What is a Vision Quest?
(For a video and information on our March 2018 Vision Quest program click here. )
A vision quest is a rite of passage common to various AmerIndian cultures involving several days of fasting and prayer alone in the wilderness to obtain spiritual knowledge and clarity on one's life purpose - the vision. Our weeklong vision quest program includes group preparation and support for two to four days and nights of solo time, to connect deeply with nature and receive healing and clarity on some question, struggle, or decision in one’s life. Teachings and preparation are rooted in indigenous spiritual wisdom from North America, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. This program is ideal for persons navigating a big decision or life transition, a relationship change or loss, spiritual questioning, or just feeling stuck, stagnant or uncertain in life. You can watch a short video about our vision quest programs here.
Vision quest experiences are as unique as the individuals, the leaders, and the locations involved. Yet with the proper preparation, even a single day's solo time in deep nature can yield real clarity and vision. An account of my own first vision quest experience follows below.
Jeff's First Vision Quest
In 2009 I traveled to South Manitou Island, a wilderness area in northern Lake Michigan, to participate in a week-long vision quest ceremony led by my first shamanic teacher, a man of Cherokee Metis heritage. I was hoping to get some clarity and direction in my life, which had become unmanageable. I was working two jobs as a hospital chaplain and a massage therapist, volunteering as president of a regional bicycle advocacy group, writing and recording commentaries for public radio, helping with neighborhood activism, raising two daughters and pushing a fitness routine of running, biking and swimming. Every hour of the day seemed scheduled and I woke each day with the urgent question, What needs to be done next? already buzzing in my head. There was no room for rest or reflection. When my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease far away in Minnesota, I knew something had to go.
But what? Each of my involvements seemed important, and the self-critical voice in my mind scolded me from all directions: Don't be selfish. You can’t drop any of these commitments! People depend on you. You have responsibilities. People will be mad at you. You need to stay fit to handle the stress... And so on. This was madness. I was victim of my own overcommitments to self and others yet felt helpless to change a thing, afraid of upsetting others or looking bad.
About this time I learned of a shamanic practitioner who lived nearby in the woodlands of southwest Michigan. I knew little of shamanism and was not looking for a shamanic healer. But there was something that attracted me, or that I recognized I needed in the earth-honoring spirituality of native people. I called Mikkal, he welcomed my visit and we talked for a few hours in a rustic little forest cabin on his land. I explained my struggle, and Mikkal listened. At one point we were sitting in silence looking out into the woods when a stately doe stepped out of the trees right in front of us. Moments later, a gangly little fawn wobbled out behind the doe. “I think you might benefit from a vision quest,” Mikkal said, gazing at the deer. I instinctively agreed to join the program he was leading that summer.
The vision quest began at Mikkal’s forested retreat center. Our preparation involved several days of camping out, light fasting, group drumming, sacred fire ceremonies, a sweat lodge and progressive talks about the week ahead. Then we drove for a half day up to the ferry landing at Leland, Michigan. At the dock our cell phones were shut off and left in the vehicles. We boarded the ferry with our backpacks and sailed across Lake Michigan to the coast guard station on South Manitou Island. We landed, backpacked to base camp, had a last meal together and ceremony around the evening campfire. In the morning we each walked out of camp and up the trail alone, into the wilderness for two days with just a jacket and a day pack.x
After walking several miles I reached a spot on the empty island beach that whispered, Here, next to a huge boulder at the base of a towering sand dune. I marked out a sacred circle with stones, said a blessing, smudged the perimeter with burning sage, entered the circle and sat down inside it to begin a two-day fast without food or water. I began the vision quest with a prayer: “Great Spirit, how can I organize my life so I can better serve my mother’s needs?” I had no idea what to expect, and was a little doubtful. Perhaps a dramatic vision would appear and show me some clever new life strategies, as if all I needed was a time-management consultant.
Instead, not much seemed to happen. Once the newness of the setting wore off a profound boredom and restlessness set in. Vision questers cannot bring books, journals or other distractions and are encouraged to just sit. My mind rebelled, squirmed like a bored toddler and pestered me with distractions and activity. “Lets arrange these rocks in the circle better…I should make a sleeping mat out of those reeds… I wonder what the other vision questers are doing right now?… What time is it?” This was just the beginning of a long struggle with my monkey mind that continued day and night. All good shamanic practices bring you face to face with your dark side, and unbeknownst to me, I was already facing my demons.
As the sun began to set, I met an unexpected new threat: a huge cloud of insects rose up out of the beach grasses and surrounded me with the high-pitched whine of what seemed to be millions of mosquitos! But I remembered to speak to them as Mikkal had instructed us to relate to any creature we encountered: “Hello. My name is Jeff. I am sorry for invading your home. I am not here to hurt you. Please allow me to stay here this evening. I am here for good purposes.” Surprisingly, the swarm of bugs did not bite and I discovered I could actually interact with them with sound. When I shouted the entire cloud of bugs would rise and fall like a living sine wave. I was stunned. I could interact with every single insect within voice range? So this is how they communicate and coordinate movements, by sound frequencies. I was spellbound, and spent the next half hour shouting, singing and experimenting with how the tones and intensity of my voice affected the cloud of insects. I laughed out loud: instead of feeling alone, I seemed to have a million new little friends. And we were connected and communicating
Once darkness and the temperature fell, the insects disappeared. I fell asleep late and awoke shivering underneath a black velvet sky illuminated by a million tiny stars. I was hungry, damp and cold, and shuffled around the perimeter of my circle trying to stay warm. I hummed a healing chant over and over. Above me the silent hazy band of the Milky Way arced across the entire sky from horizon to horizon, impossible to take in all at once without rotating my head to follow its path. But no "vision" yet. I slept on and off through a very long and cold night.
The sun finally arose and warmed the cold sand. But it continued to climb, straight up and up in the cloudless August sky until it became so hot at midday I had to seek the shade of a nearby bush, squinting in the blinding white sand and stones. I had forgotten to bring sunglasses.
Hunger came and went. Still no vision. My mind taunted me. What are you doing out here? You’re going to get sunburned and dehydrated. You won’t have a vision. This is silly. Why don’t you hike back to camp and get a nice meal and some water? But I remained in my circle.
At some point I realized that I hadn’t urinated since the day before. As a runner I knew I could quickly get dehydrated on a hot day while exercising. And the most common reaction of friends and family to the vision quest was, “Can’t you die?” I had laughed at the concern because it was so American: we miss one meal and say we’re "starving". But I knew that a healthy body at rest, not exerting, can go for days with no water, and at least two weeks with no food. And I knew how to assess my hydration levels by the amount and color of urine. Right on cue, my body was activating survival biosystems, conserving fluids and slowing metabolism without endangering key organs. An ancient intelligence was at work deep in my DNA, in my "ten thousand year old self," that most Americans will never know anything about precisely because of our well-fed, comfortable, climate-controlled lives.
My altered physical condition was now beginning to alter my state of consciousness, which is the whole point of enduring the vision quest experience. Our ancestors had figured out a way to get past the restless monkey mind, the self-deluding ego-psyche, and it was done with fasting and nature. As the second day progressed colors, sounds and aromas became more vivid. The rhythmic sloshing of waves over the stones, the damp shoreline smells, the hot dry wind and the squawking gulls seemed amplified. I could sense the sun sliding through its slow arc overhead. My normal, civilized sense of time with its segmented minutes and hours faded into a connected flow of shapes and shadows around me. Everything was alive. Everything moved. Seven white swans appeared offshore and glided in a small circle all day long, dipping and watching me but never moving from their position. Seven swans-a-swimming? No way. I soon realized the massive dunes themselves were alive and moving, as the wind sent vapors of fine sand sifting down the beach. Far out on the lake, the silhouettes of distant freighters slid across the horizon.
At some point I began to absorb into the deep “thusness” of the moment, a quiet sense of interconnectedness with everything around me, above me and below me. Resting stones, lapping waves, passing clouds, a meandering monarch butterfly. I left my circle, walked down to the water, peeled off my shorts and slid naked into the great lake. I swam out with my face down and eyes open, gliding over massive submerged boulders and schools of tiny darting fish. When I climbed out I felt like the first man, and let the sun dry me off completely for the first time in my life. This was a primal, oddly thrilling experience. I’m part of all this, I realized, an earth creature.
As the sun lowered to the horizon on that second day I watched the sun set, and found a piece of paper on which I had scribbled the long list of activities I wanted to reorganize in my life. But with my mind now in neutral, completely still, I watched the fierce ball of sun drop silently and slowly, changing from white hot to yellow, to simmering orange, and then a luminous blood red.
Just as the sun touched the diamond-sparkling water something happened in me. It was like a deep, soundless shift in awareness and perception. My mixed-up thoughts, feelings and physical senses all lined up suddenly, like iron filings respond to the presence of a great magnet, or when you drive past a thick grove of trees and realize, at a certain angle, that all the trees were planted in neat rows and you can see through the entire grove. It was like being in a dense ground fog for days and then the fog suddenly thins out, and you can see, farther ahead. You can see what was out there all along but had been obscured. Vision.
And what I saw--or to be more accurate, felt--was what I needed to do about all those activities in my life. It was so clear it was as if someone had tapped the edge of a crystal glass with a table knife at a wedding. Ding:
Simplify. I first felt the shift on a deep and nonverbal sense level, the rightness of it, like a dislocated bone had slipped back into place somewhere. Ahh. Good. Then the awareness of what that feeling meant slowly rose to the surface of my mind’s conscious understanding. And what became clear to me was like a firm dope-slap to the forehead, Ohhh: I wasn’t going to find peace by getting more organized or efficient in my overly busy life, just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I needed to get rid of the chairs. Get off the ship. Leave it. Find a smaller, simpler boat. I was doing way too much, heading for disaster.
Too much. A concept that had eluded me for 48 years. I had no idea of what balance meant in daily life. More is better, right? More activities, more stimulation, relationships, job duties, income, cable channels, square footage, Facebook friends. In my family there was no such thing as balance, or too much busyness. Overdoing and compulsive activity were the gods we served. All family activities were deemed urgent and important to respond to. The other values --of stillness, mindfulness and balance-- were not just undervalued, they weren’t even on the radar. No one ever talked about those. But without balance, peace is impossible.
I saw it all now. My problem was, I didn’t want to spend all my time working, volunteering on bicycle advocacy committees, fighting inner city landlords, barking dogs and litter. I wanted to be with my daughters. I wanted solitude in my backyard, time to reflect and read. I wanted to be able to jog in the woods without having to hurry back for the next thing. I wanted to write stories. Try watercolors. I wanted to visit my ailing mom in Minnesota, and spend all the time she needed.
A typical shamanic counseling question goes like this: “What stands between you and living the kind of life you really want?” In my case, what stood in my way was me. My ridiculous over-commitments and beliefs about busyness that I had agreed to and wore like badges of martyrdom. I saw what I needed to do. Simplify. Compassion for my self, for my soul, first. Not last.
And so the changes began. Immediately. Once I realized what had happened there on the beach, I picked up my things and marched back to base camp in pitch dark with the energy of ten men. It was really astounding. No food for two days and I strode through a mile of shoreline surf and then two more miles of deep woods, wide awake, nearly dancing along the black forest paths in the eerie light shaft of my LED headlamp. I was on a mission. I felt pulled forward by a benevolent force toward my new destination.
One of the teachings I learned from Mikkal is that when you receive a vision, you also receive the energy or power to pursue that vision. Upon return home I was absolutely on fire to drop every single non-essential activity in my life: committees, volunteer activities, even the radio stories I enjoyed but were consuming too much free time to write, edit and record. I stayed up late composing resignation e-mails and sending them off to all the necessary people. This is so easy, I marveled. Why didn’t I do this before? With each resignation I felt a return of some power, inner strength and resilience.
The most difficult thing to quit was my role in the bicycle advocacy group. I had grown this group from six members into a regional organization, working closely with an intense team of board members who were all passionate advocates and athletes. We depended on each other to pull our own weight. I had seen one board member challenge the mayor himself at a city planning meeting, bluntly criticizing his lack of commitment to bicycle safety. I was afraid of this member’s reaction to my resignation. Would he be angry? Bitter? Threatening? But despite my fears, the Bicycle Coalition leadership understood my resignation and even gave me a handmade certificate for my service to the community. And the fearsome board member? He glared at me a moment, then smiled and said awkwardly, “Jeff, we’ll miss you.” (It turns out my ego had overestimated my importance: the Michiana Bike Coalition is thriving and growing each year without me!)
With my drastically reduced commitments I was able to attend to my mother’s needs, better self-care, more selective work hours and the creation of a this website and blog. I resigned my position at the medical center, ending a 25-year career in health care. This was not without some anxiety about job security, income, health insurance and retirement benefits. But my heart was pulling me toward a different kind of healing role. The old garment, the old social role no longer fit. This was nobody’s fault: it was just time to leave and express a new identity. To "come out of the closet," so to speak, with my authentic self in the world. That takes courage, but it returns power. Spiritual power.
I did not know what would happen after I left the hospital. The heart path is not a magic ticket to a life free of difficulty, pain, or suffering; it is a path of authenticity. But I did know I could trust the process and my inner voice. And sure enough, the process unfolded before me day by day. For example, as I was preparing to quit my hospital job (and lose my health insurance benefits) my wife learned she could pick up new health insurance benefits at her own job. My private practice began filling up with new clients, because now I had more time to develop that practice and take on new clients.
People ask, “What did your wife think of all this?” My wife and teenage daughters were puzzled and resistant to some of my changes at first. I saw their own fear-based worries in this, related to financial security and social acceptance. But they have come to support my new life and benefit from it because I am less stressed, more happy and more emotionally available. I have even taught classes on shamanism at the Catholic women's college my wife works at and my daughter attends. My family's support is very important to me. Yet maintaining their approval is no longer a prime factor in determining the course of my life. My primary concern is being authentic to my spiritual core. “This is who I am,” I now say to my loved ones. “And this is what someone like me does."
You may be thinking, Well, you’re self-employed. You can do whatever you want. I can't. My response to that is, I wasn’t born self-employed. No one handed me a magic wand, or a silver spoon. I worked conventional jobs for 25 years and then even after my vision quest I didn’t "wish" myself into a new life, I changed my way out of my old life, one difficult decision at a time. And that meant leaving real things behind: old jobs, old relationships, old securities, old social structures. Yet every time I said yes to my heart and made an actual change toward honoring that, life responded with an unexpected new helper, energy, coincidence, opportunity or way forward. In that order. In other words, I had to make the first move. Once I did, life responded. Over and over again. After months of this kind of success I started to hesitantly trust the process. And now after years of this, I completely trust it.
You might assume I have a strong religious faith in this approach, in these indigenous methodologies and belief systems. But I'm not sure faith has anything to do with it in the religious sense. In fact, from my perspective I didn't do any of this on faith: I was cautious, skeptical, and empirical about it. Like a scientist more than a saint. I observed what worked, tested that by trying it again in a different situation, and noted the results. I saw that it worked again. So I tried it again. Over an over. I may be a spiritual person, but I'm not a fool. I'm for what works. What actually helps people.
Financially, I’ve been surprised at how painless this process has been for my/family budget. I now work about a third of the face-to-face work hours I used to, yet have way less financial stress. Because I have a simpler lifestyle and am happier I no longer have to spend money on things to distract me from an unhappy life. I support the interests, education, and activities that help continue my learning, and I invest in my own programs, e.g. renting a retreat facility or traveling to explore wilderness locations for future vision quest programs. With the freed-up time in my daily schedule I was able to begin writing 3-4 hours every morning, and in 2016 finished my first book on shamanic healing, The Lost Art of Heart Navigation: A Modern Shaman's Field Manual. That
Today, I am living the life I want to live, serving the community and the living earth in ways that are deeply meaningful to me. Instead of beginning my day with the old question that created hell in my life, “What needs to be done next?” I begin with a new question that creates heaven in my life: “What would bring my heart most alive today?” And I then plan my day around that rather than the other way around. It works.
You too can begin walking the Path of the Heart today, by scheduling a Fire Talk. Or exploring one of our group programs, like the shamanic Healer School, or vision quest. For those unable to do a traditional wilderness vision quest, I offer a self-guided, extended journaling version of the vision quest. Information on the Programs page.
See you soon.