‘I feel that my fingers have brushed one of life’s deep, coursing threads… Speak, even notice it, and it would disappear.’1
The wilderness-based fasting rite of vision quest, although often associated with the traditions of the indigenous people of North America, has many cultural variations and since ancient times has in different forms provided a rite of passage and spiritual practice within a variety of faith traditions worldwide.2
In this article, I explore my experience of undertaking a vision quest at the start of a sabbatical year from my therapeutic and teaching work. I aim to reflect on some of the personal and professional meaning and impact of entering into this deep and challenging process of nature-based personal and spiritual development.
On a clear, fiercely windy day in September, I stepped off the small ferry from Fionnphort on Mull onto the remote island of Iona. Iona holds a special place in my heart. I had visited many times over the years, and for the past three summers had spent a week in retreat on the island, wandering the beaches and breathing in the wonderful air of what George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona community, described as a ‘thin place’, a Celtic concept meaning that the ‘veil’ between the physical and the spiritual realms (between heaven and earth, some would say) is almost transparent there.3
This time, I was at the start of what I would come to see as my personal ‘heroine’s journey’.4 I use the term ‘heroine’ here simply to mean one who has courage and passion, not one who has superhuman powers. Richard Rohr, a writer and Franciscan friar, describes this journey (a recurring theme in mythology) as one through which there is the potential for the hero/heroine to discover their ‘real life’, one which is deeper than their previous life; a ‘soul encounter’, through which life energy may be gained, which enables the individual to be generative, and to pass this on to others.4 In the few months leading up to my quest, I had been writing a dissertation about my experience of the second half of life, as part of my studies for a diploma in spiritual accompaniment. During this time, I had felt the call to adventure, and here I was, having left home to embark on something well outside my comfort zone, about to join with a group of 12 other ‘questors’. The practical preparations alone had been extensive and I was struggling to carry a rucksack that I could barely lift, complete with a tent, water containers, a range of warm waterproof clothing, and the warmest down sleeping bag I could find. During the long journey to Iona by train and ferry, I had wondered if I would get there at all. The psycho-spiritual preparations had also been intense and demanding, and my heart was filled with hope, excitement and terror.
Understandably, the questions asked by most of my friends and colleagues about the vision quest were what it involved and why I wanted to do it. I first read about the practice over 20 years ago, and it still astonishes me that it took me that long to get to the point of being brave enough to embark on it. During my practitioner training, I had been inspired by Natalie Rogers’ account of her own exploration of solitude and the ‘boundaries of aloneness’ as a middleaged woman, through her vision quest.5
Although it may take different forms and have different cultural variations, the elements of the ceremony include spending a significant period of time (usually three to four days) in solitude in a remote wilderness setting, eating no food, exposure to nature with minimal shelter, no distractions (for example, no books or access to a phone) and a focus on ‘consciousness shifting’ ceremonies and practices.2 Traditionally seen as a rite of passage or initiation, during which life purpose and meaning may be explored in depth, it may be undertaken at the time of major life changes or ‘crossroads’, such as puberty, leaving home, loss in all its forms, or indeed any type of life or spiritual ‘crisis’ or transition. For me, engaged in a process of exploring what midlife or the ‘second half’ of life meant for me personally, I felt what Rilke, cited by Plotkin, described as a call to ‘go out into your heart as onto a vast plain’, to be open to possibilities about who I am and what I do.2 In reflecting on this phase of life, I had been particularly struck by how many philosophers and psychologists see it as a time during which coming to terms with losses and failures, reevaluating and grieving for an old self, are of particular significance in making one’s own meaning out of life and moving forward into a new phase. I had experienced a divorce and an ‘empty nest’ in the past few years, and I wanted to explore my life purpose. Those big questions which sometimes come knocking at the door: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my place in the world?’ were shouting loudly!
My quest was organised and guided by three highly skilled, caring, intuitive and experienced guides from the US and Scotland. It included five days of preparation time (the ‘severance’ phase) and group sessions (based in the wonderful Iona hostel), a 72-hour ‘solo’ period, camping alone and fasting (drinking water only) in a remote spot on the island, and a final phase of three days of facilitated incorporation and integration of the experience.6 Attention to safety (physical, emotional and spiritual) was done with the utmost care. At 58, I was by no means the oldest participant, and although my stamina served me well, physical fitness was not a primary requirement.
In the weeks beforehand, I had prepared by reflecting on my hopes and engaging in some creative work about what was emerging for me, prompted by questions such as, ‘What phase in my life is coming to an end?’ and ‘What new phase is waiting to be born?’. I paid close attention to my dreams at night, which were a rich source of insight, and which for months had often been about houses flooding and on fire, which for me represented a letting go of the old. I wrote in my journal: ‘At the end of my solo, I want to pack up my tent and walk out feeling newborn and released. Part of my work is about laying to rest, and forgiveness of self and others’. On Iona, in the days spent as a group before the solo, we spoke about our lives and intentions at depth, and carried out several ceremonies designed to sever connections which no longer served us, including a fire ceremony, during which I surrendered a significant object from my past life to the fire. Also, during those days, I took a series of walks around the island, each with a specific purpose. I found a powerful connection between my inner world and the natural landscape and wildlife. During one such walk, a huge bee landing on me brought to mind the words of Antonio Machado’s poem, which we had read as a group that morning: ‘making sweet honey from my past failures’.7
When the group dispersed early one morning for the solo phase, after one preliminary fasting day, I was ready to spend extended time in nature alone and impatient to start. I knew where I was going to camp. I felt called to be as close to the sea as I could safely be, and my spot was a windy ledge in the grassy dunes, perched above the sea, looking over the north beach. After a group ceremony to say farewell, with the scent of sage smoke in the air, I walked in silence with my ‘buddy’ to the place where we parted, and then, alone, I pitched my tent, thankfully in a brief respite from the showers. I would have no human contact during the solo time, and each day my buddy and I would leave stones at a specific place to signal that we were safe.
During the solo, some of my time was taken up by a determination to keep my sleeping bag dry, as Iona weather is so changeable that I was in and out of my tent many times a day. We could choose various ceremonies (or design our own) to perform during this time, and I decided on some which felt important to me. Without the distraction or nourishment of food or books, I developed a keen awareness of both my inner life and my surroundings. The sound and presence of the sea and wind were constant and I felt that as I spoke my life story, sitting and walking on the beach over the course of one full day, nature was my active witness. This was a profound experience, much more than simple introspection. I did not really feel alone, and the deep listening to myself seemed to be enabled and enhanced by nature. At night, in the dark, distant lighthouses reassured me.
The time alone felt like a taste of the timeless and eternal. After three nights, at dawn, I packed my tent as best I could in the force of a gale, and carried my backpack with me to meet my buddy and to walk, again in silence, to meet the group. I shed tears of relief and elation as I walked back to the hostel to be welcomed with a hot drink and a carefully balanced meal to break the fast.
The final days as a group involved each of us sharing our stories and being witnessed and mirrored in this. It was a rich time, during which not only did I begin to integrate my own experiences but was also immensely privileged to hear the stories of others. By the time we completed as a group, I knew that this had been such a rare and precious experience that it could sustain me for years to come, possibly for the rest of my life.
In terms of my understanding of psychotherapy and spirituality, the underlying principles of vision quest are consistent with the views of ecopsychologists (and others) who see the earth as a living system of which as humans we are a part. Within the personcentred approach, Carl Rogers in his later years acknowledged humans as participating in a ‘broader universal consciousness’.8 More recently, the deep ecology movement suggests that indigenous peoples may have had knowledge of things that have been ‘forgotten’ in Western rational culture, such as the ability to ‘hear’ the language of plants, animals and landscapes.8 My quest offered an opportunity of seeing and experiencing the world and nature in a different, richer, fuller way, and of entering into a deep level of communication with the earth. It gave me confidence that through listening to nature with a deep awareness, I can undergo huge inner transformation and healing. I can come alive in a way that I was not before I had this knowledge. The outer landscape and the forces of nature reflected my inner landscape back to me like a mirror; I heard the sea and it spoke to deep, unknown currents within me.
We were advised by the guides that the experience of a vision quest can take at least a year to process. This is something that I am keenly aware of as I experience echoes of the quest daily and continue to do the work of integrating what I gained from it. It remains a work in progress for me in terms of coming to an understanding of what it means in my life and work, and what the insights and gifts are that I can take forward. This is a challenge in itself, to be constantly working with this experience and integrating it into my sense of self and my life. I ended the quest with a feeling that I was carrying precious jewels, and I have yet to fully know those jewels. Through engaging in this personal work, it is enhancing my understanding of the processes of change and self-development enormously. I know more about just how deep the tides of change can run. The experience has also given me a much deeper understanding of nature as a supporting force and of the significance of marking transitions with ritual and ceremony, things which I feel are often overlooked in Western culture and society. I am using these insights to enrich my therapeutic and teaching work, and my presence as a group facilitator. I hope to continue to do so.
Margaret Rock, CPsychol, MBACP (Accred), is a psychotherapist and university lecturer. Her specialist interests include person-centred encounter groups, spiritual accompaniment, and spirituality in relation to Jungian ideas.
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2. Plotkin B. Soulcraft: crossing into the mysteries of nature and psyche. Novato, California: New World Library; 2003.
3. Ferguson R. George MacLeod: founder of the Iona Community. Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications; 2001.
4. Rohr R. Falling upward: a spirituality for the two halves of life. London: SPCK; 2012.
5. Rogers N. Emerging woman: a decade of midlife transitions. 2nd edition. CreateSpace; 1989.
6. www.animus.org (accessed 3 June 2019).
7. Rogers CR. A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1980.
8. Neville B. The life of things: therapy and the soul of the world. Victoria: David Lovell Publishing; 2013. Biography