There's nothing quite as poignant and painful as watching your "guardian" turn around and walk off into the woods, leaving you to hang out in your 30-foot circle for three days, alone and fasting, with no particular instructions, except to do a "vision quest."
I take a deep breath, say "okayyyy," spread out my sleeping bag and assure myself I will not get eaten by bears, go barking mad or be found drooling and gibbering nonsense to myself when they come for me in 72 long hours.
My first prayer is that it won't rain. How I would hate to hunker under a tarp for three days and look at drizzle. My prayer is answered. Big animals, red of fang and claw (at least in my imagination), also leave me alone, another prayer answered.
That leaves only one other bogeyman, the human mind, which has very little experience at doing nothing and living in silence and dark. At the weeklong Full Circle Healing Quest every August at Earth Teach Forest Park in the Cascade foothills above Ashland, that's what they like to give you: nothing. Just a sleeping bag, water, clothes ... and you.
I pace out a circle — a "medicine wheel" — 10 steps wide, put stones at each of the four compass directions and begin walking it, speaking prayers and thanks.
There's a lot of Sioux Indian ritual and ceremony in a vision quest, and the medicine wheel is a central part of it. You prepare for your quest with intensely hot hours in a sweat lodge, fire-hot lava rocks doused with water. You get smudged with sage smoke and make — then burn — tobacco prayer ties, containing your wishes for yourself and the tribe, which — in this case — is all humanity. You erect a big tipi and gather there in the wee hours to confess your hopes and dreams for your vision quest.
Then you quest for that vision, day and night, no food, no laptop or cell phone, no pen and paper, no knife, no snacks, no one to talk to — except yourself, of course. And, believe me, you will.
And whatever God or gods, angels or magic animals you love, believe me, you will pray to them. A lot. You'll get on very familiar terms with them, laugh and cry with them, shudder in fear with them, tell them jokes and thank them for being there all your life.
The vision quest was popularized in the 1970s by John Neihardt's 1932 true-life classic "Black Elk Speaks," which outlines the procedures and purpose of a quest. Performed in the confines of a 30-foot circle, the ritual is intended as a dialog with the Great Spirit, who will reveal the direction and tasks of your life for the coming period — and give you the inspiration to live it.
It's meant as a personal, death-rebirth experience, and they have you talk about the self that's no longer useful to you and the one that is coming into being now. It's funny how easy this is, how it just spills out of you. It's clear what you're done with and what you want to become.
I prayed for my vision. Once. That's all it takes. Up there in the wilderness, you don't want to go on and on about it. Once you've said it, that's it. I found myself falling into a pattern of leaning against my big ponderosa pine and looking out into the forests and valleys overlooking Ashland, not just for 20 minutes, as normal, but for three hours, six hours. There was nothing else to do, nothing to make you feel guilty for your inactivity and self-indulgence.
They said you would spend these seemingly endless hours thinking back over your life, a process called "recapitulation" — and I did. All the jobs, homes, kids, lovers, locales, passions, hobbies, travels, on and on, until you've thought about it all and decided: Hey, this has been a wonderful life, full of the most amazing riches, and there's nothing to regret, think or feel about it, except I'm very grateful for it and I realize beyond any shadow of a doubt that all these things are answered prayers and came from ... the Divine.
Let's just call it "the Divine" and let it go at that, excusing ourselves from all the rights and wrongs of religious disputation, so insufferably tiring and lame. Let it be what it is, this vast presence of Mother Nature and spirit that I would later try to describe, and just call it "the Divine masquerading as nature."
Our quest leaders predicted that the incessant thoughts of the left-brain, rational mind would slow down after a day or two, and they were so right. You get that delicious feeling that it's OK to waste time, a lot of it, just staring at nothing, finding the seemingly living, breathing, speaking shapes in the clouds and trees and realizing you don't know how to "do" a vision quest and you are letting your mind slow to the point that all you would see was nature itself — "the body of God," as I would describe it later to my friends in the tipi, and they would all nod and smile and say, "Yes, that's what it is."
The beauty of a vision quest, I would soon learn, would not be God showing up with a burning bush and verbalizing laws and tasks for me to perform, but would be he/she just "being" for me, laid out horizon to horizon in unspeakable beauty and indisputable wisdom and generosity ... and, yes, with love, very personal love for me, this guy from the city with no special knowledge of the universe's inscrutable wisdom, sitting here, sometimes tearfully begging and questing for a vision that would sustain and feed him for years.
Did it come? Oh yes, it certainly did. Can I tell you even a few words about what it was? Not at all. All I can say for sure is that it showed me a family of bears swimming in the swamp below, dozens of vultures daily orbiting the skies overhead, scores of fat dragonflies flying up, almost kissing my face on the last evening, a million meteors and a sense of mission and belonging to the world that could only have been won here.
And believe me, I won it — immersed in this lovely silence that is my soul.