There have been many press reports recently of COVID dreams, perhaps a feature of extended sleep as it seems that many of us now gratefully fall into the arms of slumber much earlier than usual each night, simply to escape the monotony of our own existence. Locked into our homes we are also to some extent locked into ourselves. Yes, we can escape for a while through TV, radio and books, but there are also finite physical edges to our flats and houses, which, depending on personal circumstance are variously safe havens, cages, or traps. Yet, while we cannot escape without, we can explore the world which lies within.
The tradition of pilgrimage as a physical journey towards a destination of shared significance is a long one, and this is also true of the metaphorical ‘inner journey’ towards enlightenment. The admonishment to ‘Know thyself’ (Gnothi Seauton) inscribed at Delphi is thought to derive from the much earlier temple site at Luxor, Egypt, but whatever its true origin, the central idea has informed thinkers as diverse as the 7th century BCE Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu, Gautama Buddha, and the wonderful 18th century Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus.
A journey to the interior can take as much stamina and resolve as any physical pilgrimage and for many, solitary seclusion offers the perfect conditions to foster such self-enlightenment. In the summer of 1956 the writer Jack Kerouac retreated to a remote fire lookout post, high on Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. While his literary output had been prolific, at this point much of it remained unpublished and he was struggling both financially and psychologically. Looking for a way to break free of his demons, Kerouac volunteered to be a summer fire-spotter and was to spend sixty-three days living in a one-room hut, twenty-four kilometres from the nearest road, surrounded only by mountains, forest and sky. His only contact with the world was via a two-way radio to the area ranger, who later complained that Kerouac often turned it off in order to write.
Through his later fictionalised accounts of this time, we learn of Kerouac’s hope that, when he gets to Desolation Peak and is left wholly alone, he will come face to face with God and find out, ‘once and for all, what is the meaning of this existence and suffering and going to and fro in vain.’ But, driven almost mad by solitude, Kerouac’s despair gets worse and as the days and hours drag on, he considers jumping off the mountain to put an end to it all, but he ‘had no guts for such a leap’.
Finally he recognises he must wait. And then after many days and nights, of tears and pacing back and forth outside his small hut and staring at the adjacent peaks of Mount Hozomeen, it comes to him that the void is not disturbed by any kind of ups and downs, it just is, and everything is temporary, even the mountain itself. He tells himself, “Hold still man, regain your love of life and go down from this mountain and simply be – be..”
We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves – by Victoria Preston – is now shipping direct from the publisher – discount code HURST30