I live on Tabard Street in London, one of the original streets leading into the city proper, a site where pilgrims gathered before departing the city (such as those in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) or upon arriving in it. The entire area, just south of the Thames and connecting to London Bridge, is rooted in a history of transience, making it a perfect place for me to be living.
Pilgrims are an interesting lot, existing across a variety of cultures and faiths, from those in Southwerk by the Tabard, “redy to wenden on my pilgrymage To Caunterbury with ful devout corage” (and to share the Gospel of Bowie) to those climbing sacred sites like Fushimi-Inari in Kyoto or the 88 Shrines of Shikoku. The story is the same everywhere, reduced to a boilerplate by Joseph Campbell in Hero With a Thousand Faces:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Pilgrimages are how we write much of our human mythology, it’s perhaps easy, in our post-modern way, to see why: As we move forward through time in our everyday lives, we can move forward through space in our special rites of passage. The journey serves as a manageable metaphor for our lives, shaping a story that gives us meaning, reinforces a sense of destination and purpose, provides struggles along the journey through space that give us practice for the struggles in time.
You don’t hear much about Pilgrimages anymore, outside of the Hajj, the traditional journey to Mecca. But the remnants of the myth are common: Hiking the Appalachian Trail, the road trip across the US, the gap-year backpacker through SE Asia or the American backpacking through Europe. Travel has a lure that reminds us of the pilgrimage, the journey where we get to be the hero of our own mythology, crossing time and space and coming back transformed.
But something cynical has happened to us on the way to Canterbury Cathedral. Our spiritual journeys have become vacations. We are no longer pilgrims, we are tourists. Everything else feels like an affectation: Self-aggrandizing stories that make entire nations nothing more than a supporting cast for our own first-world problems and neuroticisms.
It’s easy to see why. Pilgrimages used to mean sacrifices. It meant putting lives and responsibilities on hold with an obligation to be transformed. Travel carried a risk of death. As airports shrunk the planet into a few hours of podcasts and social media keeps “home” as close as the nearest hostel wifi connection, the nature of pilgrimage has transformed from the hero’s journey into the tourist’s.
A Desert of the Self
Lately I’ve been reading Zygmunt Bauman, who writes about the modern pilgrimage as a state of mind. In particular, I’m drawn to his idea of the desert. The desert is a perfect place for pilgrimage, because it is absent of anything inviting you to rest – no inns, no pubs, just space and the constant need to push forward. And in the absence of any permanent structures, we are freed from memories and nostalgia, invited, instead, to create our own visions in the dunes, to construct our own meanings out of the sand. The pilgrimage is about losing ourselves and becoming transformed, and the desert is the perfect site to do it. He quotes a passage by Edmond Jabes:
“You do not go to the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous… and then something extraordinary happens. You hear silence speak.”
The Protestants, Bauman suggests, decided that instead of going to the desert, they would make the desert come to them. They believed in austerity and simplicity. Their lives were to be lived without excess; even their churches were (are) bland (compared to the ornate and potentially gaudy cathedrals of the Catholics). Like many ascetics – Zen occasionally included – the world outside was to be rejected as a source of comfort. The world inside is what mattered. Rather than building meaning – that is, forming our identities – from the world outside of us, we were to look inward, and build our world on a foundation we always carried. In Zen, this foundation within is fleeting and temporary; in puritanism, this foundation is our connection to an eternal God. Pick your poison.
Somewhere in time, says Bauman, the pilgrimage became unnecessary, the journey useless. Our daily lives, our existence in space and time, coupled with that constantly available inner desert, made it inevitable that our identities were always under construction. Most of us stopped needing God for this process at all. God became a part of our personal story, a religion we built out of the bits and pieces we’ve picked up along the journey of living our lives. God exists in the personal pantheon of meaning, or maybe doesn’t. Maybe we have Shakespeare instead, or Bob Dylan.
Our pilgrimages, now, are through deserts of the self. Places where our personal pantheons are exposed as constructions, where our identities are proven to be temporary and useless, where the formative force of national culture is stripped away. The desert let us imagine ourselves as empty, but only after we have left the places where our selves made sense.
Even now, in our wired hypermodern world, we have our metaphorical deserts: Places where the outside is in constant flux and interpreted only through acts of imagination. We bring our meaning, assert our truths, and these deserts remind us that these are all built on fleeting, shifting dunes.
But I did move. Not to a desert, but to Japan. But in a collision of metaphors, Japan is a desert. A place where my memories were useless, where my personality was left to dissolve and be reconstructed without being hung on my childhood, my culture, my favorite records or poems. A place where daily life shifts as arbitrarily as sand dunes, navigated through hand-drawn maps as profoundly personal and as incommunicable as the meaning I made for “my Japan.”
This all might sound arrogant, if you believe that breaking down an identity is something people should be proud of. If that’s true, it speaks more about your relationship to your identity than it does to mine. In the West, we’re told to be proud of who we are, to wear the quirks and charms we pick up like scars or trophies.
But we’re also expected to be proud of our ability to adapt, to don new traits and attributes, to be able to navigate a variety of radically new contexts. All of this should really only be appealing to people who long for a complete overhaul of “who we are.” It reflects this puritan idea of purifying the inner world so we aren’t full of noise.
I talk to friends who fear that by staying still they have embraced stagnation, who worry that their roots are too firmly planted in the ground. I have to ask why life-as-tumbleweed holds any allure at all. There’s a lot of meaning to be found in embracing a more permanent self, even if it’s invented. We’ve all invented ourselves, the only difference is in how often we tinker with the blueprints. The vagabond or pilgrim is just as self-invented as the accountant or the Walgreen’s clerk. But they have an advantage, too.
By standing in the same place within a community and its relationships, instead of lost in a traveler’s wave of introductions and disappearances, our self-defined identities come to be shaped through use, rather than imagination. We use ourselves to relate to friends and neighbors, proof of our value to a community one cannot find amongst the desert’s cacti and coyotes. We build up a set of reminders, a sense of permanence.
Relationships reinforce who we are, and so often we find ourselves trapped by it, rather than embracing a defiantly unsexy idea: That other people are part of what makes us anything at all. Even pilgrims come home eventually: You’ve never finish leaving until you’ve returned.
I wanted to “hear the silence speak,” to find out what I was without the reinforcements of my culture and my language, to see what grew beneath the cobblestones of that American me. That’s an opportunity I should be grateful for, but it’s also terrifying. As who I was became who I am, I felt myself kicking and screaming along the way, not a pilgrim on a path to change but a tourist lost and looking for direction, without any landmarks to guide me, as desperate to cast aside every aspect of my past identity as I was for someone to hold my hand and remind me that I was somehow intact.
This is the problem with a pilgrimage, these days: The panic of disappearing overwhelmed my comfort in hearing that silence in myself, formed not from collections of culture and familiar fast food chains, not from the lingering objects that surrounded me day to day, but from simply being.
You can take a pilgrimage to This Japanese Life’s Facebook page.