Pilgrimage as Presence

Pilgrimage as Presence


The physical act of walking brings us more fully back into the present. Author Antonia Malchik shares, "Walking is what we turn to when we wish to show our devotion to our gods, and how we move when the precariousness of our precious human existence is laid bare."

During long hours of meditation, Zen Buddhist monks will rise to their feet, go outside, and walk slowly, extremely slowly, a meditative practice called zinhin enacted through their footsteps. Walking meditation is, like all meditation, a practice of being present. Of deliberateness. Zinhin adds the extra element of being aware of the body’s movement. Your awareness is on the press of each footfall, the slight swing of the arms. As you breathe in, and out, with the lift of the foot, the balance, and the planting down again—walking really is a glorious act—you notice other motions, like the way our shoulders shift and swing with each step forward, a metronomic inheritance of human evolution.

We walk when our hearts burn, when our minds are jumbled, when the pain of loss becomes a raging, inescapable force in our own bodies. Historically, we have walked to find physical healing when nothing else could cure us, and we have walked to confront our deeper internal questions, the chaotic “why?” that is the unceasing, never-answered cry of what it means to be a human being. Why are we here? Why do we suffer? Why do we go to such lengths to inflict suffering on ourselves, and on one another?

The technological age has distanced us both from our physical selves and from the physicality of the planet, but it hasn’t taken away our need for deeper meaning, felt most acutely in times of grief, heartbreak, or a spiritual crisis. Neither material goods, nor a blockbuster Hulu original series, nor an engaging Twitter account, is enough when we are faced with the reality of our own mortality. We cannot escape the knowledge that we die, that our most beloved relatives and friends die, that relationships end and landscapes we love will inevitably change. We protect ourselves from these realities with the chimes and beeps and pings and harried hurry of our overscheduled lives. But they don’t go away, no matter how busy we are.

The deeper we bury our fears under the dings and distractions, the further we distance ourselves from the connection that’s defined our evolutionary path to being Homo sapiens: that link between ourselves and the delicate ecosystem that makes our existence possible. Walking for spiritual enlightenment or in emotional distress forces us to re-engage with the physical world. We have to step in dirt, duck under trees, walk under the sun and through the rain. We have to think about our bodies, how our backs are feeling, whether our feet ache, how hot we are, how cold, how tired. And to marvel at what we are capable of when tested.

Walking forces us squarely back into the knowledge that the conveniences of air conditioning, central heating, insulated walls, and chairs have cut us off from the physical reality of life. We have to acknowledge the gravel and tree roots and trash underfoot, smell the apple blossoms and car exhaust, hear the birds and the noise of traffic. We have to remember that we are mammals of the genus Homo, and our neglected bodies are capable of more than we can imagine.

The Camino de Santiago, Mecca, Mount Kailash, Shikoku in Japan, the Nidaros Cathedral in Norway, the shrine of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi in India’s Jammu foothills, Nhlangakazi mountain in South Africa, Croagh Patrick in Ireland, England’s Canterbury Cathedral—throughout the world, there are more opportunities for pilgrimage than any one person can comprehend, and they all carry psychological weight for those who seek them out and follow them on foot. These spiritual lodestars have called to millions of pilgrims over thousands of years. In kind and longevity, they seem to have little in common with more recent journeys to the former homes of writers, artists, or pop stars; but they all tap into basic emotions that we humans long to express: to honor, and to mourn. We honor our gods and our faiths and the artists, writers, leaders, and dissidents who have in some way influenced our lives or worldviews. We mourn the losses of loved ones, our marriages, the ever-present sorrow of the human condition, the saints and spiritual leaders who guide our paths. The ground of pilgrimage trails is hallowed by the feet of those who have gone before.

Walking is what we turn to when we wish to show our devotion to our gods, and how we move when the precariousness of our precious human existence is laid bare. It reopens our relationships with our values, our fears, our purpose. It shows us the path to our own private souls. “The longest journey is the journey inwards,” wrote former Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld in his spiritual diary Markings, “of him who has chosen his destiny.” We walk to find our prophets, our guides, our ancestors, but ourselves most of all, and through ourselves, we find one another.

This article has been adapted from Antonia Malchik’s new book, A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time. Copyright © 2019 by Antonia Malchik.

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