“I didn’t make this journey in order to find the words missing from my life but to be the king of my own world again. And it’s here that I’m back in touch with myself and with the magical universe all around me.”
– Paulo Coelho, Aleph
Earlier this week I reviewed Aleph by Paulo Coelho for those who subscribe to my Influential Books posts. It’s the story of a personal pilgrimage across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad after the main character finds himself in a rut.
In my review of Aleph, I touch on the following point (quote from Aleph):
Traveling and embarking on a pilgrimage is a powerful tool for self-discovery and transformation.
"After weeks on the road, listening to a language you don’t understand, using a currency whose value you don’t comprehend, walking down streets you’ve never walked down before, you discover that your old “I,” along with everything you ever learned, is absolutely no use at all in the face of those new challenges, and you begin to realize that buried deep in your unconscious mind there is someone much more interesting and adventurous and more open to the world and to new experiences."
In my mind, this is the most important lesson in book…The act of a pilgrimage for transformation and self-discovery is as old as humanity. I see my current journey through Europe as a kind of pilgrimage. Back in January, I realized the need to shake myself up, get out of my routine, and get back in touch with myself. There are other ways to accomplish this, but for me, traveling was the answer.
Before reading Aleph, I thought about the act of a pilgrimage mostly in terms of its religious origin. Christians have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land for centuries. Israelites in ancient Israel would make three pilgrimages to Jerusalem each year. The Pilgrimage to Mecca is still one the Five Pillars of Islam.
In popular culture, movies like The Way have been made, Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez’s honor to the pilgrimage along Camino de Santiago in Spain.
The Way and Aleph both show the act of the pilgrimage as a journey for moral or spiritual significance, which is not necessarily confined to religion. Rather, it’s a broader opportunity to get back in touch with and rediscover your true self — the self that has since been quieted by either routine, neglect, or both.
I’m convinced that a pilgrimage can be any act where you purposefully remove yourself from the day-to-day to take back control of your life, intentionally carve your own path, or reclaim your kingdom. In my case, it’s a trip around Europe.
With a Little Help From My Friends
In previous posts, I’ve talked about my two Chicago roommates and good friends, Brian and Mike. Earlier this year, we found ourselves in a rut, the same rut Paulo finds himself in Aleph.
The motions of everyday life failed to give us the answers we needed. 2012 was a big turning point in each of our lives — a year in which we each made big decisions to change the trajectory of our lives. And although neither of them probably referred to their resulting journeys as such, we’ve each embarked on a pilgrimage of sorts.
We set off to a world in which we’re no longer familiar, surrounded by strange faces and unfamiliar landscapes:
Brian decided to hike 2,184 miles along the Appalachian Trail, which he successfully completed two weeks ago. His pilgrimage was clear: some good old soul searching with a satchel, a girlfriend, and mother nature.
Mike, who traveled with me for six weeks through Iceland, UK, and Ireland, recently started his MBA at Carnegie Mellon. Although not as obvious, I consider Mike’s journey to earn an MBA a pilgrimage as well.
“I’ve found myself at times questioning how I’m supposed to know what my dream job or dream company is, or worried that I’m not spending enough time fine-tuning my resume, or researching companies, or connecting with people on LinkedIn. But Brian’s post provided a timely reminder that the more time spent worrying about the future, the harder it is to enjoy the present.”
Without the support and encouragement of each other, I wonder if the three of us would have had the courage to become more intentional about our life’s direction and take action. So I wanted to bring this full circle in honor of these guys, our friendship, and the art of the pilgrimage.
The Art of the Pilgrimage
In Mike’s post, he admits that at first that he couldn’t see the point in a five-and-a-half month stroll along the AT.
“I couldn’t imagine that spending nearly every day for six months walking through the woods would be enjoyable. I just failed to see what he could possibly get out of the whole thing. What’s the point?”
Rationally, he’s right. There is no ‘point.’ There’s no logical reason to walk 2,184 miles in the woods. And for me and my journey, there’s really no ‘point’ in traveling and living around Europe.
The more I think about it, you don’t go on a pilgrimage because it’s something you want to do; you go because it’s something you feel compelled to do. You journey out, fully aware of the challenges, but equally aware of the rewards.
"The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation—to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life." - Huston Smith
Sometimes (actually, often times), it’s not even an enjoyable experience. Let’s take a day in the life of Brian: hike 12-20 miles, search for a place to sleep, pitch a tent, cook a mediocre meal, and fall sleep outside, only to wake up to the same the next day, for the next 165 days. Oh yeah, and you have to worry about bears, sterilize your drinking water, and poop in the woods. To some, this may sound like pure madness.
For me, there are the physical challenges of not understanding a language, being lost in a city with no directions, or getting stranded in a Croatian national park after missing the last bus (yep, happened this week). There are the mental challenges of feeling alone, being forced to confront your stripped-down self, and even question the journey itself.
So you don’t go on a pilgrimage because it’s an enjoyable experience — you go because it ends up being an intrinsically rewarding one.
"Pilgrimage is the kind of journeying that marks just this move from mindless to mindful, soulless to soulful travel. The difference may be subtle or dramatic; by definition it is life-changing. It means being alert to the times when all that's needed is a trip to a remote place to simply lose yourself, and to the times when what's needed is a journey to a sacred place, in all its glorious and fearsome masks, to find yourself." - Phil Cousineau, The Art of the Pilgrimage
Moments of Clarity
It becomes an enjoyable experience when you begin to appreciate the joys of everyday life. These are the moments of complete clarity. I believe it’s in these moments where truths are found. For me, those moments come in two forms:
1. Being Present. In these moments, I’m seeing my surroundings with an uncluttered mind. Enjoying the sun on my cheek or the musical sound of a new language. Marveling at a new terrain. Being intensely curiosity about the person in front of me. Even writing for this blog has been an unanticipated feeling of being present. These are the moments that Brian discusses.
2. Feeling Gratitude. In these moments, I’m thankful for everything. This is part of being present. I’m grateful for my meals. I’m thankful for my bed. I’m happy I connected with a complete stranger on a deep level. Sometimes I even look around and say to myself as if I’m surprised “Holy shit, I’m in Croatia!” I’m proud of myself and what I’ve done. I’m thankful for my courage.
You don’t need to go on a pilgrimage to be present or to feel gratitude. That’s the funny thing about a pilgrimage. It allows you to reveal and appreciate what you couldn’t staying put at home. But sometimes (often times) there’s no other way. In the words of Coelho again:
"Sometimes you have to travel a long way to find what is near. When the rain returns to earth, it brings with it the things of the air." - Paulo Coehlo, Aleph
A Case for a Pilgrimage
When I think back to my months before leaving for Europe, sometimes I felt like I was surrounded by walking dead. People who were merely going through motions. Not hating life, but not loving it. Not living with curiosity or fire. Just plain bored.
This is a shame. Shouldn’t we be excited about being alive? And if we’re not, isn’t that a wake up call to be more intentional about our life’s direction?
Maybe you’re in a rut. You’re unsure of your next move, or confused on your life’s direction. Maybe a pilgrimage could help reset your course.
It doesn’t have to be a seven month jaunt in Europe, a 2,184 mile hike along the AT, or the total immersion of an MBA program. Maybe it’s a walk in a new park. Perhaps it’s hopping on the next train to a foreign suburb and finding your way home. Or maybe it’s just commuting home via an unfamiliar route.
Either way, I promise you’ll feel more alive and be more present. And, for maybe just a moment, you’ll feel what it’s like to be on a pilgrimage.
Isn’t it time you became the king of your own world again?
If you’re interested in reading Aleph, it’s available on Amazon: Aleph by Paulo Coelho