Lessons From a Vision Quest
Day One – The East
Each day of the vision quest is devoted to a specific direction, and each direction represents specific qualities. It starts with the east, represented by the color yellow, which symbolizes the rising sun, spring, new beginnings, and new birth. But before I could “officially” start my first day, I had one more task to accomplish: to create the circle in which I would spend the majority of my time over the next four days.
In preparation for the first vision quest in VT (that had been cancelled), I was instructed to create 405 prayer ties. There are one hundred yellow ties for the east, one hundred red ties for the south, one hundred black ties for the west, one hundred white ties for the north, and five ties of any color of my choosing. I chose green for the earth, blue for the sky, orange for the spiritual path, indigo for oneness, and purple for wisdom and enlightenment.
A prayer tie is a small, square cotton cloth with a pinch of tobacco in the middle and tied off on a continuous cotton string. A prayer is offered as each tie is made (yes, that’s a lot of prayers!). Why tobacco? It’s one of the most sacred plants in Native American culture and is used in various ways in most ceremonies.
With my prayer ties in hand, which I had wrapped around a stick to prevent tangling, I spread them out on the ground to form about a twelve foot diameter circle. I then found a flat, rounded stone about eight inches thick to place in the middle of the circle, and four smaller stones to place on the perimeter to represent the four directions. On the center stone I placed my candle, some feathers, stones, and crystals that I had brought with me. I placed my compact camp chair just behind the center stone facing the east. Now I was ready to begin the vision quest!
As I sat in my sacred circle, I began to focus on my surroundings. All around me was life – creatures crawling, flying and scurrying about, plants sprouting up everywhere, trees towering over me, and sounds of all kinds echoing through the forest. But at the same time I saw death. Within my circle was a rotten old tree stump, there were dead trees and branches around me, dead leaves blanketing the ground, and even a few dead mosquitos at my feet (sorry mosquitos!). I saw it all as a great circle of life. The true beauty is that nature doesn’t resist any of it. The trees aren’t trying to stop their leaves from turning color or from falling off! Nature is perfectly content to just go with the flow with no concern whatsoever of past or future – and hence no worries! In fact, I don’t believe past or future even exists in nature. Can you imagine asking a chipmunk what time it is? I think its response would be, “What do you mean? The time is now!”
For brief periods of time I was able to exist fully in the present moment with my surroundings. It was an amazing state to tap into and experience – complete freedom and peace. If I could figure out how to bottle that up I would be a gazillionaire! Most of our problems would vanish in an instant.
Lesson 2 – Be Present
How many of us spend most of our time thinking about what we should have done in the past or worry about what might happen in the future? Living in the past or future creates all kinds of problems for us – most notably anxiety, depression and stress. What if you focused completely on the present moment? How many problems do you really have RIGHT NOW? It’s amazing how we create problems in our mind just so we can worry about them. Most of the time what we worry about never even comes to pass!
There is no greater teacher about living in the present moment than nature. In nature, there is no other reality but the present moment. Plants & animals don’t toil about what should have been or what might happen next. They seem quite content to just BE. Humans forget that we are called beings, not doings! So the next time you start to worry about something that’s already happened (you can’t do anything about it anyway), or about something that hasn’t happened yet (it’s just your imagination at work), sit with a tree or plant for a while and learn what it’s like to exist purely in the moment. It’s bliss.
Lesson 3 – Have More Fun!
Have you ever seen two squirrels romping through the trees together? Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether they are fighting or playing, but the two squirrels in a nearby tree that I was watching sure seemed to be having fun to me! I enjoyed their antics for a few minutes then they separated and disappeared into the trees.
A little while later, some movement on the ground not far in front of me caught my attention. It was another squirrel (or perhaps one of the two) and he was hopping right toward me. He kept getting closer, and soon he was actually making his way up the path I had created into my space! He finally stopped just outside my circle just a few feet away, stared directly at me for a few seconds (probably wondering what in the world I was) then continued around the edge of the circle and into the forest behind me. It was as if he came to say, “Hey you, did you get the message?” Sometimes nature needs to hit you over the head a little!
So what were the squirrels telling me? Suddenly it became obvious. “You need to have more fun in your life, Bill!” Wow, does that message hit home! I’m sure it applies to a lot of us. Are we working too much and missing out on life? For what? To accumulate more stuff? Buy a nicer car? Get that dream home? Does any of that really matter at the end of the day?
I think squirrels are great teachers for us because they are one of the few animals that take time out of their busy schedule of gathering food to enjoy the moment and have fun. They really seem to have balanced lives. How many of us can say that? So listen to the squirrels and go out and do something fun today!
Lesson 4 – Transformation Comes From Within
Later that morning I noticed a black butterfly flying nearby. Maybe that’s another message? Soon after there was another, then another, then another. Ok, I better pay attention. They seemed to be on some sort of migration from south to north, flying directly across my view as I faced the east. Hmm – what do butterflies do? They transform from a caterpillar, to a chrysalis, to a beautiful butterfly. And what does the east represent? Rebirth, new beginnings, growth, transformation. Aha!
Then another aspect of a butterfly’s transformation came to me. It happens from within. They don’t go around trying to change the external world to accommodate their desire to change. The butterfly’s lesson to me is that if you want to see change – go within! Nature does this instinctively, but we typically try to change everyone and everything on the outside world to create a better life. How well does that work? How long does the new car, new house, new jewelry etc. bring happiness for? How successful are we at changing other people into who we want them to be?
If instead we listen to the butterfly and focus on our internal state of being, the outside will naturally take care of itself. “As within, so without” is an ancient teaching, stemming back to Socrates, Confucius, and many other wise teachers throughout history, that exemplifies this important life lesson. Thank you, wise butterflies!
Lesson 5 – Change Your Perspective
The animal associated with the east is the eagle. What makes the eagle such a powerful symbol is that no other bird can fly as high. In many Native American traditions, eagle is believed to carry messages directly to the Creator. So I thought about the eagle, wondering what it would want to teach me today.
I imagined flying on a giant eagle, just letting it take me wherever it wanted to. As we got higher and higher, I wondered what I was supposed to be looking for. Then suddenly we flew so high up I could no longer pick out anything specific to look at even if I wanted to. Then it hit me. I wasn’t supposed to see anything individually at all. Eagle was showing me that from this perspective, everything is just one. I was looking down at the planet and seeing that there is no separateness from here. Not from each other, and not from nature. Everything depends on harmony to survive.
Just think what our world would be like if everyone felt connected to everyone and everything on the planet? Our false belief that we are separate from nature and our brother and sister humans, in my opinion, is the fundamental challenge for the survival of our race and the planet.
With the eagle as our national symbol, perhaps we should start seeing things more from its perspective!
(To be continued…)