The Modern Vision Quest
January 12, 2012 § 15 Comments
Each of us has a calling, a unique voice, a song we must sing, a vision we must enact. ~ Circles of Air, Circles of Stone
Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. ~ Norman Cousins
Traditionally, the vision quest is a sacred right of passage in native cultures. It signifies a turning point in life taken to find oneself and one’s direction.
Usually done in conjunction with some consciousness altering practice — traditionally, fasting, sleep deprivation or the use of natural hallucinogenic drugs — the young initiate would go out alone into the wilderness, after much preparation by elders, to seek communion with the forces of the spirit world.
Often the period of return to the tribe was marked by sacred celebration, a ritual or a tribal event, such as a drumming ceremony, in which the repetitive rhythms induce a meditative state of prayer, spiritual receptivity, connectivity and communion among participants.
We have no modern equivalent. Or more specifically, our modern equivalents are stripped of the sacred; debased. For example, going to college and venturing out into the world of newly-freed freshman to drink, dance and party is largely considered a rite of passage. But what visions can be found in a night of binge drinking?
Yet, we yearn for this type of self-expression. To unleash the inner animal and find self-renewal. We thirst to connect with something greater than ourselves, to engage our fellow man and find our direction. While there exist retreats to guide one through a modern vision quest, these are always a gamble. Apart from being expensive, operators have been known to get in over their heads, as happened to James A. Ray in 2009, wherein three participant deaths occurred as a result of a botched sweat lodge ceremony. As with many self-help practitioners, the line between the shaman and the charlatan is often difficult to ascertain.
Because of this ambiguity, and the inherent risk of trusting a stranger with your life — particularly a stranger who stands to gain monetarily from your acceptance of their authority — I propose an alternate solution to express this ancient desire in the modern age: Create your own vision quest.
This can be done in a multitude of ways. The simplest option is to give yourself a day for self-reflection wherein time is taken in solitude in nature to go inward and reconnect with the earth. Running water is particularly stimulating for introspection, as it creates a meditative soundscape of soothing white noise, not to mention energetic properties of movement and cleansing. Even if your nearest creek or river can be found hours outside of town, it’s worth the trip: simply removing oneself from one’s context is a source of renewal within itself.
The ocean, too, is tremendously healing, as most people can agree. A day spent alone at the sea can yield great self-renewal. Salt water specifically has therapeutic properties both on a physical and energetic level. Once alone with the sea, woods or river, one can ask oneself the big questions one may be avoiding: what do I want to do with my time on this earth? What do I have to give? What do I want to be doing?
If you stumble upon a thought which excites you, pay attention. As writer-mythologist Joseph Cambell famously said, follow your bliss. And as the great Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran said: ““Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights. But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.” Go there & ask. If pain comes up, address it. The pain is the dragon that guards the gold.
I find it helpful to ask myself questions I feel I do not know the answer to, and see what comes. Something always comes. Writing these questions & this process down can be tremendously helpful in crystalizing the inner jumble of thoughts.
If you have an open enough mind, try asking a tree or a bird for advice — though it’s likely just our own self projecting an answer onto the other, new insights can be achieved by this kind of reshuffling of one’s typical thought process. You may be surprised by the answers you receive.
If self-analysis just amps up your angst, go for a more meditative non-thought approach. Equal clarity can be gained by a restively blank mind. The simple act of taking time out for oneself and journeying out into the natural world is restorative, nurturing that aspect of self unengaged by modern past times.
Relax your mind and every time you have a new thought, label it “thought” and let it go. Tibetan Buddhist monk and writer Sakyong Mipham, author of Turning the Mind into an Ally, recommends labeling the specific kind of thought. I.e. “memory,” or “fantasy,” or “worry.” You may be surprised by how often one’s thoughts are pointlessly and compulsively reliving some scene from the past, or falling into a projected fear or fantasy about the future. Once we begin to break our thinking down, we can better understand and control its mechanisms.
These are mini-quests we can take at any time. All it takes is a day free of obligation, the desire to rediscover one’s inner sense of direction and the commitment to finding some beautiful spot to think, or not think. In a similar vein, a mirror meditation —consisting simply of the prolonged facing of oneself in the mirror, in solitude, while lovingly dealing with whatever mental-emotional issues arise —can do wonders for breaking open the shut down parts of the self.
So often we look in the mirror only to asses and self-critique. A quick cursory glance on the most superficial level. Yet prolonged gazing into one’s own eyes can yield wonders of self-discovery.
It is the eyes which should be focused on. Don’t focus on flaws of complexion or compare your face to a magazine image of false perfection. It’s easy to do, but you are not using the mirror for meditation if your mind becomes engaged in this direction, you are using it for its profane purpose and adding to the problem, not the solution. The mirror meditation is a sacred tool in the quest of return to the self, and must be used as such.
Also, we can create our own communities of questers.
One fun and powerful way to embark on a modern vision quest is to do it with friends. Gather together a group of like-minded individuals, who share your goal of self-renewal and inner questing, pool your resources and rent a lake house or a cabin in the mountains for the weekend. The day can be dedicated to solitary journeying — everyone goes off into nature and does their own thing, whether it be journaling, meditating, or simply an introspective hike.
In the evening, everyone returns to the group house to share their day’s experience and storytell. Music and dancing are primal keys, particularly in conjuncture with a day of quietude and meditation. Apart from having therapeutic properties, intimate dance parties are among life’s joys. It’s not the same at a club, where you have to watch your physical space and may, despite your best efforts, still have your appearance in mind — this kind of movement in a safe space with friends and lots of room is more akin to dance therapy. If you throw your all into an hour of dancing out the demons, I promise it will leave you feeling luminous.
In a world so full of possibility, yet so often perceived on the go, creating this kind of intentional space to journey, together and alone, supplies a much needed psychological reboot to the modern dreamer.
*For a modernized version of traditional soul-retrieval check out the post “Soul-Retreival.“