The following article was written by Jesse Wolf Hardin, a contemporary shaman if ever there was one, and first appeared on The Witches & Pagans Times. You might think of this article as “how to undertake a vision quest”. One thing I like about Hardin’s article–he doesn’t offer convenient short cuts Nature and the spirits have a way of doing things. It is slow and patient and doesn’t account for our perceived need to rush and multitask. In fact, it runs quite the contrary, for such profound lessons cannot be hurried. They are not of mere knowledge, to be stored in the memory; they are wisdom, to be absorbed and become part of who we are in the profoundest sense. Thus, if one is to pursue the shaman’s path–or any path of true wisdom–it requires slowing down in order to commune with the world beyond the veil, and thus get to know oneself.
Anatomy of a Quest
Since the time of the Paleolithic seekers of insight, purpose and power have made sacred quests in wild and enchanted places. Intentionally removing themselves from the comfort of the familiar– from supportive family and tribe– they set out to encounter truth and magic, to be challenged and tested, stripped of every illusion and comfort that ever held them back. They sought alliance with Earth and Spirit, and the personal power or medicine needed to do what is right. And they went in hopes of a gift: an omen or sign, an essential lesson, a spirit ally or animal guardian, a revealing of dormant magic skills…. and always, a deeper vision of their self, their role and purpose.
This deliberate engagement with being and meaning was common to the primal ancestors of every race on nearly every continent. The intense initiation rights of the Lacandon Mayan warriors of Guatemala and the Yoruba priestesses of beautiful Africa. The Hopi child at the onset of puberty, facing weeks in the dark recesses of a ceremonial underground kiva. The blue eyed Sami shamans of mountainous Scandinavia, laying in an icy pit until finally earning the curiosity and assistance of the gods. The Aborigine of Australia’s outback, embarking on long spirit-filled journeys they call “walkabout.” The Cheyenne seeker, sitting cross legged days and nights on end atop the highest wind-blown peak. Such quests might be rites of passage marking a girl’s transition into womanhood at the first sign of menses, or her eventual shifting into the wizened ranks of cronehood at the end of her moon cycle. Or they may be undertaken during times of personal quandary, to reconnect with the dear departed, solve a problem, meet a need. It is a furthering of commitment to the lifelong quest that is life– ever seeing more, understanding more, feeling more, caring more.
With New Nature Spirituality we don’t duplicate any indigenous ritual, tradition, or way of questing. As eclectics we might study the many historical examples, but as intuitives, we depend on sensing the direct revelatory will of Spirit and Nature for direction as to the form and content of our sacred efforts. For example, nothing about the way we do Spirit Quests at our sanctuary and Earthen Spirituality Project is Native American per se, which also respects AmerIndian concerns about “cultural appropriation.” Instead, we are instructed by the same holy and whole Source that once informed and inspired the original inhabitants of this most enchanted canyon, and likewise, all magical peoples in all places and times.
Many of us never think about doing anything like a retreat or quest until we’ve barely survived a disease that could have killed us, or until we’ve had a series of failed romances or aborted careers that leave us confused and wanting. Certainly those who are most susceptible, and most ready, are often the few who are at the point of breakdown and rebirth. But there is no one alive who couldn’t benefit from a soul affirming quest for truth and being, at any time. And the survival of our kind— as well as the survival of so many other species and the ecosystems that support them— may depend on each and every one of us making repeated forays into the unfamiliar regions of self and place. Only when we’ve regained the sense of self-love and Gaian assignment common to the rest of Earthen life, can we hope to have the clarity to repair our lives and heal our world.
The Spirit Quest Defined
As taught and practiced here a Spirit Quest involves a minimum seven day commitment. This includes: time for presence, sharing and orientation; a day gathering wood and tending fire for a hot medicine sweat; up to four days and nights of fasting outside on solo; and a day or two for slow assimilation and integration of the various experiences and lessons.
The most successful quests are undertaken in the wilderness, open to the instruction of the natural world, and free of the distractions and contrivances of civilization. Anywhere in the natural “undeveloped” world one can both tap the wisdom of the Earth, and heal from the effects of our obsessions, denial, habits and fears. And all the more so in those notable spots where power and clarity are most accessible and even inescapable.
Anywhere we go, we are likely standing on ground that was once consecrated by the aboriginal peoples who preceded us, and through this awareness we can align ourselves with the sensibilities of those Seekers who came before. Stepping where the Goths once stepped, dancing where the Aztec danced, we are pressed to the same level of sensitivity and awe, to the same depths of humility and respect. And the forms of the landscape and the vagaries of watersheds that brought the ancients to these places, continue to act like a magnet for the attuned Seeker of today. High storm swept peaks, unusual rock formations and the confluence of rivers are typically places of power and visitation. As are any womb-like caves, the furthest projections of land into the pounding ocean swells, and the places where artesian springs bubble forth from their crest of fertile ground.
The canyon where we host our Spirit Quests is filled with the abandoned house sites of the Sweet Medicine People, also called the “Mogollon,” and the Sanctuary itself is home to the largest ceremonial kiva site in the region— further indication of its spiritual significance to those who preceded us. And to this day, a place of seldom equaled beauty and inescapable truths. For our canyon questers, there are a number of stunning pink and purple cliffs to choose from, pock marked with rain sculpted depressions, and featuring rocks that look like animals or like faces looking back at us. For shade there are alligator bark junipers and majestic pines, some draped with wild grape arbors glinting emerald in the first morning light. In a way, making it here to the canyon is a quest in itself. Because of its distance in miles from any city or airport and the busy schedules that everyone keeps, it requires unusual determination to make the long trip from wherever. In addition, a potential quester can usually feel the power of the revelations that await them, and sense the implications and responsibilities they bring. Coming to the canyon for medicine work is an act of uncommon vision, courage and follow-through.
Fasting is an extremely valuable aspect of the meaningful quest. A fast is an opportunity to cleanse the lens of perception, at the same time as the body. It exposes and challenges our attachment to comfort, while heightening all our senses including the so-called “extrasensory.” And as with other aspects of the quest, it serves to remind us that we are infinitely stronger than we think.
The Medicine Sweat
Before embarking on a wilderness quest, it’s essential to first undergo a cleansing sweat in a heated lodge.
As with other practices humans have devised to help them stay aligned with the Earth and Spirit that sustain them, the medicine sweat is common to the majority of our ancestors. Whether it be a hole dug into the ground, embryonic bent willow lodges covered with hides, or the raised rock saunas of the pantheist Vikings, our kind has almost universally sought out the scalding testament of heated rocks splashed again and again with ladles of crystal mountain water. The effect of the sweat is not only to cleanse the skin, but to cleanse the mind of useless thought, purifying the human soul in preparation for its purposeful interaction with holy Spirit.
In the canyon we spend an entire day collecting firewood, and asking various rocks if they’d be willing to serve the intentions of the sweat. The firepit is dug out, and the walls of the low-roofed lodge covered. By midnight the fire is lit, and it’s tended until the sky begins to lighten. Red pulsing rocks are rolled out of the fire with a stick, and are moved with a pair of old deer antlers the rest of the way to the waiting hole in the center of the lodge. Somewhere around four large or eight medium sized rocks are used in each of four different rounds.
With the questers inside and the door flap sealed tight, a sprinkling of sage and copal sends sweet smudge into the air, followed by the first splash of water on the wildly sizzling rocks. Adding a little more water at a time, the heat is brought up to the point where we don’t think we can stand anymore, and then we add still a little more. Between each of the rounds we exit, skin still steaming, and plunge into a hole in the chilly river of mirrors.
The last round is timed so that it ends just as the morning sun first touches the cliffs above. Crawling out of the dampness and heat is like the passage from the uterus into a world made new again. Every sight and color seems freshened, every smell brightened. The once cluttered mind shines as transparent as an opened window, and as glad as a child. The sensate body is ascendant, and the giving heart reigns.
Effect & Commitment
It’s easy for one to imagine that they’ve failed their quest, having been trained to doubt our selves and question our worth from an early age on. But in the Spirit Quest there is no such thing as “failure.” Even we come down early, we are marked by a depth of experience that we can use in measuring every other aspect of our lives. If we find we’re unable to escape the monarchy of the mind, we will at least have identified it as the frightened and counterproductive despot it can be.
It’s easy for someone used to the special effects of videos or the easy hallucinations of drugs to be disappointed if no eagle lands on their knee and tells them what they want to hear, or if the sky fails to split apart at the approach of a procession of angels. We may be unimpressed at first, with the seeming commonplace nature of unfolding experience. Compared to the rapid-fire images of modern entertainment the real world may seem to move in excruciatingly slow motion. But then, when at last it moves slow enough the very idea of time is suspended, and we get a taste of eternity: the eternal vibrant now!
On the other hand, while on quest, no event or feeling is insignificant. Bugs inscribing circles in the dust as they do their mating dance. The play of feathered clouds, the intercourse of sight and sound. Every impression, every seeming coincidence, every emotion that arises tells a part of the story of the realized self— in vital relationship to all that is.
Oddly enough, it’s by going on a quest by ourselves that we learn we’re never really alone. The quest links us to a lineage of questers and seekers, and to every other constituent of this living dancing matrix. To the distant past and hopeful future, and to the irreplaceable present tense. The quester is gifted with heightened awareness, and with it comes the responsibility to act. For every gift: a commitment!
The Quest strips away illusion and denial, reuniting us with our authentic selves: with our feelings, instincts, needs, gifts, abilities, hopes and dreams. It leads us out of the cage of the fearful, rational mind and back into the intuitive matrix of Earth and body, heart and soul. Inevitably those parts of ourselves that we’ve either lost or suppressed resurface in the light of the vital quest experience. We welcome back the more sensitive, wonder-filled sides of our essential beings…. and discover the kind of strength that comes with our increased vulnerability. We come to feel blessed by our struggles as well as our gifts, awash in gratitude, anointed in love, and devoted to that which matters most.
We are emptied, enrolled and fulfilled…. in this ancient quest for true being and most meaningful purpose. And connected– to all there is, to all that we can be.