Over the years, many people (who may not have thought it through) have said to me, “I’d like to do a traditional vision quest.” The obvious response, “Traditional to who?” usually elicits the reply, “You know, a Native American vision quest.”
In the year 1500 AD, 15-20 million people in North America lived in 200 separate nations with a wide range of languages, traditions, and cultural practices. Given that diversity, it’s unclear what tradition a “traditional” vision quest actually refers to. And beyond the differences in ritual forms, it’s important to ask whether any “traditional vision quest” is useful and a good fit for someone without knowledge or experience within the culture from which that particular tradition arose.
Vision quests and rites of passage have taken many different forms throughout the millennia. They’ve included entombment underground or in the dark; confinement to a small circle on high buttes; and months-long walkabouts… and they could take many forms today. But I’ve come to believe it’s important to not try to model your vision quest after another culture, religion, or spiritual path you’re not part of.
Today we tend to think of primal peoples as being closer to nature and more connected to realms of “spiritual experiences” than those who have grown up in a secular, materialistic world. In some ways, this might be true. But, as I’ve said to many, “Your vision quest needs to fit and speak to you — with your beliefs, ways of perception, and personal history — as well as all the attitudes, ideas, and opinions about the world and who you are that follow from that.”
If we rewound time several centuries to a small village somewhere in North America, most everyone there would share the same stories, creation myths, and tales of adventure. They’d have similar values and outlook, be intimately familiar with the landscape and its inhabitants, and be versed in the meanings of terms like “butterfly medicine.” They’d be conversant with the seasonal rituals and ceremonies, having been instructed in them since they were toddlers. In a culture where everyone shares the same mythology, prays to the same gods, and agrees on a cosmology and their people’s place in it — there could easily be a traditional vision quest that would fit everyone.
Modern people don’t grow up in this world. In hundreds of small group vision quests, I’ve frequently seen a few individuals in one little circle having greater differences among them than warring nations did in the past. Today’s small group might contain someone with a terminal diagnosis seeking to release feelings of victimhood and live her final days with grace and power. A man, fresh from divorce and betrayal, searches for a way to move past that crisis and look to the future with hope. Another might be trans-gendered, while a fourth has a history of abusive and destructive relationships, her intention to learn to love herself and no longer allow people to treat her poorly. Others may have spent their whole lives trying to please parents or partner, and come to find their voice, true direction, and the work and gift that’s uniquely theirs to bring into the world.
Five hundred years ago, a medicine person knew the landscape and its inhabitants well. He or she would be well-versed in traditional tools to interpret dreams, access the spirit world, and be able to instruct and guide those ready to follow this well-mapped and familiar path. Yet these same wise elders would have little knowledge about alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, child abuse… depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD… sexual abuse, lack of self-esteem, obesity… poverty, racism, homelessness, foster children …pollution, pornography, prostitution… neglect, abandonment, co-dependence… … gay, lesbian, transgender issues, and more.
A smattering of these issues and their effects – in one way or another – are likely to be present among participants in every small group undertaking a modern-day vision quest. And guides today need to have a strong connection to the spirit world as well as knowledge about issues, dysfunctions, and difficulties rampant in modern life that’s far wider than anything required in the past.
People need to make a vision quest “their own.” If they’re not from a tribe out on the plains or a pueblo in the Southwest, the rituals and traditions of those places and people may not fit them… who they are with their experience today. Traditional quests arose to meet the needs of traditional cultures in traditional situations. “Making this quest your own,” requires finding the rituals and ceremonies, and creating the forms of connecting to spirit that speak to where you are in your life, with your stories, belief systems, challenges, and allies.
Certain core elements of the vision quest are fundamental to the human psyche and soul, and what is archetypal, necessary, and essential to the human experience needs to remain. Solitude, fasting, and nature are powerful teachers, as powerful as ever. But how those teachings get translated and applied to the conditions of today will, and must, continue to evolve to be relevant as societies, social roles, and ecosystems rapidly transform.
The vision quest guides of today and tomorrow – while not in the role of therapist — must be familiar with the sweeping range of issues facing modern men and women; have a language for addressing and placing them in a broader context; and possess a palette of useful processes for those seeking direction.
Sparrow Hart — March 9, 2017
(Inspired by writing the preface for a soon-to-be-published Training Manual for Vision Quest guides.)