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The Inner Journey

A Teen Pilgrimage with Where There Be Dragons

Teens in Tibet with Where There be Dragons
Teens with Where There Be Dragons on Mt. Kalish, Tibet.

For two consecutive summers I accompanied a small group of students to the remote pilgrimage site of Mt. Kailash in the far western reaches of Tibet. Throughout each of these journeys, each student challenged every stereotype I had ever held about teenagers. By openly sharing their personal goals and fears, as well as their emotional and spiritual processes, they demonstrated a commitment to both personal development and global change that I never could have anticipated.

I have witnessed transformations in them, and subsequently in myself, inspired by the inner journey, which is the essence of every pilgrimage. I am now deeply convinced of the value of a personally defined pilgrimage, undertaken in the tumultuous context of adolescence.

What better time for a pilgrimage than when everything is being questioned, relationships are shifting, and one’s place in the world is so difficult to define? It’s my firm conviction that providing adolescents with the chance to simply look inward is the greatest tool we can offer them. Given the opportunity of an emotionally safe and supportive environment, they will generally seek challenge, strive to develop meaningful relationships with others, explore the purpose of their daily lives, test their own belief systems, and realize the impact they have on the world around them.

Each student chose, with clear intention, to embark on a pilgrimage for his or her summer vacation. Although we discussed the spiritual significance of this ritual for Tibetan Buddhists, students were asked to define their own pilgrimage. Traveling alongside other pilgrims headed for Kailash, they were exposed to religious perspectives much different from their own and compelled to reflect on their own traditions. Many felt moved to explore their behavior and relationships with others. Some perceived it as an opportunity to overcome their fears. For many it resulted in a closer examination of their priorities. What emerged as the common thread was the understanding that each person was seeking some form of internal transformation and that a personally defined pilgrimage could change lives.

Journey to Mt. Kailish

For over two millennia, faithful pilgrims have endured the journey to Mt. Kailash, a peak in the far west of Tibet. Revered by Buddhists, Hindus and Bon and Jain practitioners as a paramount spiritual destination, Mt. Kailash juts out of the plains like a monolithic temple — its stark faces draped in unusual horizontal bands of pure white snow. Although the mythological tales and spiritual significance associated with Mt. Kailash vary from one religious tradition to another, one common thread transcends the differences: the personal pilgrimage.

Teen rowing on the river Ganges in India
On the sacred River Ganges, with Varanasi at sunrise in the background, a Where There Be Dragons participant rows.

Each individual pilgrim embarks upon a powerful introspective path that is his alone. What is significant in this journey is more than simply its completion but the personal transformation which occurs along the way: “Motivation is what separates a pilgrimage from ordinary travel…It comes from the heart. Each person knows his or her own motivation," said His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

We asked the students to look beyond the textbook definition to the meaning of pilgrimage in the context of their personal experience, religious upbringing, and worldview and discuss their motivation for embarking on a journey so foreign to most westerners. They were asked this question before setting foot in Asia and then again, a month later, having completed the kora around the sacred mountain. Not surprisingly, many perspectives had shifted.

"I remember not being quite sure what to write when on the plane. In my journal I wrote: ‘Even though I might think I have an idea of what I might expect or what a pilgrimage might mean, I'm going to stay open to change and find the real meaning of pilgrimage by allowing myself to absorb what is around me.’...My meaning of a pilgrimage has changed. I feel that I had a lot of time to think about myself and discover things that sometimes one just doesn't want or doesn't have the time to deal with. I have always considered myself a motivated person, but I feel even more so now because I have a deeper understanding of myself...To me, a pilgrimage has meant a discovery of life and its workings. It has meant an incredible experience with some amazing people. It has meant a new me without losing the old me. Pilgrimage has been a time of discovery and learning." — Emilio Dirlikov, Silk Road.

Many of us had not considered the possibility of defining our own pilgrimage. We had assumed that Mt. Kailash held so much spiritual value for so many others that personal definitions were unnecessary. Besides, no one had ever thought about himself or herself as a "pilgrim.” But we were seeking a change, a peeling away of accumulated layers of the self, a release from old patterns and emergence into the new.

Young adulthood is a roller coaster of change and questioning; it is also a time of seeking, a time when we try to define ourselves as individuals, to clarify our purpose and our relationships with others. We strive to fit into a complex system of expectations while seeking at least some independent existence.

“Change is possible… it's there for the taking…[it’s] about finding the strength within. A pilgrimage is life; we must recognize how special and how important certain things are. I am the happiest I've ever been… That's why this phase of my life is sacred but I am afraid of change, of reverting back.” — Elizabeth Armour, Kailash.

For six weeks, these students were repeatedly challenged to take emotional risks and trust in strengths they never knew they had. Who were we to be embarking on such a sacred journey? Not pious devotees of the Buddhist or Hindu traditions but, rather, a group of earnest, committed young travelers, prepared to look at ourselves anew.

The Resulting Changes

Having traveled with the students and having maintained close relationships with many of them after their return home, there are several responses to their experience I have noticed. Most prominently, they have expressed a sense of the importance of close, communicative connections with friends and family and have made a concentrated effort to rebuild damaged relationships. Some have come to recognize new strengths that contribute to a greater sense of personal esteem. Others find that they are more open to the perspectives of others and more committed to understanding than to simply being “right.” Many express an increased appreciation for their standard of living in the West and have attempted to be much less consumer oriented. Some have become more active in local community service or international aid organizations, feeling an increased sense of responsibility to the global community. Many feel that they have developed better tools for stepping up to challenges and have less fear of the unknown. Not surprisingly, they express a strong sense of community and connection with the others who shared their journey.

Finally, many students have expressed a new desire to move away from the kinds of lifestyles and choices that were either physically or emotionally self-destructive or unhealthy, perhaps as a result of a renewed sense of personal value. I have watched students initiate Students for a Free Tibet chapters at their schools, volunteer at Amnesty International, and fundraise for nonprofit organizations working to stop child trafficking.

I am in awe of the number of letters I have received months, or even years, after the end of the program describing revelations somehow connected to their journey. These students have had the rare opportunity to travel abroad and trace the path of an ancient pilgrimage. They have had the chance to step away from their daily lives to reflect on and define their goals and values. The journey need not take place on a traditional pilgrimage route. What guides the experience is one’s goal in setting out, openness to change, and the willingness to get lost for a while in order to find a little clarity. As one student put it so eloquently:

“I don't know when I changed. I don’t know if it happened during the trip, returning home on August 8, yesterday. All I know is that since Kailash, I have been making different decisions. It was a journey that showed me what was inside of me all along. My eyes were finally opened.” — Elizabeth Armour, Kailash; India.

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