By David Whitaker
It felt like a dream; still does. Facing east I sit on a flat rock. A raven hovers in a rhythmic dance just above the skyline in front of me, shadow boxing with the energetic follicles of light that appear in the dusk. Its song is a symphonic masterpiece, weaving notes with soaring staccato brevity and shrill suggestions of simultaneously welcoming me and telling me to bug off. I watch with amusement as I lick my crusted lips, grumbling and cursing for lack of remembering to bring the lip balm.
Five days fasting, alone in the Chama Wilderness in New Mexico in late July with only water as my nourishment, I am on a Vision Quest, also known as a rite of passage. I am not alone, though. There are four other questers within an eight-mile radius, and two facilitators holding space in a base camp nearby. The others are spread far enough so I would not see or hear them.
It’s the fourth night. The vigil awaits. My primary goal is to stay up all night and pray for a vision.
As the Sun sets I say a prayer for my safety and the safety of my fellow questers. I will sing and dance and howl and whisper and take in the slowly moving stars and planets across the Milky Way. The crispness of nature’s sound piercing through the darkness: birds of prey scaffold my awareness as they silhouette the rapturous theatre.
Every so often a flash of light, perhaps a distant lightning bolt, would illuminate the adjacent hills. My stomach groans, more than the usual hunger pains; it feels cramped and there are numerous remedies, two of which are: return to base camp and ask for an antacid or sit still and go into a deep meditation and breathe through it. I decide to do neither and just tough it out.
The air is humid and smells of post-monsoon: fresh and slightly vaporizing. I have constructed a circle about eight feet in diameter; I sit inside of it with my sleeping bag wrapped around me. On the edge of the circle I placed rocks in accordance with the four cardinal directions, each getting a different color. Between the directional rocks are smaller rocks that represent Intentions I set during the initiation phase of the Quest. Some of the rocks represent family members I wanted to surround me with their comfort.
My body is not comfortable as I sit on the mini-chair offered to me by one of my fellow questers. I had planned on sitting on the ground roughing it but my back wanted no part of that.
With each morsel of thought there comes a tiny reminder of how my ego wants to dominate the experience. I am looking for a point of focus within the remembrances of all that brought me to this circle: the anticipation of renewal and the prospect of expanding through my nature-self. Yet my inner body aches, more so than on any other quest. And it wills me to sit in silence and behold the nature of my true character, for that would stare me in the face as each cry for a vision sang through me.
I want the secret to occur: the bridge between nature and humanity and how to harness the softness within the beast of our own human nature. I work on becoming soft and try to allow the edges of my physical being to blend into the terrain and lose all ego definitions of who I thought I was.
Halfway through the night it becomes an endurance exercise. The persistence of my Capricorn Sun holds true to form, trying to seduce the world by never backing down.
All the while I feel this urge to do this for humanity. Or perhaps fake it for humanity, for I have always sensed myself as a martyr who tries things out for the masses. And thus I leave myself open to get the hell out of the way and let the surge of the universe reveal its own plan, leaving me humbled in its wake, and humanity is a little more instilled with the wisdom of nature than it was before.
The night drags through the corners of the veils and illusions that are revealed with each thought. I try to cry for a vision because I know it worked on my first quest 14 years earlier. But the tears feather out of me like plastic smoke and it feels like I’m faking it, as if my ego wants attention so it can line its spiritual vest with the juice of one-upmanship over my fellow seekers.
Then I remember the witness, which reveals how the ego wants to own the experience. I slowly chant the Gayatri Mantra:
Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi
dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt
(Let us worship the supreme light of the sun and the God in all things who can so well guide our understanding, like an eye suspended in the vault of heaven)
The invocation of the Mantra soothes me and gives my mind something to do while I open my body into the gentle forms of the night. Mind chatters endlessly at first and intentions are never quite grounded. But a sense of peace lingers in the background, and it feels like I am guided by something that wants to reveal itself to me. Something that tells me I don’t have to go through hell in order to see it revealed.
Beauty lies in nature; and as I pray, sing, chant and dance throughout the night, the universe eventually facilitates the opening of the heart. Watching the endless utopia of stars brings up ancient connections and the night spirits radiate an eternal sense of timelessness. Each ritual allows me to connect deeper within myself.
The night streams long and slow. Eventually sleepiness saunters in along with a biting nip in the air. I work diligently to ward off the discordance of thoughts that occur right before my eyelids sink. Dancing and peeing helps me stay awake, along with the encouragement of seeing the faint rays of sunlight in the eastern sky.
I listen for the glow of the Earth, feeling it throb and pulse in sync with the pulsing of the stars and planets above, and with my own beating heart. The silence is beautiful, majestic. My stomach churns and echoes a reminder of my body’s enduring wisdom.
The faint glow of sunlight takes forever to become an actual ball of sunlight. Clouds get the first rays and light up with rich and endearing pastels. I rejoice in knowing that I stayed awake all night. Or did I?
There was a moment when a whisper of the wind seeped into my ears and may have duped me into a tiny slumber.
Perhaps it was the veil lifting and revealing some coyote wisdom.
I thought I heard something like laughter in the night.
Or was it trees shaking the crows loose?
I wasn’t sure. But I’ll claim that I did stay awake.
The mountains to the west finally capture the beams of the Sun. I do a morning dance and sing praise for a beautiful sunrise as the beams finally brighten my circle. I close the vigil with a final dance to gratefully welcome the sunrise and then slowly disassemble the circle by placing the rocks back where I found them.
I break my solo camp and make the area look like I was never there, always a challenge, and then head back to base camp, where I am met with fellow questers. There we celebrate our ruggedness and faith that we were able to survive outside of civilization for five days.
Over the next day and a half we will gather in a circle and tell the story of our solo time, listening to each other as if the words told were our own. We will then mirror what was said as if we experienced it. This sharing allows for a grounding of purpose: we are all responsible for the vision that is brought forth. Whether it’s a personal insight or a universal call to action, the vision must be allowed to percolate.
Some visions may be vast, drastically changing the course of one’s life, or small, allowing the experiencer to gently witness the softness of their own true self. The question one should always ask is this: will the vision grow corn? Will it inspire and nurture humanity as well as the visionary?
After the sharing we all begin the journey back to civilization. The incorporation phase, where we will be immensely challenged to hold our vision in our hearts and minds while we interact with our friends, family and co-workers, most of whom may not understand why anyone would do such a thing. Action and perseverance are key, along with time, as visions usually take about a year to be fully entrenched in our way of life.
As I make my way back home I am fully charged, feeling clear and confident about my connection with nature and my ancient connection to the universe.
My Vision? Expand the light of my heart in all circumstances.
No. But, by the act of going on a quest, I anchored this vision deep inside of me and at times of challenge I can always close my eyes and link to my purpose circle, feeling its empowering energy softly infusing me with the understanding of my greater purpose.
Because they are rich with faith, vast in scope, and extraordinary in the deep connection with nature, I find every moment spent on these quests a treasure of awakening and letting go. Five days alone looking for something deep inside of me whilst I am stripped of the comforts of civilization is always a challenge. But as one emerges from the experience there is an eventual charge of energy and a sense of renewal.
Musician, artist and teacher, David Whitaker has walked the trail to the Sacred Mountain on six Vision Quests. He currently teaches Private Music lessons in the Corvallis, Oregon, area. Visit his website at www.neonbuffalomusic.com.