Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Quest for the Sacred Feminine describes Dr. Bolen’s 1986 pilgrimage to sacred sites in Europe, including Chartres, Glastonbury, Iona, Clava Cairns and Cluny Hill. When Power Trips talked with Dr. Bolen in February 1998, we learned that she has made numerous pilgrimages to other places of power during the past eleven years.
Crossing to Avalon describes her process of coming to understand what a pilgrimage really is. Dr. Bolen believes that when you go to a sacred place with an open, receptive attitude, the energy of the place can activate the divinity within you. She refers to this process as “quickening the divinity,” equating it to the moment of quickening in a pregnancy when a woman first physically feels that another being is alive within her. “You have to have it in you to be able to feel it,” she said, “but when you experience the quickening of the divinity, you’re aware of something you were not aware of before. Pilgrimages awaken the Self.”
Dr. Bolen uses the term Self, with an upper case S, which Jung called the archetype of meaning. “It is a generic term for whatever gives an individual a sense of wholeness and meaning. We can call it God, Goddess, Mother Nature, Holy Spirit, Love, Higher Power, or Tao. Seeking this experience on the Self,” she says, “is what motivates people to go on pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is an outer journey to an inner experience. It is an itinerary designed with the hope of finding or enhancing one’s spiritual bearings.”
“One of the things I understood after visiting the sacred places in England,” she said, “was the whole notion that there are ley lines or dragon lines or energy lines in the earth. Where people have had sites of pilgrimage are places where these lines have crossed, so there is an energy about the place from the earth itself, like an acupuncture point. Often there’s a spring there. People have gravitated there and worshipped there from ancient times. As millennia went by, other people with different religions came and, they too felt something there.”
After the trip she described in Crossing to Avalon, Dr. Bolen made pilgrimages to sacred places in Greece, India, Ireland and North America. In Delphi, Greece, she was not as impressed by the famed Temple of Apollo as she was by the more simple Temple of Athena across the street. “All the buses stop at the major Delphic place, where you get charged admission and they give you a ticket to get in. But set off on the other side of the street from all the vast ruins is a round temple that has trees, doesn’t charge admission, and is watched over by a woman who rides a donkey. It has a pristine energy, and it’s a natural place for celebrating the Goddess and the land.”
Dr. Bolen finds that commercialization at sites makes it somewhat more difficult for pilgrims to connect with the energy there. She says, “The pilgrim must approach a place with a sense of receptivity and openness. When there is a lot of commercial stuff in the way, crowds of people and a guide telling you what you are supposed to see, it prevents you from being still in yourself, and having an experience within yourself. That’s the difference between being a pilgrim and being a tourist. The pilgrim who goes to a particular place with a sense of the sacred and an openness to it also brings consciousness to that place and helps open it up again. It is a two-way experience. It isn’t just that people are going to sacred places but they’re doing something by bringing an active psyche to that place.”
Sacred sites differ in how people respond to them. Dr. Bolen speculates, “This has to do with the energy of the place and how it affects us. I think it has to do with chakras. For example, I first became aware of how a sacred site could affect me at Chartres Cathedral when I had a sensation of warmth, slight pressure, and something like a vibration in the center of my chest. I called it a “tuning fork” effect. It was greater when I stood in a particular place in the Cathedral, and it corresponded to the heart chakra area in my body. I think that there are heart chakra sites on the planet, just as there is a heart chakra location in the human body, and that we pick up the energy of a sacred site in the corresponding place in ourselves. Chartres is a heart chakra site.”
She has felt other chakras responding in other power places. “There is a particular place in Machu Picchu where ancient markings on the ground come to a ‘V’. When I and other women took turns standing over the ‘V’, the energy we felt was in the genital chakra area. On the highest point on the Greek island of Delos, stairs lead up to a platform created by the floor of the ruins of a temple. There, with the wind blowing, I had a sense of an expansive mindfulness, intimations of the crown chakra. In contract, the top of Silbury Hill in England seemed to issue an invitation to lie upon it and focus on the abdomen or womb. It is the heart chakra sites, however, that continue to be the most special for me.”
One of her favorite sites in Ireland is the great stone circle, Grange Lough Gur, about 10 miles south of Limerick. “It’s drawn me back to Ireland five or six times. It’s a huge stone circle, almost a hundred feet across, with upright stones. You walk into the circle through the pillar stones, and then you are in this timeless beautiful place, aligned to the Summer Solstice. I was taken by a number of things: the energy, the beauty, the nature of it. There is green grass in the center and lots of trees in the background. Each of the stones is very different and each one has been there for about 3,000 or 4,000 years, observing everything that has happened within the circle for all these years. It has the kind of heart energy I was speaking of, and it invited a lot of intuitive imagery. Some element of the place lends itself to a kind of a mystical experience for me.”
Going on a pilgrimage as Dr. Bolen did frequently invites synchronicities. These are the unexpected meetings with significant individuals, the visitations by symbolic birds or animals; the impossible-to-plan timing that results in a perfect, sacred moment.
Such was the case that a group she was leading found themselves in the interior of a cairn situated atop Sliabh na Calli — the Hill of the Hag — in northwest County Meath. “We were in the area of Tara and Newgrange, the day before the autumn equinox when we heard of it. Several of us happened to fall into a conversation with an Irish nun, who told us about this place, which was within an hour of where we were staying. It was older than Newgrange and oriented to the spring and autumn equinoxes. On the dawn of these two days — out of all the days of the year — the sun penetrates the interior of the cairn.
“The next morning before dawn, we were on our way there. It was a very foggy morning, and we were concerned that it might not be possible to see the sunrise. We drove as close to the hill as we could, and then past a gate to climb the steep path to the top, where there are numerous ancient stone formations and mounds. We made it into the dark interior of the cairn within minutes of the sunrise. What followed was amazing. A beam of sunlight came straight through the entry passage. It illuminated the interior of the cairn in such a way that the chamber seemed to glow. We could now see the spirals and drawings that were carved into the stone walls.”
“The people who built this place must have been connected to it on a truly symbolic level. The way the light impregnates the Earth is archetypal. It’s a living experience, like a big dream. As a Jungian analyst who works with dreams, being in the midst of one was a powerful experience for me.
“One of the women in the group suddenly called to me saying I had to come and see something else. So I climbed to the top of the cairn and I could see that the whole hill was in fog, looking quite mysterious. Then the woman pointed up into the sky where there was an oval or circular rainbow, which was awesome enough, but in the center of the rainbow was a human-looking figure with arms outstretched! We just gasped, Oh My! It was awesome. Things like that that have happened on a number of pilgrimages. They give you a sense that you’re being blessed — as if nature, or the Goddess, or the Spirit, is blessing you and the attitude with which you are making your pilgrimage.”
Ireland seems very much like the land of the Goddess to Dr. Bolen. A tour group she was leading once stopped at a sacred spring where local farmers still used the water to bless their cows. From the spring, they could see two hills, which looked just like breasts. There were even small cairns built on the tops of the hills, which looked like nipples. “A surgeon who was on our tour said she was going to take a picture of the hills to show her plastic surgeon colleague as an example of perfect-looking breasts! In my Puritan country people might think that’s obscene, but there in Ireland it’s perfectly natural. The feminine sensuality of the Earth is right there in the open for everyone to see.”
When we asked Dr. Bolen how she prepares herself for visiting sacred places, she replied, “I need to be in a receptive attitude that’s very similar to the approach I take when I’m listening to a patient, when I need to pick up their feelings and intuit their whole story from the pieces they tell me. You need to approach a pilgrimage site with an attitude like the Fool in the Tarot deck, which is quite open. You have to suspend your own critical attitude which usually prevents you from acting foolish and be free to do whatever you are moved to do, whether it be picking up a certain stone, singing, doing a ritual, or walking around in a certain way or lying on the ground. Since you are going there to be affected by the place, you have to allow yourself to be affected.”
Dr. Bolen does not do formal meditations at sacred places, although she usually maintains a receptive attitude, which is very similar to the way one meditates. “I’m free-form,” she said. “If I’m moved to pray at a place, I will do that, and I often have been. I think I am actually more of a prayerful person than a meditative person.”
Dr. Bolen mentioned that her home in California’s Bay area is near a sacred place, Mount Tamalpais. “There’s a wonderful place on the side of the mountain with some major oak trees, on a hill that overlooks the ocean, near the parking area for the Greek Theater. When a woman from England who writes about sacred places was visiting the Bay area, I took her there, and she felt that the energy was very similar to places that have ruins on them in other parts of the world.
“Another place that has affected me in recent years is right in the middle of the Four Corners area of the US. I have a friend who lives there, and being in this property feels like you’re in the middle of a great medicine wheel, with sacred mountains all around. It has an amazing feeling, as powerful as other places that are more celebrated.”
Surprisingly, Dr. Bolen is no longer going on pilgrimages or leading them. “The pilgrimage part of my life was a major, significant period, and it did change me,” she said, “but for the time being, it’s over. I think that a pilgrimage is something for people to do at a certain phase of their lives. Then something else calls them, which is the case for me.”
Because Dr. Bolen’s most recent book, Close to the Bone, concerns healing, we asked her about the healing powers of Earth energies. “The energy of sacred places is very subtle,” she replied. “The healing capacity of a place can aid the healing process similar to the way that prayer can. When someone goes on a pilgrimage believing that they may be healed there, they set powerful forces into motion. When someone goes on a pilgrimage believing they may be healed there, they can set powerful forces into motion. In Close to the Bone, I described a number of ways in which remarkable remissions began with a belief or a psychological or spiritual shift. I think that a life-threatening illness is a crisis for the soul as well as the body, and that healing the soul and healing the body can go together.
“A pilgrimage is a significant time out of ordinary life. It does not have to be a far-away destination; there are nearby sanctuaries, places of retreat for such a time out. For someone who is dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis, I think that a pilgrimage can be a part of the healing process, to be undertaken — if one feels called to do such a thing — after physically recovering from the hospitalization, surgery, chemo, radiation, or effects of medication. Or it may be undertaken between the initial diagnosis and whatever comes next.
“I think that a pilgrimage can play a significant part in healing the soul and that this is what a pilgrimage is about, really. To take such a journey is to take time for reflection and prayer or meditation. It’s also something that is enhanced by traveling with other pilgrims — not tourists! In the tradition of Canterbury Tales, as the journey proceeds, we share, learn from, are witnesses for each other, and are affected by who we are with. Layers of defensiveness, of habitual numbing activity need to be stripped away to become receptive to the Self within and without. Only then, are we likely to feel the subtle energies of sacred places, and quicken divinity.”
Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD is the author of Crossing to Avalon, Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives, Gods in Everyman, and most recently Close to the Bone: Life-Threatening Illness As a Soul Journey. She is a psychiatrist, Jungian analyst and clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco.
This interview, by New Age Travel editor Robert Scheer, was originally published in the April/May 1998 issue of Power Trips magazine.