Awakening to Awakening
Journeys along the Pilgrimage Road
For the most part, I have included few of my own personal experiences of pilgrimage within the Process Paper, allowing the research to speak for itself. In addition to the Process Paper, and at the heart of this work, are memoirs of my own pilgrimages. In this narrative, I offer stories from my journeys as a partial illustration of pilgrimage in the twenty-first century. In doing so, I hope to offer the reader my perspective: while many seekers today approach their journeys outside of cultural and religious tradition, many of the personal experiences of revelation and transformation are just as meaningful as those experienced by religious pilgrims journeying within their own cultures. To an outside observer, pilgrimage may often seem indistinguishable from travel and tourism, but what is more difficult to see and know is how the perspective of the pilgrim shapes his/her inner experiences, which form the heart of the pilgrimage journey.
This memoir narrative, Awakening to Awakening: Journeys Along the Pilgrimage Road, integrates journal excerpts and personal narrative writing and has been written in with the same spirit of exploration as each of my own journeys. During my pilgrimages journalling has been essential in my own process of understanding and reflective writing following each pilgrimage has been an important part of integrating my pilgrimage experiences, as well. It also seems important to include photographs from my journeys, as photography has often brought me into the present moment more intensely, allowing me to experience powerful moments along the way. Awakening to Awakening is the story of four journeys that have taught me about myself and the world, broken down my walls, shown me tremendous joy and suffering, and stripped away everything that doesn’t align with the truth of who I am. These journeys have brought me to contemplate life in ever-increasing depth, and have rendered me a far more conscious, compassionate, and integrated human being.
This memoir includes the good and the bad, my best moments and my worst, and it is raw and uncensored (though edited for the sake of clarity), sharing four different, yet interconnected journeys that I took between 2004 and 2006. It is my hope that in remaining open and vulnerable in this work that some of the concepts of inaccessible heroism and idealism that surround the notion of pilgrimage might be dismantled for the reader, as it has been for me during these journeys. Though the world is becoming increasingly secular, Spirit is still very much alive within every individual. It is up to each person to choose to remember. It is my hope that maybe other spiritual seekers will be inspired to follow the spark beyond tourist brochures and prepackaged vacations and discover for themselves the incredible possibilities that choosing to make a spiritual journey can bring.
Pilgrimage is, essentially, travel with a spiritual focus, the spiritual search taken to the road, the process of spiritual awakening charted across time and space. Though I had yet to find the language to describe it, I was drawn to the spiritual search at a young age, exploring questions about the mysteries of life. As soon as I was able to get around on my own, exploring the world, too, became a priority. Though I’m still not quite sure how it happened, I eventually pieced the two together: pilgrimage.
I have been asking big questions and searching for answers for almost as long as I can remember. I was an inquisitive, quiet child and around age nine, I was already contemplating the meaning of life and death following my maternal grandmother’s passing. I devoured books relating to rituals and talismans, as well as magic, witchcraft, and even hypnosis and the mind while still in elementary school. That is, until my mother discovered my large stack of ‘strange books’ and drove me right back to the library to return them.
By the time I was a teenager, I was drawn to books that were philosophical, both overt and otherwise, as I began to seriously explore the mysteries of life. The littlest things would captivate my curiosity and I spent a lot of time alone, in wonder. My favorite television show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, was the first consistent source of philosophy I ever encountered, albeit masked in its popular science-fiction format. Every week I was faced with a new question that challenged my mind and the ways that I thought about the world and my life. Little by little, I fell in love with the idea that I was merely one small point of life in the universe, one tiny being lost in a vastness that was greater than I could imagine.
Growing up, I was never taught to seek my own answers to questions like what is the meaning of life? and what is it all about? In my corner of the Appalachian Bible Belt, I was vaguely told that the answer was always found in the Bible, in Christianity, in God. But these answers were never convincing enough, never thorough enough. I wanted to feel the discovery of those answers inside of myself, to experience moments of epiphany as I realized things for myself. I was never content to merely accept a convenient set of answers. I could sense that the worldview of my home and family was too confining to satisfy my desire to question and understand everything.
I left home and headed to the city for college. Prior to my departure, I found a few books that had deeply inspired me and allowed me the freedom to explore great ideas. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. The Trial by Franz Kafka. One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. These paired up with many of the great minds of western philosophy in my first few years of college, and I gladly shed the confines of my cultural Christian upbringing. I began to explore a variety of religions and philosophies and felt at home among philosophers, mystics, and writers who had clearly been asking the same questions that I was grappling with, and for thousands of years.
Wicca and Paganism fascinated me for a while, but soon gave way to great thinkers like Jiddhu Krishnamurti and Ken Wilber. Taoism and Hinduism expanded my mind, too, but it was in Buddhism that I found the greatest connection: a path to the sacred that required no belief in a mythical God, but merely the pursuit of self-knowledge and a disciplined path to greater awareness and happiness. While my core approach to my life and the world is still rooted in Buddhist philosophy, I have found it most fulfilling to incorporate elements of spiritual wisdom from all the paths and religions I have explored in order to feel the greatest connection to the Divine.
While great minds and great traditions inspired and enthralled me for much of my adult life, and still do today, there was always something missing as I read even the most brilliant and illuminating spiritual wisdom. It seemed that every possible question had already been answered in hundreds of ways. Yet my longing grew, and my questions remained, gnawing at the heart of my being. I began to understand that much of the spiritual and philosophical literature that I read was plenty to engage my hungry mind, but my soul wanted more. My soul needed to meet the Divine face to face, in the manifest world.
Meeting the Divine
I have always wanted to know things for myself, to experience them for myself. This kind of knowing comes from inside, and is certainly informed and influenced by the world around me, but it is essentially inner knowing. It must come through experiencing things in the world, not just in the mind or in a vision. And if I am going to really experience and know the Divine, I must include my personality and perspective and personal history and biases and all that I am.
In every moment I meet the world, and in that meeting, the Divine sings. And this happens all the time, and is mostly unconscious. Day after day, we all meet the Divine in every moment, over and over again. Do we notice? Do I notice?
Pilgrimage has often brought me into present moment awareness so that I am more fully conscious of my own life and the world around me. When I am able to stay present with that, moment after moment, I feel a different connection with the world. That connection, to me, is the connection with the divine richness that fills every thing, every moment. And in those moments when I’m aware of my connection, I know that everything around me is sacred.
I’ve been looking for the sacred since childhood. I’ve been searching for an undeniable experience of the Divine. I have always sought to know the truth in everything. I wanted to be blown away by something that was much, much bigger than me, more powerful, transcendent. I sensed that it was possible, and some of the spiritual books I read in my mid-twenties led me to believe that there were those who had indeed experienced things in the course of spiritual practice that shattered every notion they had about God and self and religion. It was this “real” connection to the Divine that my heart longed to experience.
Skepticism was, and still is, my greatest ally in this search. I suppose that my mantra, as un-spiritual as it may be, has always been prove it. Stories about holy men walking on water and performing miracles never did much for me. Even now, I am a firm believer that I am as capable of knowing, experiencing, and communing with the divine as any “holy man” ever was. Everything within me has always agreed. Prove it.
It never made sense to me that God was a father-figure hovering in the clouds far above us, ready to cause catastrophe and punishment in the blink of an eye, or doling out blessings to those who bow in reverence to his holiness. That seemed too mythic to me, and also provided much too easy an answer. Indeed, it also seemed a little too much like creating God in the image of man, along with a big ego and a sense of self-righteous justice.
It became clear to me that I would never know or experience the Divine through words in books, no matter how wise or inspiring. As my deepest spiritual questions became less rooted in the mind and more rooted in a vague felt sense, I began to experience moments of connection to the Divine, flashes of understanding, and brief, unspeakable epiphanies. Hints that inspired deeper questions, keeping the flame of the search alive within me. I couldn’t help but notice that these transcendent moments usually occurred while I was walking alone through the woods.
As I spent more time in nature, I began to feel something mysterious, powerful, and beautiful. It seemed much more likely, to me, that those Buddhist monks meditating in caves and on mountaintops were probably onto something. Whatever God is, it was in the company of trees and streams and rocks and flowers. Even life and death seemed to make sense in the natural world, where things blossomed and withered gracefully, silently. To me, that was sharing the company of the Divine, and I could feel it.
Robert Louis Stevenson once said “the great affair is to move.” I, too, have had a lifelong affair with motion, within which my yearning has never been satiated. Maybe I can attribute this yearning to all those family road trips to Florida during my childhood. Maybe it was fueled by driving back and forth from Baltimore to Tennessee to visit my family during the holidays. It was definitely fueled by a cross-country road trip to Colorado with my best friend Michael in 1999. And it was greatly fortified by my tour of the midwestern U.S. playing the flute with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. There have been many other adventures, many calls to the road, many expanses of straight or curvy undiscovered places that beckon teasingly and lure me out. It works every time. If I have a day or more and the spark of a new place, I’ll happily hit the road.
Back in 1999 on that road trip to Colorado, something else was also sparked. Up until that time I had never really been hiking or spent much time in nature, even though I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of east Tennessee with the Appalachian Trail only twenty minutes away. Back then I’d never even heard of the Appalachian Trail, and when the time came for me to go to college, the first thing I wanted to do was move to “civilization” and get away from the boring rural scene, so I moved to Baltimore. But there I was, just a few years later, in Colorado with the Rocky Mountain playground dancing all around me, and it finally struck me that I wasn’t a city girl at all. Not at heart, anyway. During those days in Aspen, we hiked to the most incredible places I’d ever seen. The most memorable hike was to a place called Electric Pass, aptly named for the way person would die if caught there during a thunderstorm. It was the most difficult hike of my life and I was ill prepared. I knew nothing about dealing with high altitude. I took only one small bottle of water with me, and I wore beat-up old running shoes. The people we passed on the trail kept warning us to turn around immediately if the clouds began to roll in. These were people with hiking boots and trekking poles, and they seemed to really know what they were talking about.
Michael and I walked up through aspen forests, past stunted evergreens, across the tree line and into incredible fields of wildflowers and streams. The path changed from a dirt track to a washed out gully, and within a mile of the top of the pass, the clouds began to roll in. Michael had been walking pretty far ahead of me, and at that point I saw him stop. We had to turn around and get out of there before the storm hit, but we stopped briefly to rest before heading back. Did I ever need to rest! My whole body was overwhelmed! My legs were about to collapse, my mouth was dry, my stomach felt like it was going to heave its way out of my mouth, and my lungs were quivering in a spasm. I could hardly breathe at nearly 14,000 feet and there were black spots in my field of vision. Tears had been streaming down my face for miles already. I knew that I was definitely in way over my head, and we were going to be struck by lightning on this pass if we didn’t get down in time.
As I sat there in the grass and flowers, I looked around. There were snowcapped mountains in every direction, mountains that looked impossible to climb, and yet we had walked for hours and had nearly made it to the top. But a person can only get there on foot. In that moment, I realized that there are amazing places in the world that most people never see because it’s so difficult to get there. That realization kept me moving a step at a time down that trail. The rain poured. It was freezing. Feeling inspired by my realization, though, I picked up a collection of beautiful rocks on the way down the trail, carrying them in my hands since I had no backpack, and the next day my arms hurt even more than my legs because of it. The pain was sweet, hard earned. We had covered 12.5 miles of the Electric Pass trail and I had never felt more alive!
Many years have passed since that monumental hike. Since then, I’ve hiked in other parts of Colorado, in the Appalachians of Maryland. Pennsylvania, Vermont, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, in the Alps of France and Switzerland, the Pyrenees of France and Spain, the Andes in Peru and Bolivia, and the Tibetan Himalayas. I’ve hiked mostly solo, since it’s increasingly more difficult to align my schedule with those of my friends. I’ve been lost. I’ve been caught in the rain. I’ve slid on my backside down steep scree-covered hillsides. Once I thought I’d never get back down a trail that required extensive climbing on cables and ladders. Every time, there’s a point where I know I’m in way over my head. And every time, I touch a place within myself that requires me to abandon maddening thought and just function, move intuitively, and trust the people who show up to help.
My search continued. My questions deepened. Moments of transcendence were rare, but now and then I would experience a sense of connection to something much greater than myself, and these moments seemed more real than all the others and left me feeling more alive. But these experiences were ephemeral, and I was often left feeling more confused than ever in their wake. In spite of many undeniable moments of what I considered to be connection to the Divine, my skepticism persisted.
In the early fall of 2003 I entered into a period of darkness. In outward appearance, my life had finally come together. I was freelancing full-time, making a living teaching and performing. I was financially stable, creatively fulfilled, my home was a nurturing place, and my friends were supportive. My life and career seemed enviable in many ways, and that made it hard for me to freely express the intense sadness that filled me. When my sorrow became nearly unbearable, I contacted my best friend, Michael, who was on a concert tour in the Middle East.
I've been trying to discover the source of these extreme mood swings I've been having lately. In the last few weeks, I keep feeling myself being pulled into this horrible dark sadness. Last week while driving in my car I kept bursting into tears for no apparent reason. When I wake up in the morning I am often so overcome with sadness that I can hardly move. I have been trying to take apart my life to figure out what could be causing this crisis.
That "horrible, dark sadness" is something every sensitive being should feel at one time or another. This is a realm of suffering. There is constant change. You will die; everyone and everything you know will pass. Feel into it.
I followed Michael's advice. I did "feel into it" and after a few days the sadness began to subside. The feeling that emerged next was violent. There were moments when I felt the desire to let go of the wheel of my car. I wanted to crash, to lie down in the street, to feel some kind of shocking impact that would destroy me. The feeling of violence gradually faded just as the sadness had, and I could feel something else beginning to emerge, but I didn't understand exactly what it was. I felt suspended in every way, until one Sunday night.
The energy of the entire day seemed different. In the evening I chose to walk along a street I had never walked before. I found a single red chestnut on the sidewalk, though there was no chestnut tree nearby. I carried it with me on my walk, and the whole time I could feel its presence. Even though I wanted to bring it home with me, I could sense its desire to leave me, and this feeling intensified as I walked. I finally made my way to the river. I stared at the water, then at the chestnut. I knew I had to throw the chestnut into the water, and I considered its path. On one side, the flow was stopped completely, all stagnant; in the center, the water flowed freely, unobstructed by any stones; on the far side were many rocks and obstacles that could tear the chestnut apart. I decided that I should send the chestnut down the center of the river into free-flowing water, and I tossed it up in an arc toward that section of the river. It hit a large rock and bounced very high, landing in the middle of the rocky flow. I felt shocked. I even felt like crying. What have I done, I've sent this little chestnut along a path that it may not survive. And then I felt like laughing, to think I had any control over the destiny of this little seed.
In that moment, something changed. The light of the evening began to fade. It was very cool, and I felt like I, too, was caught in the river, following its ever-changing flow. I walked home, buzzing with this strange little symbolic scene.
At home, I couldn't concentrate. I wandered into my bedroom and cleared the clutter from my meditation cushions. I had never once sat there to meditate since I moved into the house, but that night I followed my intuition to sit and allowed everything to unfold.
At first a million things swirled around in my mind. Eventually I began to see images, faces of friends and other people from my life with their eyes closed, expressionless. At first the images came very slowly, and then flowingly, and then in very rapid succession. Suddenly I felt like I had driven off a cliff, but instead of falling I was afloat in darkness. I became aware of my body as a single, synchronized being, much more than a sum of parts. Energy flowed evenly through my entire body all at once: vibration. As the experience continued, I couldn't feel the form of my body at all, only energy. I felt round and light. Sometimes my head felt detached and full like it would burst. There were sensations of sudden hot and cold, and an extended period of a forward, churning energy that started from the base of my spine and built up. It was strange and very powerful. The energy stirred for a while, and finally rushed up my body in a jolt, and I felt deep grief. Tears streamed down my face.
The energy began again as before. It came in waves at first, then it became a continuous circle, and then it was a constant presence, saturating every bit of my being. Something within me shifted and I began to feel a circle of energy forming on the top of my head. The sensation was the most incredible, present, perpetual blissfulness, and a smile began to spread across my face. This smile was unlike any other I had ever experienced. It wasn't in reaction to anything, but just there in the whole of me. I have no idea how long I sat in meditation that night, but eventually the experience came to a natural conclusion, and I went to bed.
The next morning when I awoke, the entire world was glowing, and the blissful smile was still with me. I felt so full of life that I could hardly maneuver my body. I could see more clearly, I felt everything more deeply, and I was quivering with energy. I felt alive and attuned to every cell. The quality of the morning light was so golden that I could actually feel it. It wasn't at all abstract, but touchable, tangible. I felt very strange in relation to the ground, the bathroom sink, and the computer. Everything seemed both too close and too far away. My body could hardly contain me. I had never felt greater joy and happiness.
In the months that followed, my experience intensified. I became aware of the subtle energies in my body and all around me. I meditated daily and experienced euphoric states of bliss that filled me with greater pleasure than I had ever imagined possible. Some days would bring uncontrollable laughter or weeping. Sometimes my energy would expand and I would lose all awareness of my physical body. I began to feel energy pouring down through my head, warm and dense like honey.
After a few months of these amazing experiences, I began to feel the energy gathering in my head. During meditation, the pressure would build and it felt as if my face was being contorted and stretched. Initially, the feeling was merely strange, but the sensations of pressure became more and more intense. It felt as if my skull was being expanded from the inside out, and though it was reminiscent of a headache, I couldn't locate any 'headache' in my body.
This feeling became constant, and whenever I would enter into a passive state of attention, as in watching a movie or driving, the pressure would intensify. On several occasions the experience became so overwhelming that I began to panic. During these panic attacks, I felt as if my skull would crack open. Sometimes I would hyperventilate, sometimes I felt like I was floating out of my body, and sometimes I would feel as if I was going to faint. I began to intuitively understand that my body was undergoing a transformation to accommodate these powerful energies. As the energies stabilized, I experienced blissful feelings of peace and love, and I began to receive great insight and personal revelations during meditation. I felt greater happiness than ever before in my life, a happiness that didn’t seem to be about anything at all. People began to notice that something about me had changed. I felt it, too. I was different. As I continued to meditate, I began to propose the question, what now? To me, it seemed clear that this process must have been unfolding for a reason, for some greater purpose, and I was ready to know more. It was during one such meditation that an idea reappeared from the depths of my memory, and I realized that my time had come to walk the Camino de Santiago.
One of my oldest and dearest friends, Charles, and I were having lunch one day in the summer of 2001. Travel and adventure were subjects that often came up in the course of our conversations, and we had both been exploring our spirituality together for years. Charles had always been more of a spontaneous adventurer than me, and he had travelled extensively as an off-Broadway musician and a flight attendant. My own travels at that point had been few. Charles had been reading a spiritual adventure book, and we began to talk about it as we had lunch. The book was by one of his favorite celebrities, actress-turned-New-Age-icon, Shirley MacLaine. I had heard about her books and had never been particularly interested in them, but I listened attentively as Charles spoke about her book. An adventure story, a far-out spiritual journey along an ancient path in Spain. I grew more and more curious, and Charles promised to let me borrow the book when he was finished. By the next week, I had the book in hand.
The Camino is the story of Shirley MacLaine’s journey of walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in northern Spain. Though centered around her own experience of making that journey, the book also included a basic history of the pilgrimage, personal vignettes, and some far-flung New Age spiritual ideas, for which Shirley MacLaine is famous. I began reading the book the very day that Charles gave it to me, and within a few pages, I experienced the strangest sensation that I had ever before known. It was as if time had been suspended. I felt a tingling deep within my gut, which then rushed to my brain as an aha! I knew one thing only in that moment: I absolutely had to walk the Camino. It was the most intense sureness that I had ever felt about anything. I tried to relax and calm down, but it was as if my whole being was chanting the same message, you have to do this, you have to do this, you have to do this! I continued to read the book over the next few days, and the message grew more and more insistent. It seemed a little crazy to me, to travel to Spain to walk 500 miles. I was in terrible shape, physically, and had never been camping or backpacking in my life. But before I had finished the book, I had begun to make a list of the supplies that Shirley MacLaine had included in her journey. My own disbelief and doubt were mixed with a subtle joy that was like nothing that I’d ever felt before. It seemed that I had stumbled upon a part of myself that had never before been awakened. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know when, but I knew beyond any doubt that I was going to walk the Camino.
I planned to walk the Camino the following summer. Then, tragedy struck the world when terrorists drove a few planes into prominent American buildings. My country then declared war, and misunderstanding and conflict in the world became a much more personal issue for me to contend with. I wasn’t sure what to believe, who to trust, or what to do with myself. Suddenly, walking the Camino seemed like a novel, yet unwise idea. As I invested myself in trying to make sense of my life, my country, and my world, I let the idea retire into the back of my mind. It remained in the back of my mind until the late fall of 2003.
The book lay on the floor almost staring at me. A chill shot through my body. It seemed hard to believe that bumping into the shelf could have caused a book to fall. Especially this book. I bent down and picked it up, holding it in my hands for a few moments. I hadn’t thought about Shirley MacLaine’s book The Camino since September 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks had occurred. Now, following my awakening and in the midst of the strangest few months in my life, the book had reappeared. I placed the book down on top of the other books so that I could see it more easily and walked away from the shelf. My mind tried to dismiss the incident as mere coincidence, but recent experiences in my life had convinced me to trust my intuition. I sat down, lost in contemplation.
The Camino de Santiago began to appear in conversations with random people with whom I had never discussed the pilgrimage. Shirley MacLaine’s book randomly called out to me from the shelf, along with Paulo Coehlo’s book The Pilgrimage. I took these two books from the shelf and placed them on the table beside my bed for a while. I began to seriously consider walking the Camino. I ordered some books and began to research what would actually be involved in undertaking this path. The more I read, the stronger the feeling grew.
The feeling that I had experienced when I first read Shirley MacLaine’s book reappeared from deep within me. It all began to make sense. With all the dramatic changes that had been happening to me as I continued to practice meditation, I had begun to wonder what do I do with myself now? I sought to find a way of dedicating myself to my spiritual path. I sought an extensive period of meditation and contemplation, to listen to the universe and my highest self so that I would the learn things that I needed to learn for my continued growth. But largely, I didn’t really know why I felt called to walk the Camino. It was the most clear, yet inexplicable thing I’d ever known. I knew that I had to go, and I knew that it had to be soon.
In December of 2003, I mentioned the idea aloud for the first time to my best friend, Michael. He was surprised but supportive. We had both been spiritual seekers for all the years of our friendship, and having been called to follow his own unusual spiritual path, he could understand what I was talking about. Once the words had slipped from my mouth, I felt like the whole process was set in motion. I experienced a strange, yet clear sense of connection to a path that felt much, much bigger than me, and synchronicities of every kind came into my life. The universe seemed to be conspiring to make my journey along the Camino fall right into place.
Many people often asked me why? That has always been a difficult question to answer. In twenty-first century America, following a spiritual calling is low on the list of priorities for most people, even those who are religious. Being intuitively guided to make a spiritual journey was conceptually appealing to many of the open-minded people I encountered, especially those interested in New Age spirituality, but when it became apparent that I wasn’t merely fantasizing, even those people began to wonder what had happened to me. My Christian friends understood the ancient concept, and many hoped that I would be saved during the journey, since I was not Christian. The vast majority of people that I talked to, though, either thought I was losing my mind or that I was simply taking a trip inspired by a book. My mother couldn’t understand it at all, and dramatically declared that I could find whatever I was looking for within the walls of a church, and what I was talking about doing was completely insane. I told her the same thing I told many other skeptical and concerned friends and acquaintances: I can’t quite explain it, but you’ll just have to trust me.