Trail of Tears: Pilgrimage without a goal

I’m back from a three-day trip to New York, where I presented Guna Foundation’s excellent new film, The Great Transmission, at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art. Unusually for me, I took a day off. I had no special plan to follow—just some recommendations from friends—but by the time events had fallen into place, I had discovered an emerging theme. That’s what I’ll write about here.

I started the day by walking the Highline, a new “elevated park” developed along the tracks of an abandoned railway line. This little stretch of green winds in and out among the buildings of lower Manhattan for more than a mile. It’s immediately appealing, and New York has taken it to heart.


Along the Highline

Toward the beginning of the walk, I came across a sound installation by the artist Susan Philipz: a number of loudspeakers that droned out sad and somewhat unsettling sounds. The accompanying signage explained that it was part of a group exhibition called Wanderlust “that explores the themes of walking, journeys, and pilgrimages, inspired by the High Line as an ambulatory space.” This particular installation, called Lachrimae, is based on “the image of a single falling tear.” The sounds were meant to accompany visitors as they walked along the Hudson River, glimpsed now and then to the west.

So there we have the start of the theme. A tear flows, and although the Highline itself is a happy place, I found myself thinking of how my walk snaked through the lives of countless people, each with his or her own forms of personal suffering. We are all  on our own pilgrimage, but if the pilgrimage has no destination, no sense of arriving at what might be transcendent, what can there be but tears?

That evening I presented The Great Transmission, and the next day I caught up on work and met with friends. But in the evening, I went to a play that had been recommended to me, called Small Mouth Sounds. It’s a play about six people who go on a silent retreat. At one point the invisible teacher tells a story: Life, he says is like being born on an ocean. You sail out into the vast and beautiful ocean . . . and then the boat sinks. A journey to nowhere; water that invites only loss. The Ocean: the play ends with an evocation of that image, a single word, haltingly spoken into the gap where communication has failed .

The next morning, the end of my trip approaching, I took the subway down to the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found was two massive black granite pools, with the names of those who lost their lives etched on the sides, and beyond, water flowing, sheeting down into darkness, at the bottom of the pool: a journey into sorrow and loss, a water fall, leading into an ocean of emptiness.


So that was it; that was what I had sketched out in my head to write for this blog. But the next day—back now in California, having made a quick journey to the other world of our Odiyan Country Center, where pilgrimage means something very different, and my room overlooks a pond—I  learn that there has been a bombing in Manhattan, just a few blocks from where I walked on the Highline, and the theme takes on a different weightiness. We are all on a pilgrimage, a journey where tears flow and lives end. A journey with no end . . .  but can there be a new beginning?

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