A Pilgrim in Your Body

Energy Healing and the Spiritual Process

By Jim Gilkeson

Whether you use energy work as part of your personal practice or as a healing modality in your work with others, it can evoke changes in consciousness and perspective that are best understood in the context of the human spiritual journey. At its core, energy work—basically, anything you do in a knowledgeable and purposeful way to influence the human energy field for healing and growth of consciousness—invites spiritual process, and spiritual process is ultimately about the renewal of an age-old human experience.

That experience is often not communicable except in the language of human transformation associated with spiritual traditions, so it is given names like enlightenment, illumination, transcendental experience, self-realization, and others. These are life-changing events when they occur in one’s inner life and the processes surrounding these experiences—let’s refer to them collectively as spiritual process—are among the perennial themes of energy work.

Though it has applications in every sphere of life and healing, energy work is a decidedly psycho-spiritual undertaking. Whether it takes the form of personal meditative practices or treatments with another person, it can bring long-forgotten and repressed material from our personal subconscious to the surface of our awareness, but it goes further than that.

The practices of energy work contain within them the seeds of spiritual practice. They are the not-so-distant cousins of the classic disciplines of the inner life: prayer, meditation, and contemplation. These are all practices that invite experiences into our consciousness from what is beyond our individual spheres of awareness and personal biographies, from what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, and beyond, into ecstatic dimensions of pure consciousness and revelation. This is not to say that each energy work session results in enlightenment, any more than every prayer is met immediately by an intelligible answer from God. Still, it behooves anyone who makes use of energetic practices to develop an appreciation for the patterns of spiritual process.

What Is Energy Work?           

All of this might sound a trifle strange if you have been involved with energy healing mainly in the context of therapeutic bodywork and are accustomed to thinking in terms of therapeutic outcomes, symptom management, and basic health care. To grasp the connection between energy work and spiritual process, it is important to gain an understanding of what energy work is at its most essential level. Begin by taking an inventory of the subtle energetic practices you are involved with already—maybe without even thinking of them as energy work—either as part of your healing work or in your efforts to become a more conscious individual.

In your subtle energy practice inventory, include all hands-on and hands-off energy work modalities like Therapeutic Touch, reiki, and polarity therapy; subtle energy therapies like acupressure and homeopathy; spiritually oriented practices like meditation, prayer, chakra exercises, toning, breathing exercises, chanting, and singing spiritual hymns; practices that slow down and intensify your perception of the energy movement in your body and around it, such as yoga, t’ai chi, and qi gong; all forms of spiritual ritual you might be involved with, such as sweat lodges, vision quests, ritual movement, and sacred dance and walk; and massage, which often helps you shift into deep relaxation, essentially an altered state of consciousness.

What all of these practices have in common—and the reason they stimulate spiritual process—is that each of them steps up the interaction between your energy field and your body, and enlivens the interplay between your conscious and non-conscious processes.1 If there are differences among energy work practices in their usefulness as holistic healing tools, those differences lie mainly in the conscious awareness, beliefs, orientation, and intention of the one using them. There is a difference, for example, between a bodywork session in which the practitioner is consciously aware of, and intentionally working with, the energy field of his client while doing the session, and a session in which he might be doing the same set of physical maneuvers, but without that awareness, presence, and set of intentions. It could be said that some practices are more explicitly geared toward facilitating psycho-spiritual processes than others. In reality, though, each healing modality and each meditative style is potentially a holistic, energy-active form of healing work with the potential to activate what psychologist Robert Johnson calls the “source of our evolving character,” and “the process whereby we bring the total self together.”

Glimpses of the Inner Pilgrim

Many people come to an energy healer because of an emerging spiritual process, though they probably don’t call it that. They run into something discontinuous with their usual consciousness. Spiritual process can emerge spontaneously. It can be small, quiet, and simple. I remember my brother telling me that once, while riding on the train, he looked out the window and realized that everything was perfect, and a profound peace arose within him. Other times, spiritual process is jarred into action. Sudden loss of a job, illness, the breakup of a relationship, and the birth of a baby are examples of this. A longtime student of mine dates her spiritual awakening back to a head-on collision in which she could easily have lost her life. When the timing is right, our deep psyche will use just about anything as tinder to ignite change. These experiences can be both exhilarating and upsetting.

If you are a practitioner, bear in mind that under the influence of an energy treatment, your client’s body and symptoms often serve as a doorway into his or her deep inner world. Next time you give a healing treatment, keep in mind that the person you are working on might be experiencing, to one degree or another, elements of dream, memory, emotion, or insight. They might be nursing an inner wound, or piecing together a broken sense of humanity. A healing session with you can help them slip a bit more gracefully into a new world of experience.

Spiritual process may or may not be obvious at first, but as you awaken to your own spiritual process, you will, with increasing frequency, find yourself encountering a pilgrim, or spiritual traveler in others. When it comes to pilgrims, it typically takes one to know one. Becoming intimately and courageously aware of the spiritual process active in you is what prepares you to discern spiritual process in others and work purposefully with it. Your personal growth and development is therefore crucially important if you want to use the tools of energy healing responsibly with others.

Once you get an eye for spiritual process and a feel for its shapes and patterns, it is not uncommon to witness the drama and beauty of spiritual initiation right there on your massage table or in your therapy room. Your challenge is to catch on to where your client is in the arc of her inner pilgrimage. She might be moving along quite well on her spiritual quest, and coming to you as something of a “pit stop.” Or she might be in one or the other of the predicaments that spiritual travelers get into. She may arrive in a state of disarray as she comes to realize she is being led out onto a dimly-lit path, away from the world she has known and the company she has heretofore kept. She might be lost, sick, injured, in a trance or a state of suspended animation, buried deep in stone or ice, or incubating in a deep wintry slumber, awaiting what poet Denise Low called “the searing call of one hot star.”

The pilgrim on your massage table, or the one in your own body, might come in need of refuge; she could be making the first rustlings of awakening from a long sleep, needing nourishment, or demanding breathing room. She might be ready to take wing into realms of discovery in the worlds of the spirit. Or she might find herself on a path of return to the everyday world after a time of absorption in the spiritual realms. Other pilgrims might be facing some life-altering task or ordeal, or even death, in the form of life’s inevitable losses, the death of a former worldview, or even literal death. The upshot is that, in the early stages of this inner pilgrimage, she might not be conscious of any of this. All she might know at the time she comes to you is that something hurts.

If you are a practitioner, this does not mean you are abandoning your treatment of the client’s aches and pains in favor of going for spiritual process. On the contrary, the aches and pains are probably the very things that brought her to you in the first place and you are using your skills to alleviate unnecessary suffering, while at the same time recognizing that symptoms are part of something larger. On most days, you are a companion, hopefully, a wise and compassionate one, having swum the waters and hiked the inner terrains of your own soul. On occasion, you play the role of spiritual midwife.

Signs of Spiritual Process

Marilyn Ferguson, founder of the Brain/Mind Bulletin, articulated a principle from quantum theory that gets to the heart of emerging spiritual process. She says, “Things fall apart, so they can fall together at a higher level of order.” What this says about the constant organization, break down, and reorganization of the stuff of the universe also applies to our work with energy and consciousness and the way our inner and outer lives change and grow. Here are some hallmarks of that process:

Disruption. In big and small ways, something interrupts the continuity of a person’s life. In some people, it can be the breaking in of external events, such as a sudden loss, or input from other dimensions of consciousness, perhaps in the form of a profound insight, dream, or inner awakening. In other people, it’s not a case of something breaking in, but rather it is the person who breaks out of the status quo.

Reshuffling. This is a fluid phase, marked in many people by uncertainty, disorientation, and vulnerability. A person might feel lost and directionless without their old orientation, but these are also times of new opportunities to shape the world they live in.

Reorganization. Sooner or later, new patterns crystallize out of the chaos. Remember Ferguson’s statement that things fall apart, so they can fall together at a higher level of order. That new, higher level of order will, in its turn, fall apart and give rise to what comes next. That’s the way things progress in nature and in us. Our spiritual process is no different.

What can you do if you work with other people and detect this pattern? Work on yourself. Your inner work is what you do to tend your own fire and your own inner garden. It’s what you do to become more conscious and it can take any number of forms: daily meditations, retreats, spiritual practices, therapy, and energetic practices. Whatever the form, your inner work is an indispensable ingredient in anything you would undertake to cultivate and express your spiritual qualities.

I have found that people who get involved with energy healing strictly in order to “fix” others, without working in a parallel way on their own inner growth and development, tend to hit a wall early on. Without active participation in your own pathways of spiritual growth and personal healing and development, it is easy to restrict your notions of what energy work is about. In addition, whatever your path or discipline, your inner work is how you unlock your potentials, become comfortable with processes of inner change, and gain a wider perspective on life, based on your own experience. Your inner work is the basis for compassionate work with others.

Integration—Living One Life

Your energy work practice delivers a changed person to the world and, in its small way, changes the world. The journey of energy healing has the potential to carry you out of the mass mind and your everyday world, if only for a moment at a time, into encounters with the numinous background of life. There, the pilgrim in your body might find an opening to ecstatic, ineffable states, unfiltered by anything institutional, undefined by psychology, religion, or middle-class values. At times, new perceptions come cracking through—you sit bolt upright and shout, “Eureka!” and rush out to rearrange the world. Other days, less bombastically, an internal practice might draw you with gentle magnets into deep stillness, after which you calmly re-enter your world with renewed clarity and purpose. Similarly, a client might have a profound experience under your hands and come out of a treatment transformed and inspired. Still other times, change happens in imperceptible shifts, below the radar. You go forward on faith and the occasional unnamable tingle and cultivate an eye for the unseen ways that your work in the world of energy and consciousness silently sifts into the world of everyday. Whether quietly or noisily, energy work practice promotes the renewal of the age-old experience of your most essential nature and this renewal does something to you. Sooner or later, your spiritual growth becomes as undeniable as winter’s turn into spring and with it comes the need to integrate this change into your life.

Much is made in spiritual circles about the best ways to transcend the body, find heaven within, and enter bliss or nirvana, but as long as we are in this life, this is only two-thirds of the path. At some point we come back into the world we inhabit—the ordinary world of washing the dishes, earning a living, visiting Uncle Harold and Aunt Gladys on Sunday, bearing the qualities of our transcendent, ecstatic moments, and the gifts we have cultivated in our soul’s work and travels. No longer internally split up into spiritual and worldly domains, the pilgrim’s task becomes one of integration. Integration means learning to live one life.

The energy healing practitioner who works at the cusp of the physical structure of the client’s body and the energy that enlivens it is in a unique position to promote the integration of deep inner experiences with the world of everyday. While energy healing works to open the way to transcendent experiences, it also honors the need to come back into the world.

Off the Table,
Back in the World

As an energy healer, it is important to help your client absorb the changes brought on in your energy work session. We typically underestimate the power of the subconscious and it is easy to forget that subtle but powerful forces have been activated. As you conclude a session, try to discourage the client from hopping up from the table immediately and rushing out into the traffic of life without first integrating their experience. They may not know it, but they have been in an altered state of consciousness and they stand to gain something important by making the transition slowly. By intentionally slowing down this re-entry phase, you are wordlessly teaching your treatment partner an appreciation for spiritual process by honoring the need we all have to integrate what we have experienced into our everyday lives. The nice thing about it is that, in most cases, this integration will happen all by itself when you create the right context for it.

In my practice, I invite the client to stay on the table and simply “simmer,” relax, and feel what is moving within her. I leave the room for a few minutes, wash my hands, check my schedule, and give her space and a bit of time alone. This is part of the session. I frequently come back to find that her process has taken a step in my absence in the form of insights, memories, tears, and reflections. It is often in this short interlude that the arc of the treatment comes full circle.

It’s also important to alert your client to the fact that she will be in a slightly altered state after the treatment and that this is perfectly normal. I often give my client a bit of homework following an energy treatment as a way for her to integrate her experience and attend to the heightened energetic and psycho-spiritual activity. In my experience, this window is open for about 36 hours.

• Dreams can be very accessible. Freud called dreams the “royal road to the subconscious” and in the period immediately following an energy healing session, they can suddenly be quite active, vivid, and instructive about your process. Whether you are aware of them or not, dreams are always part of the interplay between your conscious and non-conscious worlds, and in the aftermath of treatments, it’s not uncommon for this important function of dreams to be stepped up. Keeping a dream journal is an excellent way to help this side of your life become more conscious.

• Long-forgotten memories can come into the foreground. Energy work affects the etheric storehouse of the subconscious. Energy work that integrates your physical body with your energy field will bring forward held memories. Include a section of your journal for this.

• Acute and chronic conditions are likely to shift. For example, a pain might come suddenly and then leave; a sleep pattern might change.

• Emotional release is not uncommon during this period, as excess buildups of energy discharge from your body and psyche.

• You might suddenly connect some previously unconnected dots in the form of insights; outer events, in the form of synchronicities, might trigger some significant inner process.

With experience, I believe you will come to see that your involvement with energy work delivers a healthier, more grounded, centered, expanded, and spiritually aligned person to the world. Sending your client out the door in a bit better shape to face her personal challenges contributes positively to her family, society, and the world. Likewise, the step taken by the pilgrim in your body raises our collective consciousness and makes you more ready to step more fully into your deepest calling. It is no small thing.

Jim Gilkeson is a bodywork therapist and the author of A Pilgrim in Your Body: Energy Healing and Spiritual Process (IUniverse, 2009) from which this article is adapted. He teaches meditation and energy-oriented healing in Northern California. Contact him at jgilkesn@earthlink.net.


1. I have decided to use osteopath John Upledger’s word “non-conscious” because, as he points out, it does not seem to have the limitations that cling to words like “unconscious” and “subconscious” from various psychological schools of thought. By “non-conscious,” I mean everything that is not (currently) accessible or available to one’s conscious awareness.