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Discovering Young Scholars: Alexander Chirila
Library of Social Science publishes the writings of some of the world’s finest scholars. In the past few years, we’ve been proud to feature—through our Newsletter and on our Websites—essays and papers by luminaries such as Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Geoffrey Cocks, Yael Feldman, Emilio Gentile, Liah Greenfeld, Roger Griffin, Nicoletta Gullace, Myra Mendible, Gerald O’Brien, Michael Roberts, Murray Schwartz, Walter Skya, Ivan Strenski, Tuomas Tepora, Brian Victoria, Michael Vlahos, Pingchao Zhu and Scott Atran.

In addition to established authors, LSS is also on the lookout for promising young scholars—to provide the opportunity for their work to reach a wide audience. One of our discoveries is Alexander Chirila. Like many LSS authors and readers—he aspires to use psychology to illuminate cultural and political phenomena. He’s a powerful, insightful writer. An excerpt of Chirila’s paper, “Pilgrim-Tourists: Tourism and the Spiritual Experience,” appears below. Click here for the complete paper with references. Chirila recently presented this paper at an international Conference. For a video of his lecture, please click directly below.
Video of Dr. Chirila: International Conference "Religion in a Secular Society," June 19-20, 2017 Constanta, Romania. Click the image directly above to watch the video.
Alexander C. Chirila PhD, holds a PhD in Writing and Criticism from the State University at Albany, and currently teaches English and Literature at Webster University, Thailand.

Dr. Chirila is founder of The Center for Comparative Spiritual Studies. For information, please contact Alex at symboldreamer@hotmail.com

His book True Immortality is available from Amazon.

For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

Pilgrim-Tourists: Tourism and the Spiritual Experience

In the Amazon jungle outside of Iquitos, Peru, a group of travelers converges on a small complex of cabins. They are going to meet the plant-teacher Ayahuasca under the supervision of a maestro. They have come for many reasons; some face psychological and emotional challenges that they feel can be resolved using traditional, indigenous methodologies.

Others are simply curious about the transformative spiritual experiences promised by the set and setting. Some may even believe that the brew, gathered and prepared here in the jungle by trained practitioners, will lay bare the hidden worlds and mysteries that they feel must exist just beyond the range of their normative perceptions. Many have also paid a good deal of money to participate.

Many of these visitors can be called pilgrims, in the sense that they are undertaking a journey for spiritual reasons, located within a greater narrative of personal transformation that anticipates a genuine and profound experience. This experience is often highly emotional, even incommunicable, but it is undeniably shaped by the frames of preconceptions, associations, and other imaginative elements that surround it. These frames are constructed by the pilgrims themselves a priori, as well as by the contexts surrounding the pilgrimage sites. “This is how it will feel,” the pilgrim may say, “to walk in the footsteps of Christ”; “to circumambulate the Kaaba”; “to meditate in the presence of the Bodhi Tree.”

Pilgrims have been journeying to sacred sites for thousands of years. Many of the world’s pilgrimage-sites are well known, including Mecca, Rome, and Jerusalem, as well as Buddhist shrines and sacred places from the Indian subcontinent to the islands of Japan. Nearly every world religion supports the concept of pilgrimage, a geo-spiritual journey that culminates in a potentially transformative spiritual, mystical and/or religious experience.

The completion of a pilgrimage is often expected to confer spiritual favors on those who undertake it for the right reasons. These reasons can often be described as religious (veneration, thanksgiving, supplication), spiritual (transformation, communion) and/or mystical (invocation, empowerment). Pilgrimages are often undertaken for the sake of physical benefits, as well. From France to Nigeria, New Zealand to Guatemala, wells, shrines, groves and caves have received visitors seeking their curative and restorative properties.

Enfolded within a pilgrimage-narrative, the pilgrim-tourist can hope to condense a particular range of expectations, experiences, and interpretations. Circumscribed within a magnified frame of experience—from the departure to the return—the pilgrim-tourist may psychologically amplify the effects of related incidents and experiences on the pilgrimage[1]. It is important to remember that the pilgrimage-narrative does not belong to the tourist; he or she is participating in a shared narrative. Some tourists may not be aware of the deep histories of the roads they travel—roads that may have once been walked by saints, slaves, and soldiers—but those histories and the voices embedded within them are closer to the surface on a pilgrimage.

Pilgrim-Tourists and Spiritual Tourism

Pilgrim-tourists are not anthropologists or ethnographers. However respectful they may be towards their host cultures, they are not impartial observers. They are directly interested in specific spiritual and/or mystical experiences[2]. It is important to distinguish between the pilgrim who undertakes a journey to a site associated with his or her religion, and the pilgrim-tourist who travels to be exposed to intense spiritual, mystical and/or religious experiences that are contextual to other cultures, systems, and lifeways.

We can look askance at the consumer who shops for the exotic without understanding the origin or symbolism of what he/she is purchasing, but the pilgrim-tourist is also taking advantage of what the global marketplace has made possible. Pilgrim-tourists are a double-edged blessing. On the one hand, they offer the opportunity for traditional cultures to preserve practices that are increasingly neglected by their own members. On the other, they endanger the very product or experience that is the object of their attentions, individually and/or collectively.

In more popular forms of tourism, there is likely to be a middle-ground, a mediated and formalized system of exchange designed to accommodate the interaction between tourist and host. Indeed, this middle-ground is often pejoratively labeled “touristic,” implying overly mediated or filtered and as such inauthentic. The worst thing a spiritual experience can be is inauthentic. The pilgrim-tourist is concerned with genuine experience, with an unfiltered and unmediated exchange (to such an extent that anything of this kind is actually possible).

At times, this genuine experience is not actually possible; at least not in the truest sense of the word. A pilgrim-tourist may encounter a hint of the genuine; something in close proximity to it, even. In most cases, that is enough. Still, the production of what the pilgrim-tourist is looking for requires an elaborate pretense, and in many cases a compromise between transparency and obfuscation[3]. At the same time, many pilgrim-tourists are unable or unwilling to fully engage the entire traditional mythos of a given pilgrimage. How many modern pilgrims walk an entire Camino across Western Europe? How many go on the dieta for the full term before imbibing Ayahuasca[4]? How many would subject themselves to the dangers and perils associated with pilgrimages in earlier ages of the world?

Pilgrim-tourists are interested in experiences; highly subjective and primarily psychological events that are nonetheless “real” on account of their connection to an event, location, and time. A spiritual experience in this context is a potentially transformative encounter with the divine or supernatural, often occurring within the boundaries of a space designated for that purpose and/or mediated by an individual or group of individuals qualified or empowered to direct the experience.

The experience is both psychological and cultural in the sense that it is rarely isolated, however personal it may be, from the traditions and narratives that frame it. It would be a mistake to presume that these experiences are entirely emotional; in fact, there is a prominent intellectual element, as well. Pilgrim-tourists may expect not only to feel differently following their journey, but to think differently, experiencing changes in perspective, perception, and awareness ranging in scale from drastic to subtle[5]. They may expect to return with new energy and momentum added to their daily lives, and/or a new knowledge or understanding. Some may experience these drastic changes but for some reason are unable to sustain or fully integrate them, suggesting that the experience can become less salient to the individual participant.

In seeking spiritual experiences, pilgrim-tourists gravitate toward specific paths or traditions that promise the genuine and authentic. They are drawn to find the greatest synergy between their imagining of the experience and the experience itself. The touch of the truly genuine is a touch of the Real, a way of breaking through the calcified and stagnant familiar into a place of immediacy and intimacy. This intimacy is necessary to the spiritual path; spirituality must be genuine, else it is no spirituality at all[6].

An individual may find that the symbols or iconography of an unfamiliar spirituality resonates with a belief, feeling, idea, or opinion that he/she holds closely. It may even be an artistic or intellectual attraction. Religion and spirituality, after all, also support philosophical perspectives, ways of looking at the world and interpreting human experience. Some of these perspectives may not be adequately represented by the faith systems immediately surrounding the individual[7]. Highly individualized matrices of personal belief can be purely intellectual, but they do not generally command the same degree of influence and numinosity present in those that are experiential as well. There is more strength and support in a belief system validated by spiritual experience.

Tourism is a type of traveling, at the most basic level involving a movement from a place of familiarity to an unfamiliar destination with an intention to experience an element or feature of that destination that is characteristic, unique, or authentic[8]. The tourist also returns; perhaps changed or transformed by the experience, but he/she returns nonetheless[9]. The tourist then mythologizes the experience, rendering it into a narrative both memorable and possibly communicable.

Spiritual tourism began with tourism in general—that is, traveling for purposes related to enjoyment or knowledge rather than at the behest of a government or other institution. The accessibility of formerly remote destinations opened an entire world to the general public, formerly unreachable save only to a select few (i.e. explorers, missionaries, soldiers, etc.). The logistics of world travel in earlier eras limited the possibility of spiritual tourism to a relatively small number of people. Instead, those who could access regions where indigenous spiritualities were active and vibrant returned with narratives and objects that were fetishized, romanticized, and subjected to overpowering psycho-cultural processes that deeply affected—and largely in a negative way—the future interactions between disparate peoples.

Earlier paradigms of travel were more immersive, in the sense that a journey to a foreign destination involved a commitment of time, fortitude, and courage. The many miles of tossing water, dense jungles, shadowed forests, and craggy peaks effectively removed the individual from home shores more completely than a flight of a few hours—not to mention the fact that it was not so simple to change one’s mind and return home. One was enfolded and often consumed by the foreignness of a place and people, particularly if relatively little was known about it. A few sketches, stamps, and stolen artifacts only whetted the popular imagination, engendering a frenzy of fantasies that cloaked a foreign land in connotations, images, and ideas that have lingered even unto the present day.

Pilgrim-tourists are the modern inheritors of these associations. These archetypal images embed themselves in the psyche, ghosts and echoes that create a priori narratives into which the individual attempts to insert himself or herself. These narratives provide the impetus to undertake the journey, the lure of Otherness that promises to satisfy what the Self cannot—save that this Otherness is itself a fabrication of the individual psyche to begin with. Still, the tourism industry is reciprocal: travelers must be enticed by what they believe they are likely to find or experience, and those who do obtain these experiences are expected to perpetuate these associations in order for the industry to thrive and survive.

In the contemporary world, those who are sufficiently interested can delve into disparate spiritual traditions without having received the invitation of an authorized practitioner. While access to the truly esoteric remains limited to those who do actively seek out admittance into a living tradition, there is nonetheless an abundance of translated and printed texts that provide a wealth of information that may allow eclectic spiritualists to build entirely individualized practices.

Ultimately, spiritual traditions have their own requisites, and the task of differentiating between the insider and outsider is left to the keepers of the tradition. There is, however, the danger that elements of these traditions can be packaged and commercialized, or that pilgrim-tourists may have neither the intention nor the ability to fully respect or appreciate the conditions that attend even this level of exposure to the sacred. This does not necessarily imply that pilgrim-tourists are by default insincere; only that their sincerity is filtered through the limitations of their ability to actually pursue the paths potentially opened by their spiritual experiences.

Pilgrim-tourists are by no means identical to one another; however, their designation implies a range of fairly similar motives. It is the extent to which their motives are both conscious and informed that is significant. “Conscious” may be taken to mean “mindful and aware”—good advice for any traveler in any foreign country, and most assuredly for those in search of powerful spiritual experiences[10]. It may seem that the host culture is in “control” of the experience, and consequently in a position to moderate or palliate the impact of spiritual tourism. In cases where the apparatus is more developed, this may be entirely the case. However, where intense spiritual experiences are involved, there is an element of unpredictability that stems from the intrusion of the sacred into the space of exchange.

There are numerous accounts of travelers “going native,” both fictional and historical, creating and reinforcing a fantasy of immersion and transformation[11]. One finds expressions of this fantasy throughout literature and film, from Tarzan to Avatar. However, going native implies the irrevocable; there is no going back. In contrast, the pilgrim-tourist may play at going native for the duration of his/her trip, but this temporary garb may be sloughed off in ways impossible for the individual of an earlier era, utterly transformed by the journey.

The unknown holds possibility as well as danger, and the two are often proportionate to one another. The more dangerous the endeavor, the more likely the experience will provide the catalyst necessary to spiritual progress. For example: in the series of books written by Carlos Castaneda concerning his apprenticeship under Don Juan Matus, there is a recurrent theme of danger and risk. If the student deviates from his instruction, or mishandles the allies, or succumbs to the temptation of power, there is the risk that he will be irrecoverably lost.


The intrinsic ability of spirituality to cross both psychological and cultural boundaries also makes it vulnerable to removal from its original context and expression in other mediums. These expressions, transposed from the sacred to the profane, nonetheless recall their origin and create a secondary matrix of symbolism that is more visible and accessible to the outsider. However, unlike the primary matrix of practice, which is often highly regulated by the practitioners, this secondary one represents new kind of boundary between the sacred and profane.

This boundary inverts the relationship between the Self and Other: on the one hand, the foreigner is accepted into a dialogue with the sacred, mediated by the host culture. There are numerous processes embedded in this exchange, including translation, interpretation, and representation, as well as those are considered undesirable, including appropriation, misrepresentation, and fetishization[12]. On the other hand, the host culture must come to terms with this paradigm and take the necessary steps to negotiate the creation and maintenance of this arena.

The heart and focus of the matter is ultimately on the spiritual experience itself; whether it is the presence of God in a Christian church or Muslim mosque, the ineffability of timeless awareness in a Himalayan temple, or the esoteric vitality hidden in the jungles and woodlands of the world. While this experience is wrapped and veiled by the cultural set and setting that it enters—whether an individual, group, or larger collective—the spiritual experience itself is a universal phenomenon[13]. Its effects are comparable across the world, and while in some cases the means of access are hoarded or insulated against cross-social or cross-cultural exchange, the marketplace of spiritual tourism is sustained by and thrives on the universality of these experiences.

Progressives and conservatives, militant fundamentalists and pacifist ascetics all lay claim to the transformative potential of spiritual experiences. Shared experiences can bind collectives together, and when interpreted and represented consistently, they serve as the experiential foundations of entire systems of belief and practice. They can also be shared cross culturally, facilitated by a marketplace of exchange that can preserve and adapt, perpetuate and accommodate new modes of transformation. There are attendant dangers, many of which are yet unknown; but spiritual tourism, though burdened with the implications of profit, commodification, and commercialization, nonetheless affords the opportunity to create regulated spaces where the generation of narratives may be guided by those willing to safeguard the integrity of the traditions, practices, and mythologies that surround, represent, and carry one to the threshold between the universally human and the elusive spiritual other.