I wasn’t prepared.
And yet, I had no real good choice: continue my Masters in Ecopsychology Program at Naropa by embarking on a curriculum-required vision quest, or drop out.
I didn’t want to go and felt it was fraught with uncertainty and as frivolous as it was woo-woo, flakey, New Agey. I couldn’t see how it was an essential component of my two-year degree program.
And yet, there it was, facing me down as I turned in my withdrawal form. Just one more signature and I’d be out of the program, moving onto another master’s degree, into something more tangible, perhaps.
I’m no quitter. After I slept on it, I withdrew my withdrawal form, announced my intention to finish, packed up my backpack, and joined my cohort for a vision quest out in the desert boundary area between Eastern Utah and Gateway, Colorado.
That decision was a literal life-changer.
For seven days, our ecopsychology cohort sat listening to the elders leading our quest, writing, sharing in council practice, and undertaking reflective ecopsychology meditations reconnecting with nature. In between, I began to fall apart, breaking down all over the red sands of that canyon.
I’m sorry, I just can’t hold it together, I would utter in council practice each morning. Embarrassment and humility became my new companions. As I camped under the bejeweled desert sky, lizards appeared in the midst of my breakdowns, cocking their heads and staring at me from granite rocks.
Seven days later, we ended our group time. Everyone had chosen their solo spot throughout the canyon. We were given ceremonies we could employ in our time of solitude. I undertook them with the fervor of a woman in desperation.
The precise moment of the cumulative effects of stepping away from my life coalesced into a profoundly deep and transformational event. Life broke open. After three days of fasting, the last of which was an all-nighter for which I was anxiously prepared, I sat along the banks of Dolores Creek. Under the moonlight, a song poured forth from a lost place within. It was a familiar song to anyone steeped in Buddhist traditions, but one which took on a new tone as life opened up:
Om na ma shi vaya…
I belted it out, verse after verse, in the ebony of midnight. Over and over, I chanted and sang the same words, until they became a visceral part of my being.
Om na ma shi vaya…
I was fairly certain that my song could be heard throughout that canyon, but equally convinced, it was preferable to wails and sobs of a woman breaking down.
Unobstructed song kept pouring forth as the waters of Dolores Creek flowed, carrying with them clarity of purpose and depth of being. I knew, finally, the work I needed to be doing in life. More importantly, I knew that I had abandoned myself, and it was within that vision quest, that my sense of self returned.
Sometimes, our wants in life can build like a wall from which we block deeper knowings within. In order to accommodate the demands and constructs of society or appease the anxieties of another to stay in intimate relationships, we give away parts of ourselves.
Then, we don’t know who we’ve become, and we’re fairly certain that we don’t even know how we got where we are. In the density of confusion arise familiar modalities and personalities, none of which reflect our truest self but are a restricted, tailored version. We think we can carry on this way in perpetuity.
Until the moment arrives when after answering opportunity and honoring intuition, we take a step out of enduring life. We unpack it all. Allowing life to rest and rhythms to slow to the breeze of the cottonwoods along the banks of a creek, messages float in. Allowing space for them to arrive on the air like a gentle breeze in an ancestral canyon; the soul can hear soft whispers of deeper truths for which we all long.
I’ve always said: Naropa destroyed my life.
And then: it’s up to me to rebuild it.
There were many moments in those four years following my vision quest and aptly-named spiritual awakening within, in which I struggled to live through or succumb to moments in which my future was as uncertain as the experience was devastatingly intense. Moments in which the pain was so deep and enduring, I contemplated ways to end suffering.
I think of the myriad of people enduring trauma, suffering, pain, and anguish over the plight of our present-day predicaments, and my heart goes out to them. If I could speak any words of wisdom to them, I would offer the same as were uttered to me at the time:
There is a light at the end of this dark tunnel.
All of my own personal turmoil began with that vision quest. Arguably, it began well before, when the struggle to live in authenticity and vibrancy were met with inexhaustible conflict. However, they were built, and no matter the details of the pain endured by many on the planet at this time, pain is simply that: pain.
Life broke open for me at two o’clock in the wee hours out in the desert canyon of Eastern Utah. Thereafter, it was as messy as it was clarifying. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the certainty of knowing or the life of purpose I lead now. Often, I wish it had been easier, the experiences gentler, or the pain not so deep.
I feel sheer gratitude for acts of forgiveness for the choices I made on the selfish act of saving myself, perspective on the priorities of life, and the simplicity of joy found in every beautiful day.
Vision quests and ensuing spiritual awakenings may not be for everybody. They must be supported and guided by mindful and competent professionals, something I wish I had had more of. Hailing from spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples, they are opportunities to learn more about ourselves than we realize.
At the end of the time, we get to know ourselves in clear, deep ways. Like any other psychological-based undertaking, they will return to us as much as we are willing to put in. And sometimes, all we need is to open ourselves completely to the experience and surrender to the messages before us.
Life will lead us the rest of the way.