14 Hours Between the Trees
Two weeks ago, I did something I’d never done before: I went on a vision quest. It was the culminating activity for the second year of the three-year Hidden Treasure program at Light on the Hill retreat center.
Aside from logistics, I didn’t really have any expectations for it (which is often beneficial in such situations). And the logistics went something like this:
We needed to be settled in at the retreat center in time for the purification ceremony the evening before the quest. Once the sacred ceremony began, we’d remain in silence for the rest of the evening, the entire next day, and through breakfast the following morning until we completed our opening meditation.
In addition, we’d fast for at least 24 hours, from before the purification ceremony until the vision quest ended the next evening.
I’d chosen and marked my vision quest spot months ago. It was nestled between four trees, at what I believe is the highest elevation point on the property, only a few yards from where we buried my son’s placenta 21 ½ years ago. This spot offered a view of the surrounding hills. I’d also considered a streamside location. However, I felt drawn to a more open, expansive setting with a view and some personal history.
I had to be all set up in my vision quest spot before sunrise (6 AM) and would remain there until sunset (a little before 8 PM). Fourteen whole hours.
My spot consisted of an 8-foot circle, and I was not permitted to bring anything with me except: protection from the elements, something to sit on, water, toilet paper, and a small shovel or trowel. No devices of any sort. Not even a watch to tell the time or a notebook to record insights. Actually, not having access to writing materials is what concerned me most. However, it would be a one-day experiment and an opportunity to try something new. I had to trust that if something really important surfaced, it would come back again.
I also was concerned about the weather forecast, which called for lots of rain and even a thunderstorm. But since I couldn’t do anything about the weather, I’d just have to be prepared and make the best of it.
Although I’d be alone in my circle, I wouldn’t really be alone. Fifteen of my classmates would be vision-questing simultaneously in their own circles scattered throughout the retreat center’s 236 acres. And many years of Hidden Treasure classes before ours had gone through it, too, and were praying for us. I had complete trust in Alice, my spiritual director of more than 30 years who leads the program. I just had to trust the process.
The weather ended up being exactly as forecasted. I barely had time to get set up before the rain began. It was still fairly dark when I secured an overhead tarp to four trees to keep me dry. I also put a tarp on the ground and brought my meditation cushion, yoga mat, and a sleeping bag for warmth.
And so began a long day of relating to my mind and the elements. There were periods of rain – downpours alternating with cloudy or even partly sunny sky at one point. But the rain is what I will remember most about the day.
I mostly practiced various forms of mindfulness meditation (sitting, standing, walking, and lying) and was surprised that very few thoughts and feelings took hold during the 14-hour vision quest.
The experience reminded me of childbirth – knowing it’s going to go on for a long time and having to stay in the moment so as not to become overwhelmed by it. There was plenty of opportunity to go into impatience, dissatisfaction, and frustration over conditions I could not control (i.e. weather and time). However, I kept catching myself and bringing myself back to present moment awareness:
- my ant’s-eye view of the ground and the diversity of plant life emerging from it
- the dewdrop at the top of every blade of grass – and its eventual disappearance
- thousands of maple buds expanding into baby leaves
- the sound of birds – quieter during storms, more active in between
- the reflection of maple branches and buds in a small puddle on my tarp
- my water jug magnifying whatever was behind it
- the sound of my roof tarp blowing in the breeze
- the mist dancing around the hills after a storm
- sensations in my body
- thunder and lightning.
It was interesting to see where my mind went to and what resources supported me when circumstances were beyond my control. The resources that carried me through the quest included: gratitude, mindfulness, knowing that this shall pass, and feeling interconnected with nature and my classmates.
Oh yeah, and the mantra: I am a badass. I mean, seriously: I was spending 14 hours in an 8-foot circle alone with my mind and whatever nature served up. Somehow those four words seemed to reframe the whole experience and empower me to keep on keeping on even when the rain was coming in slanted, and only a small spot of tarp remained dry.
Then I thought of the homeless folks I know and how they do this all the time, but not necessarily in a safe place or with the promise of a nourishing meal and a hot shower at sundown or an emotionally and spiritually supportive community to return to.
One moment in particular stood out above the rest. During the brief interlude of mid-day sunshine, I removed my jacket and noticed a tick crawling on the inside of it. That pulled me out of presence and into fear. A few moments later, I saw another tick, roughly the size of a pinhead with legs, crawl across the tarp I was sitting on. All of a sudden, I felt unsafe and questioned the prudence of making myself vulnerable to ticks for 14 hours in the pouring rain.
I wondered if continuing the vision quest experience could become another example of self-betrayal. What if I were to get Lyme disease from the vision quest, which I was doing because I was expected to do it? I latched on to that thought for a while, until I checked in with myself and realized that continuing the quest felt more right than spending the remainder of it in my car.
Killing ticks isn’t easy. However, I managed to liberate both of them from their present incarnations by bashing them repeatedly with my bottle of homemade tick spray. After all, I had plenty of time. And I was a badass. 😉 And ticks fell outside my circle of equanimity and compassion. (More about that later.)
After the tick incident, I spent most of the remainder of the vision quest huddled inside my mummy-style sleeping bag with only my eyes peeking out, feeling like I was in a cocoon.
Not eating or writing wasn’t a problem. It was a one-day experiment, and those were the rules. I was deeply grateful for my mindfulness meditation practice and for an unexpected interlude of sunshine.
It was hard to keep track of where the sun was in the sky because of the thick cloud cover in the afternoon, but I tried nonetheless. In the evening, it was hard to discern whether the sky was getting darker because another storm was approaching or because dusk and the end of the vision quest were drawing near. When I estimated that I had another hour and a half to go, I was delighted to see one of my classmates drive by. Even if they were early, the end was near!
And then it was over. My intuition gave me the green light, and I broke down my setup gleefully and headed back to the retreat lodge, where a comforting meal of carrot-ginger soup, tossed salad, and lemon bars awaited. And a hot shower. After all that (and a thorough tick check), I began to write about my experience.
Processing the Quest
The vision quest itself wasn’t nearly as juicy as processing it was. At first, I didn’t think I had much to write about. I even felt like I didn’t do well with vision-questing and assumed others went deeper and experienced higher states of consciousness. However, when I started writing, lots of stuff came up, including associations with my everyday life. And the comparison and failure scripts in my head were patterns to acknowledge.
Our class, guided by Alice and two other leaders, spent the next two days processing everyone’s vision quest, one at a time. All 16 of us! This was a lot like group dream interpretation. It was rather fascinating and powerful to witness each person processing and integrating their experience. The guides honed in on statements that seemed especially weighty or meaningful and inquired about how the statement applies to the individual’s life. Some deep, emotional processing took place.
I won’t go into great detail about the inner significance of my quest other than to say that the tick incident was probably the most noteworthy part of all and carried the greatest emotional weight. One key statement I made went something like this: “I looked at the tick on my tarp and thought, ‘You could ruin my life!’” I felt fearful of the tick, afraid that more of them would invade my sacred circle, and angry because ticks take me away from connecting more with [my true] nature.
There were some books in the center of our group circle to help us recognize and interpret the signs and omens of nature we came in contact with during our vision quest. I couldn’t find anything about ticks and considered what they represent to me.
Basically, they speak to me of boundary breaches that could result in a chronic condition that can seriously compromise quality-of-life. They get in the way of me doing what makes me feel most in my element, and I felt sad and irritated about that. Disempowered.
I recalled the moments during the quest when I questioned whether I was betraying myself by putting myself out there as tick bait because someone else expected me to do it. Putting other people’s expectations and approval above my own welfare.
There was the issue of ticks during the vision quest, but the larger question was about feelings of fear and self-betrayal, in general. How do they apply to my life? I’ve been close to Alice for more than 30 years, and she’s never led me astray or betrayed my trust, so it wasn’t about her. What did my response to the ticks remind me of? What was it showing me?
The basic theme was about not doing what feels most right, out of fear. Feeling it’s not safe to be my true self. There was lots of processing around that – childhood stuff, current stuff. I even dreamed the night before (after the vision quest) of speaking up and telling my dad how his critical comments in the dream made me feel. It was an “I have a right to be me!” dream that fit perfectly with my vision quest themes.
Don’t let anyone get under your skin and prevent you from living your life! Thus spoke the tick on my tarp.
My marching orders had to do with recovering my self-worth by standing up for myself in certain ways, to certain people. Not giving away my power. Alice suggested some practices that might help.
When I got back home, I googled “tick symbolism”, and what I found resonated strongly and enriched my understanding of what the ticks were showing me.
“This species of arachnid is letting you know that you have too many people in your life that are draining your energy. It’s time for you to step away and learn to set boundaries. These people just have too many expectations of you. It’s not up to you to fix their stuff… Engaging will only instigate ‘drama trauma’ and distract you from your own journey.”
Ding, ding, ding!
Boundaries. So many opportunities for having healthy boundaries in my life, as scary and intimidating as it may feel. The lesson keeps returning until you finally learn it. If not now, when?
The Big Takeaway
I had my own vision quest that I’m still processing. But what provided the greatest lesson of all was hearing about everyone else’s experiences and listening to them being processed.
We were 16 people who had 16 entirely different vision quest experiences. Rain, hunger, and time were our common challenges. But everyone had a different relationship with them. Seeing my own experience within that context was illuminating.
Some of my classmates appeared to be under-prepared but had a pleasant experience. Others had really good gear, but that didn’t guarantee a pleasant vision quest. Some felt bad because they judged their experience in comparison to others. Others just had a lovely time, and some felt shame because others might envy their experience and wish they had an experience more like theirs. Some didn’t have a tarp and made do. Others took time the evening before to create a comfortable, welcoming space. Some did a lot of planning in advance. Others did virtually no planning.
Nobody else seemed as bothered by ticks as me, though a few discovered embedded ticks after returning home from the weekend. Some dealt with the tick problem by using heavy-duty repellant. Others didn’t really think about it at all until I brought it up. Even though Lyme disease is a serious health concern, and it is wise to protect yourself from ticks when you’re in the great outdoors, nobody else talked about ticks on their vision quest. This helped me to see that my reaction to ticks on the vision quest was my issue and pointed to something deeper in me that called for attention.
The vision quest also highlighted some of my strengths and resources and showed how different we are in terms of resourcing our lives and the gifts we contribute to the world.
I learned that nobody’s experience is any better or worse than anyone else’s. This applies not only to vision quests, but to life in general. They’re all different due to the unique combination of nature and nurture that are at play in our lives. We all have different challenges and resources, and passing judgment on anyone else ultimately says more about how we relate to ourselves than what is true about them. Other people are reflections of us that reveal our blind spots, shortcomings, fears, values, resources, aspirations, etc.
Sixteen different people, the same weather conditions, and 16 completely different experiences that provided me with a new perspective of my own journey and how I can be with others on theirs. Our differences can be our greatest teachers. Learning about our differences can help us to heal and grow, by making us aware of our issues and blind spots, in the first place. Understanding that everyone has challenges and struggles (though they might look a little different from ours) assures us that we are not alone. All beings want to feel happy and at ease, and all beings have challenges that get in the way of that.
So yeah, I have my work cut out for me. But I’m grateful to have greater clarity about how I get in my own way and what I can do about it. And I know I’m not alone. We’re all questing simultaneously in our little circles scattered throughout the planet every day of our lives.
Walking each other home.
© 2019 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, Reiki practitioner, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.