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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

The virtual world is robbing us of our ability to reflect and ponder

The images we see of the pilgrims in the desert should remind us that real world interaction and physical challenge are central to the transformative human experience

Muslim pilgrims join one of the Hajj rituals on Mount Arafat near Mecca. Ahmad Gharabli /  AFP
Muslim pilgrims join one of the Hajj rituals on Mount Arafat near Mecca. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Among the millions of people we will see today stationed in the desert of Arafat, just outside the boundaries of Makkah, are nine British pilgrims whose story of how they arrived at the Hajj is out of the ordinary. They have cycled more than 3,000 kilometres from London to Medina. The "Hajj Riders" have traveled on their bikes, their six-week journey taking them through France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece and Egypt among other countries.

They have cycled up mountains and have endured temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius. They have been raising sponsorship funds for the humanitarian crisis in Syria. In addition, the trip was aimed to communicate to those the cyclists encountered that Islam is a message of peace and tolerance. It is the first time that such a cycle ride has taken place from the West. Previous such cycle journeys have originated from China, Russia and South Africa.

While the efforts of the cyclists are focused on their charitable objectives, I found something else thought-provoking: the sheer physical challenge of the journey and how that contributes to the overall experience of pilgrimage.

I remember my grandmother telling me how she set sail by ship from her home in Tanzania in East Africa to go Hajj, and how this was a six-month round trip in the 1950s. It was a momentous undertaking, as family and friends would help with preparations for travel and come to bid them farewell. When people talked of a "once-in-a-lifetime journey", they really meant it. The fact that you expected to come back a dramatically changed person is no surprise. The epic cost, the time investment and the physical transition were the ingredients of a transformative experience.

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Listen Beyond the Headlines podcast: The spiritual side of Hajj the media rarely shows

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Today, the pilgrimage experience quite different: jump on a plane, whizz through the air and be back home in perhaps as little as days. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But is there something in the arduous and lengthy physicality of a pilgrimage that we are missing out?

Author Paulo Coelho’s modern classic, The Alchemist, of the importance of the physical pilgrimage through a fable suited for our modern age. Santiago, a poor Andalucian shepherd, dreams he will find gold buried at the pyramids. He sets out to find his wealth, facing adventures and trials on the way, eventually reaching Egypt. After many tribulations, he discovers that the treasure was beneath the tree under which he always sat in his home village. He had to undertake the physical journey in order to discover his truth.

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More on Hajj

Hajj 2017: All you need to know

Hajj pilgrims visit Mount Al Noor in Mecca - in pictures

104-year-old woman gears up for Hajj

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I love speed, ease and comfort, and I’m the first to trade in the physicality of the personal journey to secure them. But this shift speaks to a wider conversation we are having about how we are so immersed in digital and virtual conversations, how we are exposed to only the same conversations that match our world view and which electronic algorithms expose us to. This virtual world has robbed us of the real experiences that cause physical, emotional and spiritual change in us.

The difficulty of the real world is not simply that it is physically exhausting. It is - as the cyclists themselves described during their journey. It involved interacting with all sorts of people in all sorts of places, in ways that enhanced their own experiences, and kept them focused on their own goals.

It's a reminder that we need to get out of the "echo chamber" and actually try and rub along with real people - an art that feels perilously close to being lost.

The story of the Hajj Riders is not just extraordinary for the physical feat. It is an exhortation for us to get out and do something physical in order to change ourselves and those around us.

The virtual world brings us knowledge, global connectivity and insight. But the images we see today of the pilgrims together in the desert should remind us that real world interaction and physical challenge are central to the transformative human experience.

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