Quietly Given Gifts: The Story of My First Vision Fast (Vision Quest)

In the spring of 2014, I found myself alone and starving in the desert, completely exposed to the elements.  I hadn’t eaten for days – three days to be exact – and I was weak.

I’d paid good money for this.

I was on my vision fast.

Now, if you’re like most people, at this point you’re asking, “A vision what?”

What IS a Vision Fast/Quest?

The ceremony of the vision fast (or more commonly called vision quest) is a physically intense, spiritually-rich ceremony that’s been enacted by people all over the world for hundreds of years.

Maddisen Krown, executive coach and fellow vision quester, wrote a wonderful article for The Huffington Post that does a great job of explaining what quests are and why one would choose to do one.  Here she describes what a vision quest is:

“The term “vision quest” was first coined by 19th-century anthropologists to describe the rite-of-passage ceremonies of certain Native American cultures. Traditionally, these rituals have been performed to mark significant life transitions or changes. Generally speaking, they are seen as both personal and collective events that are guided and witnessed within the community, and often involve the “quester” spending time alone in nature in search of a personal vision that becomes a vision to support the entire community. An important vision quest, for example, is one that marks the passage of adolescents into adulthood.”

A traditional Native American Vision Quest consists of a person spending one to four days and nights secluded in nature, typically with very minimal shelter.  The idea behind this is to make oneself as available to nature as possible.  In this way, the “quester” is fully exposed to the magnificent and mysterious forces of the natural world, and also to the whisperings of her owl soul.  The quester also goes without food, and sometimes water, as a way to empty herself out and alter her consciousness, in hopes of receiving a “vision” to bring back to her community.

My First Fast

My first vision fast was held just outside of Capitol Reef National Park (Utah), during which time I spent three days and three nights out in wild nature – and also out in wind, sleet, rain and sunshine.

And, while I intellectually knew that nothing REALLY BIG and MYSTICAL would likely happen out there (that is, White Calf Medicine Woman probably would not descend from the heavens and bestow the vision of my life upon me), I still secretly held hope that SOMETHING would happen out there; that SOMEHOW I’d find the answers to the burning questions I’d been carrying around in my heart. Questions like, What am I here to do, really?  What is my soul here to give?  What is my life for?

So, on my first day out, I sat down on a log and began to rattle.

Now – before I go on I must say this:  there is A LOT of time when you are out on the land, not eating, for three days and nights.  As such, there are many ways to pass that time:  write in your journal; fix your tarp; look at the mountains in the distance; fix your tarp again (because it’s incredibly windy up on the ridge you’re on, and you really cannot fathom what possessed you to place your camp HERE of all places. But oh well – here you are); find a good sitting spot; walk around; drink lots of water and subsequently pee a lot.  You also get creative: at one point, I was so hungry that I even drew a picture of a raspberry scone and steaming hot cup of coffee in my journal with my blue ballpoint pen, just to make myself feel better.

However, there are also moments of deeply meaningful rituals; moments when you talk with the tress and the lizards and feel them as your kin; moments when you see meaningful images in the immense star-filled sky above; moments when you feel that the mere fact of your own humanity is truly astonishing.

Back to the rattle, though:  there I was, rattling away, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something move.  I turned to my left, and there, just a few feet away was a snake winding it’s way through my camp.

Now, as any good soulful vision faster would likely do, I got down on my hands and knees and attempted a conversation with it (Note: it can be seen as a real blessing when an Other comes to pay you a visit. Also, the fact that it was a snake was personally poignant, as I’d been seeing Snake almost every single time I went out in nature for the past year).

You might imagine, then, that I’d have been delighted to see this beautiful creature!  In all honesty, however, in that moment, I didn’t really make much of it.  My conversational attempts with it were short, as it slithered quickly through my camp.

After three days, the end of my solo time approached and as far as I could tell, that was the one thing that had “happened”during my time out.  As I made my way back to “the village” on the last morning, I felt a mixture of relief, joy, and also some disappointment that I didn’t get the BIG ANSWER I’d been hoping for.

The Return

The morning of my return, I crossed back over the threshold and returned to my group of fellow fasters (when one begins the vision fast ceremony, they cross a threshold of some kind to mark their departure from the “village”.  When they return, they once again cross back over a threshold. These thresholds act as psychospiritual markers and consciousness shifts for our psyches, telling a deeper part of us that we’re moving into or out of ceremony).

Once back, I was handed an avocado with salt on it (after fasting, you need a simple food to “break” your fast).  OH MY GOD was it good (to this day, it ranks as THE BEST avocado I’ve ever eaten in my entire life).

When we were all properly fed, the group then gathered together once again. It was now the moment when we’d each get to be witnessed by our human community in telling the story of our fast.

As I sat there and listened to magnificent story after magnificent story from my fellow questers, I felt less and less eager to share.  My mind kept saying,  “But nothing happened to you out there!!! You went out and came back with nothing!  You were dreaming about scones of all things!”  In short, a part of me felt like I’d failed.

When I was called into the circle, I told my story.  I shared about Snake (no one else had seen ANY sort of creature besides me).  I shared about my unanswered questions, as well as my deep pride for having enacted this physically demanding ritual at all.  I shed tears of both grief and release.  I was witnessed.

At the end of my share, one of my guides (Bill Plotkin) selected and read a poem to me (one that has since made it’s way into my bones):

 

Beyond the Question

by May Sarton

The phoebe sits on her nest

Hour after hour,

Day after day,

Waiting for life to burst out

From under her warmth.

Can I weave a nest for silence,

Weave it out of listening,

Listening,

Layer upon layer?

But one must first become small,

Nothing but a presence,

Attentive as a nesting bird,

Proffering no slightest wish,

No tendril of a wish

Toward anything that might happen

Or be given,

Only the warm, faithful waiting,

Contained in one’s smallness.

Beyond the question, the silence.

Before the answer, the silence.

 

Today

As I look back now, what “happened” on my vision fast was far more subtle and profound than I could have understood then.  That time began the initiation of the girl of me into the adult of me, which is what I’ve been living into ever since.

Since my fast I’ve also been learning the value of deep, dark, uncomfortable, sometimes agonizing patience.  The kind of patience that my soul is comfortable with, but that my mind can’t bear or even comprehend.  The kind of patience it takes to watch a plant grow, or the landscape change, or the earth move around the sun.

My next Vision Fast

I will be going on my next fast in just a few day from now.  I will again be going out with prayers in my heart, and questions.  But this time, I also go with patience.

These days, I know that I cannot demand the answers.  I cannot demand my soul to move faster than it will.

Over the past few years, I’ve often found solace in these words of Rilke:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

 

As I stand at the threshold once again, I go with my heart open, my prayers offered up, and with my good friend patience at my side.

“…But one must first become small,

Nothing but a presence,

Attentive as a nesting bird,

Proffering no slightest wish,

No tendril of a wish

Toward anything that might happen

Or be given,

Only the warm, faithful waiting,

Contained in one’s smallness.

Beyond the question, the silence.

Before the answer, the silence.”

 

I think I’ll be a snail now.

I admit it.  I’m totally THAT person sometimes. You know the one: the person who’s sitting in front of the computer, eating something, watching something else, toggling through web pages researching something else, and, oh –  maybe even talking on the phone with someone about something else.

Sometimes I name this state of multitasking “being busy”, “productive” or “getting things done.”  When I’m in this mode (which, unfortunately, is more often than I’d wish) and my husband asks, “How was your day?”, I hear myself list off ALL THE THINGS I got done, as if it’s a badge of honor I wear, and the longer the list, the bigger the badge.

When I’m getting things done, crossing things off my to-do list, going a million miles an hour and BEING REALLY PRODUCTIVE, I feel, well, worthwhile and valuable, like I’m making some sort of worthy contribution to the world (and, as any self-employed individual knows, there are MANY, MANY moments of self-employdom where you’re not sure if  what you’re doing is making any iota of difference in the world at all – in fact, many days you’re actually pretty convinced that it’s not. You regularly face the fear that your business is just some delusional fantasy of one, and that the rest of the human race is DOING REALLY GREAT STUFF and MAKING A DIFFERENCE.  But I digress).

A greater part of me knows that my productivity is not what makes me valuable. I’m valuable, well, because I just am. Because we all just are. We are all inherently valuable, worthwhile beings.

So as I was vacuuming today (vacuuming is when some of my BEST ideas come), I had an awareness:  What if, just what if, my REAL work is to slow down more… to slow down so much, in fact, that it might even appear to the world as if I’m not moving, or not being productive (gasp!). And then I thought about how easy it is to NOT slow down, to just keep going BECAUSE THAT’S JUST WHAT YOU DO. However, when I keep pushing forward and try to keep up (with who? with what?), those still, small voices and wise intuitions just fade into the background, like small seeds waiting for the right conditions to sprout.

And what if I NEVER slowed down enough to really hear what those seeds were?  What if I went my whole entire life just PUSHING ONWARD, never slowing down enough to really LISTEN?  It might just be that a gift – my gift, my contribution – to the world could be lost forever, in the mix of some unimportant multitasking.

I then wondered, if instead of trying to MAKE STUFF HAPPEN all the time (which, as a small business owner, feels like one-half of the equation most days), what if my REAL, honest-to-god work right now is to get even quieter inside, to slow down even more, so that the truth of my work – the truth of me – can emerge.

Hmmmm…

It occurs to me that the harder path (for me, many times, anyway) is often the slower path.

Yet it’s the slow path which, in many ways, is the path of the soul, and is the most rewarding journey in the long run.

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Our wounds are our medicine.

Beginning around 10th grade, I turned to food as a way to help me cope with what I wasn’t able to feel or deal with emotionally. I was a closet binge eater, meaning that I hid my eating habits from my friends and family.

This wasn’t just painful to my sense of vanity (I gained weight). It was also excruciating to live with all the shame, self-hatred, and embarrassment I felt on a daily basis. And worse, I felt totally isolated, alone, and unable to truly talk with anyone about it. I basically felt like if I told anyone, they’d simply judge me as lazy or undisciplined… which was exactly how I was judging myself.

After a few years of this, I finally got to my breaking point when I began to feel like I’d rather die than continue to live caught in the food trap I was in (Unlike other addictions, you can’t just give up food. Trust me. I tried that one in high school, too. Doesn’t work.).

So, I bought a book called Overcoming Overeating. I went to one Overeaters Anonymous meeting (which was fine, but not for me at age 18). I spent many, many hours journaling in my room, just trying to understand my feelings, my thoughts, and why I felt compelled to eat.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, things began to shift. Very slowly (I’m talking over a period of years), I began to feel differently toward myself. I began to cultivate a different relationship with myself on the inside. And as a result, my eating habits slowly began to shift, too.

And one day… it all just magically resolved itself.

 Just kidding! NOT. That’s how this story goes.

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t still (many) times when I want to check out in some way, be it by watching Netflix, having a glass of wine, or having a few too many chocolate chip cookies. However, these days, what I can say is that I’m relating to myself much differently than I did back then. I’m much more able to tend to my feelings and thoughts in ways that are supportive, kind, and self-honoring. I’m able to recognize the parts of me that are trying make me feel small (basically, the parts that are just trying to protect me in some way). I’m able to feel my feelings more, and just let them be ok.

My path with food has definitely been a journey, and a teacher. And now, I can honestly say that I actually feel blessed to have had this challenge as part of my “spiritual curriculum” in this lifetime. For truly, if it hadn’t been for this challenge, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

I’ll leave you now with a quote from Robert Bly, from his book, “Iron John.” He’s speaking of men here, but I can’t help but think that this applies just as much to women… to us all.

“Those with no wounds are the unluckiest of all. (Of course one can’t think that, because no such person has ever been found.)  Men are taught over and over when they are boys that wound that hurts is shameful. A wound that stops you from continuing to play is a girlish wound. He who is truly a man keeps walking, dragging his guts behind.

It says that where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be.  Wherever the wound appears in our psyches, whether from alcoholic father, shaming mother, shaming father, abusing mother, whether it stems from isolation, disability, or disease, that is precisely the place for which we will give our major gift to the community.”

~ Robert Bly, from the book Iron John

 

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Photo: Volkan Omez

 

I won’t work on your problems.

I want my next business card to read, “I won’t work on your problems, but I’ll teach you how to fish.”

It’s not because I particularly love to fish (although I am a Pisces and I do love being outside near rivers and lakes), or that I dislike people with problems. I mean, as a life coach, that’s my daily territory!

You can find plenty of coaches, therapists, and healers who will help you with your problems.

But not me.

Nope. I’m leaving that bag behind, and here’s why:

The more I focus on what’s “wrong,” broken, or otherwise in need of “fixing” in you (or, if I believe you when you say “I can’t because…”), the less close you actually get to standing forward as the fully capable, beautiful, whole and imperfectly perfect human being you are.

Instead, as a Soul-Centered Coach and Guide to Wholing and Self-healing (terms which I’ll unpack shortly), I will and do wholeheartedly support the cultivation of people’s innate human wholeness. And surprise surprise! This approach actually works wonders on problems.

Uh, ok. So what the heck is “Wholing”? 

Glad you asked! Allow me to ‘splain, Lucy.

First of all, the word “whole” isn’t typically used as a verb. However, as I’m talking about creating wholeness here, I am defining “wholing” as this:  The act of creating completeness, integrity, soundness, strength and cohesion in a human being.

In his book, Nature and the Human Soul, Bill Plotkin talks about two different approaches to psychological issues:

“There are two general approaches to alleviating psychological problems: pathology-centered and wholeness-centered (holistic). Using the pathology approach, we ask, “What symptoms of dysfunction is this person exhibiting, and what can be done to eliminate these symptoms and/or this dysfunction?” Common psychological symptoms include anxiety, depression, obsessions, eating disorders, addictions, and mania. A shallow version of the pathology approach simply attempts to eliminate or suppress the behavioral, somatic or emotional symptoms. A deeper approach tries to understand the psychodynamics of the dysfunction and then foster healing by addressing deeper causes.

All pathology approaches begin and end with a symptom focus: you don’t know what, if anything, is needed until symptoms appear, and you don’t know your intervention has succeeded until the symptoms diminish.

… With the holistic approach, in contrast, dysfunction is not a central focus. We ask instead, “What qualities or capacities are missing from this person’s embodiment of wholeness, and what can be done to cultivate these qualities or capacities?” The goal is to encourage and foster something functional and fulfilling rather than to remove something dysfunctional and deadening. Missing psychological qualities might be, for example, innocence, wonder, body awareness, nature reverence, creativity, and the development of values and virtues. Capacities of wholeness include social skills, cultural knowledge, emotional and imaginal skills, conflict resolution, and self reliance.”

(italics are my own, not the author’s)

As a human development professional, rather than focusing on what people feel needs “fixing” in them, I’ve witnessed the emboldening effects that occur while focusing on their innate strengths instead.

In my experience, overly focusing on the former seems to send the message to people that they’re somehow not capable of solving their problems themselves. Said another way, it encourages people to remain in more of a victim position rather than cultivating their innate capacities and strengths (aka, wholeness).

We all see this in other ways, too. For example, when someone comes up with an idea or solution on their own, they’re far more likely to adopt it or embrace it, as opposed to being told what to do.

Learning to Fish (aka, Cultivating Wholeness)

There’s an old saying:

Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. 

Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.

Wholeness-centered, or wholing, work is about teaching people to fish, which is to say, it’s about helping one become fully resourced in their own innate strengths, capabilities, talents, and skills.

Wholing work, as Plotkin mentioned, can include things like: conflict resolution skills, emotional skills, assertiveness skills, cultivating one’s sense of wonder in and for the natural world, body-centered awareness, self-reliance skills, etc.

Practically speaking, when I focus on wholing with my clients, my own center of gravity shifts. I move from a stance of “You need help with this” to “You’ve got this!”, which in turn produces a shift in how they relate to themselves (namely, they too start to feel that they’ve got this!).

As someone who also actively gets coaching and mentorship in this model, I can truly say that it’s incredibly empowering and enlivening to be held as the naturally creative, resourceful and whole human I am.

But what about REAL problems?  Healing vs. Self-Healing 

At this point you might be thinking, ‘Yes, that’s great and all, but there ARE instances when people really do need help and they do need to look at the broken or hurt parts inside themselves.’ Absolutely. I agree 100%.

Traditionally, healing is about tending to what’s broken, hurt or wounded in another. And there are certainly times when we may be in need of this kind of attention and care. That’s traditionally where a great psychotherapist comes in.

Alternatively, in the holistic model, we bring in the concept of Self-healing (with a capital “S” referring to the whole, fully resourced Self… or, one could say the Big Self as opposed to the small self).

Simply put, Self-healing is about tending to ourselves from our wholeness (or from our fully resourced and centered Self), rather than “getting healed” by another. It’s also about learning how to embrace our protective parts (aka, our sub-personalities) when we’ve been hijacked by them, welcoming them back into the fold of ourselves.

Self-healing (as opposed to leaning on someone else’s wholeness in order to feel stronger) has been extremely empowering for me. I’ve grown from the inside out in a myriad of ways, and in ways that I just couldn’t have had I been leaning on someone else for my “answers”.

Self- healing is a simple (though not necessarily easy) way of loving the parts inside of us that feel hurt, scared, scarred, mad, rejected or otherwise protective. And when done in conjunction with wholing work, it can have remarkably empowering effects.

Fishing

As I mentioned earlier, as a Soul Centered Professional Coach and Guide to Wholing and Self-Healing, I won’t work with you on your problems or what you think needs “fixing” in you (although, I’m sure that you can find plenty of people to pay to do that).

Instead, if you’re ready to stop talking about your problems and really lean into your own growing edges; if you’re ready to really know and feel yourself as the naturally creative, capable, resourceful and fully alive human being you innately are, let’s talk.

You’re ready to learn to fish.

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Photo: Boriskin Vladislav

Blessed Unrest

When we become discouraged with what we’re creating (or trying to create) in the world, when we think that no one will care anyway, it’s SO easy to just give up.

But please, just pause instead. Take a breath. Read the words below that Martha Graham spoke to Agnes DeMille…. read them over and over and over again.

And remember… the life force that flows through and as YOU is a unique and never-before-seen thing. It’s not your job to judge it; it’s your job to keep the channel open and to keep listening.

Here is DeMille, recalling what Graham said to her over a soda at Schrafft’s restaurant shortly after Graham’s “flamboyant success” with the choreography of Oklahoma! (choreography, it should be noted, that Graham herself didn’t actually feel was very good compared to other things she’d done):

“I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.” 

“No artist is pleased,” Martha said.

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

 

THE RETURN, by Geneen Marie Haugen

It’s All Hallows’ Eve here in the U.S, the day preceding All Saints’ Day (Nov 1), and All Souls’ Day (Nov 2). It’s the time of year when we honor the good souls who have passed from this earthly plane into the next realm of being.

As such, I felt called to offer a poem today, written by the gifted partner of one of my mentors.

Each time I read it, I’m returned to my own wild longing. It inspires me to take off the jacket of conformity that I’ve somehow slipped on (yet again), and go out to face my own final frontier. I’m called to let go of what is dying in me, so that I might, one day, return courageously with native gifts and sweet, silent whisperings of that larger conversation that is always happening…

So today, dear reader, I offer this poem to you.  May it feed or un-do you in just the right ways.

 

THE RETURN, by Geneen Marie Haugen

Some day, if you are lucky,
you’ll return from a thunderous journey
trailing snake scales, wing fragments
and the musk of Earth and moon.

Eyes will examine you for signs
of damage, or change
and you, too, will wonder
if your skin shows traces

of fur, or leaves,
if thrushes have built a nest
of your hair, if Andromeda
burns from your eyes.

Do not be surprised by prickly questions
from those who barely inhabit
their own fleeting lives, who barely taste
their own possibility, who barely dream.

If your hands are empty, treasureless,
if your toes have not grown claws,
if your obedient voice has not
become a wild cry, a howl,

you will reassure them. We warned you,
they might declare, there is nothing else,
no point, no meaning, no mystery at all,
just this frantic waiting to die.

And yet, they tremble, mute,
afraid you’ve returned without sweet
elixir for unspeakable thirst, without
a fluent dance or holy language

to teach them, without a compass
bearing to a forgotten border where
no one crosses without weeping
for the terrible beauty of galaxies

and granite and bone. They tremble,
hoping your lips hold a secret,
that the song your body now sings
will redeem them, yet they fear

your secret is dangerous, shattering,
and once it flies from your astonished
mouth, they–like you–must disintegrate
before unfolding tremulous wings.

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Photo: Noah Silliman

The Portal of Discomfort

In the discomfort that sometimes marks this being human thing, I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to want to escape those moments when I feel the dull thud of sadness, loneliness, or emptiness dropping in.

When I’m feeling lost, uncertain, or blue, some part of me (my ego) wants to make sure that something is done about it, immediately. Something, anything, to make the fogginess, uncertainty, or emptiness go away.

Make a PLAN. Figure it out.

“Just do something,” it says, “because feeling this way can’t be healthy or right or good for you.”

However, I’ve always sort of had this theory that if I could slow down even more when I feel that discomfort, and actually try to go into it, that I will find a much deeper, richer place inside.

My thought is that if I can muster the patience, courage and willingness to actually go right into it, explore and muck around in (rather than escape) that deep discomfort, then I will come to a new level of awareness about myself, my situation, and the discomfort itself. And it won’t be as unbearable at all… in fact, it might even be a portal to something new.

photo: Julian Bock

Today, while feeling myself in the discomfort, I was able to slow down enough to catch these words:

“Be with yourself here,  in the discomfort of this place.

Be with your own un-doing. Be with your own dying, in a way, and then, eventually, your own re-emerging. Be with your own SELF in the deep discomfort of your disappearance. Then, maybe, someday, you will re-appear into something even more real and true.

But do not rush it. You cannot rush it. You cannot get there faster than you will. You cannot will yourself into being, just as you cannot make a tree grow faster or a fruit ripen more quickly than it will.

Just be with yourself in THIS moment, and then THIS one. Be in this process…. It is the most true thing you have right now…”