A peripatetic pilgrimage: when the journey resembles a secular religious experience

Editor’s note – David G. Allan is the editorial director of CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column titled The Wisdom Projectto which you can subscribe here.

(CNN) — Some have a designated place to pray. I have a designated place to reflect. You can pray or think anywhere, of course, but some places are by design or nature more conducive to going further.

My secular cathedral is Ocean Beach in San Francisco, located on the western edge of the city, beyond Golden Gate Park, overlooking the sea and sky and accessible as the terminus of the MUNI light rail’s undulating N Judah Line from the city.

I regularly went back there to sort things out, practice a bit of philosophy and take a little interest in the meaning of life. Walking along this vast three and a half mile expanse of nature is how I think best.

Just as churches, synagogues, and mosques are built to encourage worship, reflection, and communion with the community and its God, there are natural places that focus the mind and instill an experience of awe. There is something almost mystical about such places, how they embrace the light, or change your point of reference, or surround you with a heightened sense of beauty.

What started as a New Year’s resolution to watch the sunset once a month when I lived in San Francisco then turned into a ritual and now that I no longer live there, a pilgrimage.

My personal tradition begins at the Java Beach Cafe across the Great Highway from the water. I enjoy a coffee and a pastry while I write in my journal until you can see the sun start to dip below the dunes, and I cross the street and find a perch in the sand.

Watching the sun melt into the Pacific Ocean is a guaranteed peak experience, as famous psychologist Abraham Maslow would have said.

Such perfect moments dissolve the fine line between the self and the thing experienced until there is only the experience itself. For a brief moment, there’s not me watching the sunset, just the sunset. And once I come out of the reverie, I begin my mental walk.

A meditative walk

Thinking and walking, as a conscious couple, have roots that go back to ancient Greece and the sophists who wandered and lectured in the nascent marketplace of ideas. Aristotle’s school of peripatetic philosophers was named after the colonnade, or step (peripatos), which was a major feature of his university, and it is believed that Aristotle himself taught in motion.

A view from Sutro Heights of the sunset in San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

Pedro Freithas/iStockphoto/Getty Images

The names of the thinkers who walked to get their minds “moved” read like the familiar canon to all philosophy students – which I once was.

Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein walked to reflect. Thomas Hobbes’ cane contained an inkwell for spontaneous note-taking. Søren Kierkegaard wrote about the philosophical path in Copenhagen, Georg Hegel walked through the Philosophenweg in Heidelberg and Immanuel Kant walked daily past the Königsberg. Philosophen-damm.

In Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” – a book I read on a series of walks in Central Park, years after starting my Ocean Beach tradition – the author includes a chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau titled “The Attention at Three Miles an Hour.” Rousseau explained the link between philosophizing and walking, marking the pedestrian as something deeper than simple transport but as a conscious cultural act.

“Never have I reflected so much… as in the journeys I made alone and on foot”, he wrote in his autobiographical “Confessions”. “There is something about walking that stimulates and animates my thoughts…my body has to be in motion for my mind to move.” One of Rousseau’s last works was titled “Reveries of a Solitary Walker.”

For my Ocean Beach walks, which I go on every time I visit my old home, I decide on a subject in advance. Sometimes it’s a question like “Can people make themselves happy just by deciding to be happy?” or “Is religion more than ethics more ritual?”

But more often than not, I struggled with questions about how to live my life. The most heartbreaking decision I made on this beach was to ask my girlfriend, then only a few months old, if I could follow her to Bangkok where she was heading for a scholarship. I decided I had to, and I did. She said yes, and we’ve been married for 19 years now. On my last visit, I settled on a resolution regarding our teenage daughter.

The Latin phrase solvitur ambulance, “a lot of things are solved by walking”, sums it up well. There is an Eskimo custom, for example, in which you take your anger away by continuing until the emotion ceases. You then mark the spot before leaving, as a physical representation of the magnitude of the feeling. I recognize the power of such walking therapy.

Ocean Beach in San Francisco is rarely crowded.

Ocean Beach in San Francisco is rarely crowded.

JasonDoiy/E+/Getty Images

This must be the place

For me, however, it’s not just walking. It is the place. Ocean Beach, a time-forsaken beach stretching from the Cliff House at the north end to the San Francisco Zoo near the other, is ideal for this secular religious task.

It’s a dreamy expanse at dusk, with the sky inverted in the reflection of the water. Add the perpetual waves, the rumbling breeze and the impermanence of my footprints and it’s like walking through a Zen Beat poem. I sometimes lose my thoughts in the gray sea or in the vast clouds, but I stay and walk until I have reached a conclusion or a resolution.

With San Francisco weather consistently fall or colder, Ocean Beach is never crowded. Other than surfers wearing wetsuits 7 millimeters thick, few enter the icy water deeper than their ankles. In between, people walk their dogs and the occasional runner stretches long distances where no one can hear you talking to yourself except the sandpipers who are too preoccupied with dodging the waves to notice. .

There are occasional enclaves of sunset watchers, couples huddled under Indian blankets and neo-hippies hosting a bonfire. High dunes separate the beach from a promenade without commerce and road traffic.

In recent years the dunes have slowly overcome the road, closing much of it to cars. And at the edge of Golden Gate Park, there’s a wild tangle of Monterey cypress and other canopy trees framed by two ruined windmills. You don’t feel like you’re in a city at all.

Perhaps the burgeoning, pseudo-psychological science provides an explanation for why this place would affect me in ways that other places do not. Where the continent meets the sea is the end of the land and the start of a new adventure, the proverbial edge before the jump, a literal line in the sand.

Under the big sky and by an invigorating weather, everything seems possible and contemplated in this place, and others like it. It reminds us to be humbled and grateful when travels discover places that speak to us so emphatically that just walking through them changes us for the better.

Top image: Sunset over Ocean Beach, San Francisco (Jonathan Clark/Moment Open/Getty Images)