On the rare occasions I have a conversation with someone about my vision quest last year I invariably begin by explaining that it’s not over, that in some sense I’m still in the ceremony. I experience strong, mixed feelings of excitement, fear and confusion whenever I think about this.
During the two days I spent acclimatising and debriefing after my return from the Threshold (my time alone in the wilderness) last September it was explained to me in different ways that the hardest part of the quest – Incorporation – was about to begin with my return to the “profane” or non-sacred world. The ceremony would only come to an end when I return to my vision circle within a year and spend a night there.
This final part of the vision quest ceremony is something I attach a great deal of significance too. It’s about finding a way to bring the sacred gift I received in the Threshold back to my community – a symbolic way of saying I’m learning how to live in a truer, more authentic way as a result of the experience. It’s not as if I’m living like my life is a ceremony, attempting to experience the sacred in the everyday at all times, although I do find it very helpful to remind myself that the everyday IS sacred. It’s more about my keen awareness that the process which began to unfold during the four days and four nights I spent fasting alone on Dartmoor last September has yet to reach fruition or completion.
Many times I’ve thought, “When, WHEN will it reach completion? How will I know?!” This question has recently been answered because of a shift in my sense of myself which has led me to feel an “AHA” moment of relief and the recognition of something clicking into place so I begin to finally feel in an embodied way that this final part of my quest is coming to an end.
It feels important to explain that this quest I’ve been writing so much about over the last year or so, is no different on an emotional and symbolic level to the challenging life chapters people go through all the time – the death of a parent or loved one, divorce, being sacked from a job, physical and mental illness, being involved in an accident or a victim of a crime – each involves a kind of death, a threshold moment: a loss of one’s identity followed by a time of doubt and confusion and of putting the pieces back together – the incorporation of learning from the experience, so we hopefully come out the other end wiser and stronger.
The difference with a vision quest is that it is a journey which one chooses to take at a significant moment in one’s life, like turning forty: the half way point in my life, if I’m lucky.
The struggle with depression, for example, can be seen as a quest for meaning in the face of profound uncertainty, an experience which forces us to descend into the underworld of our psyche to fight a dragon or two, rather than donning a sword and shield and taking the journey willingly. Certainly the experience I had of returning to my everyday life after my womb-like time in the Threshold was one of profound difficulty, fear, depression and ego-loss which was so overwhelming at times I felt close to losing hope entirely. These hopeless moments were like intense flashes emerging momentarily and frighteningly from the darkness of my deep unconscious. I had a dragon or two there to fight alright. That I chose to make this descent probably sounds crazy to some readers, but I believe that these journeys are inevitable, so why not choose to face the dragon rather than let it creep up on you unprepared? Besides, at this point it felt like there was no going back even if I wanted to.
Death is the theme which I’m hoping will tie this blog post together. In that dark period in January there was not much I could find joy and pleasure in. I surrendered to what seemed at the time like a childish whim to immerse myself in music and forget about my problems. The result of this phase of immersion and creativity was a trio of music mixes which enabled me to explore and express aspects of the journey through the underworld I was embarked on. These mixes mean an awful lot to me. That they don’t mean a great deal to anyone else, despite my desire to share them, is singularly unimportant to me. The second of these three mixes, The Crossroads (which I talked about in my last blog post) is about the relationship between freedom and responsibility. The first of these three mixes, Into the West, is a meditation on living well and dying well.
During my time in the Threshold, every evening at dusk I would fix the skull of a deer on top of my walking stick, plant this in the ground on the edge of my vision circle and meditate on it as the light slowly drained away until the skull was just a shadow. Then I would place it on the stone altar I had created at the foot of the giant beech tree my vision circle was nestled beneath, climb into my sleeping bag and go to sleep. This nightly ceremony felt significant to me on a level I did not understand at the time. I self-consciously went through the motions. It seemed beautiful, profound, honouring, and it connected with a deep part of me which had yet to emerge from my unconscious: my fear of death. I knew it was there, but apart from in the briefest moments of terrifying exhilaration when standing on the edge of a cliff with the awareness that a single step forward would end me, it was deeply buried.
It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do.
In the following months that fear emerged from the shadow of my unconscious and came kicking and screaming into my conscious awareness in a way that paralysed me for a time. The pointlessness of my existence, of my suffering, in the face of an inevitable death not that many years from now, was hammered home in all my waking moments. To find a way to channel those feelings in a simple, humble, creative and deeply personal endeavour was a way to make sense of them, ballast to help me stay afloat during the worst part of the storm.
At the same time, a deeply inspiring young woman, an activist, beloved mother, daughter, wife and friend to many of my friends, died after a long fight with cancer. The brave, vibrant and unapologetic way Colette Joan Nolan lived and died and continues to live on in the hearts and memories of so many people provided a clear and shocking counterpoint to my own grief at the loss of a part of myself I did not want to let die. Because that was what all my suffering and my struggling was about during those dark days, the loss of a part of my ego, a childish, magical belief I had about myself which had kept me feeling safe and secure up to that point, but which had started to weigh me down and hold me back. This belief, which had coexisted with my fear of death in a shadowy corner of my unconscious, was that I was not going to die. Death was not going to happen to me!
The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.
There’s a final part to this story but I realise I’m not quite ready to tell it. This seems like as good a place as any to bring this chapter to a close. I will return to my vision circle in September, almost exactly a year since I left it, with a strong sense of completion, and an even stronger sense of pride, because I have been invited back by my guide and mentor, Rebecca Card of Nature Wisdom, to support the facilitation of this year’s quest. It would be such an honour to support any friend or loved one who might be reading this and thinking, this is a journey I’m ready for. Despite it’s trials and tribulations it’s one I heartily recommend.