Stand Here. Listen.
I left a skeptic. Crossing the threshold circle was just like stepping over a fallen branch or rock, an obstacle in my path. Carefully heading up the hill so as not to shift the delicate balance between my body and pack, I felt like I was setting out on an ordinary walk, a workout designed to push my body to some limit. Trek two miles through hills and valleys, carry fifty pounds of gear, twenty of which are extraneous, then starve yourself for the next three days and nights. Totally doable, I’m going to look great at the end of this.
My goal seemed simple: use this experience as a test. A test of endurance, courage, and strength. In the days leading up to my departure I wasn’t nervous. This was another trip in my seemingly endless travels across the country. Another week, old friends, a way to catch up and feel connected to something. I left knowing that this process, this ceremony, was going to push me; this was a trial for what was ahead. One month after the fast I would be finalizing my plans, and moving across the country to California. I would be leaving my friends, my family, my life on the East Coast behind with only opportunity and uncertainty calling. There would be no net, no support system, a step off the sidewalk into the unknown; equal parts terror and thrill.
Green. That was how I felt for the first few days. New, fresh, verdant, exposed. I hated what I was doing, and knew I was in the right place. I don’t like sharing; I don’t like being vulnerable; I don’t like being dirty. Of all people this was not for me. But I was called. I put my energy and intentions out into the universe, and the universe brought me back what I needed. This journey came at exactly the right time. I was raw and open, my intention was clear: I am brave, and I am not alone.
I reached my chosen spot, a slight hill overlooking a field of clover, a brook chiming with the low chords of bullfrogs, a deer, a crane, and a fish. I pulled out my tarps and quickly fashioned a lean to shielding me from the morning sun. Looking fondly over my new abode, I wondered ‘Now what?’. It turned out to be a nap. Rising a few hours later, I became aware of the length of my attention span checking my watch every fifteen minutes, time passing by and my fondness for the woods slowly dissipating.
I did what I always do when I’m at a loss; I returned to the text. I had brought three books to keep me company in the woods, to nurture and teach me: a collection of poems from Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, a set of rules from Ethan Hawke, and a pilgrim’s contemplations from Annie Dillard. My discoveries? Hawke first: “Love is the end goal. It is the music of our lives. There is no obstacle love cannot move.” Berssenbrugge: “I underestimate the power of my connection with other people, with animals and events that are coincident.” Finally Dillard: “When the muse comes she doesn’t tell you to write. She says get up for a minute, I’ve got something to show you, stand here.” I went for a walk, still lost. I hadn’t realized it yet, but I was mourning.
I didn’t think anything was going to happen. I stopped in the woods to feel the quiet. I stilled, and the world kept spinning, the stillness an illusion. The bugs broke across the leaves, the breeze giggled, and it rained. Rained, and rained, and rained. I was cleansed, I dried, but then I moved again. The sun cast itself across my body, and it was warm. Maybe it was the slither of the snake, but I glanced down, and noticed that the tan on my arm had started to fade. The freckles had silenced, no longer screaming of damage, and had returned to a deep gold. I missed the roof: that same sun slowly moving across the glass casting a flickering shadow, the ice drifting, the glacier melting into the vodka, bubbles carrying the spritz of grapefruit breaking the surface. Laughter carrying across the deck into the neighbor’s windows, smiles for days, and the slow and steady rhythm of Hall and Oates whispering in the background. That was what I missed, those people, my people, our memories. I cried. I cried more than ever before, filling that creek with my own pain, my own loss. I slept, I cheated, and felt drained, knowing the storm might still be coming.
I woke the next morning scratching the fresh bites across my forearm. I needed the water. Not just to drink, but a body to be near. Water has always been a part of my story. The coves of Maine, lakes of New York, and rivers of Maryland, constantly moving and never ceasing. I set out for the river, the waterfall, and the streams, stopping, listening, and watching. By noon I had walked six miles with the accidental backtracking and finished nearly a gallon of water. My steps were slow and labored, but steady and consistent, a beat catching as I moved. It finally hit me, if love is what I seek, then why am I here? Why am I alone? I am here to say goodbye. I encountered love and found forgiveness that morning. I didn’t receive any visitors, but I saw all of the love, and all of that coming right back to me. I felt full. Each step approached an ever expanding rim, then the water overflowed and I let everything in and then out, breathing like I was underwater. Then the real walk started.
I’ve got something to show you, stand here. An hour went by, then another, and then one more. The slow steps continued, six more miles. I walked, and the walk became the ceremony. Love, forgiveness, gratitude, that was the vision. Each step dedicated to the ones I love, their gifts, our memories, that love. Alyssa, Matt, Montana, Rob, Alyssa, Matt, Montana, Rob, Pat, Kelly, Alyssa, Matt, Jenna, Greg, Kerry, Dan, Michelle, Hilary, Michelle, Mike, Jess, Alex, Debbie, Charlie, Jess, Alex...Kyler... The names repeated, the list grew longer, my gratitude, my love expanded, and I felt whole. This was it: these are my people, this is the message to take back. This is how to say goodbye. And I walked. There is no obstacle love cannot move.
On the third day, I woke again scratching the bites. My back ached, swollen, bruised, and showing signs of a former infection. I was not alone. I knew my friends and family were with me. I acknowledged and thanked them. A way to begin to say goodbye. There was an enormous amount of love there, in every moment, and for that I was incredibly grateful. I finally understood why I was there, and what I was doing. My morning walk tested me, the discomfort increased, the bump on my back grew as I walked. One final journey to the river. Show me what is left to find. I listened to my body and realized what was it was saying. It was time to go. Time to find the doctor, cut the back, return to my people, bring the call, say goodbye.
I returned the messenger. The test was over, and now the real journey began. Back. One day back to the desert...Alyssa, Matt, Montana, Rob, Alyssa, Matt, Montana, Rob, Pat, Kelly, Alyssa, Matt, Jenna, Greg, Kerry, Dan, Michelle, Hilary, Michelle, Mike, Jess, Alex, Debbie, Charlie, Jess, Alex... Kyler...
Owning One's Strength On The Adult Vision Fast
This experience ended up meaning more to me than I ever thought it would. As a deeply skeptical person, my expectations were low. I never would have fully immersed myself in the process if it weren't for the acceptance and support of the guides and my fellow participants, but I'm so glad that I did.
Verbally expressing my intent to the group was a nerve-wracking, but critical step in the process. It helped me concretely understand why I was there, and what I needed to claim during my solo time. It was cathartic to verbalize some thoughts that I had always kept to myself, to a group of people who actively listened.
On the first day of my solo time, I set up my tarp, tried to familiarize myself with the noises in the wild, and attempted to get comfortable in my solo spot. As I sat there, I played with my hair and looked down at the ends which I had dyed during the blizzard that past winter. I had dyed it because I told myself that I was bored, and it would be a fun thing to do to pass the time. But I had recently begun to realize it was just a way to distract myself from how unhappy and unfulfilled I was feeling. That winter had been particularly grueling for me; my father's mental health had taken a bad turn. I was feeling profound worry, concern, and sadness for him; also for the first time in my life I was feeling like I was taking that sadness on as my own. The isolation I felt during the blizzard was brutal; I was forced to examine my life, and I was disappointed with what I saw. Instead of fully feeling that pain, or trying to figure out what to do about it, I dyed my hair.
As I sat there on my tarp, I took out my father's pocket knife, and cut off the three or so inches of dyed hair. It was a bit choppy, but it was gone, and so was the physical metaphor of the girl who avoided her problems.
I kept the hair because I wasn't yet sure how to get rid of it. I remembered how my mother used to trim our hair on the back porch when we were little, and sweep it into her gardens to keep the rodents out. I thought it might be smart to keep it near my tarp to help keep animals away from me that night.
I went on a hike that day in the late afternoon and returned to my solo site tired and hungry. I very nervously fell asleep, waking up at least once every hour at every little sound I heard. The only benefit of my fitful sleep was that I didn't once think about how hungry I was.
On the second day I felt compelled to hike up the mountain. I sat on a rock in a clearing on the top of the mountain, and wrote about all the things that made me feel unfulfilled and unhappy. I examined all the anxiety, worry, and sadness I felt. I began to wonder what exactly had happened in my life that resulted in my lack of confidence, self-esteem, and ferocity. I had those things when I was young, and I decided I wanted them back.
I knew deep down, I still had them. There were moments in my life where that strong, fearless young girl came out, but I had ultimately lost sight of her. I tried verbally telling myself - "you are those things," and "you are a strong woman" - but it wasn't enough for me. I couldn't just hear it, I needed something concrete, I needed to prove it.
As I sat there writing, three vultures circled over me. I wanted to shout at them to prove I was still there, that I was still fighting for my life. As I stepped off the rock and was about to descend back off the mountain, I stopped short when a large black snake crossed my path.
When I got back to my solo spot I held a ceremony to burn and bury the dyed hair I had cut off. It was time to say goodbye to the part of me that avoided problems. It was time to be strong enough to face them now.
I slept better that night until I was awakened by the sound of a large animal getting close to me. My eyes flew open, and I froze, completely petrified in my sleeping bag. I heard the birds in the nearby spring making a really strange, deep sound I had never heard before. It took a minute, but I realized that the sound was made by the birds to ward off the approaching animal. I understood then that the animal was not coming for me, it was coming for the birds. So I did the same thing the birds did, and made my voice heard. I yelled out, “You’re too close. Go away.” That seemed to help but I heard it return, so I sat up and said in a much firmer, louder voice, “Leave me and the birds alone.” That worked and I was eventually able to fall back asleep.
The next morning, the third day, I woke up feeling much better than I thought I would. I decided to go on a very long hike. At three different spots on this long journey, a white tailed deer jumped directly in front of me, crossing my path. By the time I got back to my solo spot, I was exhausted and decided to take a nap. It was hot and when I awoke lightheaded and nauseous I realized immediately how dehydrated I was. I slowly sipped water until I felt better.
That night I stayed awake keeping vigil. I sang songs to help keep myself awake and also to help keep away animals. Despite my singing, the animal returned, this time tenacious in its pursuit. I tried yelling at it, and grabbed my flashlight and shined it directly at its face as I stomped on the ground, lunging at it. I even growled at it when I realized it didn't understand English. It took many attempts, but I finally scared it off. And that's when I realized - I am a protector. I am strong, and I protect my people. Whether it's some bird's nests, or my family, or my friends, or my students - I protect them. This was the proof I was looking for: I knew I was strong, but I didn't fully believe it until that moment.
Sourcing The Fire | Stories, Testimonials, and Other Sharings From Past Vision Fasters
"I wish every institution did this, because it is an experience every young person should have...
I'm speaking honestly from my heart about this. I wouldn't trade this experience for the world, and I promise you that if you trust and accept the challenge, you will be positively affected for life."
Chrys ~ Youth Vision Fast Participant
"The Vision Fast was a truly amazing experience, and I would recommend it to any young man up to the challenge."
Trevor ~ Youth Vision Fast Participant
"After the first day I realized I was there to change myself. The guides helped us realize the person that we wanted to become, and helped us become that person. I thought the fasting and not eating would have been the hardest, but trying to find the truth about myself was. You're too busy finding yourself to think about food. I think every person should do this at some point in their lives. It allows you to attach meaning to things that you would normaly pass by without thinking about. You realize that everything matters."
Andrew ~ Youth Vision Fast Participant
"This is more than a test of endurance. Yes, it pushes your limits physically, but it is a time and place to have your beliefs, your relationships, and your direction in life challenged. Hunger is the least trying part. This experience is one of the defining experiences in my life... It helped to make me the man I want to be."
Xavier ~ Youth Vision Fast Participant
"My Vision Fast was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat."
Will ~ Youth Vision Fast Participant
"I know with certainty that this incredible journey will continue to effect me throughout my life..."
Matthew ~ Youth Vision Fast Participant
Logan's Reflection on the Vision Fast
I can honestly say I didn’t know what to expect before I went out on the trip. It sounded like something that would help me find some direction in the confusion I found myself in. The transitional period I was in had me innately searching for some form of guidance, something that would help me figure out what I needed to do. The Vision Fast seemed like it would be like that on paper, something that would help me put into perspective the issues I had been facing at the time. I had no clue it would be the most visceral and beautiful experience I have had in my life.
The Ceremony as a whole is more than just a retreat to a quiet area: it’s a process of channeling and pushing a person to be the best they can be while revealing the most deep essence of who they are. The trip gave me perspective on everything I needed it on and even more on things I wasn’t even concerned about prior to the trip. I don’t regret a single second I spent out in the Ceremony. I formed a community with the other fasters and guides that is as strong as family, and there is a respect for one another’s journey and time that is amazingly reverent.
It was difficult adjusting and being open to the people around me and the fast itself was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But I found that when I threw myself wholeheartedly into what I was doing on the Ceremony, I got more out of it than I ever could’ve hoped for. I found out things about myself, about the direction of my life, the past, and the world around me in a way that couldn’t be accomplished in any other fashion other than the Ceremony. Doing this is taking part in one of the most universal rites of passage in human history and there’s a reason it is universal. Communing with the environment in the way that you do gives you a sense of connection with the world in a way I never thought possible. This is an experience that I will never forget and will find myself coming back to in times of confusion in the future. I am so lucky I got to take part in this with the men and teachers that I did and I hope that I can have an experience like this again sometime in the future.
The Magic of The Fast
I don’t know where to begin. The Vision Fast is real; real in the sense of the magic that this ceremony possesses. Not magic as in ‘voila!’ magic – magic is power, emotion, something that should not be, but somehow IS, love. The Fast is possibly the most difficult thing I have done in my life, but it is so real and SO worth it.
We had horrible weather the first day – setting up camp in the rain is no fun, and being constantly cold and wet made it impossible to get comfortable anywhere. It was necessary though – the rain cleansed us and brought us in touch with the land. My misery and exhaustion was key that first day, because the next day my head started to clear up along with the sky and I started to see a purpose.
Setting intentions was tough for me because I did not come out for a specific reason. I heard about the Fast and instantly knew it was something I wanted to do, but I did not have a certain problem I needed to fix or a question to be answered. However, the more I listened to my brothers stories, the closer I came to finding my own purpose to go out. The Fast is all about the magic of being in both community and solitude, simultaneously. They both exist throughout all parts of the ceremony no matter how close or far from another soul you are.
I wrote a lot – questions, thoughts, a letter, lists for myself, inspirations. I believe that one can gain immense knowledge from reading things from their prior mindsets. Answers come from the past within. I read through the journal that I kept from the past year which helped me come to terms with a lot of the things that happened. Wisdom comes from the past, no matter how naïve you once were.
Time does not exist out there in the same way it does in your normal life. As time moved (forwards or backwards, I don’t know which) I became more comfortable. I gained clarity. I started to understand the things that I needed to do to move out of childhood into adulthood. The Fast is a rite of passage – into manhood, as it was for me, or just a passage of time, of life, of whatever you need it to be: It will be. I found an optimism out there that I had never really possessed before.
Everything has meaning, but not everything is meaningful. Something, many things, were shown to all of us out there; looking for them is futile. There is some power working beyond our souls, call it God, magic, Nature; I call her Mother. She has a power beyond anything I can imagine, and does not remotely care about me. But connecting with that power is what the Fast is about, and every story I witnessed confirmed that everyone found it, whether it was consciously or not.
There are many things about the Fast that I cannot put into words, nor do I want to attempt to, because it will do no justice. But there are feelings that are unattainable without pushing the limit of what your body can do, and there is magic in finding those feelings. I spoke to darkness. Darkness in my eyes, darkness in my heart, darkness outside the limits of my mind. I found peace within myself. I broke myself open – I knew who I was before going out, but out there I accepted it. I came back strong and confident, but changed.
The telling of stories is another feeling that English does not cover. There is magic in every part of this ceremony, and there is always something to learn – from oneself, from others, from those who know more than you, and from those who know less. Love is not the right word, but it is the closest thing I can think of to how I feel about the Vision Fast. The first word I wrote after I got back from solitude was two days later: Clarity.
Drop everything & seize what you love. When you are not looking for something, that is when you find it.
Everything is supposed to happen.
A Reflection by Jessica on the Adult Fast
I didn't know what to expect when I went out there but, I intended to go deep, and seek change. When the guides mirrored my story I noticed how much anger and resentment I harbored against the people closest in my life. I needed to separate myself from the pain of others, and take on my own.
I went up the mountain, brave, ready and hungry. I did my best to create a sacred space, and after a while, I felt very comfortable, at least enough to embrace the process. Through ceremony, dreams and contemplative reflective writing, I came down after three days: braver, less hungry, and face to face with mortality. This experience taught me life is supposed to be full of coincidences.
It was in trusting the process, and believing in the teaching of the Four Shields, that I was able to find the peace I needed.
A Song From Inside
Jeremy's Writing and Music from the Fast
It has been a little over 2 months since my fast ended. Not a single day has gone by where I haven't thought about my time out there. But really the time wasn’t out there, it was in... In and out.
In a world where the answer is in your pocket, (remember when your teacher said you’d never have a calculator, textbook, camera etc. in your pocket?) we are moments away from knowing at all times. My belief is that this has created a distance from who we are supposed to be. With being able to instantly know where a loved one is, we have forgotten what many cultures have known, a person needs to know where they are...in life, in the moment, in the Love.
At 27, the American Dream presented to me has taken on a more nightmarish quality. Go to college, get a degree, get the girl, get a job, get a career, get house, get a white picket fence...you’ll be happy. One only need spend 5 minutes in the self-help section of your local book store to know that happiness comes from within. Within the presentation of this nightmare, whilst creating at university, the studying of classics, amidst the finest brew hops and wheat can provide, something went missing. A value. A corresponding answer, rather a completion of a sentence or sentence. My brain learned, my body developed, but my heart/soul was left to make sense of that sentence.
The fast provided me with acceptance of who I am, and what I need to shed, and what I need take on.
I was able to set this intention before I went out on the solo: I am Jeremy, I love myself, and I bring love.
While I was out/in, I wrote/found a song. Unlike other songs of mine, which often come in a moment of panic asking a stranger for a pen, while standing in line, to then rush home to sprint my fingers over a guitar; much like anticipating a lightning strike and trying to ride it at the same time. This song came in pieces. First the lick, then half the chorus, then a verse...it wasn’t until the afternoon of my story that it finally was complete.
As you listen, please keep in mind the following for this recording: We wanted to keep it as if it was recorded in the woods. It's raw and that's on purpose. We're trying to bring that moment from the woods, brush a little dirt off, and share it with you. One note as you listen is to know that all the pronouns could be: us, we, you, me. To me it is a connection, request, a reworking of the sentence. I cannot thank Susan and Phil Esserwein enough for providing time and studio space to record. Enjoy.
To Pause, To Listen, To See
My name is Mary and I assisted on the adult vision fast this past summer. I fasted myself two years ago, and I wanted to come back to this ceremony to help others through an experience that has helped me.
When I decided two years ago to go out to California and fast in the desert with the School of Lost Borders on this weird thing called a 'vision quest', it came after a long process of being uncertain, changing my mind many, many, many times, and flipping between thinking it was the dumbest thing ever, to thinking it will solve all of my problems.
I finally made up my mind when I realized how badly I didn't want to live my life, and that hopelessness scared me.
And perhaps this would fix this...and I would go on this great adventure and I would come back completely changed. It will be great! And in a quick easy two weeks. Ha! Yeah right...
I came back from my fast with the same problems, the same insecurities, and the same excuses ... It felt like nothing really great happened out there. All was the same except for now I could put up a tent, now I wasn't afraid to lay in the dirt, now I knew how to go camping! I was a bad-ass girl who could sleep without a tent. Yeah! But there was one more thing that was different... now I carried a message I was gifted from my experience...It was this: Me telling myself "wake up", and me answering "no she won't wake up". Coming back home with this...no matter how bad-ass I felt for sleeping outside, I felt that this 'gift' was the truth that proved this fast didn't work for me and that it was all a bunch of B.S... it haunted me and shamed me as the thing that was wrong with me because it was so accurate. I was living asleep to my life and perhaps asleep during the fast because I was so closed.
Now after two years of letting things go, moving on by force, and getting over myself to get my work done, this gift is now the sentence that empowers me, and shows me how much I have changed, how strong I have become, and how more awake I have let myself be. Perhaps, if not for this gift I would have continued excusing myself from making choices, excusing myself from loving myself and others, and excusing myself from owning my own life... If not for hearing that I was the one doing this all to myself, if not for hearing and seeing myself during my solo time on my fast.
The two years that I had initially thought was my experience revealing itself to me, was really the two years that it took for me to allow myself to believe in my own worthiness of actually seeing that the ceremony did work for me, and that I did get what I hoped for and what I needed and I did have a story.