Sometimes You Get Stuck in Chicago: 5 Lessons From My Life as a Pilgrim

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I detest Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. As a frequent flyer for business, I’m usually good for several stops at O’Hare each year—and the busy-ness, disorganization, and delays that come with it. At least one major delay at O’Hare goes down each year, and I’ve even slept on the airport floor in a makeshift sleeping bag constructed of airline blankets. A few year’s back I even nicknamed Chicago O’Hare the mouse trap of America. Since it’s so busy, if there is a delay or nuisance at O’Hare, travel throughout all of North American can get clogged up big time. 

Oddly enough I managed to go a whole year without my routes running through O’Hare. Then, when I received my opportunity to go on my first spiritual pilgrimage to India, a work commitment in Chicago necessitated that I fly out of O’Hare. I thought little of it when I booked as I was simply overjoyed that there was a direct flight to Delhi! The night before I was scheduled to leave, I received the notification via text. My flight would be delayed… by 16 hours! For a moment my head started to spin into the hysterics of “This isn’t fair! I’m going to lose more than a whole day from my plans, just when I cleared the space to go to India. See, the universe hates me after all!”

My breath quickly found me and I realized—this is spiritual pilgrimage. Expect the unexpected. It’s supposed to be challenging and yes, the pilgrimage goes through Chicago. You know what that means; another change to cultivate patience through the art of waiting. Another chance to curse life for not working and being inconvenient, only to take that breath and realize my gratitude for even being able to go to India in the first place, especially when so many people are suffering there and in the world over. And maybe that’s what pilgrimage intends to teach us? Patience. Patience with ourselves and the process…

Pilgrimage comes from Latin meaning “to cross a threshold.” The art of pilgrimage has played a vital role in my life in a way I never could have expected as an American elementary student who first heard the term in reference to English colonial Separatists with funny hats. I worked in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Hercegovina—a major pilgrimage site in the modern Catholic world— from 2001-2003. Traveling there as a pilgrim myself first brought me to this sleepy town that would transform my life. I’ve also been drawn to major sites and pilgrimage-retreat experiences in the Catholic world and in the traditions of other faiths in which I take refuge. India was long on my wish list of pilgrimage sites and in the weeks leading up to the trip, I was giddy with excitement that I would be exploring a place that long felt like a soul home!

Oddly enough, the intention I set for this pilgrimage was to receive further help with patiently relaxing into the uncertainty. I’m in the midst of two separate struggles in both my personal and professional life; the epic stuff that may end up in my memoirs someday. The common denominator in both situations is waiting with uncertainty for an outcome to unfold where I have no control over the workings of other people, places, or moving parts. I know that being outcome-focused is futile; enough spiritual study has certainly revealed this truth to me. Yet relaxing into the uncertainties and trusting in the true nature of Self is a challenge to my still healing limbic brain. I am still a human being with human desires and frailties, which is why I continue to practice, work on myself, and yes, make pilgrimage. So naturally the Divine started on me before I even got to India.

An additional three hours of delay with boarding and tarmac issue, plus the fifteen hour flight, gave me plenty of time to reflect on what the pilgrimages of my life have taught me thus far. First, although pilgrimage may involve any crossing of a threshold that requires you to step outside of your comfort zone, travel if you can, as the ancients did when making pilgrimage. Travel is the ultimate metaphor for life. Travel reveals and builds character as you are challenged to deal with things like global events, the weather, delays, and everything that comes with stepping outside of your normal routine.

Which leads to the second lesson—pilgrimage is supposed to be challenging. To intone the wisdom of Jimmy Dugan, one of my favorite characters played by Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, “If it were easy than everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Dealing with the hard, the obstacles that life throws at us, builds our spiritual muscles and forces us to rely on the spiritual resources that many of us hope to strengthen by sitting in the temples or praying in the shrines. If you allow it to, getting there may strengthen you more than what happens when you actually arrive.

In the Croatian language the word for pilgrim (hodačašće) comes from the same root as the word to walk (hodati). That is why for many faithful in a variety of traditions, walking is vital to the journey. Think of El Camino de Santiago, probably the most famous pop culture reference for this phenomenon. While certain destinations are made more accessible as technology develops, one can still embrace travel with the step-by-step, slow pace that walking engenders. This means accepting the delays as part of the process. This is my third lesson learned in my life as a pilgrim.

There is a saying in recovery that expectations are planned resentment, a lesson that’s been instilled in my life as a pilgrim. Number four—drop your expectations and you’ll be opened up to a whole new world of gifts. My India pilgrimage began with this lesson, as I was originally supposed to go for a training. When the dates got moved and I was unable to change my schedule around, the inner-prompting was to still go, especially because I’d already arranged the time off. With this being the first trip to a country that means so much to me and my spiritual development, it makes more sense to build my own pilgrimage than to be in training with little time to see anything else. I’m in the middle of a process unfolding exactly as it is meant to.

Even on my bonus day in Chicago I got to visit one friend/colleague I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to see otherwise due to her schedule. I had more time to visit with another friend and former student. Plus my hosts and dear friends, Jeff and Bradd, attended to my every need. Not only did they introduce me to a new series that has me rolling on the floor laughing, when I woke up on my bonus day in Chicago, Bradd put out many of his art supplies for me with a note to help myself. Even in the delays, I was given the needed message to rest, to create, and to appreciate connection in all of its forms. And when I finally arrived to India, specifically to my first pilgrimage site of Kripalu Samadhi Mandir in Malav (Gujarat), I appreciated the day I had there with renewed vigor instead of grieving the day and a half I lost.

The grand lesson in all of this is that life is the pilgrimage. We are sometimes called to make pilgrimage so that we can be reminded of the skills we need the most as we navigate the journey of life on this plane. I trust that the pilgrimage that I am on presently is nourishing me for the most important pilgrimage of all—the journey to go deeper within. This pilgrimage is constantly revealing the true source of my nature and my pilgrim soul—the Divine fusion of consciousness and energy, the only love story that really matters. When I am fully aware of this Divine presence within me, I can more fully let go of life’s stressors because I know that I am releasing them to this timeless source. ​

Am I still a work in process with all of this? Until this human brain of mine is fully healed, until the Arjuna within me realizes that he is really Krishna on the field of battle in The Bhagavad Gitaand until I can fully relax into the uncertainty of life, I continue to be a pilgrim. I continue to learn, I continue to grow, and I continue to release more and more of what weighs me down. I travel much lighter than I used to, and I travel joyfully.

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