For many of us, life is about finding, pursuing and developing a purpose. While simple in premise, it seems we can spend a lifetime in search of true meaning. Native cultures too, pondered their place in the world and their communities. Unlike most modern earth-dwellers however, native cultures developed formalized social structures to support and accelerate this journey. Anthropologists often call this process a ‘vision quest’, referring primarily to the practices of Native American cultures, but also encompassing the tradition of many indigenous peoples. Do we have a modern equivalent to this process? What can we do to harness its power for spiritual development? Welcome to the journey.
In many indigenous cultures, vision quests were often carried out by young men as a ‘rite of passage’. The journey symbolised a transition from adolescence into adulthood, helping to identify life purpose. The journey however, was not intended to benefit the journier alone. Instead, it was intended to assist the journier to identify their righteous place in their community – to reveal how they might best serve the people around them.
What did a typical quest consist of in these communities? The process would begin with arduous preparations to ensure initiates are fully prepared for the trying tasks ahead. The initiate would then journey to a remote, sacred location in nature, fasting for several days and drinking little to no water. From this state of heightened sensitivity, the initiate would then await guidance in the form of visions and symbols. Upon returning home, an elder would often help to interpret the initiates’ experience, guiding them on their journey into adulthood.
It goes without saying that the vision quests described above are likely a foreign concept to most westerners. Is it possible however, that we achieve a similar result through our existing cultural practices?
The ‘year off’ (or ‘gap year’) might be among the closest of modern comparisons. The practice of taking time to travel between high school and college is becoming an evermore popular choice for young adults in search of direction. Many see this opportunity as a break in the linear progression from school, to university, and eventually into career. Interestingly, by breaking free of this rigid linear structure, young adults find themselves engaging in a free-flowing (and largely unplanned) year abroad – a far cry from the well-planned vision quests described above.
There are other interesting differences between modern and ancestral rites of passage too. For example, while ancestral initiates immersed themselves in nature, it’s common for modern young travelers to immerse themselves in cultures of the world. While this exposure undoubtedly provides beneficial experiences, it may not afford the same symbolic insights as a fasting journey into nature. The nature of insights may also take a different form. While vision quests seek to draw guidance from raw nature, travel abroad is often focused around drawing insight from foreign lifestyles. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily, and It may come down simply to personal preference.
Numerous other rites of passage exist too, though many believe that practices involving nature are the most effective ways to glean a broader sense of meaning. Let’s take a look at a few nature-based approaches in use today.
Modern vision quests
As western cultures attempt to reconnect with nature, modern vision quests continue to grow popularity. While some native cultures continue to participate in these practices, non-natives are beginning to seek guidance from nature, often in a more structured, planned environment than other rites of passage. Following are a few available options:
Guided vision quests
It can be difficult to know where to start when arranging your own vision quest. Today, a myriad of guided vision quests exist to assist in this process, providing the opportunity to experience the age-old practices of our ancestors.
The group vision quests offered by Rites of Passage is just one modern example of a structured quest. They combine elements from both ancient and modern-day practices to facilitate personal growth. The group setting also provides the advantage of community support. Their quests, and others, typically consist of 3 parts:
- Orientation: This sets the scene for what to expect. It also provides a smooth transition from ordinary life into the natural environment.
- Solo quest: The core component of the journey is the solo quest. This usually involves several days of fasting in isolation from the group. It is here that the initiate dances in the space between waking reality and dream-state, to gain symbolic insight.
- Return: You can expect all guided vision quests to conclude with a return and reintegration ceremony – often lasting several days. This is perhaps the most important step, as initiates explore the meaning behind their experiences and how to take them forth into their lives.
Unguided vision quests
The option certainly exists to coordinate your own solo vision quest, outside of any organized groups. Aside from the obvious cost savings in such an approach, there’s the added convenience of planning your vision quest for a time and natural location of your choosing.
For anyone considering this approach, take heed of a couple potential challenges:
- Interpretation: Understanding your experiences may be more difficult without the support of a community or an experienced vision quest leader. It might be advisable to arm yourself with some reputable resources that can assist in the processing of your experience. Bill Plotkin’s ‘Soulcraft’ is one resource worth considering – helping to guide the reader through personal development via immersion in nature.
- Safety: Perhaps most important are the potential safety risks associated with solo journeys. While inherent risks exist during any solo jaunt into the wild, risks can increase significantly when fasting is involved. Ensure you plan your journey, notify friends and family of your plan, and pack emergency resources should you need them.
If the options above don’t appeal to you, it may be worth exploring a more casual approach to vision quests. We’ve written a number of pieces on the benefits of exploring natural environments, including this one on the health benefits of immersion in nature. In a similar way, frequent trips into nature can help you to reconnect with natural rhythms and ultimately glean inspiration and guidance. These experiences may not pack the punch of traditional vision quests, but can still provide invaluable insight.
The final integration
The insights that arise from any degree of vision quest can be profound. Initiates may find it difficult to return to the lifestyle from whence they came. The job, relationships or friendships that once seemed comfortable, may now feel at-odds with your new perspective. Understanding this process can make for a smooth re-entry into your life.
Some find it useful to open oneself to the possibility of change, and that changes in your life may bring you into closer alignment with your refined-self. Others find it helpful to find a creative outlet like writing, painting or sketching to help channel their new perspective. A ‘casual quest’, like that described above, may also help maintain and further develop the takeaways from your vision quest. While each person will choose how best to return to life, they are all likely to have one thing in common – their vision quests will have uncovered life-changing truths. Treasure the journey.