Spirit quest 

Clarice Carter has traveled to the ends of the earth seeking spiritual energy. Literally. She has felt the magnetic fields of the North Pole from the uppermost waters of Canada, and of the South Pole from Desperation Island off Antarctica.

Carter seeks spiritual energy wherever she wanders, and has found it at some of the world’s most sacred places. At Ayers Rock in Australia, she felt the same hidden force to which the aborigines have been drawn for centuries. In Machu Picchu, Peru, she says she experienced ancient Inca energy. In Greece, she basked in the spirit of Hellenic scholars.

A teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, Carter discovered the healing forces of the earth only within the last 10 years, when she began practicing Reiki, a form of alternative healing. Before this discovery, her travels centered mostly on work-related conferences. Now, she is just as likely to be found meditating on a mountaintop or dipping her hands in healing waters as discussing the latest educational materials with colleagues.

At Ayers Rock, she began to climb it, as many tourists there do. Soon, however, she decided to simply bask in its power.

"I got a chance to feel the joy of being in an area where ancient civilizations and those that are still there had their spiritual moments, growth," she explains. "They had that, and I simply said, ‘I’d like to enjoy that.’"

Carter is not alone. As a matter of fact, her desire to return home from a vacation with a glow inside rather than a fading tan outside has become so widespread, an entire sector of the travel industry focuses on spiritually oriented ventures.

George Ellis first noticed Americans’ penchant for spiritual destinations when leading tours here from his native Britain. Three years ago, he founded Gaia World Travel Services in Eureka, CA, offering his services to the many Americans who approached him in search of the world’s "power places."

For Ellis, such places include the site of the Buddha’s first sermon in Sarnath; the location where Bodhidharma instructed his Chinese disciples in Zen meditation; the Himalayas, and a monastery in Katmandu.

A practitioner of yoga and meditation, Ellis himself eschews the term "spiritual," but has no succinct substitute.

"I don’t know what one could call it. I’m philosophizing about the meaning of life. Trying to extract my own meaning of it," he says.

Leaving familiar environs is critical to such an exploration, he contends. "I think that travel is the best way of going outside one’s own culture and understanding a more relative way of looking at life."

Nobody claims to have experienced profound spiritual awakening on a Gaia venture. Rather, Ellis says, many of his tourists come upon smaller, slow-brewing revelations spurred by their experiences.

"People do change," he observes. "Travel helps them think about their lives. In time they may take a different direction." As he points out, "Revolution happens in one’s life by changing circumstances."

But not every spiritual traveler sets off with a quest in mind.

Musician Dennis Sheridan spends weeks at a time in the back country of the American wilderness. Traveling alone, he has experienced many a revelation. But his adventures did not become spiritual – or singular – by design.

"I didn’t necessarily start hiking alone because I wanted to see anything spiritual. I did it because I wanted to get out there and there just weren’t other people who wanted to go," he explains.

In two decades of isolated exploration, Sheridan had ample time to explore the depths of his soul. He brings no musical instruments on his journeys, nor books or a watch, although he does allow himself the luxury of drumming on his food tins in the evenings.

The deepest moments in the wilderness come not when he’s exploring the wonders of nature, Sheridan says, but when he’s waylaid by them. He’s spent days at a time in caves, for instance, sheltered from driving rain but not from his own persistent mind.

"When you’re stuck, just you by yourself sitting there, lying on your side under a tarp, it kind of forces your hand," he says. "I mean, I don’t have a book or anything to read. You’re kind of stuck with yourself and you’ve got to look at things in yourself just by sheer boredom, I guess, that you normally don’t even think about."

Sheridan finds it interesting that some friends and acquaintances assume his experiences have nurtured his spirit in a traditional sense.

"I’ve had people say, ‘Boy, with all the time you’ve spent in the woods it must give you a really good appreciation for God.’ Actually, it’s done just the opposite," marvels the one-time Catholic. "I’m not a real faith-based guy. I don’t really need faith because I can see so many realisms in front of me where nature is concerned that faith is kind of unnecessary."

These days, Sheridan travels alone by choice, but still refuses to attribute his wanderings to any specific spiritual destination. "I’m really isolating myself intentionally," he says. "And I still don’t really know what I’m looking for. I never really did. And I think, if anything, that’s a good thing."

For some, even the shortest of journeys can garner spiritual nourishment. Jochim, a student at the Detroit Zen Center, points this out as she tends to the Center’s business in a second-floor office. "For me, right now, a spiritual journey would be to get downstairs," she insists. "That’s a spiritual journey, to get from the second floor down to the basement, to the sewing room."

There lie clothes in need of mending, a chore she does not particularly relish. "It’s just doing the simple things in life that need to get done and doing them in a manner that is joyful," she says of the adventure for which she will momentarily depart. Seeking spiritual sources too far from home can prove an exercise in ephemerality, Jochim observes.

"That sacred place is not always going to be there," she says. "It’s going to be where you made it inside."

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