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The Passionate Pilgrim & The Soul’s Journey – Elaine Childs Gowell (Is.19)

 Elaine Childs Gowell, Ph.D.

How many of us have ever thought to compare a journey, such as a long air trip, to a shamanic journey or other rite of passage? In this article, Elaine Childs Gowell, Ph.D. relates her personal experiences during vacation journeys she has taken and points out the similarities of both journey types.



Welcome Pilgrim. So, you are passionately engaged in planning a pilgrimage. You are planning a trip; you are going on a tour, a Tourist. You are looking forward to “seeing” more of your past, to “seeing” at a higher level of consciousness. You have been saving up your money. You are going back to the old homestead, where you may be able to interview some of the old folks. You are on your way back to the country of your ethnic roots, or off to see some strange and exotic land which has always intrigued you. Up, up and away to that sacred spot, power center, vortex, spiritual haven, following your guru to visit ancient temples. You have decided to “Follow your Heart” to see and corroborate old “memories,” chase ghosts, looking for the parts of your soul you left behind in other times, and other places. Whatever the reason and wherever it is you are headed, you can be sure that this trip will stretch your imagination. It will make demands on your patience and try you, in some ways even beyond what you thought you could ever endure. Ordeals are a very ancient part of the training of “seers.” (The word “shaman” comes from the Siberian Tungus’ word “saman” meaning “to see”). You will surprise and delight yourself and, at times, find yourself very irritating to yourself and others as you indulge in regressive behaviors you thought you left behind in grade school.

I believe that one of the simplest things we could do to recover a sense of the sacred journey
is to replace the concept of tourism with one of pilgrimage.
Rupert Sheldrake

A trip from Hell 

Have you ever taken a trip and said to yourself at some point in the trip:  “this is a trip from HELL; I wish I had stayed home?” Travelling can be stressful and can bring out the worst in us. Have you ever been so stressed on a trip that you have behaved in a manner to embarass yourself and others? Did you wish that you were better prepared for the unusual sights, sounds, and smells of the country to which you have travelled? “SMELLS? YICHH!”

Did you expect some great enlightenment and end up with dysentery instead? I did end up with gastroenteritis, which was severe enough to put me in a hospital in East Africa. Instead of spending 10 days on safari, I spent it in a hospital bed! And I was also a big puzzle to the very scientific medical doctor who attended me! Yet that trip turned out to be one of the most instructive, and enlightening experiences I have ever had.

The hospital experience turned out to be more delightful, rewarding, and spiritually enlightening than if I had seen all those lions, zebras, and rhinos instead. The nature of ordeal implies the experience of the sacred and the profane. It implies the descent into hell, and the ascent into heaven.

I used Past Life Therapy on myself to heal this very severe gastroenteritis. By going into a trance (journeying in the Shamanic sense) I found that this trip to Africa had stimulated once more my body and mind to a “past life” in Africa. In the recall, I was an African woman dying on the mat in her hut. I could smell the smoke, and see the weave of the mat, and as I died I realized that I was safe and taken care of and that things would be okay. The “past life recall” ended with the usual instructions to heal all parts of that life and tie any relevant parts to my present life. I realized that woman was the deceased wife of the African Chief who honored me as a baby. He told my missionary parents that I bore the soul of his recently deceased wife (a story which was told to me as a child growing up in West Africa). To shorten the story, I came out of the trance in the hospital in East Africa completely healed of the gastroenteritis and further enlightened a fraction more than I had been before this illness.

I give you the end of the golden string Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s Gate Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
William Blake

The search for meaning 

This seems to be an overarching quest for most of us. What is the meaning of life? We are asking ourselves this question again and again. Why has this particular misfortune befallen me? How do we reconcile seemingly random events, needless abuse, frequent misfortune, and our deep sense of separation and loss, which most of us carry through our younger years and many of us carry to our death. How do we find meaning in life? Although organized religions have seemingly been supposed to supply these answers, they have mostly failed because the “gnosis”—the inner knowing of humans has been subverted to the external institutionalized knowledge. We have been looking for an external source through the teachings of various church fathers (not even mothers). The real has been lost and we find ourselves drowned in our illusions, in the Buddhist “Maya” illusion.

Therefore, unsatisfied with the “faith of our fathers,” many of us have found meaning in our own symbols and our own archetypes, our own ways of assuring ourselves that there is a greater meaning to life—that the numinous is right here to be felt, seen, and heard given the right circumstances, and our own willingness to participate.

Through my own pilgrimages, both inward and outward, I have found a measure of serenity, of inner peace, and satisfaction that my own “gnosis” is what can be trusted. For me, it is the inner “gnosis” taught in the early Christian teachings. This “gnosis” is in the Tao Te Ching and in the teachings of Buddhism. It is in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Barth, and Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing.

The church’s failure to embrace its own mystical tradition is one of its greatest failures.
Matthew Fox

Some think these writings subverted the organized church and its doctrine of Original Sin, and that the authors were “silenced.” Such has been the fate of so many others in history who followed their own “gnosis.” Regaining our own sovereignty has been against the organized and state religions, and continues to be so in this the 20th and 21st centuries. In my own quest for my own personal power and my own sovereignty, I have sought experiences with the numinous. I have longed for and found experiences, which would challenge my doubting nature and bring me into alignment with my true spiritual nature. These experiences constitute my journey as the Passionate Pilgrim and are provided here as a means of inspiration to the reader of a book I am working on, and to those who would themselves choose to be Passionate Pilgrims.

The same disappointments in life will chasten and refine one man’s spirit,
and embitter another’s.
William Matthews

I would not choose to compete with the agnostic. I tried to be one myself for a few years. I found that for me, the juice had gone from my life like one of those oranges, which when opened up are all pith and no juice, no sweetness. I gave that up and sought Being into my own knowing which has brought meaning into my life and provided me with more sources of joy, excitement, and an endless stream of people with very good stories to tell. It has made life more meaningful, mirthful, and mythful for me. I experience happiness, joy, and freedom everyday. I find that it is not possible to expunge “myth” from human experience. Even pure science, whatever that is, is in itself a form of myth. Now, the physicists have been bridging the gap with apologia from quantum physics to show that there is, must be, a great mystery—a creative spirit. The admission of the “All That Is” into physics is laying the groundwork for a new set of myths. These are beginning to arise, many of them isomorphic with the stories of Lao Tzu, Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus Christ. The miracles of Quantum leaps—loaves and fishes etc.—are a daily occurrence.

Through reading these pages you may become freed to remember past lives, you may freely have flashbacks, and recover pieces of your past in other times and places. My great grand daughter used to tell me stories when she was five years old. When I asked “when was that?” she would say “Oh in another time, Grandma, in another time.” In my book, I will share with you some of the most exciting and peak experiences I have had and shared with others on the pilgrimages we have taken. You will learn about how to be in Non Ordinary Reality no matter where you are so that you can be truly rewarded with experiences that increase your excitement about being a Human Being and a spiritual tourist; a Passionate Pilgrim.

Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart
whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education;
they grow firm there, firm as weeds among stones.
Charlotte Bronte

RItuals and ritual healing 

Rituals are specifically designed actions, whether physical or mental, that we use to change our perception of reality. It is in rituals that we can have those altered states of consciousness and experience that non ordinary reality, which allows us to utilize our energy in such a manner that we can even experience a psychic release. Every ritual has a full and deep meaning for the participant, and will have specific symbols that aid in creating the magical moment we seek called a peak experience. A pilgrimage is, in a sense, a ritual; and like all rituals will produce the ultimate for you or leave you “bummed out.” All rituals have three phases: 1) the preparatory phase, in which you assemble all of the tools of the ritual, select the place and the participants and get ready to perform the ritual, 2) an experiencing phase, in which the participants engage in the actual specific and symbolic aspects of the ritual, and have a release of psychic energy and 3) a closing phase, in which we bring the ritual to an end, pick up our symbols and go home feeling different in some specific way.

Ritual affirms the common patterns, the values…risks, shared joys…
links together our ancestors and descendants.

As a Passionate Pilgrim, you will take the process of your journey seriously and establish consciously that you are performing a ritual with larger meaning and be alert to the symbols and the symbolic actions. Trips are initiations, initiations are rituals, and provide us with the opportunity to move from one state of Being to another; from one state of consciousness to a more refined and aware state of consciousness. Many rituals heal old pain, and old grief issues which may still be lurking around in our dark side.

Rites of passage help the individual answer the question; “Who am I?”
Thunder Strikes

We have reached a crossroads in human evolution where the only road which leads forward
is toward a common passion…a fresh kind of life is starting.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


Think of yourself as a person going through an initiation. You the pilgrim are the initiate. You are initiating into higher levels of consciousness, for even if you are not taking this trip with the conscious reason of changing yourself in some way, the trip changes you. The initiate undergoes an initiation with the end purpose of moving from one state of being in the world to another. Initiations generally express four major elements: (Ripinsky-Naxon, M. (1993) pp. 82–87)

First Stage: there is the physical ordeal, which often involves the initiate in an ordeal of a birth/death/rebirth process. It often consists of isolation of the initiate in a cave or a camp with other initiates, away from their usual living circumstances. Here the initiate is subjected to beatings, burning, exposure to cold, snow, without nourishment or drink. However, the quality of the ordeal differs with different cultures. In some aspects, the very long plane ride, long waits in airports, differences in language, and changes in one’s circadian rhythms, dehydration, and exposure to strange food on the airline can constitute the first step in an initiatory ordeal. During this time the pilgrim dies to the usual reality and is born to the reality of the third world culture, or other culture to which they are travelling. The difficulties of the trip may feel to some travelers as a ritual of dismemberment. I am not using this anthropological information on initiations and shamanism facetiously. All the pilgrim needs to know is that this is a process in which they have willingly engaged. Through this process they will become different from before if they are willing to engage fully in the ritual with the intent of making this trip a true ritual, a pilgrimage. They avail themselves of the opportunity to grow and change from the experience.

Simple people conceive that we are to see God as if He stood on that side and we on this.
It is not so. God and I are one in the act of my perceiving him.
Meister Eckhart

Second Stage: of initiation involves the initiate in experiencing altered states of consciousness (Tart, C. 1975b). Some cultures involve the initiate in activities such as drumming, dancing, whirling, meditating, sensory deprivation or other kinds of repetitive activities, which tend to suspend the normal thinking part of the brain. In some cultures, the initiate is required to ingest certain plant preparations, which cause the initiate to experience hallucinations. For the average modern pilgrim, the long travel on an airbus in tight accommodations, with the ingestion of alcoholic and caffeinated beverages and dehydration, can have the effect of throwing the person out of their ordinary state of reality and into altered states of consciousness. Although jet lag has taken the rap, it is probably dehydration from the alcohol and the cabin air being so dry. Some people find this part of any trip extremely exhausting, and very trying of their patience. The stress leaves them unable to cope in their usual polite and respectful manner. Consider this part of the trip as the second stage of initiation; an opportunity to experience non-ordinary reality, (Harner, M. 1980); open yourself up to seeing and feeling and sensing in a way which is new and different for you.

Third stage: in the initiation pertains to the ecstatic soul-journey brought on by the ability of the initiate to enter the altered states of consciousness or non-ordinary reality. This stage often involves one in a transcendental voyage—”a trip”—where the initiate is given the opportunity to meet their main spirit helpers, guides, guardian angels, mentors, wise old persons, depending upon their frame of reference.

The truth takes flesh in forms that cannot express it, and thus its history and ideal always overhangs, like the moon,
and rules the tides which rise simultaneously in all the souls of a generation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fourth Stage: in initiation brings the initiate to the place where they are considered “cooked,” ready to take on their responsibilities in the particular group into which they are being initiated. Many initiations follow the same process as being born and, according to Grof (1985), the birth process incorporates a period of “descent into hell, ascent into heaven” when the baby and sometimes the mother, believes it is going to die. So many of the ordeals we encounter in our lives are replays of that original ordeal. When we gain the consciousness about that fact, we cease to struggle—we go with the birthing process—go with the flow. When professionals work through birth re-facilitation with adults, they admit this often. When the birthing ordeal is over, the individual experiences an ecstatic state; he/she is reborn. The pilgrim will frequently have the opportunity to go through each of these stages of the initiatory process several times in the course of their pilgrimage. With thoughtful attention they will not pass up or miss the opportunities to enrich their journey.

The journey into darkness has been long and cruel, and you have gone deep into it.
Marianne Williamson

Mind expansion methods

There are many ways for humans to experience mind expansion. A Pilgrimage is one of the ways to do this, for it will not be possible for the pilgrim to not experience changes in their worldview, attitudes, and self-concepts. There is nothing like a pilgrimage fully experienced as a Ritual, to bring Ego into line. Some of the other ways to expand the mind are meditation, breathwork, rhythmic activities such as drumming and dancing, shamanic plants, psychotherapy, fasting and sensory deprivation such as flotation tank work and aquagenesis.

Much learning does not teach understanding.

Non Ordinary Reality

Once, on a trip to a very distant place, I arrived half way to my destination to find that there was a general transportation strike going on. The trip took two days of flying in commercial airplanes, and almost that long again, waiting in airports because none of the connections worked. I had to stay in this huge, dirty, crowded city several days against my will. I was greatly upset as I had not planned this; I was missing a gathering that was very important to me. I sat in my hotel bathtub crying and fussing, rattling my cage, invoking the “unfairness” of the situation. Alas! This event really rattled my “control issues” and I had to examine closely my attitude about these events, which were totally out of my control. In my state of exhaustion and pique I moved into an altered state of consciousness, sinking deeply into the warm water of the bathtub, and was afforded a peak experience, which left me astounded and amazed. It was one of those experiences that leaves one speechless and words fail me in trying to describe it. The connection this made for me with my own spiritual guidance was profound. I was “in my bliss”—a condition which at that time was not ever one that I recognized as a possible state of being for myself. It was as if I were being pushed to acknowledge fully and completely my spiritual nature. I was being told to “let go” to surrender to my life, and simply do what was in front of me instead of my old style of managing everything. It was as if they told me not to take the setbacks on this journey, and the experience of my life on this planet, so seriously.

Carefully observe what way your heart draws you and then choose that way with all your strength.
Hasidic saying

Advice learned from traveling

REMAIN OPEN and AWARE of the possibilities for exciting and peak experiences at every turn in your road. That is what pilgrimages are for—to connect us with our true spiritual nature—with the numinous, the unspeakable, and the glorious source within each one of us. Particularly when things “go wrong” you may find an unexpected and enlivening adventure—it is from the things that go wrong that we may learn our greatest lessons. For a “control freak” these have always been my best lessons.

Accept whatever happens as a part of the adventure

Realize that when you are not in your familiar surroundings, you have less control over what happens
and it is time to GO WITH THE FLOW.
Error is just as important a condition of life’s progress as truth.
C.G. Jung

Peak Experiences and non ordinary reality 

I had many wonderful and passionate experiences on the many “trips” and “journeys” I have taken. Whether I have traveled in present time reality, or in non-ordinary reality, the results have been joyful, happy, and freeing. When I first started, I had no idea that I would be doing anything more than going to these places as any old tourist would, and enjoying myself for the changes in scene, and the new people I would meet. Little did I know that I would be running smack into flashbacks to times and dimensions I had no idea existed in my own conscious experience. I found out that it is possible to have windows of consciousness open to past lives, in the most unexpected places.

One of the first times I had one of these strange and wonderful experiences, I was in Portugal on a trip to visit with my parents who lived there at the time. While there, I visited a magnificent 12th century palace and an even more ancient Moorish castle high on the hill in Sintra. As I walked up the road to the castle, I had such a sense of “deja vu” that I took some time to sit quietly and mull over this strange feeling of “knowing” this place so very well. The gray stone towers and embattlements leaning over me as I walked up the road felt very familiar. It is true that I had been there once before as an adolescent, but the memory stirring was much sharper and stranger than that of a simple recognition and recollection from my youth. I sat in the shadow of the castle wall, reveling in the opportunity to be sitting in the warm, summer Portuguese sunshine.

As I sat there with my eyes closed, I had a vision of being a young soldier engaged in battle on the wall where I sat. A very vivid scene unfolded before my eyes, and left me breathing hard as the young man lay dying in that very place where I was sitting. He made a vow in his dying moment to his sweet love that he would never engage again in war no matter what the cost. I have carried revulsion for battles and wars all of my life.

In this lifetime, I have spent much time and energy being a “peacenik,” feeling in my inner knowing when a particular “war” was not within the integrity of my country. I became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and peaceful resistance, and marched with Martin Luther King in the ’60s, and the National Organization of Women and against the Vietnam War in the ’70s and ’80s.

As I was sitting there in Sintra, I experienced the life that was the young soldier’s slowly ebb away, and leave him still and lifeless. When I opened my eyes, I was weeping and sweating profusely, powerfully shaken by the detail, and the absolute “realness” of the vision in which I had just been engaged. It was so vivid, and so real, and the feelings which I experienced as I sat there were so very much mine—mine as a young Portuguese soldier, not mine as who I was now, in the twentieth century. This was a very disturbing experience for me at the time, mostly because I had no understanding of these matters.

When I tried to talk about it with my parents, who were theologians, they were clearly unwilling to entertain my narrative as a past life, dismissing it as “having a very vivid imagination!” In fact, they were correct to a certain extent. I have found subsequently that it is the vivid imagination, the ability to respond to your environment in an imaginative way and with all of your senses alive—a truly fantastic way, that makes the passion possible. It is the passion that opens you to the numinous, the unspeakable, and the peak experience. I have had other “past life experiences” while in foreign countries that I was able to tie to actual life times because of being able to corroborate the “story” my inner journey gave me. I am writing a book that will incorporate more of these experiences.

When I die I shall soar with the angels. When I die to the angels I shall go where no one can imagine.

The end is only the beginning 

A pilgrimage is a combination of ritual with particular driving influences such as privation, sensory overload, drum-like sounds, to remind us how it is to be in a body and how it is to be out of a body. These experiences of being out of body are not unlike the dissociative states that people who have been traumatized resort to, although they are often not clearly conscious of where they go. Some people do not like to be inside their bodies, to struggle all of their lives trying to get out and stay out of it. I, too, was severely, physically traumatized as a child, and learned to turn my body off. I also learned to “go away.” Yet, I was attached to this body and it was through my body and through the releasing of the body trauma that I came to much of my major healing. Since healing, I am like those others who enjoy their bodies and the gifts that come to them as a result of the reality of being in one. This accepting and loving my body, and the gifts it has for me, has been my “Heroine’s Journey,” my “Fool’s Journey.”

It is to these many healing experiences that I attribute my ability to be open to many of the transcendent experiences available to us on this Pilgrimage called life; on this Fool’s Journey. The joy and bliss afforded us in these transcendent experiences remind us that we are Spiritual Beings on a Human path. The struggle to be human can enliven and enlighten us, and it can draw us down. The choice is always there. You too can choose to be a Passionate Pilgrim on your life’s journey. We cannot love others totally and unconditionally until we all come to love ourselves and our lives totally and unconditionally. On one of my pilgrimages I had the singular honor of hearing Mother Theresa speak to us. I sat at her feet there on the floor in her Ashram in Calcutta as she addressed us. She said: “first, you must love yourselves totally and unconditionally…then you must love your family and others, then can you really truly love God.” She certainly was a Passionate Pilgrim and she loved unconditionally and expressed unrelenting compassion. Maybe we can be like her too.


SUGGESTED READING: for enhancing Altered States of Consciousness (ASC)

Andrews, L., The Power Deck: Cards of Wisdom, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).

Arrien, A., The Tarot Handbook, (Sonoma, Ca.: Arcus Publishing, 1987).

Arrien, A., The Four Fold Way, (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).

Blum, R., The Book of Runes, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986).

Head, J. and Cranston, S., Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery, (New York: Warner Books, 1998).

Theosophical Society Press. Pasadena, Ca.

McKenna, T., Food of the Gods, (New York: Bantam, 1992).

Sun Bear, The Medicine Wheel, (New York: Prentice Hall, 1986).

Villoldo, A., The Four Winds: A Shaman’s Odyssey into the Amazon, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990).

Wambach, H., Life Before Life, (New York: Bantam Books, 1979).