Heard of the Kumbha Mela? It’s quite possibly the largest human gathering on the planet, a 2,000-year old celebration on the Ganges river that draws as many as 100 million spiritual seekers and pilgrims once every 12 years. Those dedicated seekers are a diverse bunch: international travelers, yoga teachers, Hindu leaders, mystic recluses.
Makeshift bridges and tents and medical services have cropped up in the past month to serve or shelter all of them, almost like limited-time, pop-up boutiques.
As these millions will no doubt attest, we all yearn to discover a deeper connection to something spiritual or even just more “authentic” in ourselves. But we don’t necessarily have to travel half way around the world to get there.
As Deborah Willoughby puts it, “The specific destinations—Jerusalem, Mount Kailash, Canterbury, Bodh Gaya, Mecca, Mount Kilimanjaro, Prayaga Raja—vary by culture and spiritual path, but the lure is always the same.” That lure is sometimes just something bigger. Something that seems—from afar—more intimate.
More often than not, a pilgrimage denotes a religious or spiritual quest and involves traveling long distances—like when devotees in India roll, carefully, on the ground surrounding sacred mountains like the Arunachala, or when pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain. But for many of us, the most important trips we take on any given day are much closer to home.
Every time you walk into a yoga studio, for example, you can set the intention to discover something more authentic in yourself. Before taking a considerable risk, like switching careers—something some of us might call a leap of faith—spend time in self-reflection and exploring possibilities. It’s more of a “close to home” kind of pilgrimage.
For inspiration for your not-quite-a-pilgrimage, take a look at online startups like Codecademy, Coursera and Udacity. These are online education-focused communities that allow you to study with top-tier teachers for free, in your pajamas. These services might not offer classes in Sanskrit or yoga philosophy (yet!) but they can help you gain confidence exploring sometimes entirely foreign career paths (and gain real-world experience) in a structured, yet social environment without quitting your day job.
According to Codecademy’s co-founder and CEO, Zachary Sims, a student in Kenya did just that. She was in the middle of a medical internship when she began learning online how to code, excited by just how much the internet empowers others to create. Her curiosity paid off. Two weeks into her internship, she quit. The internship, that is. And she eventually landed a paying job as a Ruby developer.
Arguably, her success depended on cultivating qualities that Deborah Willoughby believes are necessary for any pilgrimage: “steady attention centered in the present, the ability to drop preconceived notions, and—above all—a willingness to open ourselves, patiently and reverently, to what we don’t yet know how to see.”
For more, check out Deborah Willoughby’s contemplative essay on how pilgrimage transforms from a once-in-a-lifetime-journey-to-your-deepest-self-in-a-foreign-land to an ongoing spiritual practice.
Photo courtesy Kumbha Mela 2013