Personal Development

Plan a Spiritual Journey: Three Journeys for the Soul

This Summer, travel on a spiritual journey and discover something sublime…

There’s something about traveling to new places that refreshes our spirituality. Whether it is to man-made or natural wonder, an adventure outside the normal nourishes the spirit and inspires new discoveries (both without and within). Take a look at our three unique destinations for a spiritual journey from the 100 Journeys for the Spirit. We hope it inspires you to think about your own spiritual journeys, and we’d love to hear about them in the comments below!


1. Borobudur: A Buddhist Pilgrimage

Java, Indonesia

Built in the 8th and 9th centuries by the Sailendra dynasty, the great Buddhist monument of Borobudur was hidden by ash for more than 800 years after the nearby Merapi erupted in 1006. Known as the “Ineffable Mountain of Accumulated Virtues”, the structure is a stepped pyramid of square platforms for worshippers to process around clockwise as they climb to the summit. It is located in a sacred area of the city of Magelang in Central Java known as Kedu Plain, an elevated platform situated between two rivers and two volcanoes, and remains a hugely popular site of Buddhist pilgrimage today.

Rising against a backdrop of mountains and jungle, Borobudur is a vast, three-dimensional model of the cosmos, adorned with relief panels, Buddha statues and stupas. The original purpose of Borobudur is unclear: some see it as a temple, some as a funerary monument, others as an enormous stupa. Six square-shaped platforms, their four sides facing the four cardinal directions, support three circular tiers, which culminate in a large central stupa. Seen from above, the plan can also be understood as a giant mandala – a stylized diagram of a perfect universe.

A visit to Borobudur is a symbolic, circumambulatory pilgrimage, known as a pradaksina, to the sacred summit. The terraces act as pathways, guiding pilgrims around the structure in a clockwise direction as they ascend to each new tier by way of stone staircases. The climb is enlivened by thousands of intricate bas-relief panels, designed to be read from right to left as pilgrims circle the monument. The panels relay complex narratives from the Life and Past Lives of the Buddha from the Lalitavistara and Jataka stories, as well as the story of Sudhana, a young Buddhist disciple who achieved enlightenment. Graceful stone apsaras drift by on clouds, kings and queens hold court in sumptuous surroundings and lively musicians play delicately carved flutes and gongs. This great ascent has been practised by devotees for centuries and is said to symbolize the spiritual path of the bodhisattva toward enlightenment and nirvana.

On climbing the final staircase, the pilgrim reaches the uppermost level of the structure, the realm of enlightenment, awakening and Buddhahood. Here, overlooking the lush surrounding jungles and the sacred volcano Mount Merapi, 72 miniature stupas surround a central stupa in perfectly orchestrated circles. Each of these smaller stupas is perforated to allow just a glimpse of the meditating stone Buddha that sits calmly within. Today some of the stupas are damaged, revealing the Buddha sculptures in their entirety. The four tiers of these stupas are said to represent the four immaterial levels of meditation.

To this day, each year Indonesian Buddhists celebrate Waisak – commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha – by processing on a spiritual journey to the summit of Borobudur.


2. The Ring of Brodgar: Ancient Beauty

Orkney, Scotland

The ring of Brodgar is one of the finest of stone circles, and one of the most beautifully sited. At 340 feet (105 metres), the circle is exhilaratingly wide, giving the visitor a sense of order lightly applied to a majestic age-old landscape – lightly but strongly, for it has stood more than 4000 years. 27 monoliths survive, of heights up to 13 feet (4 metres): it’s thought there were 60 originally. Whilst wandering around you should experience a sense of inexpressibly, earth-rooted beauty.

Loosely speaking, this is a “henge” – the word has an air of antiquarian mystery. On one stone on the northern side there’s a Norse runic inscription – the Vikings often came this way, leaving graffiti in sacred spots. The monument stands on the Ness of Brodgar, a thin cape separating two sea lochs, and this word also leads us to the Vikings, for it comes from nes (“nose”) in Old Norse. Nearby is an isolated menhir, or large standing stone, the Comet Stone. The stones themselves are surrounded by a rock-cut ditch, with two entrance causeways.

It seems likely that sight lines connecting individual stones with notches in the surrounding hills pointed to sunrises or sunsets on significant days of the year. Various outlying menhirs might also be part of the pattern of alignments. The stones were quarried from different sites on Orkney, and in the building there may have been an element of collective enterprise, binding communities together; or, conversely, of competition. Perhaps the sacred enclosure was used for a variety of purposes. Today the best approach is simply to offer oneself up to the wonder of it all, especially on a long summer day of fickle weather. To gaze on a rainbow over the Ring brings you close to transcendence. Fleeting God-given colour and enduring worshipful stone offer as great a contrast as you could ever find on this Earth.

3. Aurora Borealis: Natural Wonder

In one of the earliest accounts of the aurora borealis or “Northern Lights”, in the 1230 Norse chronicle Konungs skuggsjá, the writer struggles to explain this mesmerizing phenomenon. Perhaps flares from the other side of the Earth had reached around to the night sky? Perhaps glaciers were full of pent-up energy escaping into the atmosphere? Or perhaps the vast icy oceans of the North were surrounded by fires, whose licks of flame could be dimly seen through the darkness.

Today, we know that the lights are caused by charged oxygen and nitrogen particles, carried from the sun’s surface on the solar wind, crashing into our atmosphere and exploding. Still, even with this scientific understanding, we can never say precisely when these luminous wisps of green, red and blue, which seem to dissolve in the sky as if a stained-glass window had been tinted with watercolour, will appear. Little wonder, then, that the aurora borealis – named by Galileo in the 17th century for the Roman goddess of dawn and the Greek term for the North Wind – continues to inspire awestruck humility.

People travel from all over the world to the locations closest to the North Magnetic Pole (one of two points on Earth where the magnetic field is vertical), such as the far north of Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Scandinavia, where the lights are most often seen. Changes in the Earth’s core mean that this pole is gradually moving and it is currently located near Ellesmere Island in northern Canada. In September and October, and March and April, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes make the diffractions of colour most likely to materialize. Nevertheless, however much one pays for a guided cruise, or a hike to the darkest parts of the Arctic Circle, the lights remain tantalizingly unpredictable.

We hope you’ve been inspired by our shortlist, but it’s in no way comprehensive. Use it as a challenge to create your own list in the comments below. Have you ever visited any of these places? What’s your most spiritual or sacred place? We’d love to know!

These adventures were taken from 100 Journeys for the Spirit, a collection of destinations selected for their sublime impact, and featuring articles from Andrew Motion, Michael Ondaatje, Paul Thoroux and others.



Vicky Hartley is the Marketing Director and Head of Digital for Watkins Publishing Limited (including Duncan Baird Publishers)