Page from a Pilgrim's Diary

pilgrimage Jan 22, 2023

While we learn about trust, faith, and surrender in everyday life, they are the hallmarks of the pilgrim's progress. On pilgrimage, we learn about these processes in extraordinary ways that differ from when we understand these processes amid the vicissities of everyday life. Here is an account of what has transpired recently and powerful lessons from life's teaching over the past three years.

When we returned from India in 2020, we had completed 22 consecutive years of pilgrimage to India, taking a group of our students to visit temples and holy spots while living at Bede Griffith's idyllic ashram on the banks of the sacred Cauvery river in Tamilnadu. Then, in early March of that year, covid began. It was terrifying: no vaccine to protect immunity, an enormous daily death toll, and no drugs to combat the illness.

Three years passed with a deep longing for the spiritual energy that feeds our souls in India. While we experience the power of India's significance in the west through our spiritual practices, it is a trickle charge compared to the fountain we encounter on India's native soil. Sure, we keep up rituals and techniques in our home and teach our students the full scope of the Tantric experience online. Still, it is not quite the same as the experience of actually being in India and doing these powerful practices. 

2023 has offered us the opportunity to resume our pilgrimages, and there's a nice ring to "pilgrimage 23 in the year 2023!"

Harvest festival at the ashram

Staying in one place for three consecutive years was an exceptional experience, especially after being a frequent flier since 1989. You want to consider 31 straight years of travel (sometimes as much as 100,000 miles a year by air alone) with being entirely homebound in Austin. A sense of security and centeredness develops with the stability of being in one place for a long time.

Travel requires trust along with the ability to give up control. And pilgrimage, somehow, is different from regular trips. There is an anchoring of the present moment that is extremely hard to describe. There is a sense of blessing, connection to the core of one's self, and divine purpose. This year offered unique opportunities to develop faith, trust, and surrender.

The day before we set out from Austin, we watched a documentary on the Trappists, who have a 1700-year history of the monastic tradition. It reminded me of our call to the monastery (Asha and mine), fueled by an uncommon emotion on fire to know something that defied explanation. It was a tremendous experience, one that formed us for life. However, we wouldn't for the world trade the extraordinary journey we have shared: Asha and I cannot conceive of a more integrated self-growth process without each other.

In the days leading up to our departure, our news feed featured reports of the terrible storms and flooding in California. Again, it was a test of faith and trust. Not only that, the two of us would make our way safely there and on time to catch our international flight to India, but our pilgrims meeting up with us there would also make it. California weather is never this wild at this time of the year, so again, the opportunity to practice trust, faith, and gratitude presented itself in new and rewarding ways.

My charming ashram hermitage 

In Burbank, California, we awaited a lost connection to San Francisco, our destination, to catch our international flight to India. The television monitors in the airport played horrific images of landslides, flooding, and extreme wind. A swath of flights across the state of California was affected. It took all our inner resources to stay calm and centered and practice trust. Of course, we engaged in every process we could to figure out alternatives: Asha is quite the magician in such circumstances. Eventually, we arrived at our destination, tired but grateful that we never lost our connection to that sacred otherness we call God or Spirit.

God is often an idea, a concept. However, God as Presence is a palpable reality. When this experience is a genuine felt sense with no trick of the imagination, there is profound and lasting fulfillment known in the depths of one's being. An authentic realization of Presence leaves no doubt that the connection is to that sacred otherness we call God. Such a connection cannot be taken for granted. It is either truly there or simply not there. We learn to know the difference and to accept the truth of what it is.

In this moment, as we make our way to our destination through turbulent winds, a sense of profound peace penetrates our awareness. Thirty-six thousand miles above the earth's surface, moving at over 700 miles an hour in a vestibule made by humans, is nothing short of miraculous. Our life in every moment hangs by a thin thread. We never know what may happen. However, our connection to something other than ourselves, to this cosmic person who shines beyond the darkness with the sun's brightness, this Purusha is the actual object of our pilgrimage.

Our practice space: chanting with Jesus,
Saraswati, Durga, Lakshmi and Lalita.

Jesus made many excellent statements appropriate to the cosmic Purusha of the Vedas. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita gives others a different tone and context and is no less inspirational. From beyond the distant horizons of our universe, a Great Presence has found ways to enter into human consciousness to assure us that such a being exists. There is a soul to the very universe, a mind uniquely its own, and a will that operates as freely as our own.

Many years ago, we came across a beautiful prayer in the writings of psychologist John Gray that we adapted to the language we use in our teaching and daily practice. "Holy One, we open our hearts to you. Come and take your seat in our hearts.

The statement that God's Presence is everywhere does not hold a candle to the palpable Presence of God in the heart. There is a felt sense, a closeness, an intimacy that is impossible to describe. It is simply a connection that is true in every sense of the word and indubitable. And, as contemplative scholar Cynthia Borgealt deftly describes, it is a knowing that we know that we know. I paraphrase here, using my style with words, but giving credit to the source is essential, even as one might improvise upon the original.

Dancers prepping to entertain us

Looking back over 25 years, we can visualize the hundreds of pilgrims we have taken to India on this pilgrimage. They are too many to count or remember. So many return with us again and again. This year, in particular, we know every single pilgrim well. Our group is small due to covid fears, financial constraints, and the war in Ukraine. We were also picky, saying no to many who wanted to join us on this journey.

Now that we are here in this ancient and sacred land, we are so grateful for the group of pilgrims on this journey and the warm welcome we have felt at the ashram and in the temples. Together, we are well into our retreat, chanting mantras, visiting temples, and participating in the monks' spiritual life at the ashram. And now that it feels like covid is no longer an issue, at least here in India, we are confident that our pilgrimage in 2024 will be as profound.

2024 Pilgrimage: Learn More

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