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AMB Life Coaching- August 2019

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home…

~ John O’Donohue (excerpt from Blessings for the Traveller)

Why Pilgrimages Now?

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Coleman (founder of Awake In The Wild mindfulness program of which I was a student last year, buddhist teacher and author of the recently published book From Suffering to Peace- The True Promise of Mindfulness) sent me the link to a video titled i have a small heart. It is a short documentary by Bajir Cannon and Maki Itami Cannon, accompanying one woman's journey, Megumi Ueno, along the Kumano Kodo through the Kii mountains of Japan. This is where I traveled in the Spring and where I will be going again in November to lead a women’s pilgrimage. So the video seemed particularly relevant to my journey; it turned out to be so on more than one level.

For a few years now, I have attempted to answer for myself the same questions the film and the Japanese pilgrim are posing:

  • What role can a pilgrimage play in our modern world?

  • Why are we drawn to these difficult journeys?

  • Why do these traditions of walking exist across traditions and eras?

I may have gotten a partial answer to these questions as I travelled to my native Brittany this summer and took part in a pilgrimage there. In Brittany, pilgrimages are called pardons (forgiveness in French). They are conducted by the local parishes to celebrate a given saint. In Locronan, the most beautiful historic village in France according to The Gardian, it’s Saint Ronan who is celebrated. Saint Ronan came from Ireland in the 7th or 8th century and settled his hermitage there.

Every six years, a traditional twelve kilometers path around the village church is re-created by cutting pathways in corn and wheat fields, opening farm courtyards, removing electrical fences, building temporary bridges over creeks and installing signs for the Grande Troménie. (More on wikipedia about Grande Troménie here). Just like the pilgrimage of Kumano Kodo in Japan, la Grande Troménie in Locronan is the union of two faiths: in Japan, Kumano Kodo marries Shintoism and Buddhism, in Brittany, it’s Celtic beliefs and Catholicism. In both cases, it’s the union of an indigenous culture based on ancient nature practices with an imported faith.

What I discovered by walking these paths in two very different countries is that, for the local folks, this is an opportunity to open one’s heart to strangers, to remove barriers, to welcome them into one’s own world, to bring offerings or share local customs. And, for pilgrims, it’s a chance for a strong connection to a place and its people. The meeting of otherwise strangers is facilitated by the slow pace of the walking, the sacredness of the land being traversed, the reverence for the ancient traditions being celebrated and the particular status afforded to any pilgrim.

While in Brittany, the welcoming by the local people was made physically evident by the creation of the path we walked on, in Japan, it was the smiles, bows and laughs that showed their sentiments.

On my last trip to Japan, on the Kumano Kodo, there were two specific encounters which particularly warmed my heart.

In Omata, we were welcomed into a house by a host who had prepared an entire meal of about twenty dishes, from vegetables grown in his garden and other local organic products. It was an amazing feast. He shared his plum wine (ume) as apéritif and explained to us the proper Japanese étiquette for starting a meal: he taught us about the meaning of Itakaimasu which I understood at the time to be a grace before a meal or the equivalent of bon appétit in French. It actually is more than that as it can be translated by ‘I have received from on high’ and comes from a buddhist tradition which teaches respect for all living things. This thinking extends to mealtime in the form of thanks to the plants, animals, farmers, hunters, chefs, and everything that went into the meal. It’s only after you bow and say Itadakimasu that you can pick up your chop sticks and start eating.

The second encounter of authentic connection in this foreign land was when we got to take the local school bus instead of the regularly scheduled one so that we could have a headstart on our hike. Riding the school bus with the children, aged three to fifteen, was a unique experience: - parents accompanying the children to the bus and bowing their good byes. -a little girl, aged four or five, sitting right behind the driver and starting a conversation as if he was her grandfather, - the driver lovingly returning the girl’s questions as if he were indeed a family member. The exchange between the girl and the bus driver, of which I could only understand the tone, mood and lightness, went on for, may be, fifteen minutes. At the following stop, another little girl joined and the two girls started to chat. We got off, bowed and started our walk. It was a delight to be welcomed this way and to be a witness of these villagers’ daily life.

So when Megumi Ueno, the Japanese woman who travels the Kumano Kodo, says that she is walking this pilgrimage route because “her heart is a little small”, she may be right: in this world, our heart may have gotten a little small. As pilgrims, our hearts grow a little larger as we encounter the more generous hearts of strangers on our path. This certainly was my experience of the connections I relate above, and of others on Shikoku, Kumano Kodo, or La Grande Troménie.

So, in this increasingly virtual world where feelings of separation from self, others and the natural world prevail, may be pilgrimages are simple reminders of our shared humanity and fulfill our deep longing for authentic connections to other human beings and to the earth?

As concludes Megumi Ueono in her film: “We are all pilgrims together”. So may our hearts open a little as we meet each other on our respective journeys.

Warmly, Anne-Marie

Join me!
Women’s Pilgrimage in Japan


There are a few spots left. Applications are being accepted until the end of August.

Feel free to schedule a call with me to discuss this offering.

Poem: Itadakimasu by John J. Brugaletta

Thu, Jul 25

Itadakimasu by John J. Brugaletta

Itadakimasu is Japanese for ‘I have received from on high’

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