One truism of a genuine pilgrimage is that the wisdom we bring home is completely unexpected. We depart determined to figure out how to be more effective at work, only to find ourselves coming home to quit our job before we head to Spain to tutor Basque kids. We head to Tibet determined to leave behind a lover, only to call her a month into the trek to tell her we are finally ready to commit. We ride our bike across the country to mend a broken heart and learn how to be on our own, only to meet a fellow cyclist on the road and fall in love—permanently.
There’s more. Once we’ve returned from a pilgrimage and look back at the adventure, we see that hints of the lessons we needed to learn were everywhere.
When I went on a pilgrimage to South Korea some 13 years ago, clues that my biggest lesson would be to “lean in” to life’s challenges started on day one. We were standing at the airport in Seoul waiting for a ride to our first monastery when a brochure fell off the information booth next to me. Picking it up, I expected to see photos of smiling hikers on Mount Chiri. Instead it was a list of admonitions. The first one was, “Why hope for perfect health? Perfect health leads only to greater greed. Treat illness as medicine, not disease.” The second? “Why long for a life free from hardships? Such a life leads only to haughtiness and self-pampering. Make worries and hardships a way of life.”
Since the admonitions came from Korea’s largest monastic order, I figured they were worth remembering. At that point, though, I was still the eager pilgrim readying myself for enlightenment somewhere around day four.
Except that the pilgrimage was more difficult than I had imagined. For the first few days we stayed with a small group of elderly women who had been sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in World War II. If their stories weren’t heartbreaking enough, one of them became convinced that I was the baby who had been taken from her a half century ago. My very presence caused more heartbreak, and my departure was wrenching for both of us.
Then there were the hygiene issues. I started to notice that whenever I got closer than five feet to someone on public transportation, she would pull out a cloth handkerchief and stuff it up her nose in disgust. Given our lack of bathing—the monasteries offered only occasional showers to female mendicants—and increasingly filthy robes, I wasn’t surprised.
Finally, one morning our lead monk announced, “bathhouse.” My dharma sister and I were sent to a Korean spa to get clean.
Korean bathhouses are a wonderland of pools, mud pits, saunas, and massage tables. After spending some time in the pools and a sauna, I was directed to get on a huge metal table. Climbing onto the slippery surface was its own challenge. When I tried to hoist myself up, I slid right past the woman whose job it was to massage me. She had to grab me as I went flying by.
Once you are lying on your back, your face is covered with a cool cucumber mush so you won’t be able to see what is about to happen, which is this: she slaps you silly. Then she will scour you from top to bottom with something that feels suspiciously like a pot scrubber.
The minute the “masseuse” started scrubbing I wanted to bonk her on her head with the wash bucket—it hurt that much. Instead I tried leaning in to the pain. It worked, and I was one clean monastic when I finally got out of there.
I tried again when we were later stranded in a small mountain cave during a typhoon. The storm was dangerous. We had some protection and food, but nobody knew how long the front would last. When I fully leaned in to the situation, I realized that the exhaustion I was feeling came from my resistance to the challenges we had faced. By leaning in to the moment I could see clearly and respond more effortlessly to what was happening. On the mountain this meant riding out the storm by spending the next two days chanting with a young nun. By the time we were able to leave, a quiet happiness had taken over, one that has never left.
The Buddha taught that while happiness is ours, it is also true that sorrow is an integral part of every person’s life. Once we stop running from difficulties and instead lean in to them, anything can happen. Even miracles.