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  • Tim Mathis

Travel is my church: Using ritual to turn your trip into a pilgrimage (Go on, make it weird!)

Updated: May 28, 2023

In this series, we’ve been introducing the GAP Month as a reliable framework for transformational travel. In short, it's a month of goal-directed adventure or pilgrimage with the following characteristics:

In this post we’re focusing on ritual.


In short: Embrace it. Do odd things. Watch the magic happen.


The Old Church at Dunlewey, Gweedore, Ireland

I’m guessing that, unless you’re a certain type of religious, you probably don’t want to read an article about “ritual.”


I say that because a lot of modern humans have a fundamental problem: we’ve developed suspicions around practices associated with churches or worse, cults.


There aren’t many terms that trigger that suspicion more reliably than “ritual.”


It evokes magic and superstition and creepy things that old white guys do behind closed doors.


Fair enough.


That suspicion is there because of all of the disgusting, abusive things that churches and cults have done.


“Religion,” whatever that means, has been a vehicle for manipulation and abuse and old-fashioned tomfoolery for centuries, and we’re not going to take it anymore.


I’m with you.


However, the dilemma with the general suspicion around religion is that religion actually does a lot of things that are good. It’s stuck around because it’s a package of things that human beings need: an easy path to new relationships, experiences of transcendence, routine, and a vehicle to help your community. Those sorts of things.


In fact, the bad is only possible because of the good. You can use religion to manipulate people because it’s powerful and it meets basic, universal human needs.


With some bits of religion, it’s easy to see how the good parts work. People go to the same place every week, work on common projects, put money into a common pot, sing songs together and listen to a common message and agree on a common set of beliefs. It’s easy to see why all of that would bond and connect you and help you feel like a part of something bigger than yourself.


With ritual, it’s much less obvious how it meets basic human needs. It’s not entirely clear to most people what ritual even is, let alone why it’s such a universal feature of religion and human experience.


Let’s address that quickly.


What is ritual?


First, let me ask you, what’s the image you see when you hear the term “ritual?”


For me, a series of things come to mind. I think of a priest holding up a chalice, I think of a devil worshiper making a pentagram out of pigs blood in a horror movie, I’m kneeling at an altar in church, I see witches casting weird spells around a cauldron, I imagine the crowd circling the mysterious black Kaaba in Mecca.


Those are all rituals, it’s true, but what the hell is all of that? What ties all of it together, other than coming off as vaguely disturbing to outsiders?


To try to provide a concise answer, Casper ter Kuile, a Harvard chaplain and the author of The Power of Ritual, defined a ritual as an action taken with intention, attention and repetition. It’s something you do over and over again, for a specific reason, making sure to do it right each time.


In his definition, this includes gestures like when Christian practitioners make the sign of the cross when they pass in front of an altar. It also includes things such as when my wife and I make each other coffee in the morning, doing so out of concern for the other person’s mental wellbeing and as a gesture of love.


Ritual actions like this take on a significance beyond the physical gestures. They mean something to the people who do them, which is why they’re repeated. They enrich our lives and give small day to day experiences a sense of purpose and meaning.


That’s a pretty good start, but here’s a less concise, maybe more sophisticated definition of ritual.


A ritual is a physical action that you take in order to mark out a specific experience as special, or important.


I used to live in a housing co-op with a brilliant researcher at the University of Washington named Ellen Dissanayake. She spent her career trying to sort out why people do art, and wrote mainly from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. In other words, she tried to answer the question, why would human evolution keep art around? How could art possibly provide a competitive advantage and help us survive as a species?


In her book What is Art For? she developed the theory that from a very early stage in human evolution, people would have needed ways to make socially desirable activities both memorable and pleasurable to ensure that they were repeated. Art in its various forms developed as a way to achieve this. Art is a way to mark out important objects, behaviors, actions and events so they can be remembered and repeated, treasured and learned from.


When Ellen talked about art, she included the visual arts, music and dance, but she also included ritual.


Ritual is a form of quick and dirty theater (my words, not hers). Just like a painting isn’t just oil smeared on canvas, a good ritual isn’t just waving your hands around. It’s a striking little bit of drama meant to communicate something to yourself and others. Rituals often clearly call back to something specific and memorable - like the sign of the cross. The key though is that they are distinctive, unusual actions taken to mark out an experience as unique.


I’m trying to distill a lifetime of Ellen Dissanayake’s academic research into a few paragraphs, and I’m not sure if it makes sense.


But to state it simply, when you do a ritual, it makes an experience special. You feel it differently and you remember it later.


What I’m saying is that ritual actually is a sort of magic.


Why do we need ritual, in short?


So this is the thing: even if it immediately arouses suspicion, ritual is both necessary and normal and universally human - just like art and music.


When you do a ritual, it changes your experience. It makes you feel things. It makes you remember a moment. It can associate something small with things that are much bigger. Walking across a physical stage can become a transition into a new stage of life. Placing a ring on someone’s finger can become a lifelong commitment to them. Admitting that you’re an alcoholic in a group can be the start down a path towards sobriety.


Just doing a ritual can transform a mundane experience into something infused with emotion and meaning. Think about the seventh inning stretch at a baseball game. Without “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” it’s no different than any other break. With it, the seventh inning becomes a period of anticipation. A celebration of the experience. A countdown to the impending moment of truth that will determine the winner. A way to engage with a hundred year old tradition. A way to connect with thousands of strangers around you. It’s an annoying old song with “Cracker Jacks” in the lyrics, but it works magic in the right context.


That’s the power of ritual.


The action isn’t what’s important, exactly, but without the action the important bit might be missed or forgotten.


Even more, important experiences might not actually become important unless they’re marked out by a ritual.


The ritual makes sure you remember things, and pay attention to their significance.


That’s a lot, but it’s why we need to include ritual in this discussion of how to create a transformative travel experience.


Ritual in pilgrimage


What we’re talking about in this GAP series is how you can create a travel experience that will stand out as important in your life. It’s meant to be life-changing and transformative in some way or another.


Historically, these types of trips have been called pilgrimages, and pilgrimages have always included various sorts of rituals.


In fact, pilgrimage is a type of ritual itself. It’s a trip that represents something bigger, and which takes on meaning beyond the journey.


The act of taking this sort of trip makes a particular moment in life special.


So congrats. If you take a GAP Month, you’ll be completing a ritual.


But pilgrimages also traditionally contain multiple smaller rituals as well. In the Hajj, Muslim pilgrims shave their heads and dress in specific white Ihram, but the most evocative ritual is circling the Kaaba - a giant, black obelisk - seven times to initiate their journey when they arrive in Mecca. On the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims wear scallops on their packs, leave small stones carried from home at the Cruz de Ferro near the journey’s high point, and conclude their trip by hugging a statue of St. James in Santiago Cathedral.


What do these pilgrimage rituals get at? Broadly speaking, they acknowledge that there there are a lot of small moments along the way in any journey that are important, and worth remembering. And, they mark them out and energize them with meaning. The rituals themselves create that sense of significance.


While just taking the trip will have ritual significance in your life, integrating a series of rituals can help instill a deep sense of meaning in your journey as well.


How to integrate rituals into your own trip


If you’re wondering if I’m saying that you should make up a bunch of little rituals to do along the way in your trip, and identify yourself publicly as a weirdo, the answer is yes, absolutely.

Well, sort of. Let me explain.


I know this is all weird. I feel weird doing this sort of thing myself.


But the idea is that you want to highlight the important parts of what you’re doing, and facilitate progress towards your intention (which we discussed in the last post).

This might mean waving your hands around publicly or wearing a special hat.


But maybe not. You might keep this all between you and me - just setting your own little private rituals but not telling anyone who might judge you for them.


(I won’t tell them about your secret rituals if you don’t tell them about how - after returning from walking the Camino - I hiked solo into the Cascades in Central Washington and jumped naked into a lake. It helped me wash off my prior life and get started on my future. So invigorating!)


All of this stuff smells like “spirituality,” and that’s fine, but you don’t have to call it that. Think of it as positive psychology that draws on centuries of experience from pilgrimage. It’s not about any specific religious belief. It’s about tapping into the weird, animal, human bits of ourselves and using tools that are known to have a strong psychological impact.


Let’s get more concrete about this.


Things that you might want to ritualize, and examples of how you might do it.


Drawing on lessons from traditional pilgrimage, there are a few types of rituals that often get integrated into these sorts of trips that you might want to consider.


Firstly, there’s the “funny hat” idea. You might consider doing something physical and visible that will identify to yourself and to others that you’re on some kind of important journey. On the Camino, that’s a scallop shell. On the Dajia Mazu pilgrimage in Taiwan, we saw people wearing high vis neon hats and vests. When we hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I grew my beard out and my wife died a streak of her hair blue. In our case these weren’t intentional markers of pilgrimage. We followed our instincts and it just seemed right to communicate our identity visibly.


There’s something about publicly declaring your intention and identity that makes this sort of experience real.


You might also consider how you can put exclamation points on specific moments along the way.


Traditionally, the start and finish of trips have included ritual gestures. On the Camino, this is picking up your pilgrim passport at the beginning of your trip, and then your Compostela certifying that you’ve completed the journey at the end. It’s like signing in and out of the experience.


On the Pacific Crest Trail, hikers do this literally - signing the register at the Mexican border, and then again at the Canadian border, marking the beginning and end of the trip formally.


But it could really be anything. At the start of the Race to Alaska in Port Townsend, WA, a 750 mile boat race (and the closest thing sailing has to a communal GAP Month in the United States) kicks off with a playing of the Russian National Anthem for ironic and idiosyncratic reasons. It’s dumb and confusing, but that’s part of the point on that event. Your rituals of initiation and completion can be as unreasonable as you want as long as they carry significance for you. Bonus points if they somehow capture the essence of the experience.


People often also mark important points along the way. The halfway point, or the crossing of the hardest threshold, the high point on a trail or the longest day on a bike tour. The Cruz de Ferro ritual on the Camino is a good example. Pilgrims traditionally carry stones from home, representing some type of burden, and leave them behind at a small cross near Foncebadón and the Camino’s highest point. The point is somewhat arbitrary - about three-quarters of the way through the trip - but it signifies the impact of the journey and draws attention to it midway through.


In a lot of traditions, when you’re approaching the end of your journey, you go through some kind of cleansing ritual - often a literal bath - that signifies a change from your old life and prepares you psychologically to reckon with the end of the trip.


It’s also common for pilgrims to have some kind of small ritual of recognition when important but unplanned events happen along the way. This might look like something called a “savoring ritual” - taking a moment to reflect on an important or pleasant experience in a journal, or photograph, or a small moment of mindfulness.


I’ve mentioned the Cruz de Ferro multiple times now, but whatever. It also gets at another common type of ritual that people integrate on these sorts of trips - “votive offerings.” Again, sounds religious (and it traditionally is), but that just means taking something along that you intend to leave behind. Sometimes this looks like a charitable donation or even a period of volunteer time. The idea is that it’s something that represents the transition you’ll be making. It is something you came into the trip carrying, but left behind along the way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be heavy or unpleasant. In Taoist temples, people often leave behind fruit as a votive offering to feed poor members of the community. In a lot of ancient traditions, people would leave behind something personally valuable to represent sacrifice. It might also include burning something iconic of the experience. At the end of the Camino, I threw my shoes and clothes in the trash for a variety of reasons, but partly it was a votive offering.


The final type of traditional ritual to highlight is what you could call “devotional.” For me as a post-religious person, the word devotional is triggering, but I’ll put that aside for a moment. These types of rituals are routine, and set a structure in the experience rather than marking specific events.


If you are (or have been) a religious person, you’ll recognize the day to day routine of devotional reading and prayer.


That’s a time tested strategy, and despite how it sounds, it doesn’t have to be expressly religious.


Picking an appropriate book to accompany you, and reading it along the way, can add a real depth to your experience. When my wife and I were traveling by cycle around Taiwan, we both read the book Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica Lee. It’s a memoir about the author’s attempt to find her place in Taiwan and understand it. For us it was a way to follow along with the author and come to understand a place that was very foreign to us more deeply, and establish a sense of personal relationship with it.


A key to finding meaning in any experience is immersing yourself in a bigger story. Picking a book (or books) to read along the way can be a way to accomplish that. You might pick a story about the place you’re going, or relevant history, or about pilgrimage generally. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, for instance, or The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Or, if you’re looking for something really life changing, you could take along The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life.


If you’re not a reader, then podcasts, movies and music can accomplish similar goals.


For the religious people out there, I’d guess that prayer comes naturally. For the irreligious, I’d guess that my suggestion that you integrate daily prayer along the way arouses quite a bit of skepticism. You probably think of prayer as a way of asking some external deity to give you what you want, and expecting to receive it. If you don’t believe in an external deity, that probably seems like a waste of time.


In short, prayer’s a lot more complicated than that. Let’s not even call it prayer for the moment. Let’s just say that it helps to take a few minutes every day to bring your intention to mind and mentally re-state your hopes in life. Say it out loud if you want, with some friends, or just in your head. Call it mindfulness or meditation or taking a moment to get your head together.


This article is already getting wordy, so I’m not going to elaborate on that, but here’s a really useful article about non-religious prayer if you’re interested in reading more.


Other types of “devotional” rituals might include anything you do on a daily basis to give your experience structure and intention. It might be as simple as sitting for a cup of coffee every morning. It might be as banal as posting something thoughtful on social media every evening.


Conclusion


I know the prospect of inserting unusual little rituals into your previously normal, respectable trip plans can sound like a bit much.


I’m not trying to make things uncomfortable for you, but what we’re trying to get to with the GAP Month is a travel experience that’s likely to have a real impact on your life. So, it makes sense to integrate ritual.


We’re not talking about magic or religion exactly. We’re talking about using lessons learned from the history of pilgrimage, from positive psychology, and from personal experience in order to infuse your experience with meaning and good feelings.


Ritual is a simple, physical mechanism by which we make things feel meaningful.


It cements lessons learned for later, and sears experiences into your memory.


It forces you to pause occasionally and identify the bits that are meaningful.


It triggers emotions.


It connects the mundane to the bigger picture.


It marks out specific experiences as special in a way that they won’t be otherwise.


Your rituals might include some kind of visible public identifier of your status as a traveler, or personalized actions to mark out important events along the way. They might be day to day routines that give structure to the experience and keep it on track. Or they might be splashy celebrations of the trip itself when you finish.


Make it as private or public as you want. Take the advice or leave it. But if you want, think about integrating some form of ritual into your trip. It’ll make it special, it’ll make it memorable, and it will make it weird in all the right ways.


If you’re interested in reading more, I’d recommend the book The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile.


I’d also recommend that you check out the rest of the posts in the GAP Month series if you want to build your own DIY pilgrimage.


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