Whenever people are about to embark on the religious Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah, they seem to feel the need to ask advice from those who have already done it.
Because every Hajj is unique to each worshipper, the questions mostly revolve around practical tips on how to navigate a two-million-strong sea of white-robed pilgrims.
But my advice to my Mauritanian friend Yassine, who performed the Hajj this year, was all about what happens after the fact, and how he will feel when he returns to Abu Dhabi next week. “That’s when your real challenges begin,” I said.
I understood his miffed expression, because I had the same reaction when, eight years ago, before travelling to the Hajj from Melbourne, an Australian teacher called Sara told me just that.
“What is she talking about?” I thought. “The challenge is to actually survive the Hajj.”
As someone who isn't comfortable in large crowds, I thought the pilgrimage would be the most challenging experience of my life. And in a way, it was.
To describe the Hajj as gruelling is an understatement. For nearly a week, you are following a regimen that is both spiritual and physical. Daily prayers are mixed with walks to worship stations alongside millions of people from different languages and cultures.
While that sea of humanity is a beautiful thing to witness, it can be quite frustrating, too. There were plenty of moments when I came close to losing my temper with other pilgrims in my Hajj group – one was constantly complaining about the facilities and the heat, while the other was always late to the bus, causing us to get stuck in endless traffic jams.
I resolved to keep my mouth shut, and hoped my muttered prayers would assuage my grievances. But even that was a worry. I was mentally running myself ragged in my quest to seek a spiritual high. I was concerned that, despite my efforts and the hefty sum of money I paid to make the Hajj, I wasn't "feeling it", so to speak.
But like the physical world, the spiritual realm can also be subject to the rule of hindsight. For me, the Hajj was indeed no picnic but, on reflection, isn't that the point?
The lack of sleep, the gruelling tawaf (circumambulation) of the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and standing in the heat on top of Mount Arafat allowed me to discover hidden reserves of stamina and resilience I never thought I possessed.
The daily prayers offered in congregation gave me an understanding that a spiritual life is not about chasing one feeling, but is instead an evolving process that needs to be constantly nourished and refined.
Instead of an entirely new beginning, I learnt that the Hajj gave me the tools to begin to make the internal changes I seek. And that’s where the challenges that Sara spoke of lay. Gleaning those insights is one thing, but to use them in life to be the best version of myself remains a tiring and daunting process.
It is the equivalent of climbing Mount Arafat daily, and constantly stumbling on the way. But, with the map and the tool kit that the Hajj provided me, at least I knew which direction to head in.
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