I awaken from a doze. I have been fasting and questing for several days, sitting in nature, listening to the voices of a stream. Its white water falls and froths over rocks, bubbling into the pool in front of me. It flows down among the trees to my right; the trees are cloaked with ferns and lichen: the stones look like velvet gnomes huddling in coats of moss. I am enfolded by verdant wildness, and my soul is nurtured by the stillness of elemental beings.
It already seems I’ve been here a long time, but when I complete my quest it’ll be a memory and will seem like a dream.
Many cultures have seen life as a kind of dream. In the Medicine path I walk it is called the ‘sacred dream of life’.
Everything in life is part of this: everything is dreaming in its own way – rocks, lizards, humans. Each of us carries a unique piece of this sacred dream, a part needed by the whole. A vision quest is a way for us to clarify our part, our piece of the sacred dream.
When you go into the wilds and stop eating for a few days, your thoughts drop into deeper rhythms. You become attuned to the cycles by which nature lives, and the border between ‘me’ and ‘not-me’ is less distinct.
I feel I’m dreaming with the beings around me – the water, the yellow gorse flowers, the breeze caressing my hair. I imagine the dreaming of trees – breathing but once in 24 hours, writhing their branches into the sky, spreading leaves and dropping them year after year. We must be like little fireflies to them.
I dream of eternal cycles of growth and decay: bracket fungus eating birch; lichen consuming rock. I see the heads of dragons in old dry sticks. Everything is in flux, cycling and recycling, energy flowing in and out of form.
A wilderness quest connects us with the world as it was when humans emerged. It awakens cellular memory of our core essence, and our sense of self expands beyond the everyday idea of who we are. From this perspective we quest into life-questions of importance such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where am I going?’
Every one of my quests has taken me deeper into these questions and filled my life with meaning. But my intention this time was to look not only at my direction but at the collective direction of humanity. How does ‘my’ dream weave into ‘our’ dream?
When I am in my house, there can be the thought that I ‘should’ be getting on with something. But here that voice is silent. Here there is nothing to be done, nowhere to go, nobody to become: thinking isn’t really needed. There is only the eternal simplicity of being with each moment. I am at peace.
We can learn from the minutiae. I have been gazing into the mirror of a still pool, watching the world of water-boatmen and pond-skaters, rapt in fascination and love for these little creatures. They move on the surface and seem to be playing ‘chase-me’ or ‘tag’ with each other.
They live in two dimensions: there’s no up or down in their world, only the horizontal. I wonder how aware I am of other dimensions. There’ve been times when I’ve lived only on the surface, but now I resolve to live the vertical axis too – the heights and depths of the inner dimension, consciousness.
At times my internal dialogue goes quiet, and I find myself filled with the sound of flowing water. At other times the chatter of thought flows as ceaselessly as the stream. But whether my mind is busy or still like a pool of clear water, underneath there’s something eternal – the field of consciousness itself, as ancient as the grey granite around me. It is through the field that I know my interconnection with all things, and through this knowing that I feel my essence-self.
Feeling the essence-self I become clear about my sacred path and who I’ve come here to be.
The sun comes out and lights up the land around me. Liquid pearls of dew spangle the grass, sparkling with colour. I notice a spider’s web gilded with light: it reminds me that all things are connected through an invisible web of light. I know my kinship with all life. And my destiny is to awaken and live this knowing.
My remembrance of this will then help others to remember.
The water that passes is connected with all water: with clouds and rain, seas and ocean, with ice-cap and steam, even with the water within each of us. I too am part of the flowing of life, the river of consciousness that flows through us from ancestors long ago, to descendants many generations later. It flows on, and we will remember our relationship with all life again.
I reflect that there was a time when all people lived within nature. We were all tribal people, and everyone breathing today is descended of tribal ancestors.
In many places our ancestors learned the Earth’s teaching of relationship through sitting on the ground in deep presence. They realised that they were related to all of Earth’s offspring. They knew that they were part of her dream and that each one of them held a unique piece of the dream.
Some of my ancestors were of the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture that flourished in Europe over a thousand years ago. As in most indigenous cultures, they held that everything was alive, that all energy has consciousness.
Theirs was a mystical landscape enchanted with vitality, magic and meaning. The forests, streams and hills were imbued with spiritual energies such as elves, dwarves and giants. They honoured the land, sea and sky; they hallowed the sun, moon and stars. The universe was filled with life-force, and no one was separate from it.
The Anglo-Saxons knew that all things are interrelated. Their image was that all things are connected by invisible fibres of energy in the web of ‘wyrd’. ‘Wyrd’ was their name for the web of destiny behind the material world, and they likened it to a piece of weaving with innumerable threads, a fabric of huge complexity. The weavers were the three wyrd sisters, who sat at the foot of the tree of life, spinning the threads of each person’s destiny and interweaving them with others. According to one poem, the invisible fibres were golden:
They stretched out the strings of gold Fastened them under the hall of the moon.’
So my destiny and yours dear reader, are like threads woven together, and these words are like a knot in the vast shimmering tapestry.
Wyrd means that what happens in life is the natural consequence of what has happened before. Our world is the way it is because that is the way we’ve dreamed it. But we have the power to change the dream. We are not the passive victims of wyrd, but can influence it with the power of intention.
We harness this power by focussing thought and emotion and awakening our intimacy with self and universe. When we feel rooted in connection with all life we can trust the meaning behind events. When we see the teaching behind events we can harvest the learning of past experience and create something new.
In essence we are beings made of light and have creative, sensory, emotional and intentional consciousness. The next chapter opens our healing and sustaining consciousness.
Questing means listening to the longing of your soul. In many cultures people have done this while spending quiet time alone in nature.
A vision quest is an old way of aligning with purpose. To enter the silence of one’s soul in the heart of nature allows us to reconnect with the mystery of all life and for this to become our greatest teacher. When we immerse ourselves in our being state we connect with deep inner resources and with the depth of who we are. It brings deep regeneration and a renewal of our sense of purpose.
I have been on many quests and have witnessed many others in this process. One of them was my son Felix, who went on vision quest as part of his rite of passage towards manhood.
We headed north. For two days after we’d left the northerly Finish city of Helsinki, the needle on my compass pointed straight ahead, through the windscreen of our van. North, and yet further north, past countless lakes and numberless trees – until late the second evening, well into Arctic Lappland, we stopped in the halfnight.
It was a little past the time of the midnight sun, but the sun didn’t dip far below the horizon, and sunset blended into sunrise. The light was eerie.
Then we walked – away from modernity and into the magic forest that girdles round the earth at these latitudes.
We were seven. We had come here for shamanic walking, my son for his rite of passage. There was nobody else here – occasionally the signs left by reindeer herders, but no other humans.
The presence of spirit was strong. We placed our feet mindfully on the moss, the moss that seemed to lie as thick as the years in this primeval place. After walking for two days we came to a ridge where a hawk was nesting and we camped nearby. It was here that Felix would go for his vision quest.
Rites of passage would help restore our present culture to balance. As adolescents we want self-authority but we don’t grow into it simply by breaking the rules or unstructured risk-taking. We need processes held by communities that mark and acknowledge each person’s growth. Ideally an adolescent rite of passage marks the transition from child to adult, from being cared for by others to self-responsibility. It doesn’t complete this transition but it activates deep levels of the psyche to make the crossing possible.
It strengthens young people’s relationship with the self so they can access the inner resources with which to meet life’s inevitable challenges. It helps them to come into balance, and balanced individuals make a balanced society.
Felix had been unhappy at school. Alienated, he felt he didn’t belong. His tactic of playing the fool didn’t win him any friends. When you’re on the threshold between child and adult, getting on with your peers is all-important. He told me later he’d thought of suicide.
Perhaps it was this suffering that led him to agree to a rite of passage.
When Felix gave an account of what had happened, this is what he shared:
‘On my vision quest a great many things happened in a short time before I took flight. For the first hour or two I was just setting up my area. I prepared my fireplace and got wood for it. I noticed the fire was burning a lot of fuel quickly – probably because of the wind blowing fresh oxygen in all the time.
‘I took my T-shirt off and hung it on a pole to show me where my camp was, while I went to get more wood. I knew something had happened so I looked back and saw my T-shirt had fallen in the fire. I ran back and picked up the pole, but the shirt was on fire. I waved it in the air but realised it was the wrong thing to do so I let it go back into the fire.
‘A dark cloud came over and I put my stuff under a tree as I could tell it was going to rain. Rain it did, but that wasn’t all. There came at first thunder, then lightning and wind. The wind blew the trees as if they were blades of grass, not the strong pine trees I had seen moments before. I thought I might be in danger near the trees so I ran out of the forest towards a copse of silver birch.
‘This is where the Power-That-Is came into play. I asked what I should do, and the message came, ‘Go back to your area’. When I did so the rain got harder and the thunder louder.
‘Put your towel on your head.’ I did so and that was what stopped me getting so wet. I tried counting the seconds between thunder and lightning and at this point there was no gap and I was probably the most scared I have ever been in my entire life. I was crying and begging the spirit not to do this to me.
‘Then I was wondering why I was so scared of my own death. I realised I wanted to see the world and my friends and family and to experience things. This I yelled out to the Power-That-Is.
‘Then after commanding Him not to do this to me I pondered ‘Why not?’ I was just one in billions of people, so why not just toy with me? It wouldn’t make much difference.
‘I stopped crying and said this. I also said that I would be very grateful if He were to spare me. The thunder and lightning went and the Sun came out. And then a bird of prey screeched and landed on top of the tree next to me and I received a message: ‘I have spared you, but you must teach others that life is worth living.’ That bird stayed with me for a long time.
‘I looked over the ridge and there was an enormous stag with large antlers standing about 20 meters away. It felt me see it and ran to the west, then stopped, looked at me and ran south. When I had run out of my circle I had poured water over my fire to extinguish it, and when I came back it relit itself. I was so surprised by this. But when the stag ran away the fire was out.
‘This was when I ran. I thought the lightning strike had been a test, and I had failed it. It was only later that I realised this was going to change my life.’
Felix came back into camp, crying because he thought he’d failed. The rest of us were drying things out after the storm. He told his story to Chris, his guide for the rite, and in doing so realised he’d received the medicine he’d been seeking. His journey had connected him with the resources of the deep psyche and the mythic level of being.
Not everyone has such dramatic experiences, but by leaving our usual routines and going on retreat in places of primeval power we open important life questions deeply. We can ask ourselves such questions at any time, but ordinary thinking won’t allow them to fully flower: we honour them by approaching them in expanded states of consciousness. We also become more conscious of the mysterious force of intention and of our unique path to the centre.
All over the planet at different times and place, people have done this. Many of the great prophets did this in one way or another: Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Merlin, Mahavira and Mohamed all went into the wilderness to fast and be alone.
In the years immediately after his quest, Felix carried the message, ‘Life is worth living’ to many of his troubled peer group. Now he lives in China, and when I asked him what his quest meant to him he said, ‘I know I’m the only person who can make me happy – and just having that thought makes me happy.’
We are here to awaken and each of us has a particular part to play in the movement of consciousness.
This article was published in Sacred Hoop magazine, December 2019. It is an edited extract from “Earth Wisdom for Our Global Crisis”, which we are publishing in April 2022.