I have no particular religious affiliation, which is why I’m perfectly suited to writing about travel for a sense of spiritual connection. The result of my agnostic upbringing is that I’m open to most any spiritual tradition, and can see the positive elements of compassion, faith and personal responsibility.
These are some of the places where I have personally felt a strong connection with a presence that I will call the spirit, for want of a better word. Something deeper than ‘awe’, larger than ‘sublime’ and more lasting than mere beauty.
In the presence of something greater
The first time I remember being genuinely and literally overwhelmed by the presence of something greater than the landscape, was at the Walls of Jerusalem National Park in Tasmania (click here for the Viator tour to to Walls of Jerusalem NP). This was during one of my few serious bushwalks, so perhaps it was also a tinge of delirium after the five-hour hike up the mountainside (hours of it spent clambering over steep rocks) then hopping across grass patches in the marshy swamp, and finally ascending the sloping hill to the pine forest at the summit.
Reaching the peak just as twilight darkened into evening, and not knowing if we would find the hut which was our shelter for the night (the setting for a trapper’s wife, suffering incredible isolation in The Tale of Ruby Rose, watch it for a sense of the grandeur of the landscape) is the closest thing I have felt to a truly ecstatic experience. I found myself lying on the soft springy grass, sobbing, with a sense of being overcome by the presence of such an intense natural power and connection with the earth. We found the hut, and tasted water flowing through a mossy stream that is possible the clearest I have drunk.
Adjacent to Cradle Mountain National Park, the weather conditions are extremely changeable, it’s a trek for experienced bushwalkers and requires a ‘Leave no Trace’ approach, so is advisable to follow the guidelines set out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
A sustained spiritual vibe
One place that has a sustained and accepted spiritual vibe is the monastery at Montserrat, perched in a stunning position on the dramatically shaped mountains outside Barcelona (click here to read Jodi’s blog post about her tour to Montserrat). The funicular ride to the top was almost enough to make me see a vision, even with my eyes squeezed closed against the nearly perpendicular climb, but this isn’t the reason why the Monastery is a bona fide ordained Holy Place.
That was due to a group of shepherd children in 880 A.D., who saw a bright light in the sky above the mountains, heard angels singing and their hearts filled with joy. The children told their parents, who were skeptical at first but went there and also witnessed the same visions, concluding that they were a sign from God. The cave in which these occurred was visited by the religious elders, who found an image of the Virgin Mary, and hence the Holy Grotto was discovered and became a sanctuary for religious pilgrims. The grotto itself is very beautiful, however this isn’t the place where I had an almost-visionary encounter.
The Vortex of Montserrat is a lesser-known aspect of the monastery, although it was much in evidence the day I visited. The ‘Vortex’ is marked by a black circular stone set into the ground in front of the cathedral, on which, legend has it, if you stand barefoot and throw your arms into the air, a subtle energetic force will pass through you.
After waiting for the nuns to have their turn, I had to try it, always happy to be barefoot and in contact with esoteric forces. I have to confess that I didn’t feel any particular effects then – although the friend who accompanied me almost had to be left behind in the convent, she was close to a conversion of some kind – but I have to report that in the following weeks I definitely noticed an increased sense of focus and motivation. This could have been the energy of the vortex, or perhaps the effect of a month spent relaxing in Barcelona over the summer!
According to one theory, many ancient and modern spiritual constructions are built along leylines, the ‘psychic power lines’ of subtle energy and geomantic forces that criss-cross the earth, which may be one reason for the ‘vortex’.
There is a confluence of leylines outside Vilnius, in Lithuania, which is also the geographical centre of Europe, as defined by the French National Geographic Institute. I haven’t visited this particular spot, however I did have something akin to a pilgrimage walking along the river in a forest outside Vilnius, where my hosts were trying to find the grove of trees reputedly used in pagan ceremonies, hundreds of years ago. We never did locate those particular trees, however the forest itself was magnificent, and definitely had a mystical quality. Walking back out in the pitch blackness, singing various songs from different nationalities, I had a moment of truly being awestruck by the ancient majesty of the place.
If it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama
The mountain of DobogÃ³kÅ‘, along the Danube, is not only the oldest ski resort in Hungary — it’s also “the heart chakra of the world” according to no-less-a-source than the Dalai Lama, who visited the site in person. I was taken there by local friends, who only informed me afterward that there is a place where you can lay your hands and feel a pulse through the rock. Unfortunately, I can’t verify this; however the name DobogÃ³kÅ‘ means ‘beating stone’ or ‘the stone of the beating heart’ in Hungarian, and is referred to as the mythological heart of mother Earth.
I did stop by and visit the local Shaolin Temple, on the way back down the mountain, where I felt drawn to sit and meditate inside the small rock shrine. During the 10 minutes I spent in contemplation, I experienced an intensely vivid feeling of peace, and a particularly strong image of my heart connected to the universal spirit and lit from within by a hot pink glow. The Shaolin monks offer Thai-Chi and meditation training, Kung-Fu demonstrations, a vitalizing wellness bath, and guided walks to the heart-chakra on the mountain, where you may be able to feel the pulse of the world, beating through the stone yourself.
A spiritual resonance
On a visit to Thailand I made the journey up another mountain to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai, which is in fact a major pilgrimage destination during the Buddhist holidays of Makha Buja and Visak. The golden chedi is absolutely sumptuous, and the statues celebrating the sacred white elephant (which legend has it founded the site) are also charming.
The moment I experienced the spiritual resonance of the place was in a room filled with Buddha statues of all shapes, sizes and adornments, in which a young monk was conducting blessings. I spent a long time in there, contemplating the transendence of all things while enjoying the view of fellow travellers kneeling to receive the sprinkle of water in a gesture of peace from the monk, when I looked up to see a mischievous smile on his beautifully serene face as he flicked water across the room at me.
This made me laugh and feel blessed, all at once.