Four Days in the Woods – Part III

Lessons from a Vision Quest

Day 2 – The South

The South is the color red, water is its element, and it symbolizes summer, passion, love and moving toward maturity. Day two began before daybreak and before any birds began singing. It was as still as it could be in the forest, as if it was still asleep. I was thinking how nice it would be to have a glass of water.

Suddenly, about thirty yards in front of me due south, a deer’s white tail flashed and it bounded off to the west. It was too dark to see it other than the white tail. Just to be sure I was aware of her, she bleated a warning call. If you’ve ever heard a deer make this sound it is quite eerie.

So right out of the blocks on the South day, I have a deer out there with me. What is her message? The symbolism of the deer is gentleness and the energy of the heart. It represents grace, determination and compassion both to one’s self and to others. If you look into the eyes of a deer, especially a doe, you can almost feel the love emanating through them. They are gentle, beautiful creatures. This seems like a rather appropriate message on the South day with love as the theme!

Lesson 6 – Love Thyself

There is something even more significant about the deer for me personally. When I found out that my Vermont vision quest had been cancelled, I was struggling with what to do. Part of me wanted to just go to Vermont by myself and sit in the woods. I had been so determined to make it happen. I drove home from my office that day with all of these thoughts of what to do next bouncing around in my head. I turned into my driveway, pulled into my garage, got out of my car and looked out. Standing on the edge of my driveway looking straight at me in broad daylight was a beautiful doe. I have seen deer in my yard but never at that time of day and never in that area. It was a clear message to me to be gentle with myself. I decided in that moment to surrender to the situation as I described in the first lesson.

I believe deer wants to teach us how to be compassionate, gentle and loving to ourselves as much as we possibly can. By filling our own tank with love, we have that much more to give back to the world. It’s hard to give when your own tank is empty!

Deer also wants us to look at life through eyes of love and compassion. This is much easier to do if you understand the connectedness of all of life. Loving your brothers and sisters is loving yourself. Hating your brothers and sisters is hating yourself. This is the very message taught by some of the world’s most revered sages and saints. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and Buddha taught compassion to all beings. You can find this message in the lives of so many great teachers like Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, and on and on. So the next time you see a deer, please remember this urgent message that will one day help bring peace to the world.

Having a lot of time on my hands to observe my surroundings, I often looked down to see what was happening at the micro level of the forest (and often to flick off an ant crawling up my leg). On this day I noticed two tiny ants trying to move something under the leaves. It was a dead fly about 10 times the size of these ants! They tried and tried, but it was just too awkward for them to deal with.

Then along came a large black ant. It went straight for the fly and began its attempt to pick it up. This ant was about the same size as the fly, but apparently flies are super awkward things for an ant to carry. It tried one way, then another, then another. It seemed like the same fate would befall this guy as did its much smaller relatives. But finally it managed to start walking away with the fly! I watched this ant, carrying a huge, awkward load, maneuver through a crazy obstacle course of leaves, twigs and other little things that on a human scale would be impossible to get through. It made its way to the edge of my circle, climbed over my prayer ties, and kept going. I decided to follow. I figured it was heading to a nearby nest with its prize. About 10 feet away, the ant arrived at a huge oak tree and started to climb straight up. It was amazing to watch. It actually stopped about six feet up as if it needed to rest. Then it continued up the tree. It stopped again for a few seconds, then continued until it was out of sight. I have to assume its colony was up there somewhere and it was bringing back a huge treat for all of them to enjoy.

Lesson 7 – Be Persistent

My lesson from the ant is that nothing happens in life without effort. And with consistent effort, you get positive results! Visioning is a critical first step in creating your life a certain way, but until you actually get out there and make something happen, it will just stay a vision waiting to be born into reality. Obstacles always come along, and often to the point of failure. But if you keep trying another way and hold onto your vision, success is just down the road. I’m sure there have been many people that gave up on an idea just short of success. Some of the best examples of “ant-like” humans are Thomas Edison, who failed 1,000 times in his quest to perfect the light bulb, and Walt Disney who went bankrupt with his first business, and nearly went bankrupt again even after hitting it big with Mickey Mouse.

The ant provides not only a great example of persistence and never giving up, but also one of service for the greater good. I don’t believe the ant I observed was taking that prized meal off to hoard and enjoy by itself. Ants function within a community and everything they do is for the benefit of the whole. There is no such thing as a selfish ant. If there were, it would not survive for long!

Day 3 – The West

As the sun dropped lower and lower in the sky, I heard a crow calling from the west. Normally I wouldn’t think much of it, but normal doesn’t apply to my current situation! It just so happens that when the sun sets on the South day, the West day begins as it ushers in the darkness. The West is represented by the color black. Crows are black, and this crow called out from the West. Coincidence? I decided to simply pay extra attention to the new day (night actually) that was about to unfold.

The West also represents autumn, maturity, experience, expertise and a time of strength and balance. It’s a time to share your wisdom with the world, and a time to become aware of your own mortality (uh oh – don’t crows symbolize death sometimes?). West brought darkness to my circle and a major drop in temperature. I guess it really wanted me to feel its autumn nature! I retrieved my sleeping bag from my tent, wrapped it around me, and sat with my candle for several hours into the cold night. I reflected on the past two days and realized I had gone with no food or water since walking out here. I was actually amazed at how good I felt. My friends and family must have really been praying for me. But I had two more days to go. Maybe tomorrow will be the big challenge?

When I woke up the next morning, the air was thick and the temperature had risen significantly. I stepped out and could sense that the sky was heavily overcast although it was pre-dawn. It was a really different feeling. As daylight crept in, I observed that the forest remained quiet. It was like someone forgot to set nature’s alarm and everything was still asleep. No squirrels, fewer birds, no butterflies, just a damp quietness. I knew I would have an interesting day of weather!

Lesson 8 – Enjoy Life’s Simple Things

With the forest activity nearly absent, I decided it would be a good time for some simple contemplation. It felt like this is what the West wanted me to do today. That was my first simple thing to enjoy – quiet! With our lives so constantly busy between work, kids, family etc. we rarely get moments to just be with ourselves with no distractions. It was a great lesson to feel such gratitude for something so simple. And I received clarity on a lot of stuff that I had brought out there with me to boot!

Then another simple joy was brought to me by the West. RAIN! I had been given a stainless steel bowl in the event this happened. It’s the only way to have water on a vision quest without breaking your fast, as long as you pray over it before drinking. Well I was praying alright – for every drop that hit my bowl! I can say without a doubt even though the water was a little dirty and metallic tasting, it was the best water I ever had. I vowed to never take water for granted again.

Toward the end of the day, the best gift of all came. My wonderful guide Cynthia arrived carrying a bowl of “medicine” for me. This medicine was in the form of hot chicken soup! It was to begin preparing my body for re-entry the next day when I would be taking in larger amounts of food. This was my first meal in three days, and I can’t even begin to describe the joy of every mouthful. I was actually giddy! Of course I first prayed over the soup and poured out more gratitude than I had ever given before. Thank God for chicken soup!

We live in a country where food is so plentiful we don’t think twice about throwing it away. When was the last time you offered sincere gratitude before a meal? I would like to suggest that you think of all of those in the world (who we are all connected to) that routinely go days without food – and not voluntarily like I did. I am blessed for this experience to show me how important it is to be grateful for everything we have in our lives, especially the simple things!

Lesson 9 – Love like the Rain

As I sat under my umbrella late in the afternoon of day three, with rain gushing down over me (and into my bowl!), I thought about the deer again and the South day of love and compassion. Love and rain. Then I thought about how nature pours its nourishing rain over everything without discrimination. There isn’t a creature or a plant that the rain goes around so that it can’t be nourished. The nasty weeds get the same water as the beautiful flowers. The same can be said for sunshine.

What about us? Do we love everyone the same, or do we pour it over some and withhold it from others? That just isn’t natural! Our egos have taken us out of our natural state of love which we come into this world full of. Do we not all come from the same creative Source? I like to think of humanity like waves in an ocean – connected and inseparable from the whole, yet each with its own unique characteristics.  If that were the case, how can you withhold love from your fellow “wave” without withholding it from yourself?  If we thought of others this way, maybe we would be more inclined to pour our love over everyone and everything with no restriction. Perhaps someday we will find our way back to our natural loving selves. I believe our survival depends on it.

Day Four – The North

Like the West day, North begins at sunset. But the clouds were still so thick I had no idea what time it was! I had no watch or phone so I had been using the sun to gauge time the last two days. It was a strange feeling to have no idea of the time – but there was something liberating about it as well. So I did my best to estimate sunset, and I bid farewell to the West and thanked it for providing a wonderful day of nourishment and contemplation. My guidance came from within on this day. The only lesson from my animal friends was to stay in if the weather is bad!

The North is the final day. The color is white and the season is winter. It’s a time of darkness, quiet, slowing down, and going within. It’s also a time to reminisce and to share our wisdom and experiences. Like a crocus bulb, it’s new life lying dormant, waiting for the right conditions to sprout forth. My interpretation of the North day was to get some rest, reflect on the past three days, and decide what to do with the many gifts I had been blessed to receive.

The feeling and smell in the air as I settled into my tent that evening meant to me that the rain wasn’t finished with me just yet. A rumble of thunder in the distance confirmed it. My thoughts of a peaceful night of rest were soon shattered by a crash of thunder and a flash of lightning seemingly right on top of me. The rain poured down so hard I thought my tent just might collapse. Thank God I thought ahead to secure a tarp over my tent just in case this happened. I love thunderstorms but they are better observed from a safe, dry shelter then from inside a little tent! The thought of my water bowl and my empty chicken soup bowl filling with water made it totally worth it though. I listened to the rain well into the night. I think it was pounding in the lesson that I had just been given!

When I finally emerged from my tent in the morning and stood up to greet a beautiful, clear sky, I thought I was going to pass out. The lack of food, water and rest for 3 ½ days had finally caught up to me. My fuel tank was barely on reserve and all I could do was to go sit in my chair. Today was my final day. In a matter of hours, Cynthia would be coming up the hill to bring me down to the sweat lodge where a small community would be waiting to welcome me back and hear about my experience.

Then I looked down at my water bowl and the soup bowl. They were full! The storm that kept me awake last night left a beautiful gift for me. It was well worth the lack of sleep. I prayed and gave deep gratitude for that simple rain and gulped down the water.  Considering I would be heading into a sweat lodge later in the day, I needed every drop.

Feeling slightly rejuvenated, I thought about the rest of the day. The North is about sharing wisdom that has been lying dormant. It was at that moment that I decided that I would share what I had learned in the last few days – not just with the handful of people waiting for me at the sweat lodge, but with as many people as I possibly could. I needed to write my story. For the remainder of the morning, I broke out my pen and some paper and prepared my teachings.

The Sweat Lodge

Around mid-day, Cynthia arrived wearing a long, flowing red dress and carrying a ceremonial drum. It was time to go. We walked out together and when we got close to the sweat lodge she began to pound on her drum and sing a beautiful Native American song. I wish I knew the words. I covered my head with a towel before entering, as I was still in solo mode and was not allowed to see anyone yet. I found my spot in the lodge and waited for the ceremony to begin.

Soon there were 10 glowing hot rocks in the center pit. After a blessing to the four directions, mother earth and father sky, Cynthia doused the rocks with water four times. The hot steam seemed to go right through my body. It was pretty intense in my condition. After a song devoted to the East and the passing of the sacred pipe, she asked me to share my lessons from my first day.

At the conclusion of the East round, the door was opened and most people went outside for fresh air and water before the next round started. I didn’t realize that one of the guys had stayed outside during the first round. He later told me that while I was sharing my lesson of the butterfly inside the lodge, two butterflies, one black and one yellow, fluttered down the hill from the woods heading straight for the lodge. He said they flew to the fire, which he had never seen a butterfly do before, and upon reaching it rode the heat wave straight up without flapping their wings. Once the heat carried them as far as it could, they flew off back toward the woods. Another random coincidence from nature? Or was it a confirmation of my lesson for the group? I know what I believe, but I will let you draw your own conclusions.

After three more rounds in the sweat lodge (and drinking lots of water), I finished sharing my lessons and had finally completed the Vision Quest! Little did I know there was still one more lesson to come.  With what tiny bit of energy I still had, I went inside and took the greatest shower in history, followed by a plate of the best food that I ever ate.  Then Cynthia told me that she had a gift for me. She disappeared briefly then reappeared carrying what she called deer medicine. It was a mounted deer head! . I couldn’t believe another deer had come to me – this time to be with me forever.

“Deer Medicine” – My Gift from Cynthia

The most interesting thing about this deer was that it had small, forked antlers. Who mounts a fork horn buck? Usually the expense of mounting an animal is reserved for a bit more of a trophy. Then it hit me. I had hunted for many years in my youth, and the first deer I ever shot was a fork horn buck! I told this to Cynthia and she said, “It’s a full circle now – he has come back to you.” I felt that I had made peace with the deer spirit and could now fully embody this beautiful spirit and share its wonderful lessons. I think deer’s lesson of love and compassion is the most important one of all, and to me this was certainly confirmation of that!