Reflections on a Vision Quest

A little while ago I went on a solo three-day vision quest.  A few days later I posted on the Internet a description of some of the events that happened on it.  Since then I’ve had a chance to reflect on the lessons that have emerged from both the quest itself and my posting of the description.  This article describes some of the things I’ve learned.

The vision quest was remarkable for the richness and power of the imagery, symbolism and sense of meaning that arose within me as it unfolded. I had primed myself to seek out and create that significance, both through my previous inner work and by how I approached the quest.

I planned the quest by reading about indigenous vision quest traditions, soliciting the advice of others and asking myself how I wanted the structure of my quest to manifest my most important values.  As the planning progressed I realized I was creating in my mind a complex set of expectations about what it would be like, what I would experience and learn.  When the quest began however, I made a conscious decision to keep the plans I had made but to discard all the expectations I had built up.  I would simply let the event unfold, seeking out meanings from whatever presented itself to my inner and outer senses in the process.

This turned out to be a good approach.  My planned framework (things like opening sacred space, calling on ancestors and spirit guides, honouring ancient shamanic traditions and giving a prominent place to mindfulness meditation) gave the quest a strong supportive context and setting.  At the same time, laying down my expectations made room for my unconscious to interact with the environment so that the deepest possible meanings could arise.

Those three days sitting alone in the woods with no food or shelter were filled to overflowing with the most profound sense of communion with the life force of nature and the consciousness of the universe that I have ever experienced.  The feelings that rose and fell within me as my experiences changed spanned the spectrum of human emotions from ecstasy, gratitude, tenderness and deep peace, to longing, deep sadness, outrage and even agony.  The mindfulness I cultivated at the same time gave me access to my Observer’s non-judgmental awareness of this river of feeling.  That awareness knitted all those different sensations into the single weave of experience in which no feeling was better or worse than any other.  Each new emotion flowed naturally out of the wholeness of the feelings that had gone before, the events of the moment and my willingness to allow them to simply be.

My thoughts followed the same pattern.  Egoistic thoughts mingled with thoughts of cosmic significance, thoughts of violence and opposition arose along with thoughts of compassion and connection.  Personal memories, planning thoughts, the recognition of teachings, the labelling of objects in my environment, thoughts of analysis and synthesis, domination and surrender all rose and fell away under the Observer’s dispassionate gaze.  Like my emotions, my thoughts were all guests in the guest house of my Self: arriving, staying for a while and then departing, with only the house itself and the Observer enduring.

When I returned from the quest, I felt an irresistible urge to share this profound experience, and I immediately set about extracting the most interesting and unusual pieces from many pages of journal notes.  The narrative that resulted was a story that clearly told my readers that I’d had an Extraordinary Experience, and hinted that this was in no small measure due to the fact that I am an Extraordinary Person.  Without a moment’s consideration of my motives or the deeper messages this article carried, I posted it on the Internet.

My perceptive partner Estelle read it, and asked me three deceptively simple questions:  “Who do you write for?”, “Why do you write?”, and “What part of you wrote that?”  In an instant the veil was torn aside and my carefully disguised motivations were exposed.  I always write for an audience (never just for myself),  one of my big motivations is a need for acknowledgment, and the article was written not from my heart but from my ego.  To my dismay I realized that the article was a display of peacock feathers masquerading as a report on a meaningful spiritual experience.

To be a little kinder to myself, I will say up front that we are of course all human.  We all have a need for recognition, acknowledgment and praise.  We all have an ego at the core of our psyche, and one of its jobs is to ensure that we get our needs met.  We are also socialized into believing that such needs are selfish and wrong.  As a result, the ego becomes very adept at disguising its actions so as not to run afoul of our inner mental judges that enforce those social rules.   The footnote below on The Supreme Court talks about this psychic mechanism in a little more detail.

When the ego’s camouflage is swept aside, there are two ways we can respond. The first way is to smile compassionately, accept our humanity and simply marvel at the workings of our inner machinery.  From this approach flow many gifts of awareness, self-acceptance and inner peace.  Such moments can become long strides down the road to an enlightened life.

The more common response, however, is quite different.  The shock the ego feels at being unmasked allows the judges of our inner Supreme Court to sweep in and set up their merciless tribunal. Their mental chorus of criticism, mockery, expressions of absolute disapproval and disappointment can trigger deep feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, failure, unlovability and a thousand other psychic agonies.

This was exactly what happened to me.  For over a day I writhed in the flames of self-loathing.  Thanks to the inner work I’ve done over the last year I could at least see what was happening, but once those judges got their gavels out and sentenced me to an eternity in Hell it was very hard to get them to listen to an appeal.  Thanks again to the help of my patient, insightful and compassionate partner I was able to sit with those unpleasant feelings, watch them with at least a bit of the Observer’s detachment and accept them for what they were.  Finally as the wave of emotion subsided I was able to regain my perspective.

The contrast between the sense of communion I felt during my vision quest and the profound sense of alienation during the long day of my subsequent trigger could not be more stark.  The contrast was an open invitation to my evaluating ego to step in and do its usual thing: the comfortable feelings of the vision quest were immediately labelled “good” and the discomfort of the trigger became “bad”.

As I sit longer with that contrast, however, I am drawn to the realization that the values I gave them are merely a mental illusion.  While “comfortable” and “uncomfortable” are accurate descriptions of my body's response to each experience, the labels “good” and “bad” have nothing to do with the experiences themselves. Each experience was just that – an experience.  As such, it was simply a part of my life as a human being.  I am (we all are) just as capable of drawing lessons from uncomfortable experiences as comfortable ones.  Indeed, I’m even more likely to draw lessons from the uncomfortable ones after all, I want to understand them so I can minimize them in the future.  As a result, far from being “bad”, uncomfortable experiences are at least as valuable as the comfortable ones, and have just as much right to be present in our lives.  At a deeper level, there is simply no difference between them.

In the end, all of life’s experiences are like the thoughts and emotions I watched on my vision quest: guests in the guest house.  They come, stay for a while and then depart, leaving the guest house of the enduring Self and the timeless Observer.  As a result of watching them, flexing my awareness muscle as they flow past, I can learn from them all, no matter whether my ego might be tempted to label them as good experiences or bad ones.

Awareness brings learning, compassion brings love, and the two together bring liberation from my internal jail to experience the true freedom of the dance of life.  These three words define my essence: Learning, Love and Liberation.


Footnote: The Inner Supreme Court

We all have a set of voices in our heads that we believe are us. They are like an inner Supreme Court, because they tend to judge everything we say, do, think or believe. Their tone tends to be overwhelmingly negative, because they came into being when we were very young to protect us from real or imagined physical, emotional or spiritual harm. They do that by warning us loudly whenever we do something that violates one of the rules they have created to keep us safe

Here are some examples of individual judges and their messages:

The Critic: ("You didn't do that right ... How can you be so hurtful? ... Why are you always so sloppy?");
The Pusher: ("God you're lazy! Work harder! ... You're late, you're late, you're late! ... Drive faster!");
The Pleaser: ("I don't care if you can't afford it - if you don't get it for her she won't love you ... I don't care if you don’t want to do that  - if you don't do it he'll leave ... If you discipline your kids they won't love you!")
The Moral Judge: ("You're worthless ... You'll never amount to anything, no matter how hard you try ... You are a Bad Person.")
The Protector: ("Be careful! ... Don't let anyone see the real you ... It's dangerous to stand out ... If you take a risk like that you'll fail and look stupid.")

The Spiritual Judge is a relative of the Critic who appears in people who are on a spiritual path.  Unfortunately, this judge is is anything but spiritual.  Instead he ruthlessly judges our spiritual shortcomings. The Spiritual Judge says things like "How can you just let your ego creep in and take over without even noticing? How long have you been doing this work? I thought you said you were enlightened! Boy, are you ever full of shit!"

We all know these judges. They speak in our voices, and feel like an intrinsic, essential part of us. Usually they were formed as a defense against wounds we suffered very early in life. Even though the dangers they are trying to protect us from are long in the past, faded paper tigers, the power they have to make us miserable so many years later is truly astonishing. Most people never escape from the inner prison that those voices build around their True Self. Very few ever experience the liberation and release that comes from recognizing them for what they are.

Fortunately by shining the light of inner inquiry on them with gentle persistence and compassion we can gradually disempower them. In this process of illumination and defusing, I have come to understand that I can forgive myself for all my real and (mostly) imagined missteps, transgressions and failures. In that forgiveness is the tenderness, kindness and compassion that nourishes me and gives me the strength to face the real trials of the world with equanimity.

Bodhisantra

August 13, 2009

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