Walk It Off – Pilgrimages in a modern world

Before the common person was lucky enough to travel around the world or have spare time to take up a hobby or additional education people would, from time to time, walk about their land guided by a spiritual leader in an effort to become a better servant of the lord.

Now I know that speaking of pilgrimages in a western society is an oxymoron considering the increasing atheist/agnostic values appreciated by most; especially of the younger folk. Yet, there are some really valuable processes in a pilgrimage outside the realm of religious practice, that contribute greatly to the lasting impact of travel.

Simply travelling to far off lands doesn’t quite tick all the boxes of a fulfilling pilgrimage. In fact the modern tourism industry is quite contradictory to the term.

An honest, ugly and relatively well laid out interpretation of the industry is defined by Helena Fitzgerald. It is here where she describes travel to the ‘grand tour’. A coming of age event by which peoples: spend money in foreign country, sleep with those from different countries in a bid to meet fantasies, and if you’re lucky enough, pop in to a key tourist destination along the way. That is if your Contiki service has time for it. ‘There are people who would rather die than be called tourists, and these exemplify the heart of modern tourism’ so says Helena.

There are many definitions for ‘pilgrimage’. Most of which revolve around a spiritual meaning. Take this notion away and apply secularity to the definition and you’re left with a physical journey, developing and challenging the moral or ethical positions  within oneself.

How can we transition something like a pilgrimage across into modern society? Do we just walk for hundreds of kilometres, only eating the food given to us by the kindness of strangers, sleeping outside alone in the harsh of nature in the hopes that we feel more satisfied in ourselves?

Well, I suppose if that’s your cup of tea, go for it. But I think there is definitely a better way of experiencing a modernised pilgrimage.

Travel outside the box.

Alain De Botton, a contemporary british-swiss philosopher who addresses modern issues writes  “There are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, vastness, climate, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy or sheer difference from our homelands exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us. These sites, valuable rather than holy, help us to recover perspective, re-order our ambitions, quell our paranoias, and remind us of the interest and obliging unexpectedness of life.”
A common narrative in travel literature is that this shock to the system creates a ‘wound’ to our prior understanding of the world, making way for new experiences to change our perceptions.

Pilgrims practice.
If you’re lucky enough to have a hobby that can be practiced on the road, do it! By doing so you’ll probably meet others who share this interest or value similar activities. This would no doubt deeply enrich your admiration for the hobby, as well as create a captivating experience and a new friend or two.

If you don’t have hobbies to accommodate you through a journey, that’s okay! A skill we have all acquired at some time or another is Walking (aka hiking), cycling or maybe less so climbing. All of which are cheap, if not free activities we can do with moderate competency and accelerate quickly in.

If you are completely inept, don’t worry. You’ll probably never see these people ever again and you’ve perceived through a challenge!

Performing these activities, like traditional pilgrims practiced their religious hobbies will no doubt induce physical exhaustion; sparking a chemical release in your body, increasing mental state, metabolism and creativity.  The enhanced blood circulation in your body will encourage the brain regions involved in regulating emotions, you will literally be clearing your mind of any shit bothering you.
Your quality of sleep will improve not only because of exhaustion. But you’ll find it to be more effective, nourishing natural sleep cycles as when we are travelling we tend not to spend so much time looking at screens or sitting still at a desk.

Lying awake in bed staring into a screen tricks your body into thinking that it’s still receiving UV light and thus doesn’t prepare your body for sleep. Thus why you may find it hard to sleep after watching all that ‘Brooklyn 99’ you’ve been catching up on.

If all else fails and you find yourself not wanting to move around on a journey you can always opt for a localised experience. Gaining a non tangible skill like learning a language/s, helping out at organisations, schools, animal shelter or even documenting your travels through a journal all constitute as a new found practice and you technically could stay in the same street.  

Thing won’t go to plan and that is a-okay
Darius Liutikas who studied secular pilgrimages specifically in the tourism sector of Lithuania writes about how events typically don’t go as expected;  “Changes in personal identity emerge from the interplay between social circumstances and events during the journey and the way individuals respond to them. Sights in the destination, information passed from fellow travellers, and unique personal experiences can reinforce or induce changes in values and identities. The exact defined outcome of doing a pilgrimage”

Turning over a leaf
In contrary to the modern tourism industry, looking at travel as if it were a pilgrimage adds value to the experience many years after you’ve returned home. It’s okay to feel lost or confused with who we are.

A significant event in life, away from the crazy hustle and bustle, in which we experience suffering, shock, humility, success and humanity is an excellent book mark to dignify the end of a past and the beginning of a designed future.

A good friend told me, distance is perspective and this is, I believe, is what we receive from doing a pilgrimage like journey.


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