Wilderness Quest & Vision Quest
Ceremonial rites of passage, with their challenges of solitude, fasting, and exposure to nature, help us to face our fears, affirm our inner strengths and capacities, and listen to our own souls. For over 45 years, Rites of Passage has provided these programs to bring people into a deep encounter with the natural world, to awaken, heal, and transform lives. The rite of passage begins with hearing the call to quest, an impulse as ancient as humanity: the path of the hero’s journey. This work speaks to anyone entering a life transition or change or wanting to deepen a spiritual path.
Rites of Passage was the first non-indigenous organization to offer vision quests to the general public, beginning in the 1970’s. Our guiding principle was to offer a pan-cultural ceremony that met a need for powerful and meaningful rites of passage for people in our contemporary world. We found that the vision quest helped people facing life crises or transitions, including career change, marriage, adulthood, death of a loved one, affirmation of gay or lesbian identity, elderhood, recovery from addiction, recovery from trauma, and more. It was also a kind of sacred adventure, allowing for self-discovery and renewal of what had become stale. Our clients, coming from diverse backgrounds, represented a spectrum of professions, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and life experience. We were aided in this work by generous Native American teachers, who shared some important principles and teachings with us. The vision quest we offered, however, was not affiliated with or derived from any Native American ceremony.
European anthropologists used the term vision quest to describe certain ceremonies of indigenous communities of North and South America. These ceremonies, which served for thousands of years to mark significant changes in both individual and community life, were important in the social health of these communities. While each indigenous tribe would have its own unique ceremony, naming them all vision quests suggests certain common elements: solitude, time spent alone in nature, fasting, and seeking understanding or purpose through connection with both the visible and invisible worlds.
Over time, vision quest came to refer more generally to this kind of ceremony, found in some form on every continent.
Over the years, we continued to have contact with indigenous teachers. We were able, in the 1980’s, to deepen our understanding by attending the lodge of a Paiute elder. Then for fifteen years, beginning in the 1990’s, we had a friendship with Corbin Harney, the spiritual elder of the Western Shoshone nation. He would invite us to participate in his traditional sunrise ceremony with our groups, always welcoming and warm, especially with young people. In the 2000’s, a Mohawk Bear Clan Mother invited us to visit the her people in New York state. While there, we got to witness and support three young Mohawk men undertaking a vision quest. We were deeply touched by the way the whole community showed up to celebrate these young people when they returned, an experience that impacted our view of the importance of community in the practice of rites of passage. None of these Native American allies expressed any problem with our calling our program a vision quest, even when asked directly.
Rites of Passage stopped using the term vision quest to describe our programs in February, 2019. We did this because over the past few years the term “vision quest” came to be associated more exclusively with Native American ceremonies. Continuing to use it would imply that we were in fact practicing a native tribal ceremony, and as such would inevitably result in cultural mis-appropriation, giving offense to those whose cultures are at risk, trivializing their struggles to maintain their traditions, and disregarding their own cultural understanding of the term. For these reasons, we decided to rename our core program from Vision Quest to Wilderness Quest. It’s still the same powerful program and still calls to people from diverse backgrounds, professions, locations, and ages. As the Wilderness Quest, it continues to change lives.
There comes a time when you must leave family, friends and work behind and go off alone, looking within to discover your changes in the circle of life. The Wilderness Quest (or Vision Quest) is the name of this journey. The Wilderness Quest is an ancient rite of passage ceremony, enabling men, women and youth to engage an age-old ceremonial pattern: completion of an old life, movement through the threshold of the unknown, and return to the world reborn. People in any life stage or transition can find meaning in this powerful process. Young people will find particular meaning in the challenges the program presents.
This path has been followed by human beings for thousands of years. You hear these questions calling you– “Who am I?” “What do I have to give?” “How can I heal my wounds?” Despite being afraid, you know this is something you have to do. So you meet with others like yourself, and guided by caring staff you prepare yourself for the journey. You learn about the wilderness terrain, putting together the necessary equipment, about physical safety and survival, and about the inner terrain, going over the story that has brought you to this threshold. You study ancient symbols and teachings that will help illuminate your way. All the while, the small group is becoming a community, offering support and love.
With its core elements of wilderness, solitude and self-reliance, the Wilderness Quest speaks to young people on the threshold of adulthood who are ready to test their courage, self-understanding and capacity to live independently.
There are many reasons that adults may choose to come on a Wilderness Quest. Some, like youth, want to mark their initiation into true adulthood, something that doesn’t happen just by reaching a certain age, but must be recognized and lived through with conscious intention. Others come to mark the end of a cycle and the birth of the new: grieving the end of a love relationship or marriage; facing an “empty nest” as children leave home; entering elderhood; marking one’s accomplishment of long-term sobriety; facing career change; marking the healing of childhood wounds. For each passage undertaken, corresponding gifts of understanding, forgiveness, love and compassion flow to oneself, loved ones and community.
Our staff serve as guides, mirroring and supporting participants by helping them to prepare for their solo, then to understand and integrate their experience so they may carry it home with them. The vision quester returns to our de-mythologized society powerfully moved by having lived close to the healing power of nature and to the Spirit that lives within everything.
The program begins at a campground near the wilderness, where we get acquainted and meet to prepare for the wilderness. We’ll review flora, fauna, first aid and safety procedures, and begin to present tools such as the medicine wheel teachings. Then we drive into the wilderness and set up a base camp not far from the dirt road we drove in on. This will be home for a few days, offering community meals, company, shelter, and a safe container for heartfelt ceremony.
There is time for sharing with other participants and staff, or for just sitting quietly. You have part of a day to look for your place on the earth, going in the direction you feel called to explore. Safety concerns are addressed again in the field, and you will have a buddy from the group that is sworn to help you if the need arises–but you will not see each other unless there is an emergency. You will leave a stone for your buddy each day at a stonepile located between your sites, a small reminder of the spirit and heart you share with others on this path. On the last evening together in base camp, the whole group will meet in council circle, where you’ll have a final opportunity to share deeply of hopes and fears. The next morning, there will be a beginning ceremony at sunrise to bless you and send you off.
For the next three days and nights, you will enact the Wilderness Quest, living by yourself in the wildness of nature. In the weakness of fasting [or eating lightly], you become more open and transparent. You live between the inner world of dreams, feelings, fantasies and the outer world of cold night air, the warming sun, the sound of a coyote howling, the sight of a lizard doing pushups, the vast view of a desert plateau. You may be visited by dragons, whose names are loneliness, boredom, fear, and regret–among others. You engage them with your heart and spirit, recognizing them as worthwhile opponents. They push you into your depths.
Time can slow down on a Wilderness Quest, and the stillness of the desert can be very powerful. As your thoughts begin to empty out, you can look into the pool of your own being, noticing how you are, what your dreams are made of, what you need to let go of. The sacred dimension is present there, and you can enter it naturally. It is possible to feel connected to everything, to the small fly buzzing, to the cactus in its rocky home, to the moon and stars wheeling overhead at night.
On the last evening you will build a circle of stones to represent your life, entering it at dusk and remaining awake until the dawn releases you. During the long night, you can sit, stand, dance, sing, pray, or just huddle from the cold. You are bearing witness to your own death and rebirth. What is important to carry into your new life, and what needs to be left behind? You ask the Spirit to help you find your way. Your prayers are answered as the first rays of sunlight pierce the darkness. It’s time now to come down off the mountain and begin the journey back.
And the sunset itself in waves of ether
Is such that I can’t say with certainty
Whether day is ending, or the world, or whether
The secret of secrets is again in me.
The return from the Wilderness Quest can be a time of great energy and joy, celebrating the healing and wholeness that you have found. After participants return to base camp, we’ll share a delicious breakfast, then spend the balance of this day, and the next two, exploring the teachings of the Quest, reflecting the beauty and meaning of each story, and the challenges posed for the return. The task is to re-enter your life, bringing your unique gifts and opened heart back to family, friends and community. As Mirabai asks, “Without the energy that lifts mountains, how am I to live?” How can I bring my vision into my world, the world of work, relationships and ordinary life? The energy of the wilderness has flowed into us as healing, and from us enters the world.