Growing up in the rather conservative city of Ottawa, Canada, I never felt that I fit in, but I found a niche at fifteen when I discovered alcohol, boys, and dance clubs. My favorite TV show was Entertainment Tonight, my favorite magazine was US Weekly, and by the time I fi nished university, I couldn’t wait to move to Los Angeles and try my luck, working in modeling, music videos, and anything in the entertainment industry.
I signed with an agency in L.A. and landed a few TV commercials and music videos. I also got a job as the assistant to a famous Hollywood talent manager and familiarized myself with the scene of backstage passes, A-list Hollywood clubs, and networking with celebrities. Although I never made much money as a model, within a couple of years I did have the opportunity to work at agencies in Barcelona, Hamburg, Athens, Toronto, and L.A, and I started dating a 30-year-old American billionaire. There was just one glitch: I really didn’t like the selfi sh, social-climbing, hidden-agenda person I had become — actually, I hated her.
This shadow of self-loathing, which had been growing since childhood, showed up as an obsessive bingeing and fasting relationship with food. I also experimented with every drug that was offered to me, but for some reason, drugs never comforted me in the way that food did. Food and weight obsession seemed to consume about 90 percent of my psychic space. I even tried liposuction.
Then, after a holiday in Mallorca, my billionaire friend dropped me off in London in his brother’s private plane, and I decided to visit a former boyfriend in the south of England. What transpired on that day catalyzed a complete paradigm shift.
My gorgeous ex-boyfriend had, as best as I could figure it out, decided to live like a monk — giving away a lot of his possessions, going to ghastly sounding silent meditation retreats, and (gasp!) telling me, straight-faced, that he didn’t particularly care if he never had sex again! What had happened to my fun-loving, skinnydipping, drug-taking vacation playmate that I had known and loved only two short years before? And who was this quixotic monk masquerading as him, offering me a book about meditation?
Back in London a few days later, I missed my flight and was stuck in the airport for 24 hours, with nothing to pass the time except … hey, what about that meditation book that my friend had given me?
So I sat down in the airport and read the book from cover to cover. It spoke to the deepest core of my being and touched parts of my soul that I didn’t know even existed, and I quickly found myself doing 10-day meditation retreats, becoming a raw vegan, avidly practicing yoga and ecstatic dance, and founding a not-for-profit organization.
Straying from the Path
At that time I firmly believed that my meditation tradition was the one true path, and I followed all the teachings to the letter, so it wasn’t long before I was readying myself to do the advanced meditation course, joyfully anticipating the internal fireworks that would inevitably come as the keys to enlightenment were revealed, hopefully in some kind of ecstatic, kundalini-activating dharma transmission.
But that wasn’t quite how it happened. Shortly before the retreat, I found a book about a woman named Peace Pilgrim, who had walked 25,000 miles across North America to spread the message of peace. In a video about Peace Pilgrim, I saw a look in her eyes that I had never quite seen before. It dawned on me for the first time, in an experiential way, that it was actually possible for someone from my culture and my era to attain deep inner peace and spiritual awakening — something so painfully far away from my own melancholy and bleakness. My inner guidance began speaking to me in an immutable voice: If you want to break out of your misery, despair, and longing for your life to be over, you have to clear the entire slate of this illusory life you have created and give away everything that is anchoring you.
So I met with the dharma teachers and told them I was leaving. “But you can’t leave halfway through! Nobody ever leaves; it’s just not the done thing!” they declared, alarmed at my apparent total oblivion to dharma protocol.
I bid them farewell, convinced that once I fully turned my life over to the universe and surrendered myself to being a worldserver, everything would be smooth sailing. Obviously, it wasn’t quite that straightforward! My rational voice kept arguing not to do anything too drastic, and the inner conflict between my mind and spirit kept escalating until there was just a heck of a lot of noise in my head. Finally, I was so overwhelmed by the inner conflict and my increasing feelings of desolation and gloom that I gave up to the assertive new voice in my head that summoned me to let go of my worldly life. “Okay,” I said. “You win!”
Letting Go of Everything
My next step, when my parents were out of the country, was to find homes for 30 years’ worth of accumulated stuff. Every single thing had to go until I was left with only the clothes on my back and a small brown paper bag that carried my ID, my phone numbers, a toothbrush, a spoon, and a comb. My modeling portfolio found its happy destiny in the recycle bin, along with my high school yearbooks, my old love letters, and so many other sentimental and ego-attached mementos. (My father later managed to undelete some of the photos from the computer, one of which is shown here.) My inner guidance was telling me to reconnect with Earth Mother and to learn how to live in a primitivistic way and gain knowledge about wild edible plants and the cycles of nature. I felt a strong pull toward Mexico. And I planned to walk.
But being a young woman alone, the first thing I discovered is that it is hard to walk, let alone get back to nature. I had hardly hit the road before I was offered a ride all the way to Texas in a natural gas van. Somewhere along the way, I got talked out of making a walking pilgrimage and talked into doing a work-trade on an organic farm.
After being on the organic farm for a few weeks, it really hit me that I had set out to make a walking pilgrimage and, instead, I had let myself be dissuaded from following my vision. So I decided to do a 500-kilometer walking pilgrimage across to Mexico, without using money at all, not accepting rides, and sleeping outside along the way. This lifestyle necessitated learning really quickly how to become an efficient dumpster diver and urban camper; in other words, a “freegan.” Along the way I had to give up all my notions of what spiritual seekers look like, how they live, or how they behave.
The walking pilgrimage was sometimes ecstatically liberating, sometimes exhaustingly intense but always magic-filled. On the third day, I had the unprecedentedly cosmic event of meeting a woman who seemed to be my “soul twin.” We felt like we had some kind of soul contract to meet up at this particular point in our lives and transmit wisdom and inspiration to each other. It was amazing; everything we shared with each other was like the missing puzzle pieces to all the spiritual questions we had both been internally pondering in the preceding days.
That night, I experienced the most radiant mystical dream I had ever had. I witnessed a luminescent nativity scene where my friend was being born, and I was there, alongside jubilant, awestruck onlookers, all speechless with gratitude and delight that this Divine Child (which represented us all) was being born to share its gifts with our world. The depth of thankfulness and honoring we all expressed was some of the most soul-stirring emotion I had ever felt, and I awoke the next morning to the audible sound of an angel’s voice, with tears of joy still wet on my cheeks.
That spiritual high easily carried me through the rest of the walking pilgrimage. I slept outside in lots of creative places, such as the front doorsteps of churches and on picnic tables. Often, though, wonderful people would invite me into their homes, and we would share stories about our spiritual paths. In one town, three families took turns hosting me in their homes, and we all shared a really sweet feeling of organic soul camaraderie.
Meeting My Teachers
On New Year’s Eve 2006, I walked across the border to Mexico and finished my 500-kilometer pilgrimage. I felt that something had internally shifted, and it seemed that I had been opened to a whole new realm of possibility. Shortly thereafter, I had a very serendipitous connection with a shaman near San Miguel de Allende and stayed with her for two weeks. I was still living totally moneyless, eating fruit off trees and finding bruised and half-rotten veggies that were thrown out in the marketplace, chopping off the bad parts and using the rest.
Back in the United States, I had an instant connection with a monk who was running a cave hermitage in New Mexico. I ended up doing a retreat in the cave, which had been built up and was quite cozy. This monk had an amazing spiritual library at his house, with books and videos about all the wisdom traditions and all the great spiritual beings. I would sit there watching videos about sages like Ramana Maharshi, St. Francis, and Amma (“the hugging saint”), and spontaneous waterfalls of tears would release from my eyes automatically — it was as though the tears were flowing straight from my soul.
That summer, I followed Amma all around on her entire North American tour, and I was still moneyless, so I slept outside on hotel pool deck chairs and squatted on rooftops of apartment buildings. I got a chance to ask Amma’s guidance about something, so I asked her if I should continue to live moneyless. She said it was time to start using money again and the next day, one of her devotees found a $20 bill on the floor and handed it to me, saying, “Here. This is for you from Amma.”
After the Amma tour, my parents agreed to sponsor me to go on a spiritual pilgrimage to India, and I visited Amma’s ashram, Gandhi’s ashram, the Ramakrishna ashram in Delhi, Ramana Maharshi’s cave, the Dalai Lama’s temple, and many other places. I also met with Tenzin Palmo, a British woman who had done 12 years of cave retreat high up in the Himalayas. I talked with her about my increasing desire to do a long solo retreat out in nature. She suggested that I find a place back in the States or Canada, as solitude is very hard to come by in India these days, even in the Himalayas.
Into the Wild
The next year, I started doing several short solo forest retreats to prepare myself for longer ones in the future. I also met an amazing neo-primitivist mystic, who was living in a mud hut, spinning plant fiber, firing pottery over an open campfire, weaving baskets, making gourd water vessels, wildcrafting local edible foods and plant medicine, and carving art from stone and rock. He became my treasured mentor, and when he left for the winter, I did a 20-day solo retreat in the mud hut, praying continuously, studying spiritual texts, and deeply connecting with the earth. I had been feeling for some time that the name that my parents had given me, Gillian, no longer resonated with me. During the 20-day retreat I prayed for a name that would remind me of my highest intention. The name that I chose was Prema, which means pure holy love in Sanskrit.
After such a profound paradigm shift in my life, I felt direly in need of some grounding and a sense of belonging. But where on earth could I possibly fit in? The one place that I felt safe, welcomed, and resonant was a freegan, eco-activist, bike-loving, Zen meditation community in Portland, Oregon, which I joined for seven months. The community woke up at 4:45 a.m.; meditated five times a day; did tai chi, yoga, and chanting; studied raga music; ate a strict sattvic vegan diet; and lived a monastic lifestyle. Our accommodations ranged from squatting in a dilapidated house, to sleeping in our friends’ backyards, to doing retreats in the forest. Like many women in the community, I chose to shave my head as a symbol of renunciation and letting go of my ego. Nevertheless, I’m sure some people looked upon our community as a bunch of unemployed bums.
Darkness to Awakening
Following the retreat, I went on more spiritual pilgrimages to meet sages and spiritual teachers on my zero-dollar budget, and I ended up feeling drained and dismal, which culminated in a spiritual free-fall experience. For a time, I had no grounded notion of who I was or whether “I” even existed as a separate entity from the whole. I questioned my sanity and fell into the deepest dark night of the soul I had experienced, with thoughts of dying never far from my mind.
But I pushed on. I felt driven to seek answers by doing another 20-day solo retreat, this time out in the Gila National Forest, with javelinas, coatimundi, and bighorn sheep as my adorable neighbors. Like my long retreat the year before, I didn’t see another person the entire time, and I got very comfortable with the wild animals, cooking over an open fire, and becoming acquainted with the stars and bird songs. On that retreat I finally experienced the lifestyle to which my spirit had been insistently guiding me for so long.
Afterward, I went to live at an ashram in Taos, New Mexico, and connected with some amazing spiritual mentors. I felt joyful and happy for the first time in recent memory. After one particularly soul-nourishing heart-to-heart with one of my meditation teachers, I remember skipping all the way home with a big grin on my face, thinking, I’ve been seen! I’ve been seen!
Lessons from Hitchhiking
One of the most common things I heard while hitchhiking was “You’d better be careful. There are a lot of crazy and dangerous people out there.” But that wasn’t my experience. I have safely hitchhiked close to 20,000 miles on spiritual pilgrimages and most of those by myself. That said, I don’t believe hitchhiking is for everyone, and I’m not trying to recommend it. There are many other ways to travel inexpensively and sustainably, such as web-based ride-sharing or longdistance bike touring, both of which I’ve enjoyed a lot in recent years. Nevertheless, hitchhiking can be a powerful teacher.
One tip that I learned is to bring highvibration music, like Snatam Kaur, with me. By playing music like that and singing along with it, my vibration instantly raises. Because of the contagious nature of cellular vibrations, the whole energy in the car can shift very quickly.
My most important realization for safety on the road is that my cellular vibrations are continuously communicating with everyone I meet, informing them how to treat me. My feeling is that it is impossible for someone to treat me in a way for which I am not holding space, on some level. By keeping my vibration high, I consistently traveled hundreds of miles faster than if I’d taken the bus or train, and I have safely caught rides with people from all walks of life, including former prisoners. I turn the conversation to subjects that bring people into their heartspace. Intuition and positive energy have been the only protection I have needed.
By the same token, if I am feeling discouraged or drained or not centered, I always take time to get refreshed before trying to hitchhike, even if it means missing out on something I want to do. In general, I now try to postpone taking any actions or engaging socially when I notice that I am not centered.
Resources for the Moneyless Spiritual Pilgrim
There are, of course, deeply humbling moments as a moneyless pilgrim. In particular, I remember one night, asleep in the doorway of a church and being stepped over and feeling ashamed, thinking, What am I doing? How did I end up becoming a hobo? Ironically, the longer I’m on this path, the more and more impossible it becomes for me to even consider judging another person —and that realization has become a great resource.
Being shattered — or broken open — also makes other vast resources available, allowing me to embrace the totality of who I am, “shadow” and all. Also, my intuition now makes it clear to me much more quickly if my heart is not saying yes to something. Conversely, I notice that I feel incredibly activated when I am working on projects that are in attunement with my higher purpose. Here are some other resources for the road.
The Freegan Movement
I stayed at a freegan apartment in Brooklyn, in which almost everything in it was recovered from corporate Dumpsters. Many things were brand new, in unopened packages. Between 8 and 12 young freegans live in the apartment, sleeping on welded bunk beds and sharing freely all the recovered art supplies, music equipment, clothing, fabric, and gourmet food. I met these open and friendly folks at a free bicycle repair collective, and they invited me to stay with them right away. (freegan.info)
Resource Recovery/Dumpster Diving
“Dumpster diving” sounded really gross to me, until freegans showed me the mindboggling quantity and quality of things that get tossed into corporate Dumpsters, including new shoes and clothing, organic soaps and shampoos, camping gear, linens, and lots of organic food. I now feel that it’s important that these valuable resources don’t end up in the landfill. If a store manager comes to talk to me, I cheerfully tell him that I am collecting food for my community, and sometimes he even unlocks his gates and dumpsters for me. Some progressive food co-ops, such as the People’s Co-Op in Portland, Oregon, regularly leave a box with free surplus food in their walk-in fridge that volunteers from Food Not Bombs can access. (freegan.info/freegan-directories/dumpster-directory)
Food Not Bombs
This loose-knit group collects surplus, day-old food from grocery stores, bakeries, and markets that would otherwise go to waste. Volunteers cook vegetarian meals and share them with the community between one and five days a week, depending on the city. The first time I went to a Food Not Bombs gathering, I was amazed by the bright and idealistic free-thinkers I met and the strong sense of community. Most of the members of my Portland meditation community met each other at Food Not Bombs. (foodnotbombs.net)
Free Boxes and Free Markets
For about three years, all my clothing came from free boxes found at recycling centers or free markets in places like San Francisco and Portland. Several years ago, I might have looked upon these resources as charity and been uncomfortable about taking from them.
But what I discovered was beautiful community-building and heart-centered sharing of surplus resources. My inner seamstress was also awakened, because a lot of the clothes I found benefitted from some alteration and customization. (reallyreallyfree.org/index.php?l=Worldwide_RRFMs)
Setting up camp in an urban location, such as a rooftop, a community garden, or other urban space, requires a sleeping bag and a roll mat and is best done between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. My favorite story was the time I was looking for a place to squat in a New York City hotel. I went up to the second floor and found a place that looked quiet and safe under a big buffet table, with a long tablecloth that went down to the ground. I awoke the next morning to the sound of glasses clinking above my head. Oh, no! They’re setting the breakfast table! I used my stealth detective skills to scope out an opportune moment to slip out from under the table, regain my composure, and try to look normal as I strolled out into the fresh morning air. (wikihow.com/Urban-Camp)
The first time I set up a work-trade exchange for room and board, I just went to the farmers’ market and approached the most interesting-looking hippie lady I could find. I offered to help out on her farm, and she offered me a yurt and free organic food. Another work-trade that I enjoy is putting up flyers for events, dance classes, and workshops I want to attend. I once bartered several packaged bars of dark chocolate I had retrieved from the Dagoba factory Dumpster in exchange for a yoga class. Many intentional communities, ashrams, and monasteries allow people to stay there in exchange for work. It’s easier to make these arrangements face-to-face than over the Internet. (wwoof.org)
Time banking empowers community members to barter one hour of labor time and, in return, to receive one hour of labor or service from someone else in the community. (timebanks.org)