A Woman’s Guide To Vision Quests
November 5, 2018
A Guide with Tips for Creating Your Personal Vision Quest
by Lisa Riley
When I was in my 20’s, I fell in love with someone who wasn’t my husband. Someone likewise married, and who also happened to be my boss at a job I truly loved. I lived in a small town (tiny, really), and knew that nothing good could come from my situation. I needed to make hard decisions, and I felt too overwhelmed by my own fears and desires to put any faith in my instincts. I knew I needed distance from my predicament. Time and space to find my center again; to find myself.
I needed to do something drastic, and fast, or everything felt like it might begin imploding around me.
Why I Wanted a Vision Quest
I tell you all this to illustrate my state of mind at the time. My life felt out of control. I no longer understood myself or my place in the world. I was lost. I do not pray, but even if I did, I felt my situation called for something more dramatic. I needed to shock myself out of my stasis and back into forward motion. I needed help. A sign from the universe.
For some reason, Vision Quest is what popped into my head. Sounds like something a former hippie from Berkeley might come up with, huh? That’s what I thought, too, even though I was working for a pretty conservative timber company at the time— a long ways from my hippie roots. Most of my friends would have laughed at me if I talked to them about vision quests. Even though I had come up with the idea on my own, I was still skeptical. So, without much optimism, I started looking online.
What I found was that there was actually quite a large selection of books out there on vision quests and other similar types of explorations of self.
Starting a Vision Quest
Step 1: Read a lot of books
There are times of momentous change in people’s lives that require deep and thoughtful consideration. Times when People step outside their sphere of influence to search for enlightenment. It has been practiced in cultures all over the world, from peasants to kings and religious leaders, throughout recorded history. Indeed, many religions are based on such journeys.
During my research, I read about tribal elders fasting on hillsides, and groups of lost souls gathering for spiritual support. I read about a man who gave up his voice to live in a silent monastery in the mountains of Tibet for a month. And another who embarked on a month-long walk through time to find her answers.
Cultures such as the Spartans sent their children out into the wild, alone and without supplies, to enter adulthood. I read about seekers who employ various means of altering their consciousness in order to gain insight into the universe (or whatever God they might believe in). Some use mind-altering drugs to expand their senses. Others employ more natural means of altering their body chemistry—various levels of fasting and exposure and even total sensory deprivation.
I would direct you to some of these books if I could, but the truth is that it was so long ago that I have no idea what they were called. However, I guarantee that, if you do your own research, you will come across your own wealth of information to explore.
Tip: Be expansive in your searches. Use terms you would normally reserve for describing a Kevin Costner film. I searched for things like “vision quest”, “soul quest”, and “soul searching”. Think about what it is you really want to accomplish, and don’t be afraid to search exactly that. See what happens.
Step 2: Make a plan
Before I began my research, I had a very good idea of what I hoped to accomplish, though only a vague notion of how to get there. As I read through various stories and suggestions, certain things resonated with me (while other things seemed ridiculous), and I began to formulate a plan in my head that seemed like it would work for me. Here’s what I came up with, in a nutshell:
- Find a safe place where I can spend as much time as possible in nature
- Disconnect from friends and family (pick one trusted person as an informant)
- Give up cigarettes, alcohol, and weed
- Take journals and write daily
- Take a yoga mat and practice yoga and meditation daily
- Take a vow of silence for 4 weeks
- Focus on what I want for my future, free from outside influence
- Perform a vision quest.
- Fast for 3 days (clear liquid only)
- Build a circle of power
- Meditate on path forward
With a clear plan in mind, it was much easier to move forward with logistics. I arranged for time off from work (6 weeks). I found a place to stay that seemed to fit all of my requirements (UC Berkeley Forestry Camp in Meadow Valley, CA), and arranged for accommodations there. I informed all of my close friends and family members (including my husband and my boss) that I would be dropping off the face of the earth for 6 weeks.
I begged, borrowed, and stole all the necessary backpacking gear and maps I needed. I made arrangements for my brother to stay in my trailer and feed my cat while I was gone, and I very carefully packed what I thought I would need for 6 weeks of living out of a tent and trying to find myself.
Tip: Lists are your friends. Writing things down will put your mind at rest and help keep you sane. They also help you pack efficiently. Start with everything you want, then whittle down the list of luxury and semi-luxury items until all you have are the necessities. Once you have a list you feel good about, stick to it when you’re packing.
Step 3: Find a support crew
Obviously, I did a fair bit of research before of my quest, and I came across stories of people fasting who had support people to bring them water and check on them to keep them safe. Being a somewhat independent woman (read: stubborn), I thought, “fuck that, I’ll be just fine”. If no one knew where I was, So what? I worked by myself in the woods all the time.
Looking back on it, that was a pretty stupid and irresponsible attitude. Fortunately for me, my inner bitch never got the chance to put me in danger. The universe stepped in and gave me the best support crew I ever could have hoped for, and I didn’t even have to ask.
I made arrangements to stay at a property owned by UC Berkeley, my alma mater, where I’d attended Forestry Camp during the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years. It was a very special place to me, almost sacred, and I knew it would give me the inner peace and security I was looking for.
The problem was, the camp wasn’t empty. It was summer and Forestry Camp would be in session while I was there. I justified my decision to stay there anyways by pointing out (to myself) that I wouldn’t be socializing with the students. Hell, I wouldn’t even be talking! Also, I planned to hike every day and spend a lot of time camping rough, so I wouldn’t even be in camp that much.
Since I knew people would be there, I timed things to allow me to explain myself and make some plans when I got there. I knew I had 6 weeks, so I planned to spend the first week in camp talking, after which I would take my vow of silence. As it turned out, the students arrived the day after I took my vow, so I had the first week with the staff, who were preparing for their busy summer. Several people had worked there when I was a camper, 8 years previously, and I was surprised to find they still remembered me and my class. One of them, Michelle, ran the kitchen. When I told her what I was doing she introduced me to one of the cooks, Johanna, who she said had hiked every trail around that part of the state.
Michelle and Johanna took me under their wings and proceeded to be my support crew during my 6-week stay. Before I left camp each morning, I would stop by their kitchen to let them know my plan for the day. If I was camping, hiking, or backpacking, I would leave them my location or a map of my route, and when I expected to return. I was careful to stick to the plans I gave them and they always checked to be sure I got back to camp safely. Having the kitchen crew as my support team also had an added benefit, of course: good coffee and special treats!
God, I love those women.
Tip: If you are outside your sphere of knowledge, pick a support crew who knows the area. Michelle and Johanna were able to advise me on safe places to hike and camp as a solo woman, and any safety concerns in the area. Had they not serendipitously arrived on the scene, it might have been a much different experience for me.
Finding Your Answers
Step 1: Get away from the crowds.
Let’s be honest, the reason we are considering a vision quest is in an effort to remove ourselves from outside influence. Whatever our questions might be, we have all reached a point where we know we must keep our own counsel to find the answers we seek. Therefore, it would be counterproductive to surround ourselves with yet more humanity.
I’m not saying you need to be dropped off on a mountaintop somewhere. I lived in a camp surrounded by college students. But, during the buildup to your vision quest (or whatever you’re calling it inside your own head), and certainly for the quest itself, find time to remove yourself from other people and be alone.
During the 6 weeks I had allotted for my quest, I made a commitment to hike or take a walk someplace in nature every day, and to spend as much time as possible by myself. I hiked alone, camped alone, and skinny dipped in lakes and rivers alone. My vow of silence helped with that part of my journey, as it formed a natural barrier to normal social engagement. It was easier to spend time on my own than it was to interact with others.
For me, being alone so much, when I am normally surrounded by people and activity, resulted in a natural turning inward . It took some time before I could quiet all the random, chaotic noise dominating my thoughts, and begin to focus them. But eventually, I began to achieve some discipline.
During my walks, I practiced a sort of meditation. I would begin by listening to what was going on inside my head. There were always random firings of insight and speculation; mental notifications about what my senses were transmitting to my brain; snippets of music playing in the background; and worries and fears creeping in at the edges. So much so, it was difficult to really think about anything very clearly.
One-by-one, I would begin to quiet each area of my mind as I trudged along. I would focus on each thing I could pick out, and forcefully silence it. Then I focused those parts of my mind on feeling and listening to what was around me instead. I felt the air on my skin as I walked, breathed in the scent of flowers and water, concentrated on the sounds of breeze and birdsong. I spent as much time as I needed to shed all words and verbal thought from my mind. To silence it as completely as I could. I tried to just be in the moment.
Tip: I may be biased, being a scientist and nature-lover, but in my opinion being alone in nature is the ideal place for self-exploration. Even if you are a city person, there is no greater feeling of solitude than in the middle of a forest or desert. I highly recommend getting out into nature as part of your process.
Step 2: Do the legwork.
There is a reason why it’s called a vision quest. What you seek has eluded you to this point. It is going to take effort to find it. As with most things in life, you need to be willing to put in the work if you want to get results.
I dedicated 6 weeks to my vision quest. Five of those weeks were purely lead-up to the main event. I wanted time to center myself, focus my intention, and maximize my awareness. I knew I couldn’t do that while I was working and carrying on with real life. I wanted my mind as clear and open as possible if the universe chose to speak to me. I had a lot of shit to work through, and I wanted that out of the way before tackling what I saw as my main issues.
I’m sure there are lots of ways you can accomplish this legwork, based on your own situation and proclivities. The main thing is not to rush it. Take the time you need and do your research. Choose the tools that are the most appropriate for helping you get the job done. I chose to take a vow of silence for 4 weeks to help me through the process. From what I’d read, I felt that was the most expedient and direct way to focus my efforts. It was extremely effective for me, and had some unexpected results, as well (if you’re curious about that, I’ve written more here).
I knew I wanted to find a peaceful, spiritually-engaging place to perform my vision quest but didn’t have anyplace particular in mind. Hiking every day, I thought about what would best fit my needs and considered each place I visited as a possible location for my quest. By the time I reached the end of my vow of silence and was ready to await my vision, I had located an ideal venue, outlined my logistics, and mentally prepared for the journey.
Tip: Read about different methods of preparing for a vision quest, and choose something that resonates with you. Some people go through a physical cleanse or perform some pilgrimage. Some people prefer driving to walking. Others have to keep working, so they devise a daily meditation routine, or take a vow of silence at home.
Step 3: Try journaling.
I know that not everyone chooses writing as their chosen mode of communication. Some may even shy away from the very mention of journaling. Even I tend to avoid such things when they are presented as part of a yoga retreat or other group endeavor. Directed journaling has never held much appeal for me. Solo journaling, however, can be a very effective method of focusing your thoughts.
You have some questions to answer, yes? If you are on this quest, then you must think (or at least hope) that the answer lies within you, yes? So, treat your journal as the ultimate confidant. You are really just having a conversation with yourself. You can pour out your grief, your anger, and your frustration. And you can dream of fantastic and unrealistic futures. You can share your deepest, darkest secrets—you can be completely honest with yourself. The great thing about writing it all down is that you can then go back and read it. And, the interesting part is, when you read it you suddenly feel once removed. This allows you to reflect impartially on what you’ve written and to consider it from a more neutral perspective.
In 6 weeks, I filled five 200-page notebooks with tiny, sprawling half-cursive. I carried one with me everywhere I went and kept it by my bed at night. The students at camp thought I was writing a book or something. Once in a while, I drew a picture or wrote a poem, but mostly I just sifted through all the competing thoughts in my head. I explored questions and problems that plagued me, and all the ramifications of various answers.
Writing everything down felt cathartic. During my actual vision quest, I took my notebooks with me into my sacred circle and spent many hours re-reading what I’d put down over the previous 5 weeks and meditating on how I might use it to carve a path forward.
Tip: During my research, I found several books that recommended journaling, and offered useful tips. One said to write letters to all the people you felt angry with or hurt by; people engendering negative emotions that continue to impact your life. It said to write letters explaining your feelings, and forgive those people so that you could move on. The author said it was less important that your target read the letters; only that you write them. You could send the ones you wanted, and burn the rest. I took this advice and found it very useful for releasing old grudges.
(As an aside, burning your journals at the end of your vision quest is also an option, and may offer its own form of catharsis. Especially if you put things down on paper that you really don’t want anyone else to see, ever.)
Seeking a Vision
Step 1: Find the perfect location
People have a variety of experiences while on their quests, but one thing unites them: they all hold vigils at a sacred place. Each location I read about in my research was different— a mountaintop lookout, a barren desert plateau, a deep forest cabin, a remote monastery—yet each had special significance to the seeker. Most felt a sort of spiritual connection to their chosen locations, as well. I didn’t have to think long about where I would go. I chose a place I held dear to my heart: a forest and mountains that spoke to my soul. I was fortunate that I already had a place that was special to me.
It took me most of that summer, hiking and camping, to find the perfect location for my 3-day fast and vision quest. I spent hours that summer poring over topo maps and hiking off-trail to hidden lakes and remote creeks. I knew I wanted water and a view, and to feel small within the landscape, but also safe. And I wanted to avoid seeing people during those 3 days. I wanted to be able to shed my clothing without modesty if I chose to and I wanted to be far enough into the forest to feel remote, yet close enough to a road that I could hike out after 3 days without food.
Most of all, I wanted to feel accepted by the location I chose. This was the spiritual connection for me. I spent that summer becoming a part of that forest and those mountains, and for my culmination, I wanted to enter into them completely. I felt strongly that this was the only way I would receive my answers from the universe.
It took me a long time, but when I finally found the location for my vision quest, it arrived with a certainty and knowledge that felt unquestionable. What I’m trying to say is that you’ll know it when you find it.
Tip: When thinking about a location, consider the places you have felt most at peace with yourself and the world. Think about your plan, what you hope to accomplish, and consider how different locations might aid or impede it.
Photo: Jen R via flickr
Step 2: Build a Sacred Circle
Wait, Don’t go! As with journaling, I’m afraid the notion of a ‘sacred circle’ is going to sour a lot of you on this whole vision quest thing. But, don’t give up on me now! Making an actual circle on the ground may seem silly, but I read several books that recommended it. And in the end, I found it to be one of the most powerful parts of my experience. Do yourself a favor and don’t dismiss it.
Don’t take my word for it—do your own research! As with the rest of this process, there are many paths to the same solution. Find your own. It doesn’t even have to be a circle. My interpretation of the sacred circle is that it is another tool used to focus your intention; that is really the whole point of this entire process, for which the vision quest is the culmination. Delineating a circle is merely a way of creating a safe, intentional space to meditate on your problem. Creating your circle, crafting it into a sacred space, will formulate the beginning of your journey, giving you time to settle into the gravity of the moment and to mentally prepare for the experience.
During my search for the perfect location for my vision quest, I kept my sacred circle in mind. I knew I wanted a space big enough to stretch out and sleep in, and to keep a small pack with my water, cookstove (for tea), journals, sleeping bag, and other miscellaneous necessities close by. I wanted a flat space for my circle and a tree close by for shade. When I finally left camp the day I chose to start my vision quest, I timed my drive and hike to arrive ahead of sunrise.
I brought some items with me that I’d acquired in the 4 weeks leading up to my quest, various interesting rocks, and sticks I’d collected during my excursions, and a few things I’d carried from home. I used these special totems to define the four cardinal directions of my circle, combing the forest around my chosen location to collect additional stones, branches, and pinecones to fill it out.
Step 3: Entering the Circle
When it was complete, before entering, I walked around the outside, stopping at each of my totems to express my gratitude. I said a prayer to the universe (my version of God) before entering through the Eastern door at sunrise.
All of this seems very woo-woo and hocus-pocus, I’m sure. I must admit to being a little self-conscious, even as I was going through the motions. I’m not religious, though I feel a strong emotional connection to the natural world. At heart, I’m a scientist, and I believe what my eyes and verifiable research tells me.
Initially, when first thinking and reading about such spiritual ceremonies, I too dismissed them as ridiculous. But the more time I spent in nature, leading up to my 3-day quest, the more I began to feel grateful for the peace and sanctuary I felt when I was out in the forest. More and more, I wanted to honor that feeling and acknowledge it, even if it felt a bit silly. And, as I constructed my circle that morning, with dawn breaking around me, my self-consciousness diminished to be replaced by a feeling of tranquility and belonging.
And my circle held power, I have no doubt. I sat in my circle for almost 72 hours, leaving only for a quick dip in the lake or to relieve myself. It formed a protective barrier around me. Birds and other wildlife avoided my circle, running around it or perching on tree branches and peering in. Sometimes they even investigated the totems I’d used to define it.
Once, a couple arrived to swim at the lake. They saw me in my circle and very purposefully moved to the other side of the lake. They stayed only long enough for a short swim, then left as quickly as they could.
Tip: In order to make your circle feel more meaningful, take a few items with you that are special to incorporate into it. When I first made my packing lists, before ever leaving home, I included a few natural items that held significance for me – a long tube of weathered gray stone from Alaska, broken into thirds to reveal clear quartz crystal inside; some sticks of driftwood I’d collected on a Washington beach with my mom; feathers from a red-tail hawk I found working in northern California; bristlecone pine cones scavenged from the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains; and a few shells collected in Maui with my husband.
Step 4: Wait for your vision to arrive.
As I’ve pointed out previously, there are different ways to embark on a vision quest, and your journey may look very different from mine. The path I chose was one of self-reflection, and I opted for fasting to help clear my mind and achieve clarity. I fasted for 72 hours, allowing myself clear water as needed (extracted with a water filter from the lake I camped beside) and 1 cup of chamomile tea each morning.
Some people may choose extreme physical exertion (such as walking or hiking long distances) to accomplish the same goal. Mind-altering drugs, such as peyote, are sometimes employed by shamans and other spiritual seekers to achieve a deeper level of consciousness, or in an effort to evoke an actual vision. Though I have heard fasting can induce such visions, I think that happens most often with complete fasting – both food and liquids – and suspect it is a symptom of dehydration. I opted not to go that route since I was alone and would need to hike out afterward.
I tried to enter my circle with an open mind and a ready heart, but being a realist I had no grand hopes for an actual vision to show me the way. I had just spent a little over a month reflecting on my life to this point, considering the mistakes I’d made and the choices I had going forward. I wanted my time in the circle to give me an opportunity to sift through all those thoughts and considerations and use them to find my own answers. I hoped that the gradual decline of my metabolism would force me into a sort of meditative state, where the patterns of my life might coalesce to reveal an obvious path. I knew I held the answers in my own mind—I just needed the time and space to find them.
That was the vision I sought.
I passed my time in the circle reading through journal entries, writing, gently stretching my body, napping, meditating, and listening to the forest around me. In the end, I had no great vision; no grand revelation. I did, however, have a few revealing insights about myself, which caused me ultimately to make some pretty serious and lasting decisions about my life. I left my circle with a feeling of confidence and acceptance that I definitely had not felt before stepping in.
Tip: Embark on your vision quest with an open mind. Try not to focus on the outcome, but immerse yourself fully in the process. As your thoughts clarify and your defenses diminish, the answers you seek will find you. It is a personal journey. Make it your own.