Pilgrimage

June 02, 2021 - 11 min read

“Man's greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection which he cannot attain.” – Lord Byron

I

The whole world was watching. There was a weight upon me, the quivering stench of the incomplete. I felt wrong, like an alien, a second-rate human being, lost and blaming myself for lagging behind a rearguard.

A spectre was haunting the world – a spectre of indolence, ignorance, infirmity. People had lost their track and were meandering without a purpose. I was one of them. I stuck in one point in time and, instead of going through time, time pierced me like a cold wind.

That was what the preachers were saying. Families had abandoned their homes, villages, towns to join the cult and go on a pilgrimage to the mountain seeking a superior self, wisdom and wealth. Thousands had failed, died or lost, but thousands more had come back from the mountain carrying what they were promised.

What about the rest? The spectre will devour them, slowly but surely. Without the cult, your chances are low. But only by showing rigorous faith, hard work and making donations to the cult can you become a part of the next pilgrimage. The price is high but the outcome is asymmetrical, the preachers were saying.

“I should catch up”, I was telling myself. “Time is running. Life is short. I should catch up. What have I achieved? The spectre is near. I will be forsaken. I have no time. I must catch up.”

The spectre was haunting me every day. I could close my eyes at night but my mind stayed open. I existed but felt myself a human-shaped meaninglessness. And, after weeks of bearing the watching world, I joined the cult.

On the first day, you buy your first book. It must be from a list that the cult maintains, one that reflects the cult’s principles. The list never ends and one book leads to another.  Each preacher has its own selection of books and they include books written by each other. The preachers were saying if you want to become a pilgrim, or later a preacher, you should read many of them. Therefore, you need to pay a lot in a long run. But after a dozen of books read, it all started feeling pointless like chewing the same gum over and over again.

The book I chose was the most well-known one. It was written by one of the preachers, an ex-pilgrim for whom the journey to the mountain was successful and, apparently, life-changing, as he wrote. He got all that was promised and could share his journey to enlighten others.

The book was written well, in a clear and concise manner, but it felt fraudulent at its very best. In one of the chapters, the author retold all his life from repulsive disunity to a decision of joining the cult, going on the pilgrimage and reaching unity with a superior self on the top of the world. “I was feeling myself a cherry on a cake, a small red bleeping nothing topping an enormous everything. But that seeming ‘nothing' was the only thing that the cake lacked to be complete.” That felt so profound and true that I, still feeling myself a pendulum swinging between mere scepticism and incomprehension, dispelled all the doubts and got hooked.

The first rule about the cult is you talk about the cult to everyone. After I got the book, the first page told me what I should do to get as many people as possible to the cult. That was how it was spreading. The goal was to gather a group of people who trust me and like what I say. Without such contribution to the cult, you cannot be a part of a pilgrimage and, moreover, a preacher.

To help you with that, the author provided a list of quotes, short-formatted cohorts of thoughts and ideas. They were often obvious but being garnished with a sufficient level of abstraction made them appear a profound universal truth.  You can use a quote as it is or change the words if you desire. Changing is better. It helps to develop your own voice, which is one of the great advantages on the way of becoming a preacher yourself. Quoting other cult members and having discussions with them was greatly appreciated. The cult is an organic whole and helping each other is what helps everyone and the cult to become superior, the preachers were saying.

The next chapter provided me with a list of questions I was advised to answer every day. The questions were like “What does your best self want to accomplish this day?”, “What are your heart and soul grateful for?”, “What is the essence of happiness?” and so on and so forth. I was struggling and dripping ink on a blank page. It all felt like an interrogation like if I did something I am not aware of, and now interrogators are mentally torturing me asking these questions over and over again. Similar to everything, it felt pointless, but I got used to it.

Your progress in the cult demanded you to finish many things during the day. Every minute you spend should make you prepared for pilgrimage, preaching career or contribute to your future well being. Even if you don't like what you are busy with. You can enjoy it later when a superior self returns from the top of the world, the preachers were saying.

I had to wake up early, put myself under the stream of cold water, train my stamina, spend some time in solitude, read the cult’s books, study them, make notes and summaries (you will need that in your preaching career, the preachers were saying). But somehow I had to work somewhere to sustain my living, make donations to the cult, buy new books or visit exclusive paid sermons by the most renowned preachers. I knew people who paid enormous amounts of money to the cult just to get the best guidelines and increase their chances to succeed in the pilgrimage.

To help me with squeezing all juices out of the day, the preachers strongly recommended putting things in order by creating a detailed plan for the day. Before going to bed, right after you answer a bunch of evening questions, you should think was what must be done tomorrow. Then you write that down with corresponding time slots and stick with it. Simple. You don’t lack time, you are just addicted to indolence, the preachers were saying.

Every activity an aspiring pilgrim is involved in should be repeated every day. If you skip a day, the next day you must continue the streak no matter what. Every day you miss makes the spectre closer to you. It doesn’t sleep. It doesn’t wait. It doesn’t accept excuses. Every day you miss is a step to an absolute abyss. You will need this skill once you start climbing the mountain, the preachers were saying. Otherwise, you will die covered with snowy oblivion.

The cult kindly asked everyone to report all their deeds to the cult. Everyone should know everything about everyone. Thus I learned stories about people who were praised and raised on the pedestal, blessing ones with motivation and making others fraught with guilt.

Days passed and I felt that daily interrogations combined with strict arrangements were eating me. One day, I was about to give up and leave the cult. I was free to do so but I could not abandon all the work I had done and convinced myself to continue.

However, the point of it all, the grand ‘why’ was devoured by automatism, same day after another, the same questions, the same routines, all dissolved in the mundane. But now I see I didn't care about 'why' anymore, it was something else that led me on. I wanted to find out whether I can become a superior self or not, whether I can escape the spectre or not, whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right to behold ignorant and simple minds to decay.

II

It was the day I went on the pilgrimage. No sun pierced my eyelids that morning, no birds tweeting, no water drops drumming a window, no dog gently stomping the wooden floor. It was a metal thunder of a bell an hour before dawn calling all local pilgrims to the long-awaited journey.

It was a special morning. I was free from most of the routines because we had to start moving early. After jumping off the cold water, I looked at my jittery self in the mirror, answered daily questions, put a pen, my notebook into the sack and went out. You must keep it to the minimum, the preachers were saying. The less you need on your journey, the easier it goes.

The red disk rolled from behind the mountain meeting us, a dozen of steam-breathing pilgrims, face to face. A narrow road led us through the valley of a thousand suns wallowing in haze and covered with dew. It was just like tiny diamonds, twinkling and beckoning, but melting on my touch. I could have lost myself in that scenery gently stroking the yellow petals, listening to distant roosters and indulging in the fresh chill air. But we did not have time.

The group stretched out in a row and I strolled in the rearguard. “I should catch up.”, I hurried and quickened the pace. The spectre wouldn’t wait for me, would it?

All-day we strode through the valley. Forests started thickening and rivers were getting colder and faster. We spent the night in an abandoned village. “Also pilgrims, perhaps”, I thought. It felt weirdly empty but served well protecting us from the rain and chill of the night. Although we started maintaining most of our routines again, the following morning in the village I felt free, at least freer than I used to be.

The pilgrimage went that way for the first few days. I felt like we started getting bored because nothing was happening. “When are we going to climb?” the fellow pilgrims were asking. We spent half a week lurking in the forests and there was a feeling that we were lost. But I remembered what the preachers were saying. The progress is not a straight line. Just like the mountain, first, you have to reach the foothills. You go at the same height for days or even weeks and it might feel pointless, a leisure walk rather than climbing. But you must understand that the way to the top is undulating. It goes through valleys, sharp cliffs and deep gorges, you have to descend and ascend, sometimes choosing better paths, and adapt. That was the best thing I learned from the cult.

The following three days were all the same yet completely different. I remember them as one, long and exhausting day. Going through the foothills, we wasted a lot of time arguing because we couldn’t agree on what is the best path for the ascension. Every one of us read different books from different preachers. Some were more famous, some just more expensive. It created discrepancy and anxiety of choosing the wrong path and a fear of missing the right one. Thus our group split into two.

While we were climbing, the weather was changing every few hours. At some point, it felt like we're crossing the globe, not just ascending the mountain. We went through dark thickets, fields of thorny bushes and jade meadows, passing abandoned camps and loner pilgrims with serene smiles, shaggy and dirty, waving to us. Some of them were offering us a better path for unreasonable prices. They were sure they knew the best route and were showing off different worn-out books supposed to prove their words.

The world we once lived in was escaping us. It was getting smaller every hour and eventually turned into an unrecognizable ocean of forests drowning in haze and fog. Things got worse when we entered the kingdom of stone, ice and snow. A few of us gave up. Some got exhausted or sick, the others were just depressed and clogged with self-reflection.

One guy told me he couldn’t bear one idea. “The higher you climb to, the longer it is to go back down”. It was corroding him and he left the group to go back with a couple of others. What he said was self-evident in a way but its philosophical layer was unpeeled for me till the moment we reached the peak.

The day before our ascension was when the true ordeal had started. You need to rest well, try to avoid conversations flaunting and teasing you with the upcoming ascend. You need to digress yourself from thoughts about the bad weather and fears of failure. You need to accept that death is not the worst thing that might ever happen to you. You are only one day before obtaining wisdom and eminence. You are only one day before the ignorant and simple minds start praising you. You are only one day before becoming a true superior self.

But nothing of that happened. When I put my foot on the top of the world I felt nothing. No bliss, no magic, no disappointment, no regrets, no spectre. Most of the pilgrims felt happy, some lost, the others didn't know what to do next. I felt nothing. But only at first, then what that guy said to me started eating me, too.

The world became small but meaningful and alluring in its stillness. The preachers stopped talking and what I saw was not the spectre but snowy mountains laying among clouds. I saw dark green forests, waterfalls and threads of distant rivers. I saw my home and the valley of sunflowers, wet and shining in morning dew. I saw all the days I spent in preparation to get here and I saw all the torments and delusions it put me into. But what did I gain from doing it for pain when just as well I could do it for happiness?

I gazed at the beckoning world and remembered the grand 'why' that had never been clear and always seemed transient. I sat still in the snow, closed my eyes and exhaled.

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