Every year a small group of Native American Sioux peoples traverse 330 miles on horseback across South Dakota to commemorate the biggest mass execution in US history. The Mankato hangings of 1862 were the bloodiest episode in a period of discrimination, expulsions, cruelty and abject racism during which the majority of the Sioux population were wiped out. Thence followed a hiatus in Sioux popular history in which collective forgetting and forced silencing cast a suffocating blanket over South Dakota. Familial bonds and lives teetered on the frayed edges of social marginalisation. Alcoholism became a way of life for many and a proud warrior ‘horse nation’ who had once resisted the brutal implementation of colonialism so fervently were marred by vacillation and incrimination.

Then in 1978 native spiritual practices were finally legalised in the United States and the refreshed context ushered in a slow and hesitant Sioux cultural awakening that is still ongoing. An annual pilgrimage on horseback in the dead of winter has come to exemplify this process of collective healing and personal revival. The hardship of riding bareback across desolate snowscapes day after day has both physical and spiritual dimensions to it. There is a deep commitment each participant makes every day to both her own survival and the memory of her peoples. To an outsider, the prayers and rituals performed along the way seem both fittingly moving and inspired, as James Astill, Economist magazine writer describes: 

In some ways [this pilgrimage] is a meditation on everything the Dakotas have lost - freedom, ancestral lands, the lives of the hanged men and more. It is also a celebration, with songs and prayer, of the cultural identity many Sioux have reinvigorated. 

As is often the case with processes of deep introspection, participants on this pilgrimage tend to experience a haunting elision of time. Reports are of past events rushing into the present moment, disrupting reality and disorientating the riders. The Sioux describe how time spent on this annual event is time suspended. One is strung between past and present, and everyday responsibility and functionality is forgotten. This emersion in an annual ritual is simultaneously a departure from oneself (the person one is everyday) and an attempt to come into the nearness of one’s inner self.

Pilgrimage may conventionally be considered a religious undertaking, yet it would seem as though in actuality we all - religious and not - make such journeys in a varied ways. Some ancient and formalised - such as the Hajj to Mecca, the mass bathing in the Ganges as part of the Kumbh Mela, and the trek of the Camino de Santiago - and some contemporary and personal - such as a visit to loved one’s grave, an annual retreat, or an endurance race. Some are years long, others may only take a few moments. All of them tend to encompass this dual directionality of moving closer to one’s inner self and leaving the structure of ones everyday world behind. 

For me, this happens when I practice yoga - a daily ritual - and when I go on meditative retreats for weeks at a time, cut off from my job-life and relationships. I tend to experience a sense of suspended time, and a now familiar and divine sense of inner connectedness. I privilege and protect this time. I emerge from it satiated.

A friend recently told me that for him, a regular ritual that draws him away from his identity as a banker and Londoner, and towards his essential self, is an unhurried meal shared with his partner. They have both agreed to turn off their mobiles when this bi- or thrice-weekly pilgrimage is made to their favourite quiet Italian restaurant. He has found this time to be a cornerstone for his mental health and emotional vitality. Without it, his weeks pass in a blur of incompletely experienced hum-drum. His feeling of love, gratitude and unguarded communication facilitates connectedness. And one cannot help but be struck by how, in an age of hyper-connectivity, we so lack and therefore crave meaningful connection. 

Curiously, this sense of connection has been discovered by some in a state of acute estrangement. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a book on race, forgiveness, and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility. Its a sublime read, and what I would like to highlight is his description of his first trip to Paris. Coates is an African American from Baltimore and he describes how, in spite of being made to feel like a second class citizen and outsider in his own country his entire life, when sitting on a bench in Paris he was for the first time an “alien”: “I was a sailor - landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before”. He speaks of a loneliness that is distinct from aloneness. It is specific to being in a culture but not part of it.

The multi-directional journey. 

The multi-directional journey. 

Daily rituals of self-affirmation and cultural belonging have become, for some Palestinians, pilgrimages to find a people lost, and a place forgotten.

This sense of being marooned and yet surrounded, adrift and yet rigidly grounded, was explored at length by the unmatched poesy of Mahmoud Darwish. A fellow Palestinian luminary, Edward Said titled his autobiography, Out of Place. Both men lived lives in exile from their homelands and mused at length over this paradoxical experience somewhere between longing, fear and vulnerability that Coates speaks to. The difference being that Coates journeyed into estrangement out of his own will, and the Palestinians have had no such luxury. Exiled life, nevertheless, has given rise to an incredibly rich trove of creative work. The longing and painful introspection of Palestinian poets and artists has frequently taken on spiritual dimensions. Daily rituals of self-affirmation and cultural belonging have become, for some Palestinians, pilgrimages to find a people lost, and a place forgotten.

For other creatives such as writer May Sarton, connectedness is found in solitude both physical and metaphorical. Self-imposed isolation from the world was her fertile soil for self-discovery. Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude records and reflects on her interior life over the course of one year during which she weathers all extremities of human experience: sorrow and revelry, harrowing despair and creative verve. Her need to be alone perhaps rose from an intuition that endurance through hardship can bring escape and then catharsis, much like the experience of the Sioux on their 330 mile ardor. Sarton writes that:

sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.

After months of “heaven to hell in an hour” Sarton appears to emerge from her pilgrimage inward with startling clarity. She learnt that she had to “loose in order to recover”. In undertaking these journeys, be they awe-inspiring and monumental, religious and communal, or personal and habitual, we all give up aspects of ourselves. We shed layers, titles, tasks and relations. And in this jettisoning, we make space in our lives. This space seems to allow for a perspective in which we are critically aware of the structure of what matters to us. What holds us together, and what connects us to the great vibration of life.