Postcards from the Soul


By Laurel Kallenbach  |  

A trip to Paris to see the great nineteenth-century Impressionist paintings. Though millions of tourists crowd into the Louvre each year, for one man and his terminally ill father, this trip was much more than a sightseeing jaunt. For poet and screenwriter Richard Beban, it represented a last chance for him to reunite with his long-estranged alcoholic father; Paris was a modern-day, soul-searching pilgrimage.

In 1985, when his father, diagnosed with lung cancer, was given six months to live, Beban impulsively charged two plane tickets he couldn’t afford to his credit card and invited the man whom he had barely spoken to in eight years. “When I was a kid, he was a Sunday painter who dearly loved art,” Beban recalls. “But with five children to support, he worked more and gradually painted less, though he’d always be first in line at the museum if an Impressionist exhibition came to town. Before he died, I wanted him to visit a city where the streets are named after artists and poets, and people have reverence for art.”

The two spent 12 days discovering Paris and each other. “My father bought a notebook and started drawing—something he had not done for years and years,” Beban recounts. “That’s how I knew that his anima —his soul—had been touched and was beginning to revivify.” One day, Beban took his father to L’Orangerie, the gallery where many of Monet’s paintings hang. “When you walk into that room, you’re surrounded by water lilies,” he says. “I left my father there while I ran an errand nearby. When I came back, I stood in the doorway watching as tears ran down his cheeks. I felt a deep closeness to him because I recognized this was where his soul was.”

The father/son pilgrimage was far from easy, yet it was ultimately healing for both. “I was worried, confused, and angry with my father for his unlived life,” Beban admits. “I was also wary about what he would think of me. Yet, there were moments of great joy and heart-filling love.” Fifteen years later, he still reflects on those days with his father, who died nine months after the trip. Images of his father infuse his poetry, and the Paris experience—a journey that changed and nourished his life—is the subject of a screenplay that Beban calls “Meeting Monet.”

Spiritual Travel for the Modern Pilgrim

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”—Lao-tzu

Even as tourism has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, many people are discovering that travel is actually a metaphor for the spiritual journey. Preparation, departure, the arduous road, and arrival are also the metaphysical steps we take to reach a spiritual destination—but instead of embarking for undiscovered countries, the spiritual journey goes within. If you crave more than a “vacation”—literally vacating or “getting away from it all”—or if you believe travel can deepen your spiritual essence, help you make life decisions, or unburden a beleaguered soul, then you’ve joined the ranks of spiritual pilgrims. Although the word “pilgrimage” conjures images of fervent religious devotees toiling for months to reach a sacred destination, modern pilgrimage includes visiting secular sites, tracking down family roots, or paying homage to places, things, or ideas that have enriched your life. Travelers of every ilk—whether exploring Easter Island, studying Filippo Lippi frescoes, or bowing before Graceland—find greater meaning and answers to their questions.

“A pilgrimage is the oracular journey of your life,” says Phil Cousineau, a writer/filmmaker and author of The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred . “It goes back to the beginning, to the source, as a way to recharge yourself. If you’re a Jew headed for Jerusalem, you’re going to the source; if you visit your ancestral town in Poland, you’re going to the source. When I walked in James Joyce’s footsteps in Dublin, I went to the source of the author who inspired me to become a writer.”

More people travel now than ever before. On any given day, Cousineau notes, 250 million people are on the road around the world. “It’s as if there’s a permanent floating country the size of America in transit,” he muses. Many among those millions are dissatisfied with standard travel fare and flock instead to destinations that uniquely inspire them. “People are searching for something, and many realize the place to look is within,” says Robert Scheer, editor/publisher of Power Trips magazine, which prints articles about traveling to sacred places such as the pyramids of Egypt and Machu Picchu. “We baby boomers have reached the point where we’ve accumulated all the worldly goods we can,” he says, “yet we still aren’t fulfilled. We’re beginning to realize the answer may be spiritual rather than material. This applies to our travel as well.”

Sacred travel has become a popular trend, complete with magazines, Web sites, and tour companies that escort travelers to Thai monasteries, Mediterranean goddess sites or King Arthur’s legendary Avalon. Sheri Nakken, the director of Well Within’s Earth Mysteries and Sacred Site Tours in Nevada City, California, leads retreats to spiritual places, including the British Isles, Hawaii, Greece, and Ireland. Her trips are paced slowly to allow time for lessons on the area’s history, ancient culture, and mythologies. Participants spend several hours at the sites, with free time for writing in journals and conducting personal ceremonies. “I see people change from the beginning of the trip to the end,” she says. “They become more relaxed; some look different or have new insights. These places of power are emotionally healing, perhaps because they offer a chance for reflection.”

As the pace of life speeds on, more people yearn for spiritual time and ways to make their holidays (literally, “holy days”) more soulful. Before you plan a trip, be clear about your intention. If you need a vacation for relaxation, take it! However, if your journey has a spiritual focus, your path could be challenging—yet if your heart is in it, you’ll feel replenished and invigorated. “We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘I need a vacation from my vacation,’” Cousineau says. “Yet a pilgrimage, even if you walk 20 miles a day, renews both your soul and body. That kind of travel is rich and fulfilling.”

Journey of Renewal

Spiritual rejuvenation is the aim of all pilgrimage, whether you’re sojourning to baseball parks or Buddhist holy sites. Perhaps you’ve encountered obstacles, ended a relationship, or found the Muse has abandoned you. Times like these call for nothing short of a renaissance of the soul. “A pilgrimage is taken when the way you’ve been living or traveling doesn’t work anymore,” says Cousineau. “If you’re at a crossroads, imagine a place you could go to contemplate that crisis and be renewed.” For some people it could be a traditionally spiritual destination: the Ganges or Chartres Cathedral. For others it might be a literary pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson’s house.

For Robert Thurman and Tad Wise, the healing journey was a monthlong trek around Mount Kailash, Tibetan Buddhism’s most holy spot. According to Tibetan tradition, a pilgrim who manages to complete a trip around the sacred mountain thereby erases the sins of a lifetime. Thurman, a noted Buddhist scholar, fulfilled a lifelong dream to perform the fire ceremony on the mountain as a prayer for the illumination and liberation of all beings on the planet. For novelist/journalist Wise, the pilgrimage was a chance to face his personal demons. “I was paddling around in the leaky boat of my life, bailing water, when Tenzin [Thurman] invited me to go,” he says. “To my family’s and my own surprise, I took off, saying, ‘When I get back, I’ll know how to make this boat sail.’”

In the process of their trek, which they chronicle in Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure Through the Himalayas (Bantam, 1999), both men experienced transformation. “I have been on many pilgrimages to Asia and Europe, but have never experienced such a powerful place as Kailash,” says Thurman, who gave Buddhist teachings to the others in the trekking party. “I felt a luminosity around me—an energy—like I was on top of a spiritual volcano. The nice thing was that it made me feel the whole world has this same vibrancy—it’s just that I’ve been closed off. This place opened me.”

For Wise, the journey was a daily struggle as he battled doubt, fear, feelings of inadequacy, and altitude sickness. “Climbing up Drolma La”—a mountain pass along the route encircling Kailash—”felt like my own funeral, where I encounter all the things I’ve done wrong and all the ways I’ve hidden,” Wise admits. “I felt a catharsis, like someone who’s fighting nausea but finally vomits and feels so much better afterwards. I didn’t vomit, but I did cry my eyes out. At the top of that mountain, it all came up. When I hiked back down, I had addressed things I never had before.”

The Call of Place

What is it about a physical place that renews us? Some places, built on what have been called “earth chakras,” are said to tap planetary energies that the ancients could sense. Other locations, such as the Gettysburg battlefield, derive their power from human history; people go to pay homage, to remember. There may even be memory in the land. “Just as the body stores memory, the earth ‘remembers’ the past,” says Nakken. “In his book The Rebirth of Nature, Rupert Sheldrake says that when actions are done frequently, such as people performing rituals at a sacred well, the land actually contains their memory. If you’re attuned to the earth, you can tap into the emotional or spiritual feelings of the past.”

A basic tenet of pilgrimage is that we must leave home, with its familiar trappings of house, family, and job, to clear the way for new experience, new reality. A change of venue can actually give us a change of heart. Choose your place by listening to where your heart yearns to go, then follow that voice, even if you don’t know why you’re drawn there. Sometimes nature itself calls your spirit to a particular location: the Amazon rain forest or the Mojave Desert. If you receive a message from nature, heed it, because one basic way of connecting to your sense of self is through your link to the natural world.

Sometimes you don’t choose a place—it chooses you. Serendipity or fate may pull you unconsciously to a place that captivates you. That happened 15 years ago to school teacher Jerilynn Blum, whose life changed when, while visiting England, she stumbled by chance upon the standing stone circles of Avebury. “When I saw Avebury, I knew there was something magical about it,” she says. “I knew the events of my life had led me here, and I needed to find this place.”

Returning home, Blum immersed herself in spiritual development. A few years later, she wrote in her journal: “While I was there, it was as if the line had been drawn between my past and my future. It was as if someone flipped a switch inside me that illuminated new rooms I had to explore.” Her awakening propelled her to a new career path: She’s now an art therapist who practices in Boise, Idaho.

Twice since, Blum has made return pilgrimages to Avebury. “I believe places on the Earth call to us, and we’re guided there if we’re not on our right soul pathway,” she says. “The call reminds us to let go of what we don’t need and to come back to who we truly are.”

Pilgrim’s Progress

Making travel more sacred takes commitment and a willingness to tune in to one’s inner self. The first step is to prepare well: Study your destination, its history, folklore, other people’s journals. Though you must travel light, pack a book of “sacred writings” that reflects the soul of the place you’re going: Rumi’s poetry if you’re visiting Turkey, or archaeologist Howard Carter’s account of opening Tut’s tomb in Egypt. For inspiration, Cousineau recommends you create a book in which you paste photocopies or hand-copied versions of your favorite poems, quotations, meditations, and parables. “Begin each day with sacred time to help frame the day,” he says. Read from this sacred book daily every morning to remind yourself of your purpose.

Meditation is also essential, for without looking inward, the trip will be hollow. Find a contemplative place—a garden, chapel, or even a quiet and secluded spot at your chosen destination. Sit, taking time to open yourself to whatever thoughts the place conjures, whatever emotions bubble up. “The Buddhist model of pilgrimage is a sound one,” Cousineau says. “Pay attention to every footstep you take along the way.”

A pilgrimage is also a sensory experience. Take your time, listen to caf&eacute chatter, taste local foods, walk barefoot in the grass, and focus on every color and shape. To record this deep experience and to make it part of your spiritual practice, write in your journal, sketch the landscape, compose a song about your special place. “The process of writing a letter or in a journal leads us to the truth of our evolving journey,” Cousineau says.

Walking, an act synonymous with pilgrimage, is another form of meditation. “The physical pace of walking puts one in a reflective, introspective state,” says writer Nicholas Shrady, who recounts his pilgrimages by foot through Spain, India, Bosnia, and Jerusalem in Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail . “When you walk, you’re truly in the place,” he says. “You pass people, you take in the landscape by smelling, seeing, hearing. You’re absolutely attuned to everything.”

While walking the Way of Saint James, a 500-mile medieval pilgrimage path that crosses mountainous northern Spain to reach Santiago de Compostela, Shrady braved snowstorms, hunger, and sore feet. Yet, he argues, the ordeal is part of the process that makes ambulare pro Deo—”walking toward God” in Latin—rewarding. He insists on going alone when possible, and urges others to do likewise. “In contemporary society, one is scarcely ever alone,” he points out. “On a pilgrimage, you’re cast out of familiar surroundings. You don’t know where you’ll eat or sleep. Yet as you progress physically along the trail, you progress spiritually as well by contemplating, not conversing with a companion.”

Even if you’re not alone as you journey, make a point of cutting as many ties with home and your regular routine as possible. “If you’re checking your e-mail or the stock report, you’re still mired in the old rhythm,” says Cousineau. Abandon for a time the old and find new ways to make each day sacred. “Each time you give thanks or slow down, you move into a timeless realm that makes travel delicious,” he says.

Pilgrimage changes your relationship not only with the Self, but with time. Rubbing elbows with people from slower-paced cultures helps you realize different concepts of time exist—a good lesson for Americans who want to gear down. At its best, a spiritual journey is an opportunity to see other ways of being and realize what might be out of balance in your life. “Soulful travel is a dreamlike experience,” says Cousineau. “If I feel like time and space have been suspended, then I know I’m in the groove.”

One of the most meaningful aspects of pilgrimage is making an offering to express gratitude. “You can bring coins to a fountain or pieces of white cloth to an ancient Irish well,” notes Cousineau. Bringing a token helps a traveler shift from the role of mere tourist to pilgrim. Because much of tourism involves taking—taking a photo, getting souvenirs—gift-giving reverses the slight aggression that blights much of travel, he points out. Offerings can be simple: an orchid to the Krishna temple, dog tags to the Vietnam Memorial, a favorite fly to your grandpa’s fishing hole, or a poem you wrote to Wordsworth’s house. Yet they’re a way to give back to a place that enriches your soul.

Postcards of your hometown are good for handing out when you’re asked where you’re from, or as a gesture to someone you wish to photograph. “Every time you ‘take’ a photo, give a simple postcard in return, so there’s an even exchange,” Cousineau suggests.

Keeping the Spark Alive

Returning home after deeply moving travel can be a challenge. Though you come back to your daily routine invigorated or even changed, it’s difficult to maintain your resolve about making changes or reordering priorities. The question arises: How to keep this experience alive when you’re in a budget meeting or chauffeuring the kids to gymnastics?

Yet there are ways to literally bring home the fruits of your pilgrimage. One man on the Mt. Kailash pilgrimage with Wise and Thurman collected stones from the trail, which he arranged around his bathtub so that as he washes his body, he’s reminded of Kailash and thereby cleanses his soul. It’s probably best not to remove anything from the natural landscape during your travels, but you can bring home photos, a coin, or a coaster from the town pub, or other unique items to serve as your touchstones. Keep them in a memory box or create an altar with these objects that are now infused with the sacred.

To honor your journey, host a celebration upon your return. “There’s a medieval tradition of holding a feast before and after the pilgrimage,” says Cousineau. “When you do this, you’ve marked off a sacred circle with your pilgrimage right in the middle.” Gather family and friends together, toast the journey, and share your story. Then, ask them to recount similar tales. The process can help them realize this trip wasn’t just another week you flew to Hawaii to get a suntan, he says.

Create emotional space for your pilgrimage, Jerilynn Blum recommends. “Remember your sacred place as a source of love and joy, meditate on it, and pay attention to whether your dreams have changed,” she says. “I find it helpful to spend time once a week in nature being silent and reflecting on my pilgrimage. Also, in times of emotional distress, visualize your sacred place and leave your pain there.”

And finally, pass the pilgrimage along. “Your journey is a gift—you were graced with good health and enough money to go,” says Cousineau. “When you’re given a gift, you shouldn’t hold onto it; keep it moving. Whatever wisdom you learned on your journey, don’t hoard it!” Each time you tell your tale, direct another pilgrim along a path, or loan your backpack to a sojourning friend, your own pilgrimage unfolds a new layer of meaning for you and others. Though a soul journey is deeply personal, its relevance isn’t limited to the Self. Think of it as a continuum—you follow in the footsteps of a long line of pilgrims; other seekers will inherit the quest. What you pass along to future travelers—”an insight into spiritual life, a glimpse of wisdom, a shiver of compassion, an increment of knowledge”—is the true gift of the pilgrimage, Cousineau writes. By bestowing that gift, you spark the imaginations of those who, like you, embark on a spiritual voyage.