From Thursday 14th to Sunday 17th April 2022 I joined a “Vision Quest”, organised by Chief Jeremy Gordon of the Lakota tribes of the USA.
The dates co-incided with a number of major religious festivals around the world, including Easter (Christianity), Passover (Judaism), the month of Ramadan (Islam), Mesadi and Hanuman Jayanti (Hinduism), Vaisakhi (Sikhism) and Mahavir Jayanti (Jainism). It seemed to me like an especially auspicious time for this event.
A Vision Quest (“Búsqueda de la Visión” in Spanish) is a tradition found in many Native American cultures and is historically considered a rite-of-passage whereby adolescents pass from childhood to adulthood. Nowadays people of various ages and nationalities are welcome to participate (with the permission of the organisers, of course). In my group, the ages ranged from approx. 25 to 45, with people from México, Chile, USA and England.
This is how it went:
The Sunday before I did my first “Inipi”, which is a traditional Native American sweat lodge. A round frame about 1½ metres (5 ft) tall and about 4 metres (13 ft) in diameter is constructed out of wooden sticks and then covered with thick blankets. Around 20 of us squeezed inside: all sitting, with not enough space for lying down, and the roof is too low to stand up. With only one door in and out, it can feel a bit claustrophobic, especially if you’re at the far end with half a dozen people between you and the door!
Before this, around 30 stones have been covered with firewood that has been set alight just outside the Inipi. After about 2 hours the wood has burned down and those rocks are now very hot! When we are seated inside the Inipi, about a dozen rocks are brought into a shallow pit in the centre that are then sprinkled with sacred tobacco, plus a huge bucket of water is placed nearby. The door is closed, the singing and chanting starts, water is splashed on the stones and it gets HOT!
I mean, REALLY HOT! The hottest experience of my LIFE! And not just heat like a sauna, but also humidity from the water, like a steam room and sauna combined! And not just for 5 minutes either… For about an hour in total!!
There were 4 sessions, back-to-back, of about 15 minutes each, with the door opened between each session. I had to leave early during the second session as the inside of my nose and mouth got so hot I felt like I couldn’t breath!! Not a nice feeling!! But I went back in for the third and fourth sessions, this time with the knowledge that if I put my head lower when needed then it makes a huge difference… like a drop of 10-20°C just by putting your head nearer the ground!
After that introduction to a sweat lodge, came the Vision Quest, starting on Thursday. Before that I had much preparation to do.
The tobacco plant is considered sacred to Native Americans, as a way to connect with the “Great Spirit” (God). You will probably already know how they smoke it in long pipes (chanupas) and use it for their ceremonies. The type of tobacco they use is, of course, very different to a modern, packaged cigarette, which contains many additives and chemicals. They use dried tobacco leaves in their more natural form.
As part of the preparation I made 405 “Prayer Ties” that are different coloured pieces of fabric with a small pinch of tobacco placed in the middle of them, which is then tied to a long piece of cotton thread. As you create each Prayer Tie you say a small prayer. The colours were Red (signifying East), Yellow (South), White (North), Black (West), Blue, Green and Purple, with the first four colours signifying the four cardinal directions in the Lakota tradition. I made 100 prayer ties each of the first four colours, then just 2 each of Blue and Green and finally 1 Purple to finish.
I also made seven fabric “flags”, attached to sticks that I had found myself in a forest: Red, Yellow, White, Black, Blue, Green and then a larger Red one with a feather and shell attached, that was considered my staff.
This all took many, many hours and felt like a prayer and meditation practice in itself.
The Vision Quest
Thursday morning and it was time to begin.
I went to the location, where someone called Alberto had a house and small plot of land next to the mountainside just outside the city of San Cristóbal.
Around 2pm, myself and my fellow “Visionaries”, numbering around 18 in total, entered an Inipi for two sessions.
After that, the Vision Quest had begun. We were not to speak unnecessarily or make eye contact with anyone. We walked up the mountainside and settled in our individual spots, close to each other, but far enough away so that you couldn’t see anyone else.
Then I hung up my 405 prayer ties in a circle around me, got my plastic canvases and sleeping bag organised, and stayed there for just under 3 days (about 70 hours).
Three days and three nights on the small mountain with no tent (just a sleeping bag, blanket and plastic tarpaulins) and with minimal distractions (phone stayed off, no reading of books, no writing or drawing in notepads).
But also, no food.
You fast for the three days.
Ok, I thought, I can manage that. I’ve done 1 and 3 day fasts before, and even once did a 7 day liquid-only fast, so I can handle this, no problem.
But also, NO WATER.
For three days and three nights.
Now that sounds difficult.
But ok… Let’s try…
Thousands of other people have done this, including people I know, so it’s clearly do-able…
What followed was probably the biggest challenge of my life so far…
The hot, sunny days were fine: I hung a blanket in the overhanging trees for shade.
The cold nights were fine: I had a good sleeping bag.
The lack of food was ok: I’ve experienced this before, although I did have an upset stomach for about 6 days before the event, which didn’t help.
The lack of water… I’ll admit it. I was worried. Could I do it?
I should say at this point that I wasn’t in any real danger, insofar as I could, whenever I wanted, break the fast (and leave the Quest) by simply walking the 10 minute trail back down the mountainside to Alberto’s house. But I wanted to push myself. I wanted to finish what I’d started.
I sat it out. I sat in my little prayer circle for 70 hours, only leaving it to go to the toilet. I meditated, I prayed, I watched the birds in the trees, I watched a squirrel munch on a cactus flower, I watched the sun move through the sky and then the almost-full moon follow it during the night. And I occasionally managed to get some sleep on the hard, uncomfortable ground. And I tried not to think about food and drink too much.
Thursday night, Friday daytime and night and Saturday daytime and night came and went.
My throat and mouth got dry and uncomfortable. I had occasional stomach aches. I thought about quitting many, many times.
Sunday morning finally arrived. I packed up everything and awaited my “rescue”! Around 11am one of the Quest “supporters” (Spanish: “apoyos”) came to help me carry my stuff back down the mountainside.
Back at the main camp, I asked if I could have some water now? “Not until after the Inipi”, I was told.
That’s right… Not only do you not have food or water for three long days, but the whole experience starts and finishes with a sweat lodge!!
I started to think this was all too much…
I sat outside the Inipi and watched my fellow Visionaries enter, while debating with myself about whether to go in or not. I was weak, I was tired, I was thirsty and I was afraid.
The chief was sitting outside. Maybe I should tell him how I feel? There would be no shame in sitting out the final Inipi. I had already achieved a lot.
I stayed quiet. Ok, I decided, I’ll go in. If it gets too much, I can just leave early, like I did last Sunday. But I can at least try it and see how I get on. And I’ll sit with my head as low as possible to make the heat more manageable!
I was one of the last ones in and got a good spot near the edge and near the door. The stones, water and ceremonial tobacco were brought in. It got VERY hot and humid. I put my head down, started breathing deeply and waited for it to finish!!
The first session completed after maybe 10 minutes. One final session to go. The door was opened. Then to everyone’s sheer delight and ecstasy they started to pass cups of cold water and pieces of fresh fruit around the Inipi!! Words cannot adequately describe how amazing that experience was. After about 18 of us had done a complete fast for almost 3 days, plus 1½ sweat lodges, to then be presented with cold, pure water and pieces of mango, pineapple, oranges, watermelon and papaya was… Beyond words!!
Instantly I started feeling better. I’ve done it! The fast is over!!
A fresh batch of hot stones were placed onto the old ones, the door was closed again, and we did our final session of singing and chanting in the hot, hot sweat lodge.
Then we each emerged, crawling out on our hands and knees through the small door, blinking in the sunlight, like newborns entering the world.
We had done it!
Next followed a celebration: more water and fresh fruit around the ceremonial bonfire, followed a couple of hours later with cooked food at Chief Jeremy’s nearby house.
Vision Quest: accomplished!
I first heard about Vision Quests about a year ago, when I was in Dharamshala, in the Indian Himalayas. Back then I thought it was something I wanted to try.
Then here in México, my friend Edith mentioned she was doing a Vision Quest and put me in touch with the local people who were organizing one. It felt right to do it, especially on such auspicious dates.
How do I feel as result of it?
I feel that I faced many fears during the event. I had stomach issues for almost a week before the Quest, so I felt I wasn’t at my best physically, which didn’t help. But I wanted to push myself. A few days before the event I saw someone wearing a T-shirt saying “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” I found that inspiring.
Many times I thought of quitting, so that I could drink and eat and rest. But I kept pushing on. Participating in a big group helps, as you can feel the mutual support from one another. And the fact that so many people had done this before me meant that it was possible, physically. It was the mental doubts and fears that needed confronting.
It’s a cliché I know, but I feel stronger and wiser for the experience. I now know better what I can endure physically and feel like I am mentally stronger now too, having confronted fears and pushed on through anyway.
It was a really life-changing and life-enhancing experience.
Thank you for reading!
Peace 🌈 Love 💚 Unity 🌍🌏🌎