“A Vision without a Task is just a pipe dream… A Task without a Vision is just drudgery… But a Vision with a Task can move the world.” — Black Elk
Having a rich, passionate life while being effective in the world requires integrating Heaven and Earth, vision and task. To do this we must join the grand and eternal with the small and immediate; wed what’s transcendent and sacred with what’s mundane and practical.
On vision quests, “Vision” refers to a relationship or encounter with something beyond the self, beyond our sense of who we are now… a connection to an energy, purpose, or story that’s far greater than the separate identity or ego we’ve developed or inherited. “Tasks” refer to actions — purposeful actions — within the actual circumstances and context in which our lives take place. Whatever our experience of, or beliefs about, the eternal, infinite, multi-dimensional nature of the universe, we’re still required to express ourselves as a man or woman in our particular language and culture… in relationship with co-workers, friends, or family in specific towns, communities, and institutions of the early 21st century.
Feelings of power, passion, and purposefulness result from linking “vision,” a more-expanded sense of ourselves, with choices and actions that bring this larger energy into the roles and relationships that make up the fabric of our daily lives. Having this sense of wholeness and integrity requires these two spheres – heaven and earth… big and small… transcendent and practical – be present and balanced. If we’re overly concerned with cosmic insights and synchronicities, preoccupied with transcendent states of oneness that lack practical expression or application, people will perceive us – accurately — as ungrounded, flaky, with our head in the clouds. “A vision without a task is just a pipe dream.”
On the other hand, the common condition of modern life is to be distracted by endless minutia – going to work, picking up the kids, watching television, paying the bills, getting the car fixed, replying to texts and emails — that lack any connection to the grand cycles of creation and the perennial concerns of the soul which have formed the foundation of spiritual life through the centuries. When one’s attention is constantly inundated by tasks that have little connection to something greater, life easily becomes superficial, uninspired, and empty. Without deeper meaning and purpose, our relentless and incessant activity — like hamsters in a squirrel cage — takes us nowhere, our “pilgrimage to Mecca” replaced by trips to the pharmacy for anti-depressants.
A mission statement says, “This is who I am” in the landscape of the soul. Good mission statements combine the elements of vision and task; they state how vision (the connection to the greater energy of the imaginal, archetypal, eternal realm) will be expressed or manifested in the concrete and current conditions of our lives on earth today.
Vision refers to a state of alignment between You — your smaller, individual self or ego — and your Soul… between You and your purpose or Higher Power. To make the assertion, “My purpose is to bring music into the world” speaks to vision, to what you are here for. It is broad, imposing, ambitious. It implies an apprenticeship and service to something larger… the rhythm of the universe or the Muses of Greek mythology.
Task is more specific. It refers to the how, when, and where; the expression of your vision in the context of the culture and life you inhabit. “Bringing music into the world” may be your gift or purpose, but being a conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, directing a children’s choir in a public school, or playing washtub base in a jug band are very different forms of expression, different paths one’s vision could take.
When aligning vision and task and creating a mission statement, it’s important that a) the vision be broad enough and b) the task be specific enough. Imagine being on a mountaintop on a perfectly clear day. In a visionary moment your eyes will be drawn to the broad horizon, and you’ll sense the vastness… something at hand, present, yet unknown… stretching beyond your field of view. Your awareness expands, and you feel enticed, captivated, and pulled out of your internal dialogues into a more extensive and spacious framework.
“I want to grow enough food to feed my family” is a noble goal, but too small to be called a vision. The man who wants to grow food to feed “his” family is speaking from the “I,” the ego or conscious self. But vision connects a person to a larger story, a frame of reference greater than our habitual and conventional self, and as such, vision may not be something you have, but something greater that has you. Enacting and living it out will stretch your boundaries or capacities; pull or push you forward; tug at you like a current that won’t go away. From somewhere beyond the fences of your current life, it beckons and calls to you like a grand dream you must embody and grow into.
Tasks must be in alignment with one’s vision – “Bringing music into the world through drinking coffee at Starbucks every day” won’t do it. And tasks must be specific enough to be practical and provide direction. The statement “I bring peace into the world through speaking the truth” approaches a mission statement. The vision or purpose — “Bringing peace into the world” – evokes a larger framework and is stated. The requirement of what is met.
But “speaking the truth” needs to be more specific to be useful. “Speaking the truth” — how, when, where, and about what? Will you be speaking the truth to the military-industrial complex… to drug addicts… to your husband or wife… or your neighbor’s spouse who you have fantasies about? Will you speak the truth about capitalism… baseball… obesity… rising hospital costs… your abusive childhood? Will you speak the truth in a therapist’s office, by writing articles in a newspaper, or by running for political office?
A mission (and mission statement) connects Earth and Sky. The sky is grand, infinite, expansive, transcendent… It’s home to hawk and eagle, a place of clarity, vision, and light. But by itself, sky is aloof, distant, above it all… airy and ungrounded. In contrast, Earth is solid, right here, imminent. It’s grounded, rooted, foundational, the realm of form, body, death and rebirth. Tasks that are focused and appropriate create balance; they bring vision down from the sky and plant it here in this world. As the Native American teacher, Sun Bear, said, “If your vision doesn’t grow corn, I don’t want to hear about it.”
Most people, upon first realization of their vision, find it aligns deeply with their core self. This articulation of purpose can feel exciting and joyful, like remembering a passionate involvement you’ve had forever, perhaps with roots in childhood. As the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, often advised, to find it, “Follow your bliss.” “Following your bliss” implies we won’t discover it through our habitual ways of thinking… through our rational and strategic selves. We must follow something, let ourselves be led… for what we’re truly seeking lies outside all those routine and habitual ways of thinking about ourselves and the world – the familiar, but unexamined shtick of our socially-conditioned personalities that we know so well.
On A “Vision” Quest
For millennia, undertaking a rite of passage or vision quest has been a core method for making this linkage between the grand and small, between our finite and infinite selves. Vision quests include preparation and teaching that readies the participant for the three phases of Severance, Threshold, and Reincorporation.
With the help of these teachings and tools, in Severance the participant leaves behind “his” collection of roles, routines, and conventional identities in order to become open and available to everything beyond those attachments. This is traditionally followed by a solo, where – fasting – one crosses a threshold, entering the landscape and realm of wild Nature. There, one intimately encounters the grand forces that have shaped the Earth and the bodies and beings – ours included – of all those who live upon her.
In reincorporation — in “corpus” — the participant, having been exposed to the eternal – both outside and within him/herself – is welcomed and woven back into the community he or she left behind. This process involves the building of bridges between one’s sacred and social life, between heaven and earth, vision and tasks. To the extent this is done well, both the community and the individual are renewed in the process, and all vision quest programs must address the issues and importance of this return if we are to join Earth and Sky, “grow corn,” and bring our gifts to the world.
“It is only those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight is truly desperate. And that is… most of us today.” — Joseph Campbell
** Often attributed to Black Elk, this statement has also been attributed to Chief Joseph, Chief Seattle, and a ancient gravestone in England…