A group pilgrimage is undoubtedly a wonderful experience. It necessarily involves a pre-set time, a pre- set location, maybe a pre-planned focus, and hopefully a convivial watering hole at the end. Afterwards, as you rest your weary legs and sip your frothy coffee, you listen to the chatter and bursts of laughter around you and you feel a connection, that sense of belonging and tribal acceptance that is so essential for inner balance.
Sometimes, however, the group experience simply doesn’t tick the box. You know how it is. You wake up one morning feeling inexplicably restless. A growing sense of anticipation, urgency even, creeps over you as you eat your Weetabix. You recognise a pressing need to seek solitude and beauty in the wilderness of the great outdoors. A few precious hours away from the detritus of modern life. Away from others. You must pilgrimage alone. Nothing else will do. Your focus, the mindful reclamation of your flagging spirits. Your destination, Mother Nature’s playground.
Into a rucksack go a few random picnic items, a flask of coffee, a map, and a spare pair of socks (or is it just me that has unexpected adventures that regularly end with wet feet?).
There’s a lightness to your step as you close the front door behind you and gradually leave the chaos behind to enter a new world at your own pace. A world where yesterday’s woes fade as you study the pattern on the bark of a tree, where tomorrow’s anxieties dissipate as you watch silver water cascading noisily over stones in a sparkling stream. You can linger to watch an interesting beetle, with no fear of holding a group up or being left behind.
On a solitary pilgrimage you can go where you like, change direction, stop whenever and wherever you want, add bits on, take bits off, mutter to yourself, chant, skip, laugh, cry . . .
For urban dwellers your go-to Temple of Peace may be a long stroll to a park bench where you can sit quietly watching squirrels play in the bare trees, or swans gliding serenely across a pond. Traffic noises fade as you slip into a gentle, meditative state.
Perhaps you find yourself heading for the grey silence of an old churchyard a couple of miles from home, where ancient gravestones with florid inscriptions rise peacefully from wet grass, and the atmosphere wraps you in a comforting cloak of calm.
Maybe you have hills and dales, woods, moors, and rivers at your disposal, with far-reaching views that bring home to you your own smallness in this vast universe?
Perhaps a cold, wintry beach is near enough to visit. One where a buffeting wind rearranges your hair as you gaze at the far horizon, the hypnotic sound of the waves brushing the shingle and cleansing the recesses of your mind as you wander along the shore.
It really doesn’t matter where you go on a lone pilgrimage. The destination isn’t that important. To my mind, it’s the rhythmic, continuous action of placing one unhurried foot in front of the other that induces that hypnotic touch that gently clears the mental rubbish and trivia, replacing it with a sense of relief, of freedom and of just being, right here, right now.
As you plod, your focus moves away from the daily grind and instead you notice your heart thumping as you gasp your way up a steep hill in the Dales. You become aware of your breathing pattern as you pace along an exposed east coast shoreline. You notice the cold sting on your cheeks in the biting wind high up on the Downs. You glow in sudden warmth as the sun breaks through a cloud above the London pavement. The sudden clattering of a pheasant rising from moorland undergrowth leaves you quivering with shock.
Because you are travelling alone, wherever you find yourself, without the distraction of a group you find that your senses and awareness are heightened. You feel vital, alive, and completely present in each moment. You experience deep peace and gratitude for the privilege of this bond, this understanding that you share with the Earth. Solitary, but not alone.