Evan Zelistening: The Pilgrimage of a World Citizen

spiritual pilgrim

Wikipedia defines the word pilgrimage as “a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance”. Pilgrimage traditions can be found in all of the major religions and spiritual traditions of the world. Some famous examples are the Way of Saint James leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the journey undertaken by the characters in Canterbury Tales, the Islamic Hajj, or visits to holy sites such as Varanasi or Rishikesh in India. Wikipedia also mentions journeys to Vladimir Lenin’s Mausoleum or Elvis Presley’s birthplace as  modern-day pilgrimage destinations. I myself have been to some of these places: (Rishikesh and (unintentionally) Elvis’ birthplace) and I have an intention to visit many more, such as the Way of Saint James (and Lenin’s tomb sounds like a good idea).

I understand why people take special journeys like these. They get caught up in the daily grind of life, the quotidian focus on the details, the mundane and material concerns of our existence on this earth. There isn’t much time in between work, picking up the kids, and doing chores and errands to reflect on the more profound aspects of our existence. In fact, sometimes our routines become so repetitive that we find ourselves running on automatic pilot, as if our minds are turned off. I would say that when we realise that we are in this condition, we should be alarmed — we are in an unconscious state. However, when one takes time out of this daily routine and dedicates it to looking deeper beneath the surface of things, to connecting with one’s true self, or to taking a step back and observing one’s life from a higher, more objective point of view, one can become more conscious, one can switch off the automatic pilot and wake up out of the deep, long sleep of daily existence.

There are many ways to do this — some people are able to do this every day through a dedicated time for meditation, for silence, or for reflection. Perhaps this is difficult for others, because they are surrounded by the never-ending stimuli of their lives, and these stimuli pull them back into the sleep. Perhaps it is for such people that a pilgrimage can be fruitful. By removing themselves from the stimuli of their daily lives and putting themselves in a different physical environment, they can more easily remove themselves mentally and spiritually. It is remarkable how much of an effect on us our environment can have — when travelling across the  landscape, through forests and villages, and when reaching places that have an association with holiness, people can feel more at peace. Of course, social stimuli are also of import; when we remove ourselves from the conflicts and social patterns of daily life, and replace these interactions with periods of solitude or with brief interactions with people we meet along the journey, both fellow-seekers and people who simply cross paths with us, we can put many of our concerns into perspective.

I understand all this, but I question whether it is necessary to set aside a dedicated time to embark on our pilgrimages, and whether we must have a dedicated route. What if, instead of thinking of pilgrimages as time-out from our daily existence, we regarded every single moment of every single day as part of our period of pilgrimage? What if our every step, regardless of the direction, were a step towards Mecca, towards our final destination? And what if this destination were not a particular physical place, but rather a metaphysical one, an unknown and perhaps never-to-be-attained state of eternal knowledge, eternal love, eternal peace, and eternal bliss? And furthermore, what if every person whom we came across, or who came across us, were also part of this pilgrimage? Some, fellow travelers along the same road, at least for a certain time, with whom we can travel together, until one needs to overtake the other and continue on. Others, on separate paths that may intersect with ours for a brief moment, and others still, seemingly headed in the opposite direction. What if we regarded every being whom we encounter, whether friend or foe, as a messenger sent to us for a reason, a child of god, an angel as it were? What if we stopped believing in the distinction between sacred and profane, and we regarded every place we set foot in as holy? Every street, every room, every patch of grass, every body of water? Every breathtaking vista, every fiery sunset, every babbling mountain stream? And every garbage heap, sewer grate, and rotting animal carcass too?

This is the sort of pilgrimage I find myself on. I have been on it for quite a while, at least 12 years and perhaps 30, although for a long time I didn’t realise I was on it. This journey is much more like a rough, sinuous path through the wilderness than a wide, straight, smooth motorway — which is good; motorways are so dehumanizing. As you walk along the path, it follows the topography of the landscape, up, down, curving here, dipping there, sometimes the path even disappears into a river or wet patch that you must navigate across. At times there doesn’t even seem to be a path at all and you wander around, searching in vain for a marking to point you in the right direction. And almost always, you can only see 10 meters in front of you. Up ahead there is fog, or the path curves behind some trees, or the trail heads uphill and all you can see is the steep incline ahead of you. And at the very worst of times, when you’ve perhaps fallen waist-deep into a mass of filthy water, you can see neither ahead nor behind you — you can’t even see how you arrived at this impasse, all you can perceive and think about is the pile of shit that you’ve gotten yourself into. But then there are other times, times after a strenuous uphill climb, perhaps when the trail has been at its roughest, and you struggled to make it those last few metres, when you suddenly arrive at an escarpment, and you sit to take a breath. And as you’re sitting and breathing, you happen to glance behind you to take in the surroundings, and awareness dawns on you. You see the path you’ve been travelling on all this time. You see it for miles and miles in the distance, leading up to the very point where you are. You see it, with all its winding curves, switchbacks and dead-ends, and you realise that although it took an extremely meandering trajectory, although it at times went in the very opposite direction, it was in fact headed SOMEWHERE, right where you are at this moment!

Then, when this awareness overcomes you, you start to appreciate the path for what it was. You look at your skin, darkened from the sun beating down on you in all those spots when you were without shade, you see your sinewy arms, made strong from all those times you struggled to pull yourself uphill, you examine the scars and bruises from the times people pushed you down upon razor-sharp rocky ground, and you begin to see the beauty in those. There is something nice of course about the soft, pale skin of a baby, it’s wispy hair and doughy fat — there is something nice about innocence and newness, naiveté and purity. But there is also something deeply beautiful about having gone through the wilderness, having the experience behind you.

I reached that promontory in 2011. Until then, I had been wandering around, drifting along, just sort of seeing what life brought to me, or rather where life brought me, walking down the trail, and feeling like there was something missing, as if there was some PLACE I was looking for out there, and somehow all of the actual places I visited along the trail seemed to pale in comparison to this place in my mind. I was unsatisfied with the way the trail was leading me — I was resisting it, trying to stop moving, refusing to go through the muddy and strenuous spots. Then in 2011, in India (perhaps the ideal spot for spiritual experiences, if it isn’t too cliché to say so), I experienced a transformation, a metamorphosis, a fundamental shift in my very worldview, my perception of the world, the universe, existence itself. I had a teacher there, a teacher who gave me a great gift, maybe the greatest gift one being can give another; in retrospect, all he did was nudge me awake from the sleep most of us are in. As I was sitting there, on the high ground, he nudged me and gestured to me to turn around, to look back and see my path. I suddenly looked back and I realised that, despite the feeling that I had been drifting aimlessly along, I was in fact being led somewhere. Suddenly I saw the lines connecting all the dots, and I understood that every single place I had been, every single person I had met, every single experience I had had, was in no way coincidence, in no way arbitrary, but rather imbued with a deep, deep significance.

It was then that I realised that I was indeed on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage that began perhaps even before the day I was born into this physical manifestation in this physical world, and that will perhaps continue on long after my physical being ceases to be one distinct entity and dissolves back into the unity of all matter (although the separateness of my physical body from the rest of matter was always an illusion to begin with, as was the illusion of the separateness of my soul from the unity of all existence). From that point on, as I rose again and continued on down the path, my awareness that this is indeed a pilgrimage only continued to deepen. I began to see the markings on the trees along the way, reminding me that this was indeed a congruent journey.

What are these markings? They are the synchronicities in life. Synchronicity is, according to Carl Jung, meaningful coincidence. Well, I have come to the point where I don’t think there is even any such thing as unmeaningful coincidence. It was Albert Einstein who said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous”, and he should know — he was one of those souls who saw the significance and beauty in the cohesiveness of the universe, the way everything fits together so perfectly. And he saw that precisely because he was a true scientist — when I look back and think of the way that many of my science teachers taught their subject, I find it a crime. I do not believe how anybody who truly digs deep and explores the elegant interconnectedness, the pattern of all existence, can not be filled with a deep sense of wonder and spirituality. And I do not see how anyone who discovers this sense of wonder in the universe can not be filled with a profound sense of self-love and self-respect … because you, I, and everyone else are an interconnected part of this very beauty, this very elegance, from the electrons spinning round the atoms in the cells of your toenails to the unbelievably complex system that is your eyeball, to the unique radiant being, the breath of god, that is your spirit.

The funny thing is, of course, that these synchronicitous markings on the trees were always there. They didn’t just start appearing after my transformation. But it was only after my transformation that I began to NOTICE them. I don’t know exactly why, but once you open your eyes and notice one or two, then you very quickly start to notice more and more, and they multiply unendlessly. And each experience of synchronicity only increases your certainty that there is significance to everything. And this feeling of certainly allows you to perceive even more of the markings, and so on.

As I continued on down the trail, I found myself saying things that really took me by surprise. I must say that before this transformation of mine, before my shift in perception, I was something akin to an agnostic. I think I always had a nagging feeling that there was something more than this material plane, but I didn’t know what to do with this feeling, so I lived very squarely in the material domain. I attempted to explore esoteric traditions and different spiritual paths, but was often quite disappointed, for the feeling that I was searching for was not to be found in many of them. Suddenly, however, after my metamorphosis, words started escaping from my lips, words that I never before would have uttered. Words like “god”. Now, when I come across a breathtaking mountain panorama, I find myself exclaiming to my own surprise, “Behold the beauty of god’s creation!”

I used to have an aversion to the word “god”, and I think that is because I associated the word with the image of an old white-bearded man sitting on his throne in the sky, ever-watching, judging people and sending them with a flick of the wrist to heaven or to eternal damnation. This is the image of god I grew up with and I knew at the core of my being that it was false, and so I rejected it, and the whole concept of god altogether. In fact, I had an aversion to anyone religious in the US, and I saw them as irrational, closed-minded hypocrites who just want to control others’ lives.

After my transformation in India, however, I discovered a new meaning for the word god. I discovered that the experience I had there, the experience of discovering a profound truth about one’s life, of suddenly finding that there was a meaning underlying every part of one’s existence, was in fact an experience that numberless people have had, in every culture and spiritual tradition on earth. I realised that I had something in common with those very people whom I used to dislike, and once you realise that, you immediately develop a new-found respect and empathy for the other. I realised that what caused the feeling of division and difference to begin with was simply words, simply terminology.

The great Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi, a man I consider truly magical because he transcends the bounds of space and time, said that all the conflicts between people are caused by names, that god is like the sunlight streaming through a window — when the sunlight hits this wall on the right, it looks different than when it hits that wall on the left, but in the end, it comes from the very same source. Likewise, I learned to hear people say the word “God” and to look beyond my own associations with this word, and instead see the underlying common experience that we both have. Depending on who I am talking to, I might call it god, the universe, life, spirit, the field, the source, or a host of other possible terms. I very soon realised how many more people I can talk to, connect with, exchange with, learn from, and teach, if I just look beyond and beneath their words and into their hearts.

So, now, as I see it, I am on this pilgrimage through life, a pilgrimage that is in operation every minute of every hour, every day of every year. I am so fortunate to have already seen a great deal more of the world and met a great deal more people than most ever get to, and I am only 30. I look forward to see where this road is leading me, although I know there will continue to be peaks and valleys. At times, especially during the crises, it will be difficult to remember that I am on this pilgrimage, and that these are ordeals that I have to bear in order to emerge more developed on the other side. So I have resolved to remind myself periodically that I am on this course. I have resolved to remind myself, though it may be hard, that each person I encounter was sent into my life for a reason, that I can learn something from each one; that each person I meet is a child of god and deserving of my fundamental respect; that each place I visit is holy ground, just as holy as any famous sacred site.

I have also decided to create this blog in order to share my pilgrimage with you, and perhaps inspire you to set off on your own….or better said, to simply realise that you too have already been on one for a while. And if you have stumbled across this page, know that it was no coincidence that you did so. Welcome!


Evan Zelezny-Green is a consultant, teacher, coach, and world citizen who offers Clarity Consulting and Language Acquisition Consulting services on his website Evan Zelistening.

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