Can a pilgrimage also be an inner journey?

For centuries, pilgrims have taken to the open road, making a journey in the world that they hope will also invite some inward shift or transformation. Perhaps they have reached a life stage, may feel stuck or at a crossroads, want to move on after loss, or grow as a person in some way. There is a sense that something needs to be addressed but the specific outcome may be unclear or very generalised like 'being happier' or 'moving on'. Pilgrimage has been, and remains, one way to support this kind of growthful change.


In everyday life, we might have the urge to take a 'good walk' in our nearest countryside to 'clear the head' and this can be a valuable way to invite some inward shift. More exceptionally we may wonder about making a longer pilgrimage. You may already have clear plans, perhaps even for one of the demanding 'Camino' routes. My article is intended to offer ideas that encourage that inner shift as your journey unfolds.

Beginning - to everything there is a season

It's possible to think that we start our pilgrimage 'at a certain place and on a particular day', and also that we'll 'end there at such and such a time'. This is useful for booking dates with our employer or airline, and, it's a very concrete or 'yang' way to picture our journey.

We can also notice that our pilgrimage has a 'season'. That, even as we simply consider it, we are in the 'era' or the 'headspace' of this journey. This is a more 'fuzzy' or 'yin' framing of our journey and invites openness of how we feel about it - about our anxieties, excitements and limitations. What do we expect? Warmth? Social contact? Aloneness? Hardship? What do we want? What do we dread? What do we dream?

Perhaps we can support our 'opening' with shorter walks, or other intentional movement like Qigong or yoga. Maybe some psychospiritual counselling would invite parts of us forward into awareness. Some reflective time or meditation can also invite awareness about all this. A 'getting still' can be part of the getting ready to be getting going. If journaling works for you, why not start before the start?

Out of the norm

Suppose for a moment that right now within us arose a clear awareness of all that is ready to express through us as the next version of our life. This would be impactful! Things would change. That is, things would change if we could release the old version of ourselves.

In therapy, we say, "Things change when you do something different" i.e. there needs to be a behavioural change, not simply feeling different or thinking differently. Or sometimes we say, "If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you've got."

In Gestalt psychology, this is the 'contact emergency' of novel contact with our environment. Novel contact contains the possibility of creating a new frame of reference for our worldview.

In practice, this means that a pilgrimage needs to involve a decisional 'stepping out of' the normal functioning of our lives. We let go of our 'normal world', our 'familiar people' and our 'usual structures' in a way which is impactful, and to the extent that it's possible. To create, we start with a blank canvas (if we can). When there is 'no-thing' and 'no way' then the Thing, the Way emerges most clearly into that space. 

We need to immerse in this experience long enough or deeply enough to 'lose ourselves' and our 'business as usual' ways of being. We intend there to be enough 'empty space' to be refilled with our new frame of reference.

Connection with self and others

Part of stepping 'out of our norm' might include testing how we are with others. If our usual way is to be gregarious and talkative, what is it like to be quiet, and walk alone sometimes? What would it be like to ease off on mobile communication? What do we hear inside when we look at this part of ourselves? 

If our usual way is to withdraw, to prefer solitude or quiet, what is it like to make contact with others along the way? Can these courageous others teach us something about life, and about being in relationships with people? What do we hear inside after an impactful conversation with someone?

Thin places

A 'thin place' is a geographical location at which we 'somehow know' there is or will be something of personal meaning to us. The 'thin place' could be, for example, a shrine, an ancient monument, an outstanding tree or an old remembered place from our past. 

Pilgrimage takes us to a 'thin place' as our destination. Along the way there may be other places that we expect or discover to be 'thin', to have personal meaning.

At a 'thin place' something of importance to us seems closer. And, we can go to that place with expectation, a hope that our being there will reconnect us with that personal meaning. It's OK to expect, to intend, to ask for that.

Notice that on a long and well-established pilgrimage even a hostel, bridge or the grassy bank under a tree may be experienced as 'thin'. If a place is 'known to be thin' it attracts other seekers there, and so a collective expectation builds. A faith may arise that this particular place will somehow meet our sense of connection with it.

So, as we prepare for pilgrimage, which 'thin place' will be our destination? What have we heard about it? What does this mean to us personally? Which part of us knows something already about the 'thinness' there?

Expectation vs personal experience

Our destination, or an important waypoint, may be famously known as a 'thin place' and so we take with us in our seeking an expectation that something of meaning may be nearer to us in that place. Many before us may have taken to it an expectation, a faith, and we in turn add our sense of our connection with that place into the localised field. 

It's important to remember that, although we may not be the first person to experience the 'thinness' in a particular place or building what is unique is the personal knowing that may arise out of our reconnection there.

Our true nature in the fabric of life is unique, and alignment with that which is personally meaningful invites us towards our personal, unique possibility. So, it is our direct and personal experience that is ultimately of significance in that place and on this journey. This may 'not feel like anything' but it's important not to compare our direct experience with that of our fellow pilgrims or historical accounts.

Trusting our burden to a higher consciousness

There is a quote (often attributed to Einstein) that says something like "We can't solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it." The implication is that we need to engage a higher consciousness to invite the problem to shift.

There is a tradition in pilgrimage that we carry something like a small stone to represent our burden and that we place it somewhere, 'surrendering' our burden as part of the journey.

My understanding of the idea of using the stone to represent our burden is this possibility of inviting it to move towards, and remain with, an evolved consciousness which will, ultimately, resolve it.

What is this burden that we carry? What seems like the best object to represent it? How would we really feel about letting it go?

Destination and ending

From a person-centred perspective, we are a 'process' not a 'product'. My experience is that the process or journey itself has meaning and that the 'destination' or 'outcome' may be a transient moment.

At this point, as with a pilgrimage, I return to the beginning. I wrote that pilgrimage has a seasonality and I would say that we remain in 'the season' of our pilgrimage for some time after we return.

Do we 'get back to work' and 'hit the floor running'? Maybe we have to. And, perhaps, there can be time for integration, time to 'chew over' and reflect upon our journey. This is when a little psychospiritual counselling may be valuable to have experiences validated and reheard, or when meditation may invite some 'digestion' of the meanings that have emerged.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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York, YO31
Written by Richard Kershaw, Psychotherapeutic Counsellor Reg. MBACP (Accred)
York, YO31

I offer to support clients through life stage transitions & other periods of change, such as shifts towards more meaningful career, pilgrimage and blocks to creativity. If you're wondering whether I might be able to help with your specific experience just email - it's the simplest way to begin and, if I can't help, I can often suggest ways forward.

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