Journeys and Journeying

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Journeys and Journeying

Many a religious or spiritually oriented person has claimed to be a "seeker" on a kind of sacred quest to find truth and the meaning of life. Such a quest is considered to be part of what "the religious life" entails. Thinking of oneself as "spiritual" means that one follows a spiritual path through a life informed by a certain metaphysical and ethical perspective toward whatever concept of salvation or enlightenment one might imagine.

A quest often involves a journey, since one has to travel in some manner away from the unenlightened condition toward the goal of the spiritual path. The journey may be literal or metaphorical, with both exterior and interior dimensions. But it is important to note what the term quest fundamentally entails. A "quest" involves a question or questions. A spiritual questor is, by definition, seeking answers to the great existential questions of life, such as the source and nature of our existence, the presence and nature of the divine, the purpose of our own embodied life in this world, and so on. One has to journey toward the answers to these questions since, fundamentally speaking, one does not possess these answers in the current "placement"; if one did, one would not be seeking the answers.

If such a religious seeker happens to find satisfying answers to these questions, then his or her spiritual path might be said to become less a quest as such, and more a translation of the implications of those answers into a manner in which to live day to day life spiritually. One journeys through the spiritual life, enjoying a sustained sense of communion with the sacred, more so than toward a goal to be reached in some transcendental locus or future condition. In either case the religious life involves a journeying. This dimension of spirituality has been well represented in world religions with rich traditions of ritual journeys and pilgrimages. In many cases the life of the founder or great exemplar of a religion is viewed as a journey on a spiritual path, and each stage of that journey is ritually reenacted by adherents of the faith.

Such a journey or pilgrimage can be seen in the core myths or sacred stories of most, if not all, of the world's great religions. In Judaism, for example, the journey of the progenitor, Abraham, from Ur of the Chaldees toward a "promised land" that God agreed to bequeath to him and his descendants is retold ritually and venerated as the founding of the peoplehood and faith of Israel. Then the descent into slavery in Egypt and the delivery from out of the house of bondage by the mighty, outstretched arm of the Lord becomes the bedrock myth of the Jewish experience, ritually reenacted in the annual celebration of the Passover.

The history of the Jewish people has been precisely a journey, a prodigious walkabout out of ancient Babylon to the promised land, into the Diaspora, and then a sojourning in nearly all the lands of the world's nations, from northern Europe to Spain, through the Arab lands, and all the way to India, China, and faraway America. The history of the people is an absolutely central element in the Jewish faith. The "chosen people" have been led by their God on a great walk-about through his creation. The manner in which they should walk this noble path has been clearly laid out in remarkable detail by the law that God gave to his people. A life as lived by the holy commandment of the Torah is precisely the essential spiritual journey for the observant Jew, as God's word comes to pervade every aspect of life.

Similarly, in the Christian tradition, the journey of God's son into the embodied condition of humanity in this world becomes the initiatory movement in the unfolding of God's plan for his creation. Once the Savior advented into the world, the scant three years of his sacred mission could be said to have been a kind of walkabout from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, through Palestine, culminating in the journey to Jerusalem and ultimately to Golgotha and beyond, through hell and up to resurrection to gain the highest seat at the right hand of power next to the Lord in heaven. This foundational myth becomes the model for Christian life, put into practice as an aspiration to achieve the Christ-like life. The ritual of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, reenacts the sacred meal of the Last Supper, transformed by Jesus from the sacred meal of the old covenant commemorating the Passover—the journey to salvation—into the journey of the new covenant, through Christ's self-sacrifice to atonement with God. Each stage of His journey is reenacted in the ritual of the Stations of the Cross.

Later developments in Protestantism authored new versions of the spiritual journey of the Christian life in the visioning of the pilgrim's progress toward religious freedom in America, the new promised land. The journey toward Manifest Destiny brought the faithful to the frontiers of that promised land, as also the journey of Joseph Smith brought his Latter-Day Saints to a hopeful new place marked out by God.

In Islam, journeying is of the essence of the faith as well, as the dawn of the era of the faithful is itself dated from the hegira, or hijra, the flight of Mohammad to Medina in the year 621. His subsequent return to Mecca, cleansing of the holy temple, the Ka'ba, and adoption of the pre-Islamic ritual pilgrimage, the hajj, became the foundation for one of the more important Islamic rituals, and one of the five duties of life required of every Muslim who is capable of it—the ritual pilgrimage to the Ka'ba in Mecca. Likewise, Mohammad's mystical "night journey," or "celestial journey," the mi'raj, from Mecca to Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock and from there to heaven, becomes a core element of the faith. Each Muslim who earns his or her place in heaven is promised to experience a reenactment of the mi'raj upon dying.

In the Hindu tradition, the journey to the sacred waters of the Ganges is ritually enacted every year. To bathe in its sacred waters is parallel to a cleansing baptism that one can enjoy many times through life. Pilgrimages by the faithful to holy sites and shrines occur all over India, making up the very lifeblood of the Hindu spiritual path. The great religious and philosophical traditions of India are based on the concept of the inner journey of the ego consciousness through its dissolution into the "great self" or "god-self" in the journey toward enlightenment and moksha, the liberation from the suffering of life. The ultimate journey in this religious tradition is the journey out of the condition of illusion, which mistakenly perceives a separateness, back to Godhead, the true native condition of the soul.

Likewise in Buddhism, the spiritual journey is also well represented. The religion's founder, Siddhartha Gautama, began his own spiritual journey with the "great going forth" into the city of his birth to witness its joys and pain for the first time, and the subsequent "great renunciation" as he formally took up the religious life. That life involved the continuous journeying over some five years to learn from the various teachers authoring new avenues of spirituality across northern India, culminating in Siddhartha's own achievement of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya. The long years of his mission as a spiritual teacher then began, during which he traveled widely across north India. The sites where Buddha taught and had experienced the stages of his own spiritual path became pilgrimage sites for Buddhists from all parts of the world. Visiting these sites might represent outward expressions of the essential inner journey for the adherent of Buddhism, through many lifetimes in samsara toward enlightenment into nirvana. Buddha's grand journey through millions of lifetimes ultimately to reach his birth as Siddhartha is recounted in dozens of Jataka stories, helping to make up the mythology of the new religion. Many hundreds of these lifetimes are depicted in bas-relief sculptures at one of the most extraordinary religious pilgrimage sites, the Buddhist temple of Borabudur on the island of Java.

A most unusual shrine, the temple is built around a small mountain. With no actual rooms inside and no ceiling, the building is composed of a long spiral corridor onto the walls of which have been sculpted scenes from the former lifetimes of Buddha. As the pilgrim travels ever higher on the spiral, he or she is meant to experience the spiritual evolution of Buddha toward higher and higher consciousness. Toward the top of the hill the walls fall away, as Buddha approached the lifetime when he would reach enlightenment, and the pilgrim steps out into the open air. The pilgrim might notice that there was never any ceiling along the path. Had one been able to wrest one's attention away from the intricacies of each life-time's minutiae, the overarching light was always present—symbolically, enlightenment was available at any point. The journey around the tip of the mountain brings the pilgrim to the culminating point, the serene Buddha statue seated on the very summit representing the lifetime of Siddhartha Gautama, the one who reached Buddhahood. A ritual pilgrimage like this truly captures the various dimensions of spiritual journeying, as one has to journey to Borabudur in Java, and then travel the path upward toward the summit, while one externalizes the interior journey toward higher consciousness and ultimately to realization of Buddhahood.

The Tibetan form of Buddhism has added yet another expression of the spiritual journey in the great tradition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the "Book of the Great Awakening on the Death Plane." This fascinating religious classic of the eighth century c.e. depicts the journey through death as a means for achieving enlightenment. Traditionally, on the occasion of a death, the Buddhist priest, the lama, would return to the home of the recently departed every day for the forty-nine days of the predicted experience of the "bardo," the state "between two" lives on the path toward rebirth. The lama would ritually recite each chapter of the Book of the Dead to the dead one on his journey. The book envisions the whole process of death and rebirth as a grand spiritual journey through the different "lokas," or locations, of the life energies of the cosmos.

This text is a highly developed example of the way in which most religious traditions consider death to involve a great journeying into and through the realm of the afterlife. This mysterious journey even earned a specific title in ancient Greek religion—the nekyia, or death journey, such as the one Odysseus undertook in the eleventh book of the Odyssey to consult the shade of Teiresias the Seer.

Farther east in traditional China, the dominant religions provide followers with ritual journeys. In the case of Confucianism, the Li, or complex ritual system, governed every aspect of human interaction in one of the world's most highly ritualized societies, classical China. The Li provides the patterns for maintaining a spiritual course through life and onward into the spirit realm once one passes and becomes an ancestor spirit.

And in the Taoist tradition, the follower seeks to course through life putting oneself in accord with the natural changes from yin to yang. The Taoist flows with the changes and might follow a lifestyle like that exemplified by Chuang Tzu, the third-century b.c.e. follower of the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, a philosopher traditionally placed in the sixth-century b.c.e. Chuang Tzu describes a life of "aimless wandering" coursing down the rivers and streams of life, enjoying the changes as they occur. This is a kind of spiritual journeying as the Taoist seeks to attain the hub of the Tao, the still center of balance around which the changes continue to revolve.

Later, the Taoist tradition developed ritual pilgrimages to temples that were purposely built in areas very difficult to access, to prove the worthiness of the adept in his quest to gain the power, the "teh" of the Tao (or way of life). This power brought extraordinary abilities as the adept sought to access the ethereal energies of the universe. In the journey through the famous Shao Lin temple, the adept would have to endure countless rigorous ordeals, as his mettle was tested in challenge after terrifying challenge. Many dozens died at some point along the way, as the mysterious temple built into a mountainside connecting to underground tunnels is said to be littered along the way with the bones of those who never made it. This temple site was the original parent of all the martial art traditions of China, which later spread to Korea and Japan and from there to the world at large.

Similarly, in the Japanese Shinto tradition, pilgrimages rest at the very core of the religion. Shinto is a term taken over from Chinese. It is the "way" or "Tao" of the "shen," the spirits, known in Japanese as the kami. Pilgrimages to their sacred shrines make up the very lifeblood of Japanese spiritual traditions. The sacred climb up the slopes of Mount Fuji is a goal to which all spiritually minded Japanese aspire. In these pilgrimage/ordeals the adept earns the teh, or power, of the spirit realm.

And in shamanic and indigenous traditions across the world, the faithful go on vision quests, such as those embodied in the spiritual traditions of the Plains Indians of North America, and walkabouts, as in the traditions of the aboriginal Australians. The native seeks to live life altogether by "walking in a sacred manner." Practices of shamans around the world include the essential ritual journey to the spirit realm, the "celestial journey" to the "astral plane," to traffic with spirits, shepherd the dead, seek lost souls, and learn secret cures for various ailments. The famous experience of out-of-body travel is one of the long recognized spiritual arts of shamans in all lands. Here again, the essential religious experience is precisely a journey.

Considering all these examples from religious traditions across the world, one begins to wonder whether these traditions are not viewing life itself as a kind of spiritual journey. The religious life is precisely a life path sanctified by ritual journeying. According to the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung (1875–1961), one of the primary functions of religion is precisely to offer the believer a ritual means to follow some version of the "hero's journey," the mythical name for the psychological process that Jung termed "individuation." This concept of the hero's journey was picked up by the American mythographer Joseph Campbell (1907–1987) and popularized in his first great work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book Campbell lays out the various stages of the hero's journey, though the specifics of these stages may vary in different cases. A thousand stories across the world have depicted this grand archetypal journey, which Jung and Campbell suggest stands as a metaphor for the interior journey of the ego consciousness through the unconscious, ultimately to reach a state of wholeness, or psychic integration—the goal of the Jungian system.

Campbell posits three large stages on the hero's journey, with more specific ones within these categories. The first stage involves the "initiation to the quest," wherein the adept first receives the "call of destiny," or the "mission statement," which lays out the task being required of him or her. The hero or hera (i.e., heroine) then experiences a shock, and a "separation from the ordinary," as the sacred quest is accepted and begun.

The second great stage involves the Journey itself. A mentor is located and the "descent into the underworld of the adventure" begins. The hero or hera gathers a set of companions, each of them representing a significant aspect of the psyche. The group travels together, encountering daemons and strange threshold guardians. They are put through tasks and ordeals, as the coveted title of "hero" must be won by a truly heroic effort. During the trial, courage is found and exhibited and many transformational moments are experienced. Dragon slaying of some type may occur. The quest culminates in the nekyia, or journey into death, symbolic of ego-sacrifice, followed by the triumphant resurrection of a changed consciousness. The hero or hera comes upon and wins the treasure, or boon.

The third stage involves the hero's return to society as a transformed being. The higher self has been forged during the journey and it is this which returns bearing the boon as a gift to all humanity. This entire journey of the hero is viewed in the works of Jung and Campbell as being emblematic of an inner journey toward wholeness. It is the ego-self who sets out on the quest, its mythical name being "hero" or "hera." The mentor and various personages encountered and incorporated along the way represent the subpersonality fragments of the deeper consciousness, integrated together eventually to achieve a state of wholeness. This culminating scene is imaged nicely in the final scenes of the great hero sagas of our own day. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy (ego/hera) travels to Oz (the unconscious) and wakes up from her great dream at the end of the story surrounded by representative versions of each of the fragmentary elements she has incorporated on her journey.

Likewise, in the science fiction film series Star Wars, the final scene of the great hero journey of Luke Skywalker in a galaxy far, far away, pictures him surrounded by all the personalities who have shared his journey. Each of these personages, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Obi Wan Kenobi and the others, represents aspects of the great self, which Luke incorporates, aspects such as the embraced shadow element, the anima, the wise old man and so on. In the case of Dorothy's friends, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, Toto, and the Wizard of Oz, they each represent deeper aspects of Dorothy's consciousness, which she incorporates as she moves from the focus of the small ego-self into the perspective of the great self. Through the journey she incorporates into herself her masculine side, her animus, brain power, courage, wisdom aspect, and so on. A similar mythic perspective of the hero's journey can be applied also to the famous journey, or trek, through our own galaxy, as projected forward into the twenty-third and twenty-fourth-centuries in the popular version of modern mythology known as Star Trek.

These are powerful stories that exemplify the hero's journey, the pathway toward individuation to achieve psychic balance and wholeness, a word related to the word "health." The question becomes whether individuation is ever finally truly achieved by real men and women engaged in their own hero and hera journeys through the tasks and trials of everyday life. Would achieving wholeness then result in a kind of stagnation? Genuine examples of full psychic integration may be rare enough in any case. One imagines that there would always be a new quest looming before the self-actualized soul. There are always new boons to win to aid humankind in its grand, collective journey toward realization of its vast potential. New challenges will always beckon the true hero or hera to take up yet another great spiritual journey.

See alsoArchetype; Buddhism; Campbell, Joseph; Dreams; Hinduism; Islam; Mecca; Myth; New Age Spirituality; Pilgrimage; Quest; Rites of Passage; Shamanism; Spirituality; Taoism; Vision Quest.


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Sharon L. Coggan