by Paul Chefurka: From Saturday, August 1 to Tuesday August 4, 2009 I went on a vision quest. What follows are some of the highlights of that experience…
For those unfamiliar with the term, a vision quest is the aboriginal tradition of a personal, spiritual quest alone in the wilderness, often in conjunction with fasting, lasting for a number of days. It is traditionally a turning point in life taken to find oneself and establish or clarify one’s intended spiritual and life direction. Traditionally, a Guardian animal will come in a vision or dream, and the one’s life direction will appear at some point.
As my spiritual path has developed over the last couple of years, it has expanded from its initial roots of Deep Ecology, Taoism and Zen to include an aboriginal shamanic element. In order to develop this thread, I decided over a year ago to do a vision quest. When I felt that the time had come, I chose to do it in the woods at the back of my parents’ farm in Southern Ontario near London.
When I arrived, the place I had chosen was so perfect it felt manifested. It was secluded and beautiful, just inside the tree line of some gentle unused woodland adjacent to the back meadow of my parents’ farm, only a fifteen minute walk from their home. Just off the deer path from the meadow into the woods was a Druidic circle of trees where I set up my camp. That section of woods was anchored by three enormous, ancient beech trees that appeared to be grandfather, father and son. The grandfather tree, which had passed on, stood beside my camp. Piles of slash and deadfall nearby provided fuel for my campfire. Two chainsawed tree stumps became a meditation seat and a table for my water jug. The paths that had been cut through the woods a few years ago were lined with wild red and black raspberries.
I took no tent, just a piece of plastic for a rain shelter (that I didn’t end up using). Creature comforts consisted of a sleeping mat, a single blanket, a change of clothes, a lighter for the campfire, and water.
I was welcomed by soaring turkey vultures, which showed up even before I arrived at my parents’ farm: three were floating above the concession road as I drove in. One flew over low as I unloaded my car. A pair flew low near me as I set up my camp, and as I walked out to the edge of the meadow one of them circled me for a better look.
That first day was jangly, with lots of racing thoughts. I started by establishing a sacred circle around my camp, and opened the space well enough that I felt the presence of spirit guides and guardians aplenty. At dusk Earth Mother had put on a welcoming show in the woods and the field beside my camp – the most magnificent visual feast of fireflies I’ve ever seen.
My rational mind wasn’t too concerned about my safety – after all, we’re talking about the “wilds” of Southern Ontario farmland, not the Rocky Mountains. However, I discovered that my rational mind goes to sleep when the sun goes down. I spent the first hours of the first night imagining that every shadow was a black bear, that every swaying bush was a bush wolf, and that every rustle of leaves was a cougar slinking in. I started imagining what a cougar attack would feel like – the slicing tear of claws into my stomach, the remorseless crush of jaws around my neck. Once I was thoroughly panicked I got out my Swiss Army knife, heaped wood on the fire and peed all the way around my sacred circle. As it turned out, the fiercest ground-dwelling fauna I saw the whole time were a chipmunk, an annoyed black squirrel and a white-tailed doe with two fawns…
I had made a firm decision to track time only by the movement of the sun, but in the middle of that first night, in the grip of my inner fears, I lost faith and needed to know what time it was. I’d stashed my watch in the end pocket of my duffel bag for the duration, so I picked up my flashlight to find it. When I snapped on the light, it revealed that end of the bag covered by a seething carpet of black ants. They weren’t on anything else in the camp, just that one pocket that held the watch. I burst out laughing, and told Her, “OK, OK, I get it – no watch!” I never saw any other ants during the rest of my stay.
I spent the days meditating, both in sitting meditations and walking meditations along the forest paths. Because of the great weather and the solitude I also spent a fair bit of time nude, and I chuckled to myself about the stereotype I created in the process: a middle-aged, pot-bellied bald guy standing naked in front of a campfire in the woods beating a native drum and chanting…
By the middle of Sunday a deep peace had descended. The solitude was a huge gift – whenever I emerged from a very deep meditation into that wordless state of pure Being, I wasn’t pulled out of it by the need to communicate.
When I wasn’t in meditation most of my thoughts had an ecological theme. Given the setting and my personal concerns that’s not too surprising, I suppose. Many were about humanity’s impact on the natural ecosystems we have pushed aside in our determination to claim the planet as our own. Sounds became very prominent out in the woods, and there was an insistent contrast between natural sounds like the wind in the trees and bird songs, and the constant drone of internal combustion engines. The intrusive sounds of aircraft, trains, cars, trucks, motorcycles and chainsaws came to symbolize our headlong destruction of the natural world.
On one of my meditation walks I stepped from the end of a forest path into a barley field ready for harvest. To a farmer’s eye it was a perfect field – utterly weed-free, dense and uniform, the heavy heads of grain bent in submission waiting patiently for the combine’s knife. However, as I stared out over that table-flat sea of monoculture I suddenly understood that I was looking at a factory – a carbohydrate factory. Worse than that, because increasing food supplies drive our population ever upwards, I was actually seeing a people factory. The contrast between that carbohydrate desert and the climax ecosystem of the forest I’d just stepped out of was physically and spiritually agonizing. The pain stayed long after I had turned and plunged once again into the soothing woods.
On Monday the visions came. First there were two in the morning, and after each one as I lay on my mat staring up into the trees, the vulture that had visited me when I arrived came and circled twice low over the canopy of leaves. A third vision came that night at sundown. The message was, “If you wish to travel this path, you must accept that all the shadows of humanity, even the very darkest, live within you. You must acknowledge and integrate all of them in order to become whole.” I think it’s going to be a long journey.
On Tuesday I did a very long walking meditation, and then sat in meditation for an hour or so. When I stood up my hands began to pack up my camp. There was no decision, no questioning, no talking myself into staying or leaving – I was simply complete. I closed the sacred space, drummed and sang once more once more to the spirits that had guided me, and hiked back to my parents’ house.
As my parents and I sat around a light lunch in their sun room facing the back of the farm I saw the vulture soar in over the distant tree line and circle above my empty campsite. I felt a twinge of regret that I wasn’t out there to say goodbye. Three minutes later there was a flash of movement in the window, and I saw the vulture flying low towards the house. He circled right over the house and gave me time to run out onto the back lawn. I looked up as he soared less than 50 feet above me, the feathers on his six-foot wingspan individually visible. He cocked his head and for a moment we stared straight at each other. Then he lifted his head, dropped a bird bomb on the maple tree beside the house and flew away.
I’m still speechless. I feel a deep gratitude to everyone who has supported me in this journey. Thank you to the Earth Mother and the Sky Father, to the Goddess of the Moon and the God of the Sun; to the spirit guides who held me as I worked; to my ancestors and those who walked that land in ages past. Thank you to the four spirits I chose to frame my quest: Awakening in the East, Passion in the South, Grounding and Homecoming in the West, and Wisdom in the North. Thank you to my totem animal, the turkey vulture, especially the one that stood watch over my quest. Thank you to my teachers, both living and passed on, and to my parents who held space for me even though they didn’t know what that was. My deepest gratitude goes to my partner, lover, teacher, guide and soul-mate Estelle who showed me the path and helped me realize why I should walk it with her.