The Sacrifice Made for Vision
I often get asked, “What is the Vision Quest?” Really, it’s not something that can be described briefly in a sentence or two. And if it can’t be described in a sentence or two, the majority of the world would prefer to leave it a mystery in their minds. I’m writing this for those who truly wish to know more about it.
First of all, the term Vision Quest is a loose term that many use to describe a wide variety of things. As a result, this should not be considered a description of all Vision Quests; instead this is a description of the Vision Quest that we do at Awareness Healing Arts.
As someone with Native American ancestry, I’ve heard about and known about the Vision Quest since I was a little. To me the Vision Quest is an important and basic feature of life. I have to remind myself that the majority of the world has little to no idea what this is. So when someone asks me about the Vision Quest, I struggle to provide a comprehensible explanation that remotely makes any sense. It’s an experience that really doesn’t have any close comparisons in our contemporary world. So I’m going to share a piece of my personal Vision Quest experience in hopes of giving an idea of what it is. With that said, the Vision Quest can be largely different for everyone and my experience could be night and day from another person’s.
Like I mentioned before, I knew about the Vision Quest from an early age. So I knew and I could somehow intuitively feel that this was something that I would do someday. It both frightened me and excited me at the same time. For many tribes, it is a rite of passage signifying the transition from childhood to adulthood. There are many cultural variations and similarities to this rite of passage. The one that I did consisted of four days and four nights, alone, in the wilderness, in a small ten foot diameter circle, away from all things familiar, fasting from food, drinking only water, and the bare minimum for supplies.
This is an opportunity for a person to simply listen, a quality that our contemporary world seems to have lost. Essentially, this is an opportunity for us to grow silent, and listen to the deep places in our heart. It is in this silence that we begin to heal, we begin to grow, we are humbled, we stop lying to ourselves, we stop pretending to be something that we are not, we find our true self, we discover our place in the world, we forgive others, we forgive ourselves, and we find a seed of what we can become.
I knew all of this going into my first quest, and recognized the juxtaposition of it both deeply terrifying me and intriguing me. I grew up like most Americans in the public school system and I knew that there had to be something more to life. If this was all there was to life, I wanted little to do with it. Life has to be more than just getting a good education, getting a good paying job, getting married, having kids, retiring, and dying. I’m sorry if this sounds great to someone else but for me, it bored me to no end.
For some reason, the opportunity for me to go on my first quest took longer than it did for most Natives. I didn’t go on my first quest until I was twenty-two years old. My elders and mentors would suggest that this is because I wasn’t ready. But when it finally came time, I was so ready that I went into my quest a million miles an hour. Yet somehow, in this unstoppable force that pushed to no end, I still maintained a magnitude of fear that screamed, “NO! This is absolutely crazy. Who in their right mind would knowing and willingly go into the wilderness with wild animals and God knows what else.” But this is the nature of the Vision Quest; it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. This is the sacrifice and payment that we make for what we get in return.
My elders have always told me that there is always an exchange. Nothing is just simply given for free. If I’m collecting wild plants or berries, I’m to always leave something in return that I value. Traditionally, this is usually tobacco but sometimes it’s a song, a prayer, or some sort of gift. This can be seen in simple conversations with the others. If someone tells a story, another story is often told in exchange. We are constantly exchanging riches, lifting each other up, building the community, the tribe, the plants, the animals, and all of life. This maintains the harmony and keeps things healthy.
This is how the Vision Quest works; we sacrifice our comfort, our time, our email, our work, our money, our TV shows, and our social life for four days and four nights. We then cry out, yearn, and impassionedly pray for guidance, healing, or whatever it is that the Creator has in store for us. Then we listen. Without all the distractions of life, we find a deep silence that resides within us. It is in this deep silence that we hear some deeply personal yet very necessary things. This was no different for me.
I practically ran into my quest site, sat down, and began to cry out of relief that I finally made it. My life history began to careen through my mind like a wrecking ball obliterating the illusions I built up. I physically and emotionally collapsed from the shame and embarrassment of who I was pretending to be. The foundation of what I thought was integral to my life was no longer there. The quest completely gutted me in a matter of minutes. I lay there in the dirt, energetically lifeless; tears painfully ran like trickling brooks across my cheeks and nose, and I was profoundly humbled.
Now this first experience was highly unusual for most questers. Most folks go to their quest rather timidly, sit down, start praying, then they sit and wait. Then they wait some more. Then they wait some more. Then they feel the boredom begin to creep in. Then their mind begins to wander. They recognize that their focus begins to falter and they begin to pray some more. Then they wait some more. They cycle through boredom, prayer, waiting, listening several times before things start to happen. After I went through what felt like a complete emotional and mental disembowelment, I then started to cycle through what many go through on a Vision Quest.
Boredom is a big part of it and I would argue an important part of it. Our world is taught that if we want something we should go get it. And if that something doesn’t provide it right away, we should move on and find it elsewhere.
Patience is a difficult thing for me and I’m recognizing that it is a difficult thing for most people in our culture. We are not taught to be patient. Patience becomes part of that sacrifice and a gift that we offer up in exchange for what the Vision Quest provides.
So there I was, only a couple of hours into it and I felt like everything was taken away from me. But this was necessary for me. I needed to have an empty cup, in a manner of speaking, so I could be open to learn something new. If I remained full, I wouldn’t be open to learning something new; I would criticize it, dismiss anything that I learned, and it would’ve been lost. So the Vision Quest was tailoring my experience to my specific needs.
So I sat there feeling broken down and humbled for a long while. I prayed some more, cried some more, got bored, waited, and so on. I gained a few insights here and there in my humble state.
I had a lot of questions too. From religion to what is my purpose in life, I asked everything. And I was persistent. I got some answers but if I didn’t fully understand the answer, I would ask it again, letting it be known that I didn’t understand. I kept pushing until I got the answer that made sense to me. Then the answers would often lead to more questions. It’s a bit like that toddler asking a curious question about the color of the sky and then following the answer up with, “why?”
It is common to feel like insanity is just around the corner. We live in the illusion that we are in control of our lives and everything around us. On a Vision Quest, we realize that our emotions are easily swayed like the winds and our minds run rampant with little focus. The smallest distractions would pull my mind in a multitude of directions. For some reason we are taught in school to focus, control our thoughts, and control our emotions. We do this by pretending that our emotions either aren’t there or we stuff them down as if they didn’t exist. We fiercely train our minds to focus on the boring listless subjects presented in school. Then we tell ourselves that if we want to be successful in life, we need to put up with a job that we hate in order to buy the things in life that we think will make us happy. So as the quest continues, I sat in this new world where emotions came and went in seconds and my mind was a flow of thoughts that never seem to end. I finally got to the point where I simply sat back and tried and enjoy the ride.
This is all part of it. It is the necessary process our mind, body, and soul needs to go through to keep us healing, growing, and gaining the necessary insights. I almost forgot about the body. You’re fasting, sleeping on the hard ground, there is no recliner, there is no bed, and the weather is always doing something unpredictable. Your butt hurts, your back aches, you’re tired because you haven’t slept very well, your stomach is cramping and growling for food, you walk three feet and feel exhausted from the fast, and it’s starting to rain on your previously sunburned face. So this isn’t the vacation from life stresses that I hoped for. And I start to wonder, ‘why am I doing this to myself.’ It’s usually at these points that most folks start to consider calling it quits; I did. But then I remember why I wanted to do this in the first place and I have the vague memory of my elders saying, “this is all part of the sacrifice that is necessary.” This is my gift, my payment, my half of the exchange.
So the fear doesn’t necessarily go away when you get out there. We start to face those fears and they become great teachers about our lives and ourselves. For example, I was scared of the night, especially out in the woods. I’d seen plenty of horror movies growing up. I know that there is always a man in a hockey mask with a chainsaw, knives for fingers, and some evil motive to murder innocent people. I know that every animal from a wolf to a barracuda is trying to eat me for a meal. I don’t care what anybody says, unless a person has previously spent some regular time out in the woods at night, they are scared. If they say otherwise, they are lying.
My anxiety grew rampant and wild as the sun set and the dark night set in. I would try to keep questing, stay focused but the fear was real and painfully distracting. So I would try to sleep in hope that the nights would go by faster. This helped but I felt guilty, like I was running away from what I wanted. I knew that facing my fears was part of my sacrifice and payment. So I slept but the Vision Quest entered my dreams. Some of the most insightful and powerful dreams came to me while I was questing. I remember waking up at times with gut busting laughter or gut wrenching tears of sadness. I learned so much and continue to learn so much from those dreams even though this was back in the 1990’s. That’s the other unique thing about a Vision Quest, the lessons are dynamic and can change and continue to push us forward in life no matter how old we are or how long ago we went on our quest.
I remember on the third morning waking up just before the sunrise. It was still very dark but when I looked to the east I could see a hint of light breaking the darkness. I awoke with a new found commitment to face the darkness knowing that the safety of the daylight was soon around the corner. So I began to pray with a fierce passion and yearning. This was followed by a deafening silence of the night sky. There was nothing except for a stillness that I had never experienced before. This was quickly interrupted by one of the most frightening sounds I could imagine. Immediately behind me was this ferocious growl that barked again and again. In a split second I was on my feet and facing what I was expecting to be this ferocious Freddy Krueger, Jason, Michal Myers, children of the corn, grizzly bear, demonic combined beast of Satan. Much to my despair there was nothing but darkness. I couldn’t see anything. It didn’t help that I had taken my contacts out before I slept and I was practically blind anyways. But this didn’t matter because deep in the trees and shrubs was a blackness that my human eyes could never penetrate. And the silence once again returned with fierce abandon.
I sat there motionless and still, pretending that I was staring down a beast of unimaginable horror. I didn’t move. My muscles were tense, my eyes dilated as wide as they could go, adrenaline shot though every cell of my body, I was ready for the fight of my life, and I wasn’t about to go down without some serious resistance. I sat there for an hour staring into the silent abyss of darkness. It wasn’t until the sunlight began to penetrate the deep darkness that I began to realize that nothing was there.
My muscles finally began to relax and for the first time I finally felt like I took a breath. I was practically holding my breath for an hour in my effort to be as still as possible. Who knows, maybe the beast may pass me by thinking that I was a stump or a misplaced statue in the middle of the wilderness.
Here’s the crazy thing. During the Vision Quest that I was doing, you are not to leave your quest circle except for some specific reasons however, I won’t bother getting into all of them here. However, one of the reasons one might leave their quest circle is to access some extra gear that we bring up with us. This extra gear typically consists of a change of clothes, extra water, sleeping bag/blanket if it gets cold, and a tarp in case it starts to rain. I already had my sleeping bag because it was a cold night. But with the coming new day I no longer needed it so I thought I’d return the sleeping bag and this would give me an opportunity to briefly explore where this growl may have came from. So I returned my sleeping bag to discover to my embarrassment, the origins of this horrific growling beast.
I had wrapped all my extra gear in a tarp to protect it from the rains we had the day before. It was a little windy so I tied the tarp down so it wouldn’t blow anywhere. I looked down at a set of dusty impressions in the dirt clearly indicating my beast. I had essentially tied a rope across and elk trail, creating a trip chord. An elk walked into my trip chord in the darkness and the tarp menacingly rustled to the point I determined it was a growling beast from an 80’s horror movie. No doubt, the elk was frightened like nobodies business and tore up the mountainside in terror. I could vaguely remember hearing the sounds of hoofs pounding but in my mind this was the thumping beast of Satan’s feet upon the earth. Yep, I was raised in a good God fearing Christian home.
I got a good laugh out of this and chuckled at my novice wilderness experience. I learned a lot about laughing at myself on my quest, something I never did before. Growing up I went through a period of being teased and bullied. Laughter around me usually felt like knives through my soul. But here I was on my Vision Quest and I was laughing again. I was not only laughing but I was laughing at how silly I was.
I completed my quest. I stayed up there for four days and four nights facing some big fears, breaking down, and being built back up. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it at times but I did. I dropped a lot up on that mountain: sweat, tears, emotions, baggage, fears, and the like. I discovered who I truly was. I stopped pretending to be something that I wasn’t. I stopped pretending to be what the rest of the world wanted me to be. I became whole again; I became real. I had a pretty good idea of who I truly was. Up on that mountain I became a humane being. I stopped doing and living inhumanely and started being humane. I think this is why so many Natives often refer to themselves as human beings. There is something more to this than just words. When we know who we are being, we stop worrying about what we are going to be doing. We are not human doings.
I am often asked, “did you get a vision?” This is difficult to answer because of how personal a Vision Quest can be. The quest meets us exactly where we are at in life, we bring our own religion or lack there of, our list of experiences, our culture, our heart, our soul, and our spirit. Everyone is different. What I got on my quest was meant for me and there are some pieces that were meant for everyone. I only share what is meant for everyone and I keep secret the things that were meant for me because anyone else simply wouldn’t understand. So to answer this question simply and honestly, “yes.” And if you want to know more, I would suggest putting up some sacrifices and finding your vision.