For those of you who have never heard of it, a vision quest is exactly as it sounds: the quest for a vision. Traditionally, as a Native American rite of passage for young men, it involves journeying alone into the wilderness without food or water for 4 days and 4 nights. Yep that’s right. No water for 4 days! And as I found out, there are many traditions very similar that are practiced by native cultures and tribes all over the world. Take the Australian Aboriginals for example, who go ‘Walkabout’ at around 12 years of age, leaving their parents, to survive in the wild alone for up to 6 months. As with all vision quests, this is done in the hope of experiencing a profound connection with spirit, self and the world around us.
Two years ago, I learnt about vision quests from a medicine woman I had met in ceremony. She was so powerful and radiant and seemed to know the universe inside out. As the secrets of the universe aren’t exactly something you can study at uni, I’ve always felt an eager curiosity to understand how these people came to be so knowledgeable. She explained to me that she had completed not just one, but four vision quests over the years she’d been practicing, all of which had involved sitting alone on a mountain with nothing but San Pedro to drink. 4 days for the first one, 7 days for the next, then 9 days and finally 13 for her last. To me, this sounded CRAZY!!! How do you even survive without water for four days? Aren’t you supposed to die after 3?! At the time, this felt WAY too extreme for me, but in the back of my mind, there was a little niggling idea that one day I might be strong enough to experience something like that.
So about a year later I was in Ecuador, only 2 weeks into my tantra training, and by chance, I heard about a shaman close by that hosts vision quests all year round. I became obsessed with the idea of doing one and immediately started researching and preparing myself. I was feeling so healthy and clear coming out of my tantra course that I felt like I could do anything! The only problem was that I still had a huge fear of going 4 days without water. I’m the girl who has religiously consumed 3 litres of water a day for as long as I can remember, so to me, this was a very scary thought. I also made the mistake of telling my Mum about my plans and she was naturally very alarmed and frustrated with my “irrational obsessions and desire to constantly push my body from one extreme to the next”. I knew she was kind of right, but I also knew that we are not our bodies and we have the power to overcome huge physical and mental limitations. Yes, I had doubts but I was determined.
So I packed my bags, crafted a long string of prayers (made of over 400 tiny bundles of tobacco tied to a single piece of wool) which would be wound around my assigned tree, and made my way up to the mountain with two friends from the course who were also taking part. The ceremony began around midday with a round of rapé followed by San Pedro, which could only be taken in spoonfuls of 2, 4 or 6. I decided to take 4 thinking that 2 might not be enough. I was wrong. It was MORE than enough. Traditionally, all vision quests begin and end with a sweat lodge. The idea is that spirit enters your body within the temezcal to support and guide you on the mountain. It’s another crazy idea in my opinion – losing that much water before you even start... But thousands of people had taken part and survived so I obviously went along with it – if they can do it, so can I.
As we entered the sweat lodge I could feel the medicine starting to work through my body. I’d been drinking a lot of water that morning, so my stomach was full and beginning to feel really queasy. When singing and chanting started, I immediately felt the urge to be sick. I was told it would be a mild sweat lodge with only two rounds, but that wasn’t the case – it ended up going for four. My head was throbbing and everything started to move around me. During the second round, I felt increasingly paranoid and began to have some serious doubts creeping into my mind. What was I doing here, the only woman for miles, sitting in this sweat lodge, high on San Pedro with no escape? I have never felt afraid of men before or ever really allowed myself to be in vulnerable situations and logically I knew my two friends would never let anything happen to me, but even they started to frighten me. As soon as the door opened after the second round I threw up everything inside my stomach. “It’s okay,” the Shaman reassured me, “you are just leaving behind everything you don’t need to take up onto the mountain.” I felt a little better but the medicine was well and truly in my system even though I got so much out.
The shaman then poured our last glass of water for 4 days, which excruciatingly, I just couldn’t stomach. I threw it over my head and sat up straight in front of the hot stones, determined not to be a ‘weak’ woman. I hated that I was the only one crying and getting sick whilst all the men were sitting like strong, grounded warriors. It took everything I had to get through the last two rounds; the 4th one being so hot that I felt like my skin was going to burn off. As I crawled out of the Temazcal completely depleted of everything I had, all the strength, will and determination I began with, I started to cry. What was I doing?! All I wanted was be at home in London, safe in my bed. As I put on my clothes and prepared my few items to take up to the mountain I knew that it was too late to turn back and I had to finish what I started. One of the men offered to help me carry my things for the walk up but I refused – if the others could do it alone, so could I! Once we were at the top of the mountain, I sat shakily under my assigned tree, my home for the next 4 days. I watched as the shaman planted my flags and tied my string of tobacco prayers around me. He told me I was not to leave that small space and that he would be back to check on me in two days. I cried as I watched them pray over my space and then make their way back down the mountain, leaving me alone with great spirit and the great unknown.
By this point, I was seriously tripping out on San Pedro and the medicine had completely taken over my body. I could see the mountains around me breathing and the stars dancing. Everything was so full of life, including me. I could feel every single cell awakening as energy surged throughout my body. It felt like I was plugged into the earth and being charged with the electricity of life. It felt amazing, so so amazing but also completely overwhelming because my body was so depleted from the sweat lodge. I wanted it to stop but this feeling continued for most of the night until I finally fell asleep a few hours before sunrise.
I awoke the next morning incredibly thirsty but feeling a lot better having regained full control of my body, the medicine out of my system. I had no idea what time it was but I knew I was in for a long day. I lay on the ground in the same spot for hours on end. During my weeks of preparation, I had all these ideas that I would be meditating and doing yoga the whole time. I literally did not have a single morsel of energy to even sit up for more than a minute. It was like torture, just watching the sun in the sky and the clouds pass by. I tried to focus and be present, but in the end, there was nothing I could do apart from lie there and wait. Complete surrender.
I thought about the previous month and how good I had felt from a regular yoga and meditation practice; I thought about the things that agree with me and the things that don’t. I’ve always had a difficult time making decisions based on what I know is right for me rather than what my mind thinks I should be doing. Yes, I really wanted to do the vision quest but was it really the right thing for me? Or was it my ego that wanted to prove to myself that I could, that I was strong enough? I had convinced myself that this was the only way I could ever become a true medicine woman. I always knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but something inside was telling me that I didn’t have to put myself through this, that I didn’t have to torture myself in order to connect to spirit, to nature, to myself. I realised that when I feel good in my body, when I am nourished and taking care of myself, is when I am most connected and most vibrant.
I spent most of that evening battling with my mind about whether to push myself and stay up on the mountain for another 2 nights or whether to admit defeat and head back early. When I woke up the next morning I knew exactly what to do. There was no doubt in my mind that my journey on the mountain was over and that I would leave when the shaman came back to check on me later that day. What surprised me the most is that I didn’t feel bad about it, I didn’t feel like I had failed. Rather, I felt more at peace knowing that I had finally listened to my body and heart, and do what was truly the right thing for me in that moment. The day seemed like an eternity, although it was actually only 2 pm when I was finally “harvested.” As I dragged my exhausted, dehydrated body back to civilisation, I told myself that it was fine, that I didn’t last all four days but two days and nights was still a pretty good effort. Of course, there was a small part of me that wished I could have lasted the whole time, but I was so relieved to be off that mountain that the thought didn’t last long.
As I mentioned earlier, traditionally there would be another sweat lodge to close the vision quest, but as my harvest wasn’t planned the shaman didn’t have everything ready to go. That was more than okay with me as I doubted I would have anything to sweat out anyway! My vision quest was closed with the tobacco prayers that with me on the mountain being tossed into the fire and sent directly to spirit. The shaman handed me a glass and said, “Always remember, water was the first medicine.” As I drank I started crying again. It was one of the most blissful experiences of my life and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so grateful.
At first, when I reflected on my experience, a part of me wished I had listened to my doubts and not done the vision quest at all. Looking back now though I see how much I really did get out of it. I feel a deepened connection to nature and spirit, but even more than that, I feel like I can really hear when my heart is speaking to me now. I find it easier to accept that some things just aren’t right for me and in no way does that make me weak.
My love of Shamanic tradition is still incredibly strong, but I understand now that it doesn’t mean I have to take part in every single one of these rituals. I was born into a completely different world than the one where these traditions originate. I passionately believe that Western society needs to adopt elements of these ancient ways in order for us to move forward and evolve our collective consciousness. And that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s about integration, taking parts that work from ancient traditions (which have been carried throughout history for thousands of years) and combining it with what works now (because let’s face it, not all of it does).
I don’t have to live in a way that a male shaman from Peru or Mexico would because I am not that, that’s not the life I was born into. That’s not to say I can’t use tools that have been passed down and mould them to my own life. Each one of us has a unique path and it is up to us to figure out what works for us and what doesn’t. For me, it’s a much gentler approach: yoga, dance, meditation, good food, lots of water, and the occasional wine. Women are very unique creatures and we do things with much more fluidity. We don’t need to sit up tall and relentless for hours in order to prove our strength. We are strong in other ways. We are dreamers, lovers, creators and this is our connection to spirit. We feel. We feel so deeply and that requires a lot of strength. Almost as much strength as sitting on a mountain with no food or water for 4 days…