Life is a Pilgrimage

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, I was really going in.

John Muir, naturalist and wilderness advocate

Modern humanity’s love affair with materialism has reached a crossroads, with many seekers choosing to slow down, simplify and walk paths less travelled in the quest for answers to some of life’s deeper questions.

Who are we, where are we going, why is the world in the shape it’s in and what’s the purpose of it all?

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Pilgrims en route to Everest, known as the 'Goddess Mother of Mountains'

Timeless wisdom comes from philosopher, poet and composer Friedrich Nietsche who insisted: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” while physicist Albert Einstein urged: “Look deep into nature, then you’ll understand everything better.”

Possibly the best advice I’ve received was from spiritual and ecological activist Satish Kumar, the narrator of the BBC’s Earth Pilgrim documentary and editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, who as a young man famously walked from India to the nuclear capitals of Moscow, Paris, London and Washington.

We walked together during a 2010 Findhorn workshop about exploring inner and outer landscapes, often discussing the idea of pilgrimage.

What, I asked, would he suggest as a daily practice and way of connecting with the divine. “Walk in nature and ideally alone and in the early morning,” he said, germinating the seed of an idea that has changed my life.

Since then I’ve taken more than 16 million steps in a dozen countries with messages of treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth, also discovering to my delight that many fellow Findhornians have embraced the art of pilgrimage and been inspired by mountains and wilderness.

Yvonne Cuneo, who is best known for her tireless community outreach work, became the first Australian to stand on top of all of Scotland’s 282 Munros, Britain’s loftiest peaks that are all over 3,000 feet high.

The wildness, the remoteness, speaks to my soul and there is no separation.

“Hiking is empowering and it’s when I most feel that I am an integrated part of the natural world,” she says. “When I’m high up, walking on a ridge, I feel like I am part of all I can see and all I can see is part of me. It is my most intense spiritual experience – and by spiritual experience I mean simply that sense of oneness.

“It is a much more intense experience walking through the world fuelled only by my own energy, my own body taking me wherever I want to go, a speck in the landscape, than if I look from a car or train. The wildness, the remoteness, speaks to my soul and there is no separation.

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Yvonne Cuneo on a 14-hour trek in The Great Wilderness of Scotland

“I feel part of the elements, especially when it rains, hails, blizzards on me. And there is something about being physically pushed, stretching my edges – a pure, nourishing exhaustion, arriving home with the mountains inside me, my muscles doing what they’re meant for … and a sense of accomplishment … so empowering. Mountains, rocks, rivers, grasslands, moors, deer, foxes, rabbits, cliffs, Caledonian pine forests – all my cousins.”

Sharing that great five-year Munro-bagging adventure was Findhorn mountain man John Willoner whose passion for high places is undiminished as he nears his 70th birthday.

“I enjoy the continuity of long distance walks and along with bagging all the Munros I would include the Annapurna circuit in Nepal and the Tour de Mt Blanc in Europe among my highlights.”

His advice to would-be pilgrims is: “Give it a go – take the first step.”

It was John who introduced the young sons of co-founders Peter and Eileen Caddy to the mountains with Jonathan Caddy continuing that mentoring tradition and leading monthly community day-walks that often assume epic proportions.

“I like pushing boundaries,” he confided to me after one especially punishing ‘day’ walk that got us back to Findhorn at midnight, feeling shattered but exhilarated. “It’s about stretching ourselves and expanding our capacity to deal with what at first seems like challenging situations.

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Findhorn mountain men Kajedo Wanderer, Jonathan Caddy and John Willoner

“If you can successfully climb Scottish hills throughout the year you can do it anywhere in the world.”

Every two years veteran Findhorn gardener Kajedo Wanderer simplifies his life and walks with fellow pilgrims on the ‘roof of the world’ in the Himalayas.

“It is a way to walk in a conscious, sacred manner, where nothing happens by chance and every turn and every steep up and down of the trail reflect the ups and downs of my life. Walking becomes a way of life and a rhythm develops … the simple repetition makes it a meditation. Every step requires presence and attention and so much of the natural world and the human cultures we are passing through impresses upon us the sanctity of life.

“It is equally about slowing down enough to be able to appreciate intimately the beauty of the natural world: the flowers along our dusty paths, the huge snow clad mountains, the running rivers and the raw beauty of the desert landscapes, the jungles and the placid fields – all of them pointing to something bigger than ourselves and yet all of them also familiar territories of our inner landscape, which we come home to with every step.”

Former Findhornian John Brierley, author of Camino guidebooks, has made it his mission to touch lives with his practical and mystical manuals for the modern pilgrim.

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John Brierley's love affair with the Camino is expressed in his guidebooks

“Pilgrimage is an antidote to busyness and burnout,” he insists. “It’s about slowing down and taking time to contemplate the deeper questions that lie behind our superficial existence. Pilgrimage provides a moment of spaciousness and calm amid the mayhem of modern life – a time to get back in touch with our true purpose for being here.

“The task is then to bring that experience back into our ordinary, everyday lives. After the Camino comes the laundry, the realisation that life itself is pilgrimage. Now everything that occurs along the path is filled with meaning and significance. Behind every mundane question lies a deeper meaning – we just need to look for it. Take the example of a backpack. A backpack is full of symbolism. What size and what we are going to put into it become how we are going to frame and fill our inner spiritual lives. We all have had the experience of taking a pack that is too big and putting stuff into it that we don’t really need and then experiencing blisters or shin splints as a result.

From contentment with little comes great happiness.

Old African saying

John recalls that when he first responded to the call of the Camino in the Eighties, the number registering for a compostela certificate of completion was a few thousand annually. Today it is quarter of a million.

“I am often asked whether this has diminished the Camino experience. Judgement is relative but it is useful to see this in an historical context; the number of pilgrims to Santiago today is the same that walked the route each year in the medieval period!

“What caused its total collapse in the nineteenth century and its staggering revival in the twenty-first? A simple answer to the decline is the rise of materialism. We became absorbed in the pursuit of material welfare to the virtual loss of our spiritual wellbeing. The industrial and technological revolutions left the bulk of humanity connected through GPS but with the loss of our inner compass. The positioning of global satellites connected us to instant information but at the loss of wisdom and spiritual connectedness.”

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Pilgrim Geoff Dalglish at Finisterre, which means the end of the Earth

But that’s changing, he says, explaining the phenomenal revival of the Camino. “We have become so spiritually dehydrated that we are becoming increasingly desperate to quench our existential thirst and reconnect to our essence. The Camino offers one such wellspring that is uniquely accessible and draws pilgrims from 140 different nations – from every religion and those of no religious persuasion.

“I know of no other agent of change and transformation that is so eclectic in its embrace. It is available to everyone, of every age, culture, class, creed and ability. You can collect a compostela by walking, going on horseback, by bike and, increasingly, by wheelchair.”

And, if you have the time, almost everywhere is within walking distance, I’ve discovered in wanderings that have taken me to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, the Inca Trail in Peru and the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.

The summit is named Uhuru, which is the Swahili word for freedom. And for me that says it all.

Geoff Dalglish

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