Travel, like life, is best understood backward but must be experienced forward, to paraphrase Kierkegaard. After decades of wandering, only now does a pattern emerge. I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places.
It is, admittedly, an odd term. One could be forgiven for thinking that thin places describe skinny nations (see Chile) or perhaps cities populated by thin people (see Los Angeles). No, thin places are much deeper than that. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.
Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.
It’s not clear who first uttered the term “thin places,” but they almost certainly spoke with an Irish brogue. The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term to describe mesmerizing places like the wind-swept isle of Iona (now part of Scotland) or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick. Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.
So what exactly makes a place thin? It’s easier to say what a thin place is not. A thin place is not necessarily a tranquil place, or a fun one, or even a beautiful one, though it may be all of those things too. Disney World is not a thin place. Nor is Cancún. Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.
Thin places are often sacred ones —St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul — but they need not be, at least not conventionally so. A park or even a city square can be a thin place. So can an airport. I love airports. I love their self-contained, hermetic quality, and the way they make me feel that I am floating, suspended between coming and going. One of my favorites is Hong Kong International, a marvel of aesthetics and efficiency. I could spend hours — days! — perched on its mezzanine deck, watching life unfold below. Kennedy Airport, on the other hand, is, for the most part, a thick place. Spread out over eight terminals, there is no center of gravity, nothing to hold on to. (Nor is there anything the least bit transcendent about a T.S.A. security line.)
A bar can be a thin place, too. A while ago, I stumbled across a very thin bar, tucked away in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo. Like many such establishments, this one was tiny — with only four seats and about as big as a large bathroom — but it inspired cathedral awe. The polished wood was dark and smooth; the row of single malts were illuminated in such a way that they glowed. Using a chisel, the bartender manifested — there is no other word for it — ice cubes that rose to the level of art. The place was so comfortable in its own skin, so at home with its own nature — its “suchness,” the Buddhists would put it — that I couldn’t help but feel the same way.
Mircea Eliade, the religious scholar, would understand what I experienced in that Tokyo bar. Writing in his classic work “The Sacred and the Profane,” he observed that “some parts of space are qualitatively different from others.” An Apache proverb takes that idea a step further: “Wisdom sits in places.”
The question, of course, is which places? And how do we get there? You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectations. Nothing gets in the way of a genuine experience more than expectations, which explains why so many “spiritual journeys” disappoint. And don’t count on guidebooks — or even friends — to pinpoint your thin places. To some extent, thinness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to put it another way: One person’s thin place is another’s thick one.
Getting to a thin place usually requires a bit of sweat. One does not typically hop a taxi to a thin place, but sometimes you can. That’s how my 7-year-old daughter and I got to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Video camera in hand, she paused at each statue of the various saints, marveling, in a hushed voice, at their poses and headgear.
She was with me, too at the Bangla Sahib gurdwara, a Sikh temple in New Delhi. The temple owes its thinness, in part, to the contrasting thickness amassed outside its gates: the press of humanity, the freestyle traffic, the unrelenting noise and, in general, the controlled anarchy that is urban India. We stepped inside the gates of the gurdwara and into another world. The mesmerizing sound of a harmonium wafted across a reflecting pool. The white marble felt cool on my bare feet. The temple compound was not devoid of people, but this was a different sort of crowd. Everyone walked to the edge of the water, drawn by something unspoken, lost in their solitary worlds, together.
At the gurdwara, time burst its banks. I was awash in time. That’s a common reaction to a thin place. It’s not that we lose all sense of time but, rather, that our relationship with time is altered, softened. In thin places, time is not something we feel compelled to parse or hoard. There’s plenty of it to go around.
Not all sacred places, though, are thin. Freighted with history, and our outsized expectations, they collapse under the weight of their own sacredness, and possess all the divinity of a Greyhound bus station. For me, Jerusalem is one of these places. I find the air so thick with animosity, so heavy with the weight of historical grievances, that any thinness lurking beneath the surface doesn’t stand a chance. Walking through the walled Old City, with its four segregated quarters, I feel my muscles tense. (By contrast, I breathe easier in supposedly godless Tel Aviv.)
Thankfully, Rumi’s tomb, in Turkey, has not met such a fate. It is very much alive. People from around the Muslim (and non-Muslim) world visit the tomb, in the central Turkish city of Konya, to pay homage to Islam’s poet laureate. Rumi’s coffin is draped in a green carpet, with a cylindrical black hat, the kind worn by dervishes, sitting atop. His 13th-century poems brim with an ecstatic love of Allah, and his resting place reflects that. People are encouraged to linger. Some curl up in a corner, reading Rumi. Others lose themselves in silent prayer. I noticed one woman, hand over heart, walking slowly on the carpeted floor, tears of joy streaming down her cheeks.
Perhaps the thinnest of places is Boudhanath, in Nepal. Despite the fact that it has been swallowed up by Katmandu, Boudha, as many call it, retains the self-contained coziness of the village that it is. Life there revolves, literally, around a giant white stupa, or Buddhist shrine. At any time of the day, hundreds of people circumambulate the stupa, chanting mantras, kneading their mala beads and twirling prayer wheels. I woke in Boudha each morning at dawn and marveled at the light, milky and soft, as well as the sounds: the clicketyclack of prayer wheels, the murmur of mantras, the clanking of store shutters yanked open, the chortle of spoken Tibetan. A few dozen monasteries have sprung up around the stupa. And then there are restaurants where you can sip a decent pinot noir while gazing into the All-Seeing Eyes of Buddha. It is a rare and wonderful confluence of the sacred and the profane.
Many thin places are wild, untamed, but cities can also be surprisingly thin. The world’s first urban centers, in Mesopotamia, were erected not as places of commerce or empire but, rather, so inhabitants could consort with the gods. What better place to marvel at the glory of God and his handiwork (via his subcontractors: us) than on the Bund in Shanghai, with the Jetsons-like skyscrapers towering above, or at Montmartre in Paris, with the city’s Gothic glory revealed below.
Bookstores are thin places, too, and, for me, none is thinner than Powell’s in Portland, Ore. Sure, there are grander bookstores, and older ones, but none quite possesses Powell’s mix of order and serendipity, especially in its used-book collection — Chekhov happily cohabitating with Personal Finance for Dummies, Balzac snuggling with Grisham.
Yet, ultimately, an inherent contradiction trips up any spiritual walkabout: The divine supposedly transcends time and space, yet we seek it in very specific places and at very specific times. If God (however defined) is everywhere and “everywhen,” as the Australian aboriginals put it so wonderfully, then why are some places thin and others not? Why isn’t the whole world thin?
Maybe it is but we’re too thick to recognize it. Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked.