Earlier this year, I went on a pilgrimage to Mecca with my mom.
Called umrah, the experience was powerful, to say the least.
I’ve been struggling with putting words on the page to adequately describe the experience. I believe any attempt is better than none, though, so here I go.
Experiencing Something Larger than Yourself
In the weeks and months before our departure to Saudi, I had been feeling down. Business wasn’t going well, and I felt frustrated.
I’ve taken such large risks in my life – namely, quitting the comfortable, predictable paths in favor of something way more unknowable – and I would love to say that my life follows a narrative of success immediately following the risk-taking.
But I’ve found that’s often not the case.
There are lows, deep lows, that successful, risk-taking people may be reluctant to share.
I was in such a low myself this winter. And when I get low, I feel isolated, like no one can really understand what I’m going through, and that there’s little hope.
But a week before the trip, I came down with the flu, and felt like both my body and mind had given up. I decided to just give in, put everything aside and be open to this experience with my mom.
Being amongst thousands of pilgrims in Mecca and Medina, all with a singular purpose, took me out of my own day-to-day fears and worries.
During the pilgrimage, men are required to don just two white sheets – and nothing else. Learning how to fasten it was an art in and of itself!
Suddenly, all the physical differences that can preoccupy us – What clothes am I wearing? How do I look? – and the judgments we make on others – Oh, they’re looking so frumpy. Wow, that person’s so well-dressed! — suddenly evaporate in irrelevance.
We’re here to focus on what’s really important: our own individual journeys in a greater context of purpose.
Reconnecting to that sense of magnitude helped me be more grounded in what’s real and what really matters.
The Weariness Creates Meaning
One aspect of what I experienced during the week was a great physical strain. We would wake up before the crack of dawn to walk over to the mosque and offer morning prayers.
We’d come back to the hotel, eat breakfast, sleep a few hours, then go to prayers again. Day after day, we would repeat this cycle continuously. Though fatigued, sometimes even sick or in pain, I pressed on.
Somehow in the context of my family community and this larger Muslim community that I felt belongingness towards, I felt capable of pulling myself out of any resistance my physical body was trying to create within me.
During the rituals of umrah itself, moreover, we walked barefoot, circling around the Ka’abah seven times and then between the hills of Safa and Marwa, between which Abraham’s wife Hagar is believed to have run in search of water for her thirsty infant.
My feet ached, but I continued. There’s a portion in which men are required to run, and I felt the stiff pain of running barefeet on concrete!
However, it was this skill of surpassing mentally-perceived physical limitations that felt valuable to practice.
What would it be like if you could practice surpassing any physical resistances you feel towards your goals?
I think it’s the physical weariness, itself, that contributes to the meaningfulness of pilgrimage. Without the physical challenges, the ritual of pilgrimage wouldn’t actually be as meaningful.
I think that the challenges we experience, too, can give such meaning to the story of our lives. We learn from them, and we grow, maybe not in spite of the pain but because of it.
Practicing Faith and Gratitude
One of the recurrent experiences I found during the pilgrimage is the jostle amongst crowds of fervent worshippers.
During a tawaf around the Ka’abah, I held onto my mom so as to not lose each other amongst the crowd. We approached the hateem, a semi-walled semicircle adjacent to the Ka’abah especially believed to be holy to pray within.
But while we approached, the density of pilgrims increased. In my head, I’m like, “It’s okay. I could be okay with exiting right now.”
I try to calm my nerves while headlines of pilgrims being trampled to death during hajj replay get recalled in my mind. My mild claustrophobia goes on red alert.
I put my arms around my mom trying to protect her from the rush of the crowd, but my mom, who’s a head shorter than me, keeps pulling me into the crowd.
In that moment, I’m praying for safety, and trying to take deep breaths amongst the surmounting rush of people all around us.
We make it to the hateem, and quickly try to offer the recommended prayers there. A woman in full niqab screams at my mom because she is blocking another woman’s prayer path.
We pray in hyper-speed, then rush out into the swirling crowd around the Ka’abah yet again, and I feel relief. Relief that we made it out safely, but also relief that we took the risk and pushed ourselves into the fray. I express gratitude to God for helping us through to the next phase in the pilgrimage.
Often I might view a potential opportunity like that one I had just experienced as one that I wouldn’t enjoy, but this experience demonstrated that what we resist can sometimes hold meaning for us, as long as we keep faith.
And since the umrah until today, I have taken with me a regular practice of prayer, which I use to practice faith and gratitude.
Before going on the journey, I knew that I was weak on these two areas, but I feel lucky that my religion gives me a ritualized structure to practice reconnecting with faith and gratitude each and every day.
I am grateful, too, to have had this experience with my mom that we can both share and remember for a lifetime.
Going on pilgrimage has opened me up from the inside, and offered me a new perspective in life that I didn’t know I was missing. It’s one that can only be experienced, not just read about or listened to.
Pilgrimage means any space that holds special meaning to you, be it religious-oriented, or an ancestral homeland, or birthplace of a favorite author.
If something calls to you to make your own pilgrimage, whatever that means to you, I highly encourage you to go!
A deeper awareness and relationship to life could be awaiting you on the other side.