Practicing Transformative Pilgrimage, Whether You Leave Home or Not

Practicing Transformative Pilgrimage, Whether You Leave Home or Not

An Excerpt From Casting Indra's Net


A renowned pastoral counselor offers her thoughts on the power of pilgrimage to help us build stronger communities and find belonging to one another.

In 1966 in Indianapolis, Indiana, my parents bought a house in a neighborhood near the end of white flight. Today, in many urban neighborhoods around the United States, white flight has taken an about-face and is now called gentrification. White flight deprived and deprives neighborhoods of human and monetary assets; gentrification returns human and monetary assets but with economic pressures that make it difficult for those still in the community to stay. My point in mentioning this is that communities, like everything else, are changeable. Can we be changeable with a being-with-unity, communitas mentality so wealthier people don’t leave out of fear? And if they return, can they return in a way that will allow those already there to stay if they want to? Of course.

Whenever greed, hatred, and delusion are at the root of how we build community, then no matter whether we stay, leave, or return, we will perpetuate cycles of poverty and extreme wealth inequality that obscure the reality of our shared humanity and pit us against each other in class and caste warfare. How can we move past the delusion that our appearance and our economic situation actually mean we are of different kinds of human species? The pursuit of economic gain at the expense of the wellbeing of others (unrestrained capitalism) is another form of brutality.

The Power of Pilgrimage to Shift Perspective

Many of the cultural practices and assumptions that support zero-sum capitalism are so deeply embedded that they will not be easily changed. To move wholesomely from brutality to mutuality may require that many of us experience a pilgrimage of one sort or another—a transpersonal experience that can only be had by dwelling with people unlike ourselves. I am moved by the transformations Gandhi underwent through such experiences, which we’ll look at in the next chapter. Likewise by Malcolm X’s transformative insight when he was making hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. While there, he had an overwhelming, first-hand transpersonal experience of humanity that ran contrary to the anti-white rhetoric he was taught to believe and had himself professed.

He wrote: “My vocabulary cannot describe the new mosque [in Mecca] that was being built around the Ka’aba, a huge black stone house in the middle of the Grand Mosque. It was being circumambulated by thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes, and every size, shape, color, and race in the world. . . . My feeling here in the House of God was numbness. My mutawwif (religious guide) led me in the crowd of praying, chanting pilgrims, moving seven times around the Ka’aba. Some were bent and wizened with age; it was a sight that stamped itself on the brain.”

After his pilgrimage, Malcolm X became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, which means, roughly, “the one who made Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca and became a generous, noble royal.” Shabazz maintained that racism in the US was evil, but he renounced considering all white people as devils. He proceeded to build additional Muslim movements in the United States.

How to Access the Benefits of a “Stay-Pilgrimage”

Of course, mass pilgrimages do not always result in such a positive view of humanity and one’s place in it. Many injurious and deadly stampedes have occurred during mass pilgrimages in different religious traditions and different countries, and I see these as examples of mobbery overtaking the crowd. Even if many people in the crowd hold the best of intentions, the vibrational quality of the crowd can turn it into a violent melee.

If one is not drawn to be in the midst of such large groups or cannot go on pilgrimage for other reasons such as family responsibilities, lack of paid vacation, lack of resources, or lack of connection to a pilgrimage tradition, I think it is still possible to aspire toward the transformative experience of pilgrimage in one’s contemplative life. To me, this means creating a thirst for wisdom with others who also have that aspiration while not actively trying to separate ourselves from the worldly.

There is the concept of a “staycation”—refraining from the routine of a job but not leaving town, enjoying the ordinariness of home life. Can we have a “stay-pilgrimage”? I learned about the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton when I was a Buddhist graduate student at the Catholic university Holy Names University. Merton, who also wrote about Catholicism and Zen, had a stay-pilgrimage in Louisville, Kentucky, where he lived at Gethsemani Abbey. Merton had an experience similar to that of Malcolm X in Mecca.

Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud . . . And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun . . . If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.”

Some people, like El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, need to leave their communities to understand that we are all together in this thing called life, but some of us can experience what Thomas Merton experienced right at home, during a stay-pilgrimage. How? Perhaps a reflection on the Platinum Rule (much like the Golden Rule, but updated to honor our individual uniqueness) might be helpful. Maybe some lovingkindness meditation would be helpful. What about a reflection on the Prayer of St. Francis? How about tonglen? How about surrendering the delusion of separateness?

There are many ways to realize and actualize our belonging to one another. The Buddha moved grove to grove with his followers. What if we were more invitational about including people in our journeys toward the wholesome? Isn’t every gathering of humans actually a family reunion? The refusal to recognize ourselves as kin takes a lot of energy, so why not be free of that Wrong View and Effort? We belong to one another regardless of our self-absorption. It is psychologically difficult to transform narcissism, but with people who are willing to learn how to mirror and twin, as Heinz Kohut taught, it will be worth the effort because the reward may be the experience of casting Indra’s Net and catching ourselves and each other.

An Affirmation for Supporting Community Through Pilgrimage

I fulfill cosmic integration by becoming an awakening one.

You were born into an ignorance some call “aperspectivalness” (being without a perspective). As your brain functions developed to make simple distinctions (good if it meets your needs, bad if it doesn’t), hold memories, and make interpretations and meaning, you gained perspectives—but they were still manifestations of ignorance of the whole world of phenomena of causes and conditions.

Aperspectivalness is nothing to be ashamed of—we are all limited. The process of awakening means letting go of the clinging to limited perspectives and wrong views, including the view that you are completely separate from everyone else and the view that “worldlings” can be avoided and segregated. Recognizing and accepting your interrelated self in material and nonmaterial realities, you awaken. I fulfill cosmic integration by becoming an awakening one.

From Casting Indra’s Net: Fostering Spiritual Kinship and Community by Pamela Ayo Yetunde © 2023. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

Practicing Transformative Pilgrimage Whether You Leave Home or Not

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