From an American ashram to the holy shrines of India, this pilgrim traces a winding path to higher Consciousness—one that eventually leads her back home.
By Deborah Willoughby
The practice of going on pilgrimage is as timeless as our search for the sacred. Down through the ages, we have traveled to places hallowed by their association with gods, goddesses, saints, and miracles—shrines where the opaque barrier between the physical and subtle realms thins to transparency, and Divinity stands revealed. 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: we are drawn to these sites by the promise of an encounter with the Divine. For those of us on the path of yoga, that encounter takes the form of inner awakening—an ever-deepening awareness of Pure Consciousness, which illumines and supports the world and everything in it.
There was a time when I thought of a pilgrimage as a one-time event, but lately I’ve come to understand that, like the practice of meditation, it is a spiral path by which we wind our way into increasingly subtler realms of awareness. A pilgrimage is both an outer expression of this inward journey and a way of preparing for it. Slowly, over the course of three spiritual excursions, I’ve learned that an astute pilgrim needs the same skills as an accomplished meditator: 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. When we do that—however tentatively and imperfectly—the facade of appearance we are constantly constructing around ourselves slides away and we glimpse the luminous field of Pure Consciousness. This moment of grace can’t be forced. It comes when it comes, in meditation, in the presence of a master, at a shrine, or—as it did for me—seemingly out of the blue on a lonely precipice on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
The first time I visited a pilgrimage site, I went as a tourist. When the Himalayan Institute sponsored its 2001 spiritual excursion to the largest gathering of humanity in recorded history, the Maha Kumbha Mela at Prayaga Raja on the outskirts of Allahabad, I’d been a yoga practitioner for more than a decade. All that time I’d been trying to cultivate a clear, inward, one-pointed mind—without much success. Instead of centering and settling toward silence, my mind remained enamored of the transitory world, racing into the future, mulling over the past, thinking, thinking, always thinking. It seemed to me that what I needed was more practice, more self-discipline, or perhaps (in my darker moments) a full frontal lobotomy, not a trip halfway around the world to a supersized religious festival. I dislike crowds, so the prospect of joining a mega-multitude was distinctly unappealing. Plus I’m skeptical of astrologers, dogma in any form, and outward displays of piety, so I didn’t see how traveling to India to bathe in a “holy” river during an “auspicious” conjunction of planets and stars would bring my restless mind even a millimeter closer to samadhi.
I went to Allahabad expecting a spectacle, and that’s pretty much what I saw—jostling throngs of the faithful, interfused with merchants, tourists, peddlers, beggars, and con men—a swirl-ing mélange of humanity smothered in smoke, dust, and endless noise. But even my skeptical eye wasn’t blind to the heartfelt reverence of the pilgrims from village India who flocked to the mela in staggering numbers. I watched them pouring out of jam-packed buses and railway cars or walking in from who-knows-where, bedding and cooking utensils balanced on their heads, their faces alight. They had come to bask in the spiritual energy of Tirtha Raja (the lord of all holy places), and for them that spiritual energy was fully present, a welcoming force of nurturance and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Although I had neither the faith nor the subtlety of mind to see it for myself, I could see it reflected in their eyes.
The more I thought about the attitude of the pilgrims after I got home, the more remarkable it seemed. Equally remarkable, during the three weeks we’d been at the mela, my mind had settled and quieted during meditation. This in spite of the outwardly unfavorable conditions: nowhere to sit but on the cold ground in a damp pre-dawn chill, breathing smoky air while bhajans blared from the ashram next door. During our stay, my teacher, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, had said repeatedly that obstacles to spiritual progress are powerless in the face of the Divine Presence attending the pilgrims here, but even though I had faith in him (or thought I had), that notion was so at odds with my logical worldview that I’d filed it under “hyperbole.” In retrospect, it had the unmistakable ring of truth.
I set off on my second pilgrimage with a high heart and a relatively open mind. This was my kind of trip—a three-week trekking excursion to shrines in the high Himalayas in the summer of 2005. Ever since childhood, I’d loved the mountains—any mountains—and Swami Rama’s vivid descriptions of majestic peaks, glacial streams, lush valleys, and flower-studded forests in Living with the Himalayan Masters kindled a desire to hike along the “rooftop of the world.”
My interest in sacred sites had been piqued by the Maha Kumbha Mela so I listened carefully when the subject of pilgrimage came up in Panditji’s lectures. Still wedded to logic, I was trying to understand why—since everything is permeated and sustained by Pure Consciousness—it is thought to be more apparent in some places than in others. If Pure Consciousness is everything and everywhere, why set off for a distant shrine to experience it? Panditji didn’t address these questions directly, but gently reminded us that some parts of the human body are sensitive conduits for energy that goes unnoticed by other parts—the nose, for example, is sensitive to odors, which the elbow can’t detect. Similarly, some spots on the planet are sensitive conductors of spiritual energy and others are not. Or to use another analogy, just as iron filings awaken and align themselves along field lines in the vicinity of a magnet, our inner awareness awakens and aligns with Pure Consciousness in the vicinity of a shrine.
To my surprise, this analogy came to life on the steep trail running between the village of Gaurikund and the Kedarnath shrine. This was the first trek in our spiritual excursion—a seemingly endless climb from 6,500 to 12,000 feet, punctuated by icy rain, blisters, breathlessness, and wobbly muscles. Yet the moment I set foot on the trail, joy bubbled up from somewhere deep and unfamiliar, abiding through two sleepless nights in the frigid guesthouse at Kedarnath, a stabbing high-altitude headache, a bellicose swami, and a spill that slathered me in mule muck from ankle to shoulder. For three days, everything was a manifestation of perfection. And not only everything in our immediate surroundings but everything—everywhere and always—was just as it should be, supported and nourished by a bountiful, loving Consciousness. As our buses pulled away from Gaurikund, the euphoria settled into contentment, awakening briefly a few days later as we hiked in the hills above Badrinath, and yet again on the morning we walked into the Valley of Flowers.
Reflecting on the experience later, I saw it had nothing to do with my ordinary self and everything to do with my unknown inner being, awakening and revealing itself in joyous response to the magnetism of these sacred places. And although I’d always dismissed the paeans to the Divine Mother that crop up in contemporary spiritual writing as sappy New Age anthropomorphism, I found myself beginning to think of the awakening spirit I’d experienced in the Himalayas as feminine and maternal—an endlessly giving, all-protecting Mother. That shift in perspective paved the way for a pilgrimage to the ultimate shakti shrine, the temple of the Divine Mother at Kamakhya in Assam.
I’d gone to the Maha Kumbha Mela reluctantly, out of a sense of obligation, and saw, in retrospect, it had been a pilgrimage. I’d intended the second trip as a pilgrimage of sorts, but in truth it was motivated more by my love of mountains than by a search for the eternal. But this third one—the trip to Kamakhya in 2009—was pure pilgrimage. Not only did I believe we were travel-ing to the abode of a powerful and awakened form of the Divine Mother, I also believed an encounter with Her here was as certain as sunrise.
Although I imagined this encounter in all sorts of ways, I knew reality inevitably outruns imagination and both the shrine and my experience would be different than anything I envisioned. Besides, I had finally gained enough spiritual maturity to know that trying to fit anything connected with Divinity—let alone the presence of the Divine Mother—into my current level of understanding would guarantee that I would only see what I already knew how to see. Even so, the memory of the aura of beatitude that had enveloped me in the Himalayas four years earlier fed my anticipation, because I now knew that the awakened Consciousness permeating a sacred site expands and transforms our individual consciousness.
The Consciousness enveloping the Nilachal Hill housing the temple of Kamakhya emanates from the highest form of the Divine Mother, Tripura Sundari. This is the most exalted shrine in tantrism. True to the tantric insight that everything that exists is interwoven, the site is home to not one shrine but to a profusion of shrines—nine main temples and a variety of smaller shrines and sites. Kamakhya is one of the few shrines in India where the imagery of the Absolute is not yet veiled by the personified forms of the gods and goddesses that occupy much of tantric mythology. Each of the nine main shrines is a cavelike structure, nestled in, or lined by, living rock. Instead of touching a murti, as is common in Indian temples, the pilgrims at Kamakhya touch the living body of the Goddess manifesting as water flowing from an underground spring. Each shrine has its own unique energy, but the energy of all of them is subsumed in a tiny underground chamber beneath the main temple.
During the week of lectures Panditji gave before we arrived at Kamakhya, he told us, “Cultivation of the tantric worldview begins with understanding that the primordial pool of Consciousness is beautiful.” The energy at Kamakhya, he explained, is the embodiment of the wish-fulfilling aspect of the Divine Mother, as well as the embodiment of unconditional love and beauty—and the wellspring of joy. “Those who visit Her never go away empty-handed.”
I don’t think Panditji told us what to expect once we reached the inner sanctum, but we knew from his autobiography, Touched by Fire, that it contained a rock in the shape of a yoni from which spring water flows. The only approach would be through a dark, cramped passage down a steep set of stairs. At the bottom, we could expect the narrow ledge to offer just enough room for one or two people to kneel, dip a hand into the water, and ask for the Divine Mother’s blessing.
We spent three days at Kamakhya. Instead of the serene, out-of-the way shrine of my imagination, it was more like a bustling village, at least on the morning of our first visit. It was the day before the Hindu festival of Shiva Ratri and the place was overflowing with pilgrims. Visitors to the inner shrine were being channeled through a narrow cagelike enclosure that ran down a steep hillside, across the back courtyard, and along the long north wall of the main temple before disappearing inside. Even though the sun was hot and the line was barely moving, the people in the cage—there must have been several hundred—were relaxed and cheerful. In fact, everyone was. There was none of the pushing and shoving I’d encountered so often in temples in North India, no aggressive overcharging for flowers and other offerings, and no trace of the belligerence and greed I’d come to expect from priests at temple sites.
This gentleness was even more evident the following afternoon when I finally found my way into the temple cave. I was alone—not a Westerner in sight—and when I reached the spring, the priest was accommodating and kind. It was hot and dark and the triangular yoni, which must have been somewhere in the cavity below the ledge, was blanketed in layers of flowers. I’m almost blind in one eye and couldn’t see where the ledge ended and the pool began, but the priest guided my hand into the cool water and showed no impatience when I lingered for a long moment, trying to quiet my thoughts so I could sense the presence of the Goddess and request a boon. Nothing remarkable happened, not then and not when I returned to the cave in the company of friends the next day. Even so, when our vans pulled away from Kamakhya, I felt refreshed and deeply satisfied.
Early the next morning, I was back on Nilachal Hill. The rest of the group was breakfasting and packing for our flight to Delhi, but a friend was hoping to go into the cave one last time or, if that proved impossible, to do his morning meditation in the temple annex. He wanted company so I went along. The sun was just striking the temple spires as we walked barefoot across the freshly washed stones in the main courtyard. The courtyard itself was cool, silent, and almost empty, but the cage line was already full of women in bright-colored saris, laughing and calling to each other. I wandered around, revisiting my favorite spots before settling down on a block of stone near the top of the high terrace on the temple’s south side.
It was a beautiful morning. Time flowed by as the courtyard came gently to life: schoolgirls in navy skirts and crisp white blouses, black-clad priests leading equally black goats, barefoot workmen scaling the temple dome, and, eventually, visitors—some fingering malas, others with cameras—looking at the figures set into the temple wall. The all-enveloping sense of beatitude that I’d experienced at Kedarnath returned. But this time, my awareness was like a mirror, holding all that passed before it—the sights, the freshening breeze, the whiff of honeysuckle, the warble of birdsong—without involvement or distortion. No discursive mind—only Consciousness conscious of the primordial pool of beauty, here in this place, now on this morning.
Three months later and half a world away, that direct perception of Consciousness reasserted itself—forcefully and completely out of context. I wasn’t on a pilgrimage but vacationing at the Grand Canyon with my husband and niece. We’d been sitting in the sunroom of the Grand Canyon Lodge warming ourselves and waiting for dinner after a chilly day hiking along the North Rim when I wandered onto the patio overlooking the canyon and noticed a trail winding along the rim. I began to amble along it, entranced by the late afternoon light and the immense web of canyons dropping away on the right. I’m extremely wary of heights and walked slowly at first, hugging the left side of the trail, keeping my fear firmly in check. After a hundred yards or so, my trepidation eased and my pace quickened. A huge chunk of rock loomed protectively on the right, but when I rounded it I found myself walking on an impossibly narrow ridge, side canyons plunging into the void on both sides. I froze, torn between the astounding beauty and the awful height. Beauty won. The low angle of the sun enriched the brilliance of the massive walls. I went on, grateful to the biting wind for keeping most people inside—a head-on meeting would force me to abandon the trail’s safe center.
Just as I was beginning to relax again, I rounded another outcrop and found myself alone on Bright Angel Point—10 miles of emptiness falling away in front, sheer walls plummeting into an abyss to the left and right, limitless sky above. I had an instant to think about what I was seeing (two billion years of geology cut by five million years of river) and to consider the infinitesimal speck of time we inhabit, before everything—the wind, the cold, the canyon, the sky, the threat of vertigo—dissolved into luminous immensity. No sense of Consciousness being conscious this time—only Pure Consciousness. Nothing else had ever existed or ever would. A moment of grace lasting one second or 60 or 600—I’ll never know. Two boys came dashing up the trail, the world of appearance reasserted itself, and I was standing on a precipice in Arizona, gazing at a spectacular vista in the late afternoon light.
Walking back to the lodge, stunned and elated, I remembered the three pilgrimages and saw a path spiraling through Allahabad, up to Kedarnath, and down into the cave at Kamakhya, bringing me to a long moment of clarity on Bright Angel Point.
Deborah Willoughby is president emerita of the Himalayan Institute and the founding editor of Yoga International.
Photo by John Valentino