The external and internal pilgrimage: Author Pico Iyer on the purpose of journeying in modern times

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Author Pico Iyer and Pravrajika Vrajaprana, a Vedanta nun, talk with KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian about the purpose of pilgrimage in modern day times following his interview with NYT writer Timothy Egan and author of the book “ A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith.” This is a second part of an exploration into modern day pilgrimage. You can listen to the Egan's segment here.

The following excerpts from the interview have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

Jonathan Bastian: “I wanted to begin by just touching on the Timothy Egan conversation, Pico, as we explore different themes of pilgrimage, and of course, you are no stranger to a pilgrimage either, what was in your mind as you were listening to some of the ideas coming up?”

Pico Iyer: “One of the things I cherished about what Timothy was saying was, the pilgrimage offered him and most of us a way to step out of the moment, and he was talking about how he's A.D.D. and an opinion columnist for The New York Times, always multitasking, doing 1000 things at once, and I think something inside us is crying out for simplicity, for purpose, for clarity and for living at a human pace.  

And the sense in which walking the pilgrimage to Italy as he did, brought him back into himself, freed the clutter from his head and reminded him of what is really important. The other thing I loved, from your conversation with him, was the sense he gave very movingly that pilgrimage isn't a journey into knowledge, but maybe into humility, and then to being more aware of what we don't know and can never know. And just the mystery before which we have to bow.”

Jonathan Bastian: Vrajaprana what were your thoughts on the interview? 

Pravrajika Vrajaprana:  “That real need that every human being has to just stop the mind from chattering and the wonderful word that came up when Egan asked, ‘What do you recommend? What's your advice?’ And the one word advice he got was listen. I thought, bravo. That's it. That is it! It's not about the money, chattering, it's not about looking outside, it's about really listening. 

There are prompts from the outside. But the real message comes from within... and the deeper we go into that inner journey, the more that we can get out of that outer journey. And his ability to really do that and listen, that was really very moving. To get beyond all the intellectual stuff that we tend to get stuck in because the mind is so small. It doesn't really encompass what Pico lovingly called the ‘great mystery into which we bow.’” 

Pico Iyer: “...the first important thing is to listen to the people around us, we all have the wisdom within us, but we're running away from it or running in the wrong direction. I'm always struck by people more and more these days talking about cutting through the noise. And that's so that we can be filled with something much more sustaining.”

Vrajaprana: “...what I really appreciate about Egan, whose columns I've read a number of times in the New York Times, but then I thought, how great for him to kind of step back and have a very human experience of having your mother die...that's an eviscerating experience. No matter how smart you are, no matter how so-called ‘spiritually advanced’ you are, it's a very difficult time.  

Things are sort of stripped away that you didn't even know are being stripped off. That kind of prompts the journey and he had the courage to make that both an outer voyage and then an inner voyage too. The ability to look more deeply within, explore the roots of  where his own journey is coming from, and also realizing that ‘I wished I'd done things differently. What can I do now?’ 

I was very moved about what he said about raising his kids, about the lack of spiritual literacy, which I've run into quite a bit and it's always surprising to me. But I think we as a culture end up losing a great deal. It's a tremendous loss. You can't even understand literature correctly, let alone what we really want. And I think Pico is quite right...pilgrimages are sort of that last gasp for what we're doing. It's a spiritual yearning which we have, but we don't know where to go because we don't even have the knives, forks and spoons to do that with, because we don't know enough.

 I think that longing, that yearning is there. It's so deeply etched in the human heart. Our mutual friend Houston Smith would often say ‘there's a God shaped hole in the human heart.’ And we're trying to fill it with the noise from outside and that's just like eating junk food and it doesn't satisfy us. It makes us do really do stupid things that we regret later, instead of going deeper within.”

Pico Iyer  “...I know Vrajaprana lost her mother a couple of years ago. My mother's 89 now. Many of us are facing aging parents and people in trouble of every age right now during the virus season. And it's precisely at that moment, when we feel that absence of spiritual literacy and realize we're in the dark, we're undefended. And we don't know where to turn.

 I remember I flew back from Japan a couple of months ago to see my mother who’d just come out of the ICU.  That was a moment, when I thought--as Vrajaprana put it-- none of the external journeys I've taken, none of the books I've read, none of the exams I've taken, is going to help me now. My checkbook is going to be useless. My resume is no help. The only thing I can bring to my mother or to myself in this time of need is the inner journey, whatever resources I've gathered within. 

And in some ways, I think every challenge that life brings to us is a reminder that we're only as rich as the resources we have within us...I think sometimes the outer journey can be a catalyst to that inner movement by jolting us out of our habits, but it's really inwardness. And I love the fact that, you know, as a traveler, I know people often talk about conquering the Himalayas or mastering the East or whatever it is, and I feel a pilgrim is really about surrender.”

Jonathan Bastian: “Pico, one thing I've heard you say is that a pilgrimage is one of our deepest longings in the secular age. I'm sure a number of people listening may think of themselves as living mostly in a secular world. Can a pilgrim take a pilgrimage in a secular world?”

Pico Iyer:  “..Pilgrimage is just for me a journey towards whatever is deepest inside you, which many people will say, what is beyond you. You know, when Romeo and Juliet first meet at the ball, they speak in a sonnet to one another. And the central word in that sonnet is pilgrim. Romeo says, ‘My lips, these blushing pilgrims,’ and Juliet says, ‘Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much.’ But it's a way of suggesting each has found his or her spiritual destiny, or source and by meeting each other, that meeting something essential within themselves. 

I don't think it's so important to put a name to it or even feel that there are texts around it. All of us have some longing, that there's something forgotten or undiscovered within ourselves, that we want to release and I think in some ways that longing is stronger than ever because the junk food that Vrajaprana was remembering, and mentioning that were filled more and more with the wrong kind of distraction.

When you ask about secular pilgrimage, of course I'm amused. You're talking to a lifelong Santa Barbarian, who has been a very committed Hindu nun for almost half a century and a Hindu guy who doesn't know anything about his tradition or Hinduism or the source, but who travels the world to observe the pilgrimages of the Ethiopian, Orthodox faith, Buddhist and Muslims. So I think even those who are spiritually unaffiliated, get something just from making that resolve. I want to find out what means most to me, whatever terms or no terms I choose to put on it.”

Vrajaprana: “...I love to travel myself, as you know. I've gone on a couple of tours, which I've enjoyed immensely. And what strikes me is [the people] there's so many people in the United States right now and certainly in developed countries, who love to go out and discover new countries. But really I think they're just discovering themselves too.  What does this awaken in me, what does this bring to me? You see the lights turn on people's eyes.

I had such an amazing time in Turkey just with-- most of them were-- very committed sort of Christians from the Midwest, and going into Rumi's place and some of the places in Istanbul, these sacred sites of Islam. You see them, just looking at it with new eyes and finding something within themselves, some touch of holiness that is awakened within them. And you see it expressed all through them. It's really a glorious thing to see. So I think we're all seeking but we do it under the guise of tourism.”



  • Pico Iyer - author of "The Art of Stillness : Adventures in Going Nowhere, and, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells"
  • Pravrajika Vrajaprana - A disciple of Swami Prabhavananda and a Vedanta nun at the Vedanta Society of Southern California’s Sarada Convent for more than 30 years


Andrea Brody