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Hitchhiking, Hospitality, and Spiritual Communities

Author: 
Peter Lauricella
Sharon Lauricella

 

Abstract

Spirituality has been a metaphor of journey for both scholars of spirituality and spirituality practitioners. In this paper, we address the notion of spiritual hitchhiking and hospitality.  The combination of trust and vulnerability in hitchhiking is in keeping with the same elements in spiritual seeking.  To date, no academic work has considered spirituality in the context of a metaphor of hitchhiking.  We suggest that many spirituality practitioners and seekers have been either spiritual hitchhikers and/or have offered spiritual hospitality, and that the journey to, from, and around being a hitchhiker and offering hospitality is neither linear nor prescribed.  The paper addresses newcomers to spiritual hitchhiking, those on a longer spiritual journey, and the notion of spirits as hitchhiking entities.  The concept of reciprocity is addressed as an inherent element in the divine nature of hitchhiking, particularly in the spiritual context.

 

Keywords:  Spiritual journey; Hitchhiking; Faith; Hospitality

 

Introduction

Examining, understanding, and embracing spirituality is a journey -- arguably, a journey with no end.  For some, the process of discovering one’s spirituality comes after many years of searching, seeking, and contemplation.  For others, it is inherent in or subsequent to a peak experience (Maslow 1968), or a powerful, moving, mystical encounter.  The means by which we come to know our own spirituality involves a balance of trust (also known as faith) and risk (feeling vulnerable).  Spirituality is particularly fitting in context of the journey and is often described as travelling, moving, shifting, and learning.  Redick (2006, 2009) equates spirituality to a pilgrimage in the wilderness, while Kabat-Zinn (2009) suggests that the spiritual can be best understood when we realize that the journey is about being in the present moment.  In this article, we suggest that spirituality can be closely associated with metaphors of journey and hitchhiking, which include an integral element of hospitality. 

On the Road

Hitchhiking has been a practice almost since the introduction of the automobile.  One of the most illustrative yet typical stories of hitchhiking is to be found in Steinbeck’s (1939) The Grapes of Wrath.  The Joad family, having lost their home, property, and livelihood, had nowhere to go but “away.”  Orange handbills tacked to the trees in the 1930s indicated that the jobs were plentiful and the pay was better westward.  The Joads, therefore, left the “dust bowl” and headed out in search of better days in California.  Along their journey, they managed to come across someone they deemed even less fortunate than themselves -- a hitchhiker.  The Joads showed hospitality by picking him up, and the group continued together westward in search of better days.  So it is with spirituality -- being down and out is a pivotal time in which to search for a spiritual identity or solution, and it is a wonderful opportunity indeed when a more spiritually actualized individual or cohesive group acts in support of a seeker or struggler.

While the practice of hitchhiking has been around for at least a hundred years, one need not be desperate or destitute to either be a hitchhiker or to demonstrate hospitality by picking up a hitcher.  Some  very famous folks have been hitchers, including Ronald Reagan, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison, who considered hitchhiking far more than mere transportation -- it was a way to seek adventure and experience (Cherry  2013).  Further, what could never even have been imagined in the last century – a hitchhiking robot – traveled from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver, BC just a few years ago.  Conceived, designed and built by Ontario University students, ‘hitchBOT’  made a successful initial hitchhiking journey across Canada in just 24 days in 2014.  The generous strangers who picked up hitchBOT in Canada demonstrated hospitality even to a nonhuman (for a photo gallery see “hitchBOT Completes Its Journey” 2015).  Similarly, actor, writer, and creator of the television series Seinfeld Larry David picks up hitchhikers, though is sure to screen them by asking if they are serial killers before letting them in the car (Desta 2013). 

Going With the Flow

Perhaps the best known American hitcher was Jack Kerouac, author of the Beat Generation's best seller On the Road (1957). Kerouac was a perpetual hitchhiking machine, constantly (and sometimes aimlessly) traveling from his mother's house to virtually all parts of the US.  It was the late 40's and early 50's – the war was over and the US economy was exploding with job opportunities for everyone who wanted one.  Kerouac's vision and his unique writing style - spontaneous prose - fit the times like a glove. 

As demonstrated not only by his style, but also by content and context, Kerouac outlined in his work a spiritual journey.  This frequent author-hitchhiker was interested and indeed deeply reflective about Buddhism, as demonstrated in The Dharma Bums(1958), the obviously autobiographical story of “more respectable and articulate” characters than in On The Road (Ross 1958).  Kerouac was submissive to everything, open, and listening.  Zen Buddhists call this openness “mushin,” “no mind,” or “original mind.”  ‘Mushin’ or ‘no-mindedness’ is a state of flow in which the practitioner is not over thinking, and has a fully present, awake mind.  In this state, Buddhists say that one is like water (hence the modern adage, “go with the flow”). 

The flow, the Zen no-mind, the easygoingness is:

  • A way of life, according to many, with some guidelines and very little expectations;

  • A way of being that opens one’s heart, and leaves him/her vulnerable;

  • Able to express and recognize the Holy, the Spirit of Life;

  • Designed to challenge one to remain open -- even in the face of risk;

  • Encourages us to be gentle and kind with one another;

  • Suggests that we are welcoming of other human beings; and

  • Works to deepen our human relationships (Harding, “Hitchhiking”).

Kerouac’s ‘no-mind’ while he was quite literally “on the road” is deeply representative of the metaphor of hitchhiking as a spiritual journey. Both the hitcher (the person getting the ride) and hitchee (the driver) must have mutual trust, vulnerability, and openness.  The hitcher must have faith that the driver will deliver him or her safely to the destination.  The hitcher is vulnerable in getting into a vehicle with a stranger, and also in the way that he or she may be delivered to an alternate destination that is as good or even better than the original plan.  The driver must trust that the hitchhiker is not a dangerous being, and even have faith that he or she has the potential to become a friend.  Most importantly, of course, the driver must have enough generosity to offer to be a host on the hitchhiker’s journey.

Finding Faith

Hitchhiking is a remarkable demonstration of the juxtaposition of risk and trust on both parties. Scholars have called for increased research on the decline of hitchhiking in modern culture and in different geographical areas (Chesters and Smith 2001).  Fewer folks “on the road” Kerouac-style could be for very practical reasons, such as the increase of car ownership, even amongst young people, pedestrians being banned from highways/motorways, and cheaper public transport.  Or, the downturn in hitching could be attributable to more nebulous cultural reasons, including a rise in conservative politics (particularly in the UK and US), and subsequent nose-tipping at hippie-type freeloaders.  The truth is arguably more complicated, including a combination of the automobile becoming a “snug haven” with ergonomic seats and temperature controls (Moran 2009a) and a concurrent dissolution of the concept of “society” whereby strangers are less welcome and face-to-face conversation less frequent (Moran 2009b).  A complicated cultural shift, which manifested itself in markedly less hitchhiking, is demonstrated in the popularity and later disappearance of Albert Witney’s Man and the Motorcar (1937).  Witney’s manual was the ubiquitous handbook for good driving, intimating that good driving was a mirror for good citizenship.  Sometime around the time the manual went out of print (the 1960s), so too did polite driving, driving as a metaphor for citizenship and responsibility, and not surprisingly, hitchhiking (Compagni Portis 2015).

A search for spirituality, however, has not experienced the same vanishing act as did hitchhiking.  Indeed, the proliferation of “Self-Help” and “Wellness” sections of bookstores offer a cornucopia of titles addressing the metaphysical, spiritual, and mystical, thus indicating that an interest in and enthusiasm for spirituality is increasing.  Rainn Wilson (2012), Emmy award nominated actor for his role in the American version of The Office, argues that a spiritual revolution is coming (or is even underway) and is essential in us moving forward as a human race.  His media organization SoulPancake (www.soulpancake.com) is directed at spiritual issues for millennial-age people, and includes shareable media content that is smart, uplifting, and meaningful.  SoulPancake was named one of Fast Company’s 10 Most Innovative Video Companies of 2015, thus indicating that spiritually charged content is very much in demand.

Hitchhiking is about finding - and keeping - faith.  There are some helpful guidelines for hitchhiking, including walking backward, facing the traffic, extending the thumb and/or holding up a sign indicating the desired destination, avoiding superhighways, not traveling in large groups, and all parties being visible to the driver.  These “rules” help to establish credibility, honesty, and trustworthiness on the part of the hitchhiker.  Adhering to the rules makes it easier for a driver to give his or her faith to the hitcher.  The notion of generosity and giving is inherent in hitchhiking on the part of the driver.  However, reciprocity is also an integral element in the hitchhiking relationship.  As Martin Buber’s famous “I-Thou” distinction (1937) suggests, reciprocity brings to the relationship a heightened sense of respect and mutuality.

This “I-Thou” distinction is perhaps best illustrated in modern context by Ania and Jon, two English teachers living in Barcelona (from Poland and England, respectively) who, despite a nearly defunct hitchhiking culture, have managed to hitch for 329 days, traveling 37,228km throughout Europe and Asia. The couple keeps a blog of their travels, tips for hitchhiking, and travel guides -- all online, all for free.  They cite in their top reasons to hitchhike that “hitchhiking restores your faith in people.” The goal of their currently operating Hitchhiking Cultural Relay is ( during which they have quit their jobs, sold all of their possessions, and are traveling through Europe and Asia) “to create a chain of learning, teaching and gift giving” (Mochnaka & Barrett 2015).  Their Cultural Relay project includes learning in some places and teaching in others, all while exchanging small cultural tokens and gifts.  Their overarching goal, notwithstanding the personal adventure of hitchhiking, is more about others:  to demonstrate that there is no need to be fearful, skeptical, or critical of those from cultures other than one’s own.

One of the essential elements of this restoration of faith is not being in a hurry.  Sometimes, like a sailboat in a course against the wind, hitchhikers must go west and then north to arrive at one's destination, or even change the destination to better fit the ride.  If one relinquishes the human need for control, there can exist a relaxing, calm feeling that hitchers experience as they walk.  They can see and hear the birds, the air, the roaring sound of approaching cars and trucks and the whoosh of air as they pass by.  This “letting go,” this faith, is in keeping with Buddhist mindfulness, which has become significantly more popular with Kabat-Zinn’s (1990) cognitive-based therapy programs. This paying attention in the moment and being fully present throughout a journey brings a spiritual element to an otherwise larger and longer journey.  In this manner, each moment and step is part of the collective journey, just as each person is a part of the overall collective of the universe, working in harmony and in everyone’s best interest.

Finding faith in the unfamiliar and unknown is also demonstrated in internet-based means of buying, selling, and exchanging, and is not unlike hitchhiking.  Kijiji, for example, an online buy-and-sell/classifieds website, depends upon the trustworthiness of the seller, together with the reliability of the buyer.  While sellers post items (from clothing to cottages) for sale, buyers offer to purchase and pick up items, all within a localized area.  Perhaps the most illustrative example of internet-based faith in people is Airbnb, a relatively new web-based service which connects property owners (“hosts”) with guests.  The site circumvents often overpriced hotels and mainstream accommodation, instead offering guests a room in a host’s home, basement apartment, or vacation property.  The site requires registration and disclosure of personal information, and depends upon mutual reviews of the host and the guest.  While money is exchanged and reviews are posted on the site, Airbnb operates on the notion that people are good and will act in respectable, honest ways. 

Hitchhiking Is Not Freeloading

Even cursory reads of hitchhiking and travel blogs tell stories about extraordinary hospitality.  Accounts of being picked up by the police (who want to help rather than arrest hitchhikers), places in which food is free, advice provided, and friendships made are not uncommon.  Such generous acts of hospitality leave us to wonder… perhaps hosts endured a tragic event that started their unusual acts of hospitality?  Did severe weather and lack of shelter cause a death or serious change in a family?  Or did this unique hospitality just evolve into unparalleled acts of love and kindness, ensuring that travelers were safe and the miles more friendly?

Without the personal care from which all hospitality stems, there would be no hitchhiking.  Virtually all religions teach that we should love and respect our fellow travelers on this earthly journey -- in other words, the Golden Rule of treating others as one would wish to be treated (or not treating others in ways that one also finds undesirable) can bind us together as humans and fellow travelers.  This ethic of reciprocity is a principle of altruism identifiable in many cultures and religions.  For example, Christianity demonstrates “love your neighbour as yourself.”  In Islam, the Quran teaches “wish for your brother what you wish for yourself.”  Hinduism suggests to followers, “that which is unfavorable to us, do not do that to others.”  This reciprocity is not a matter of being kind or nice so that others will be kind or nice in return.  Rather, it is a notion of empathy whereby one is able to identify and commune with others and see the inherent divine nature in all others. 

When considered in the context of divine reciprocity, it is clear that hitchhiking is not the same as freeloading.  A freeloader is ungrateful and selfish; by contrast, the hitchhiker is immensely thankful and generous, and as demonstrated by Ania and Jon, can offer knowledge, small gifts, conversation, or simply sincere thanks, friendship, and good vibes.  We suggest that the scope of hitchhiking can therefore be expanded to include not just hitchhiking via automobile.  In addition to moving from one physical place to another, we argue that hitchhiking also includes moving from one spiritual, emotional, religious, or intellectual place to another.  This traveling, transfer, or movement can be accomplished in a hitchhiking kind of way, without monetary cost, without a clear definition, and without a rigid timetable.

Consider this example: Someone moves into a new town and decides to “shop” for a church or spiritual community.  He or she attends a particular place of worship for several weeks or months, but as is the norm – does not participate in any church activities.  He or she does not volunteer at bingo night, doesn’t share food at pot luck dinners, and doesn’t offer to help at the church yard sale.  In many cases, this is perfectly normal and completely acceptable.  Such visitors are not shunned or scolded -- rather, they are welcome as visitors, or contributors in ways that are not necessarily tangible.  Their peripheral participation could be considered religious hitchhiking.  It is a means of benefiting from the warmth of the group without tangibly contributing to that warmth.  They’re going with the flow, observing, and experiencing a particular spiritual community.

We also offer a personal example.  Some 15 years ago, Peter’s sister (Sharon’s aunt) converted from Catholicism to Judaism.  At the ceremony accepting her and several others into the Temple, Peter heard the story of a longtime member, a woman in her late 70's.  She had been a faithful Jew all her life, had married within the faith, and had raised several Jewish children in that same Temple.  In the course of discussion, this woman confessed to never having learned to read or write Hebrew and did not have thorough knowledge of the Old Testament.  She did not know what the prayers meant, what the responses committed her to, or to what she was specifically agreeing.  She was hitchhiking, and she’d been doing it in the Jewish faith for a long time.  She was along for the ride, and was benefiting from the community while offering her own kind of reciprocity, if only via her presence.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and we argue that this kind of religious hitchhiking should not be criticized.  People like the woman Peter observed are participating in ways that make sense for them during their unique journeys.  We suggest that it takes participants of all kinds in a spiritual community - some who carry, some who are carried - and that hitchhiking should actually be encouraged.  If there are no religious hitchhikers, or the practice was frowned upon, very few would have the opportunity to explore or gain any exposure to religious traditions or communities.

There are to be found religious hitchhikers in every faith.  For example, many Muslims in western culture do not have the opportunity or permission from their place of employment to pray five times per day as instructed by their holy book.  This doesn’t make them any less devout or their faith any weaker.  Similarly, the pejorative term “Cafeteria Catholic” is one who identifies with the Catholic faith, though chooses particular truths to which to adhere.  While this term is critical and implies that Catholics are either “in” or “out,” we suggest that having any involvement, exposure, or interest in faith – regardless of the degree - is a meaningful step in one’s journey.  Those who attend, explore, examine, or visit are hitchhiking.  So it is in life; it happens all the time.  And so it is that one ought to be carried, supported, and encouraged along the way.

Hitchhiking of Ideas

Another concept associated with the phrase “spiritual hitchhiking” is very productive and potentially beautiful.  What if spirits themselves were also able to hitchhike?  Rather than focusing on negative spirits (a la The Exorcist), we aim to discuss a specific kind of positive contribution that spirits can make.  Consider that a spirit eager to improve the quality of life for all humanity comes into the body, or more likely, the consciousness, of an intelligent human and helps that human to develop or discover great things.  Many of history's greatest thinkers and doers such as Michelangelo, Mozart, Jane Goodall, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Joan of Arc could have been pushed into greatness by benevolent spiritual hitchhikers.  Indeed, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love (2006) and Big Magic (2015), argues that creative ideas operate much like spirits, and search for a willing human host to bring the idea to material fruition.  In pages 51-57 of Big Magic, Gilbert describes an instance in which she had an idea for a book, which she was unable to complete given personal travel and other challenges.  In a face-to-face conversational exchange with author Ann Patchett, in which the book was not discussed in any way whatsoever, the idea literally transferred from Gilbert to Patchett; the duo would not realize this for years in the future.  Ideas, then, have the potential to be hitchhikers, too.  They travel, try out (or on) different humans in order to find the best “host” for making the idea come to life.  It sounds somewhat like Airbnb -- the traveler (the idea) visits different hosts (homes, cottages, apartments) so as to explore and “try on” different opportunities.

Studies of creativity show that often  people hatch ideas that truly change the world and then afterward are unable to explain how they came to those conclusions.  The ideas seemingly - and simply - jump into their heads.  Julia Cameron, author of well-known creative “bible” The Artist’s Way (2002), argues that one must remain open and willing in order for creativity to thrive and flow.  Some time ago I (Peter) saw an interview with Bob Dylan, the greatest and most prolific songwriter of our time.  When asked how he could write so many wonderful songs he shrugged and said that he made a deal with the divine, that if he was allowed to write songs, he would devote his life to writing the best songs possible.  And he did.  Maybe Bob Dylan has a spiritual hitchhiker.  Did the engineers who supervised the building of the pyramids in Egypt have a spiritual hitchhiker?  Or those involved with Stonehenge or Easter Island?  Building upon Gilbert’s (2015) premise about ideas being entities, it can be argued that ideas are transient pieces of the Divine, in search of human hosts, and bring benefits, lessons, and adventure along the way.

Hospitality and the Journey to Spiritual Community

When we offer or accept hospitality, we embrace the opportunity for personal sharing.  Peter is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Durham (UUCD).  This congregation and virtually all Unitarian congregations offer their hospitality during the “Joys and Concerns” portion of service.  During this time, attendees are invited to participate by dropping a pebble in a chalice and sharing a celebration/joy or challenge/concern.  These sharings are significant because when one acknowledges an issue, a weakness, or vulnerability, it becomes easier to be supported by others.  Such sharing builds community, strengthens personal bonds, and broadens the spiritual community’s base.  Being spiritual alone is most certainly different from being spiritual by oneself.  In fact, the service leader, after the “Joys and Concerns”, always concludes with, “...and know that you are not alone.”   Hospitality gives us a reason to care.

It is not a mistake that Unitarian Universalists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and most religions or congregations offer an undeniable hospitality after service.  Tea, coffee, cookies or other refreshments are very often served at the conclusion of a meeting.  This important part of the service is an opportunity for discussion and personal sharing.  Discussion could lead to better understanding, heightened familiarity, and increased opportunities for sharing of our blessings.  As a church and as a community, we function better when we communicate about both religious and social matters.  It is hospitality that opens the door and facilitates this sharing.

We (Peter and Sharon) have both been spiritual hitchhikers.  In Peter’s case, about 20 years ago, when he and his wife (Sharon’s mother) Marilyn were “church shopping”,  at Sharon’s suggestion they visited First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, one of several UU churches near their home in Massachusetts.  Peter and Marilyn had planned to visit the four UU churches closest to them, and then decide where to call their spiritual community home.  The friendliness, warmth and hospitality extended to them at First Parish brought them back repeatedly.  They never did visit those other three churches...  Hospitality was like a magnet, drawing them closer and closer.  Sharon’s story is somewhat different in that being a seasoned yoga practitioner; she was in search of a studio to attend close to her home in the Toronto area.  After searching online for some possible “fits,” she visited Power Yoga Canada (PYC).  In her first class there, the instructor offered her the chance to come back, complimented her on her established practice, and most importantly, remembered her name.  For a few months, Sharon hitchhiked at a few other studios that offered a physical challenge or meaningful instruction.  However, none of them offered the sense of community that Sharon witnessed at PYC.  She’s since become a yoga teacher herself and her primary groups of friends are now fellow PYC studio members.

Many people, including Unitarians and yoga practitioners, are frequently hitchhikers.  In these cases in particular, they usually come from another religious or spiritual community, and sometimes return, staying for a while and then returning or moving on.  Sometimes they become, as both authors did, leaders in the spiritual community.  As hitchhikers there would be no travel without the generosity and hospitality of others, and when visitors come to the church or the studio, it is the smiles and the welcoming tones and friendly faces that bring them back.  In contrast to Kerouac’s perpetual hitching journey, most hitchhikers establish roots somewhere.  Ania and Jon feel very much European.  Peter has settled in the Unitarian community.  Sharon is at home with Ashtanga and power vinyasa flow yoga.

Typically newcomers - those who have recently decided to attend spiritual communities such as church, yoga, or meditation, but have not yet officially joined, are hitchhiking.  That's okay.  These folks attend, watch and listen.  If they are entirely new to the spiritual community, this hitchhiking might last several months or even longer.  Then they might join a committee in the church, help with operating the studio, or commit to spreading the word about the community in order to become more active.  And once that happens, a shift occurs and instead of just receiving, one also is providing hospitality.  Hospitality is an expression of love.  It is an opening of the heart. It is a welcoming and an invitation to strangers and visitors, limited only by the physical space and the size of the community.  Hospitality is like a door that swings both ways: a welcoming is extended and a thankful acceptance is offered in return.  Relationships then shift from “I-You” to “I-Thou,” as Buber suggests; there becomes evident more reverence, reciprocity, and intimacy.

Peter sometimes wonders what might have been if, while hitchhiking for a church, rather than being so warmly greeted at First Parish, he and Marilyn were ignored.  Would they have given Unitarianism a second chance or would they have continued to be religious dropouts?  Would they have become religiously lost?  Sharon wonders if while she was hitchhiking for a yoga studio, PYC had been insular and pretentious, would she still be hitching around, looking for an inclusive community, a circle of friends? For both of us, it was friendliness and hospitality that brought us into our spiritual communities.  We were both hitchhiking, and got picked up by the grace of others.  We both became leaders in our spiritual communities and contribute to picking up others on their journey.  This does not imply that we are immune to the need for others in our own continuing journey.  Rather, the reciprocity continues.

Conclusion

We suggest that spiritual hitchhiking is an iterative process, and is one that many experience throughout the course of their spiritual journeys.  Sometimes, people are in search of a spiritual community and hitchhike from congregation to congregation, group to group, or church to church.  Other times, people may be transitioning from one spiritual level to another, and can benefit from being part of a group that is able to support and assist.  No part of this spiritual hitchhiking journey costs in monetary form, and we argue that it is not expected to be completed at a specific time or rate.  Along the journey, people may have no idea where their spirituality is headed, though they do know that they’re on the road, whether it be via a difficult emotional time, geographical change, or intellectual seeking.  When the traveler and the host meet, reciprocity is essential in recognizing common humanity, and a reverent relationship, as Buber suggests, is able to be formed.  Hitchhiking is therefore an illustrative and fitting metaphor for spiritual growth and change.  Each individual’s search for truth and meaning continues.  We suggest that fellow travelers get “on the road.”  Adventure awaits.

 

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