Weaving dreams and visions
Jonathon James Wigley
A personal account of a vision quest: an inner journey of opening to the healing power of nature
This story could not be written indoors. I sit on the edge of a small dam and watch wispy cirrus clouds drift slowly across a glorious blue-domed sky. Matching their advance, a thin blue line starts to trace patterns across my page.
Dragonflies hover and dart then drop down to dip their tails into iridescent water. They’re laying eggs that will hatch into nymphs. Half of a dragonfly’s life is spent under water while a slow transformation takes place. After months a deep inner calling draws the nymph out into the bright sunlight; it sheds its skin and out flies a shimmering jewel.
This dam near my home is a sacred place. I visit often to meditate, swim and immerse in the magical solitude of nature. I once sat here on an old windsurfer board and spontaneously started tapping a simple rhythm that produced radiating rings of ripples. I felt a reflective inner peace and heightened awareness stirred by the sparkling water and gentle patterns when my eye caught a movement across the dam. An otter was emerging from the reeds. It came splashing and diving, closer and closer. As the otter frisked and frolicked I entered a state of numinous joy and unity; I was one with dazzling water, drumming rhythm and dancing otter.
A few years ago I started to feel discontent with my personal and professional life. I’d just completed a Masters degree in environmental education and had rewarding work writing and teaching on environmental courses in South Africa, Sweden and China. Despite this deeply fulfilling work, something was missing. I had long abandoned my Catholic faith for a secular life of exciting learning in the natural sciences and later in environmental education. Although I believed vaguely in ‘something bigger out there”, I never lived this in any meaningful sense.
Out of the blue one day I had an experience that changed my life forever. On holiday, I’d come down to the sea with family for an evening sundowner. Two dragonflies hovered over us when something bizarre, unexpected and unexplainable happened: for the briefest flash of an instant I ‘became’ one of the dragonflies. I had a sense of elevation, my vision went strange and most compellingly I knew, beyond words or thoughts, what it felt like to be a dragonfly. I’d not yet, as you may now be thinking, consumed any of the wine we’d brought along for our sundowners.
This incident sparked a journey into the unknown. It woke an irrevocable longing to live a deeper life, to reconnect with Spirit and release my limiting beliefs about the nature of reality. Two years have since flown by, years of immense beauty and ecstasy, darkness and terror. One particularly powerful part of this journey was a vision quest I did in November 2008.
Joseph Bruchac1 says native North Americans, knowing that special powers are available from nature, have done vision quests as a rite of passage for ages. Fasting and praying in the wilderness sharpens the spiritual senses. Wise elders guide initiates in their journey as they clarify and uncover the unique gift each person bears into the world2.
This unique gift is our soul says Bill Plotkin3; it is our essence, our true place in the world. To find it we must embark on the other half of the spiritual journey, not towards light, transcendence and unity with the Divine but into the mysterious darkness of our individual inner worlds. These two journeys do not oppose but rather complement each other. Each brings creativity, healing, power and life to the ‘me’ dancing between these polarities. Matching nature’s wilderness, encountered on a vision quest, is the wild and scary internal landscape of emotional wounds, limiting beliefs and endless possibility. Complementing the descent into this inner world is a state of heightened awareness induced by fasting and opening to the power of nature.
Our culture, Plotkin says, now protects us from the hardships and dangers of the descent. Academia is largely lost in a meaningless rationalism that Ken Wilber4 describes aptly as the blind alley of pluralistic relativism. The emerging global secular culture stems from a paradigm of blind belief in progress where economic growth and technological advancement draws humanity forwards to some or other version of utopia. Our imagination is appropriated by the images of mass consumerism that stifle our ability to create meaningful ways of living outside of this paradigm. We find “…our driving motivation to be social and financial success and security, professional status and self-aggrandisement3”. For much of my adult life I have lived in this alienated way of seeing and being in the world.
I believe an important step is a retrieval of our sense of the sacred. Mircea Eliade5 says, “…revelation of a sacred space makes it possible…to ‘found the world’ and to live in a real sense”. He says that secular society, in denying the sacred, is left with no possible orientation; where “…properly speaking there is no longer a world but only fragments of a shattered universe”.
When we let go our obsession with progress we look back and discover a rich heritage of myth and ritual that guides us forwards into sacred relationship with the earth and ourselves. Writers like Robert Blye, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Angeles Arrien and Robert Johnson provide beautiful maps that bring the power of myth into popular consciousness.
How to even speak of the sublime and mysterious paths blazed by poets and mystics like Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Maria Anne Rilke, Rumi, Sri Aurobindo, David Whyte and many others? Their writing dances in that delicate opening between reason and mystery, personal and universal, emptiness and form; it stirs a longing for the profound allure of the inner world.
Many native nature-based cultures retain rituals and myths that modern society ridicules as meaningless superstition. Elders and shamans guide initiates through the downward journey, providing powerful symbolic means of passage through life’s many transitions. Without this journey our modern culture has, Plotkin says, become arrested in a sort of eternal adolescence. We’re left unable to claim our true nature and place in the world. Even our spirituality suffers when limited to light and transcendence. Personal enlightenment easily becomes an escape from the terrifying yet beautiful work required to undo the terrible things we are doing to the Earth and each other.
We can learn from other cultures and our own rich heritage to develop new symbols, myths and rituals for our evolving culture and needs. The guides of my vision quest heed this challenge: “our European heritage is the framework on which we run our Vision Quests…our psycho-spiritual traditions, poetry, myths, and the emerging eco-philosophy of the Deep Green movement.”
They recommend a month of preparation. This includes a medicine walk as a holographic reflection of the vision quest; a day spent fasting and walking alone in nature. I visit a coastal nature reserve near East London for mine. My bare-feet soak up the dewy chill and crisp energetic aliveness of the dawn. The beach sand is caked hard from last night’s rain and broken only by a line of water-mongoose spoor disappearing into a small bay in beautiful symbolism of my approaching journey. Strolling along the shore, the holographic nature of the medicine walk is brought to life: thousands of miniature reflections peer back from the foam bubbles of a rock pool. The mid-morning heat nudges me into the sea as dolphins burst out of a wave, surfing and somersaulting in joyful play. I’d been asked to find a power object to leave with my guides as a link with them during solo time on the vision quest. As I swim I find mine, a glinting oyster shell that calls to me in the wordless language of allurement.
The day before departing for the vision quest I paddle out to surf. A dark shape approaches through the water and an inquisitive sea otter peers out then dives down into the depths. I know now that nature has always danced with me in this way, I’ve just been too blind to see.
We camp in the wild and beautiful Skilderkrantz Nature Reserve, starting with five days of severance. Our guides draw deeply on Angeles Arrien’s The Four-Fold Way6, a synthesis of the sacred shamanic teachings from each continent. Delicately, we each start to unpeel layers of self-imposed limiting beliefs and hidden feelings. Sharing, reflecting, talking, writing, walking, singing, chanting, laughing, drumming, crying, story-telling and deep silence merge into an expanding awareness of self. Memories that once produced paralysis, shame or anger now bring tears or laughter. The wild land and its creatures are an inseparable part of us as the shape of a distant hillside, the wild call of an eagle or the impossibly bright stars evoke and affirm feelings and revelations.
“I vibrate in your breath, every move a sound, every thought a stillness. I hold you and this valley through memories of sound. Sound…and stillness. Silence. Silence so intense: you can know it but fear it – this silence. Learn from me to be still and from that stillness: allow. Just allow – no more, no less.”
One afternoon, I seek a place to spend my four days of solo time. I’m pulled south along a gorge to a large muddy river in a narrow canyon and swim across to wander below majestic red cliffs. A long canoe-shaped wedge of blue sky runs directly east/west so that the sun beats down harshly all day long. I enter a small amphitheatre set off the main canyon and ask the spirits of land, wind, water, plants and animals if I may use this space. The answer is clear: “welcome!”
On impulse I dig an earthen tunnel into the sand bank on the first afternoon, propped with sticks and canvass sheet. The scary realisation dawns: I will sleep in the earth each night. My rational mind is no longer in charge; my body, charged with energy, effortlessly follows its own innate intelligence. After sunset, I crawl apprehensively inside and pull down a makeshift cover. I voice my intention into the pitch dark, thanking Mother Earth, in whose embrace I lie, and Spirit for their boundless love and healing.
The following two nights I sleep in the tunnel, naked skin against the warm earth. No dreams disturb my sleep. I drift in limbo for these days and nights, feeling churned and wrenched inside. I am neither sad nor happy but accept and dwell in utter emptiness.
On the fourth morning I take the sticks and canvas from the tunnel and fill it in. I wash my clothes and sleeping bag in the river and return to collect my belongings. A paradise flycatcher has left me a small black-tipped golden feather.
That afternoon I craft a purpose circle where I will sit up all night, praying and waiting for my vision. At sunset I step in. A crystal clear wedge of stars soon blazes above me. I drum, chant, sing and sit in quiet contemplation. At midnight, Orion directly above me, I doze off intermittently. In the early morning hours I wake and see small clouds starting to roll in from the southeast, dark patches against the brilliant Milky Way. One cloud draws my gaze; it is the shape of a drawing in The Four-Fold Way. It is a picture drawn in the fashion of a cave painting of a healer lying on his or her back, knees slightly raised. The cloud has the same feel with a bright star blazing from its forehead. A subtle yet undeniable knowing seeps into me: “you are a healer”.
After sunrise and a short ritual of thanks, I dismantle my purpose circle and swim back across the river for two days of reintegration with my fellow initiates. My calling to healing surprises me yet when I reflect, I realise I’m already on this path of opening to the healing power of nature. Had I read this account two years ago I would have dismissed it as delusional; trapped in my rational mind I could not fathom the beautiful unity of all things. I am now learning to hear the symphony of creation and play my part in harmony with the infinite, ever-changing and deepening rhythms and melodies of life.
I take three days to travel home, slowly allowing my experiences to settle. Paused at a traffic light in an energetic town, I watch the busy traders surrounded in litter, blaring music and bustling crowds. I want to jump out and shout in unity with the man yelling into his megaphone, selling fried chicken. I want to dance to the clicking foot-stepped rhythm of the laughing women admiring their reflections in the window of a furniture store selling TV’s on 50% sale. I drive on and my spirit soars up and away with the wispy cirrus clouds drifting slowly across a deep blue-domed sky; their movement matches my slow advance across the land.
1 Bruchac, J. 1993. Flying with the Eagle, Racing the Great Bear. Stories from Native North America. Troll Medallion, Canada.
Originally published on www.odysseymagazine.co.za