Recently, I was asked about the role of pilgrimage.
Generally, I’d place pilgrimage as a practice related to faith or devotion. However, some pilgrimages are more about an odyssey, perhaps having a therapeutic purpose. Sometimes they’re used in coming-of-age rites. And sometimes people talk of the spiritual journey itself as an inner pilgrimage.
Difficulties are often associated with a pilgrimage, perhaps as a rite of purification. But care must be taken not to make it about “purity through suffering.” Humility and letting go are important lessons that may be difficult to learn but suffering is not the wise door home.
Suffering should not be seen as a practice but as a signal something is wrong, much like pain. A signal there is something to look at, to resolve or heal.
The deeper value of pilgrimage is to travel to a true holy place, a place with a lot of presence. Then it has a role more like satsang, sitting with presence.
Places gain presence a variety of ways. Someone very awake living there for a time, people doing regular retreats there, profound events taking place there, powerful objects being there, and so forth.
There are also spots in nature that can have profound presence. An ancient tree can gain a lot of presence. Or a gathering place for subtle celebration or where nature is very rich and happy.
We can say that places carry their history, just like our bodies. If there has been a profound presence there, it can infuse the place and carry forward for a while.
Inversely, many places have a residual stress build-up. Suffering, nasty events, and difficulty also become infused. Troubled laws of nature can cast a shadow. Sometimes, the stress build-up breaks out in storms, natural disasters, or unrest. I’ve heard stories of having to “clear the air” at new retreat locations before deeper experiences could unfold.
Some holy sites have lost or reduced their presence because of age or how they’ve been used. Is there something there to clear and culture presence? Is the wailing, prayers, or chanting a confirmation of suffering or a rising above it? Major conflicts and deaths have occurred at some holy sites.
There would be more value in a pilgrimage if someone is aware of these dynamics. Then they can recognize what is actually there and amplify presence. But I can also see therapeutic and devotional value in a pilgrimage. There are places in the world where practices and devotion have been going on for thousands of years.