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Making the Pilgrimage

Pilgrims lighting camphor beads, Palani Temple, Dec 2010

It was Christmas and I was zip-zagging across the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in a bus filled with about 25 other people. Led by my teacher, renowned Tantric scholar Dr. Douglas Brooks, we were on pilgrimage to the six primary temples of Shiva’s son Subrahmanya, a fierce warrior known for his multifaceted and diverse self, thus the many temples. Although I missed my family, I had made the choice for the second time in three years to have what we now referred to as “Susanna’s Hindu Christmas.”

A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place to connect and pay homage. The outer journey will ideally run parallel to an inner journey that may shuffle and shift our every way of looking at the world. Each Subrahmanya temple we visited engaged us through its own distinctive personality, eliciting those same qualities within us. Tiruchendur seduced us into a dark crowded interior, churned us through its dense corridors, and then released us ecstatically onto the beach to wade in the ocean. Palani beckoned to us to climb its 650-some steps to the top of a mountain, where it offered an expansive clear healing sensation that one can only find on a mountaintop. Swamimalai sweetly invited us in and coaxed us gently into conversation. And so on…

What each temple offered us was a particular experience of ourselves – a no joke face-to-face with our own consciousness – stuff we love and stuff we don’t like to see at all. Pilgrimage is about walking the path within oneself. As we moved from temple to temple, we moved from place to place inside our bodies, minds, and hearts. How does pilgrimage do this? It invites us to step into the mix, to engage in an outer journey to create an inner conversation. The process is both startling and exquisite.

Toward the end of the trip, as our bus wound its way through the lush rice fields and palm trees of Tamil Nadu, it became clear to me that every aspect of the pilgrimage was nothing less than a mirror reflecting my many selves. The sweet smell of jasmine, the muck from the cows, the press of the crowds with its sense of urgency and joy. The mounds of garbage and detritus, the drip and perfume of the ghee candles, the crack and gush of coconuts being split and drained of their water. The burning beads of camphor mingling with the fragrance of sandalwood. The white smears of ash(vibhuti) and vermillion dots of kumkum staining my forehead. The deliriously cacophonous temple music mixed with the cries of babies, marketplace conversations, and the shouted prayers of pilgrims. And I thought: there is actually nothing here that is not deeply familiar- the complexities and the messiness, the tragedies and the ecstasies. As my teacher Douglas often says, “That is nothing like me. That is something like me. That is nothing but me.”

I extend to you this invitation:

Make a pilgrimage within yourself. Treat this year like a journey. Visit every place you can find that resides within you. And then honor your experience, regardless of what you find along the way. As you wind through your own consciousness, remember that you will find contradictions and surprises, because you are multifaceted. You are your own world. And whatever you encounter on your pilgrimage is you.

Susanna Harwood Rubin

Author Susanna Harwood Rubin

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