exists at once, complete and unified, outside of time. So the experience of receiving wisdom and experiencing our intent can take on some wonderful and weird forms, in particularly learning backwards in time.
Random conversations and exchanges, dreams, repeated images in surrounding environment and for me particularly guidance received in meditations are loaded with metaphor and themes for the wisdom that is about to come through an experience. Every pilgrimage I take, I receive these themes the night before or morning of the experience and usually in meditation. One beautiful example of this is when Kate Powe and I followed the trail of the Magdalene through Southern France a few years ago. We had taken with us (as I do on all pilgrimages) a set of crystals to bury at various sites on our trail after imbuing them with our spirits and intents. The purpose of this exercise is to anchor the self into the pilgrimage and to establish an energetic grid that can be accessed afterwards. So the placement of the crystals is important. We decided at the outset, that we would hold the intent for guidance as to the placements, and we stayed very mindful of our dreaming and visioning in meditation. We were not disappointed. Each night or the morning of visiting sacred sites across Southern France, we were given very clear guidance as to where the crystals should be placed. On this particular morning we were walking the ancient pilgrimage track to the Magdalene’s cave at St Baume, where she is said to have retreated for thirty years in ecstatic union with the Christ. Early that morning I entered meditation at dawn and connected with the promise of the day. Deep into the journey I heard the clear guidance “A cat will mark your way!” I questioned the guidance straight away. It wasn’t quite the cosmic instructions I was expecting. I apologized to Kate that my radar might have been off that morning, but we both agreed to accept the guidance and stay open. The trek to the cave is quite possibly one of the most resonant experiences of land-held energy I have ever felt.
We reached the summit and entered the cave, both of us acknowledging the intense humming energy felt in our bodies and the altered state of consciousness the cave itself seemed to produce with anyone who neared it. It was so vibratory it was difficult to sense where we should place the crystal, and we hadn’t sensed a strong spot along the walk to the cave, let alone seen any cats. We decided to sit at the lower wellspring of the sacred waters that bubble up into the cave and meditate. We sat amongst tears and deep breathing as many, women particularly, were drawn away from the Dominican chapel and altar and down to a far more ancient part of the cave for healing. Within minutes a large group of bustling tourists arrived, cameras clicking and footsteps echoing through the cave above. Kate and I remained in meditation despite the activity. And then, as clear as anything, cutting through the noise was the meow of a cat. It seemed to be coming from the rock ledge behind the source-spring and it became more and more insistent and loud. I said to Kate “There’s our cat…” and others around us could hear the meows and looked around for a cat that just couldn’t be sited. We knew we were to place the crystal into the natural well. The crowd dissipated and we were able to enter ceremony and drop the crystal into the waters. We didn’t hear the cat call again and nor did we, or anyone we were with, see it. Yet beautifully, on the inner that morning, we were told that the Magdalene would mark the placement spot with a cat. Delicious! Each placement was guided in this way, and on pilgrimage, this kind of blurring between the inner and the outer normalizes. We start to learn, backwards in time, what we already know, that already exists within us.
Trippy. Cool. Mysterious and Affirming!
Outside the Basilique Sainte Marie Madeleine at St Maximin la Sante Baume, Southern France – a key site on the trail of Mary Magdalene and Divine Feminine presence. Myself and life-long friend and pilgrim Kate Powe: Naturopath, Global On-line Entrepeneur, Female Hormone Health and Natural Medicine Advocate, Business Woman. (Check out our little friend in the background. At the time this pic was taken, we hadn’t yet received the guidance about the cat, yet we are so happy to have this photo to remind us that time was bending.)
Perhaps the greatest gift that pilgrimage gives the modern Spirit-Seeker is a reminder; a beautiful reminder that in fact our lives are pilgrimages, as our spirits have chosen an earthly journey for spiritual growth; and that, in the words of Ram Das, we are all pilgrims on this earth, ‘just walking each other home’. Sometimes we need an exaggerated version of this to remember, that intent, choice, mindfulness, inner practice, clearing and the wilderness are all parts of this living art and our only real choice is to engage in the mystery and the magic.
For more information about Creative Spirit Retreats, click here.
For contact information regarding organized pilgrimages to Peru and sacred sites in Europe, which I can personally recommend, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dani Van de Velde