The Vision Fast
The Obsidian Vision Fast is based upon the ‘bare bones’ ceremony taught to us by the School of Lost Borders, who have their home between the Sierra Nevada and Inyo mountains of northern California. The founders of the school, Meredith Little and Stephen Foster PhD, based their wilderness rites of passage ceremony in part upon that of the indigenous peoples of North America, some of whom were their friends and teachers.
The Vision Fast is an initiatory ceremony which takes place in the natural environment. Similar to other nature-based indigenous rites of passage throughout the world, it is a vehicle for marking transitions or a transformation. As well as this, it is also used when people wish to seek guidance, both for personal reasons and to help their communities.
Philosophy of the Plains Peoples
To understand the origins of the Vision Quest or Fast, we should know something of the philosophy and cosmology of the First Nations peoples whose ceremony has been adapted for contemporary society. While beliefs varied greatly between the different communities and nations of north America, there seems to be a common thread linking their philosophies. For example, rather than a god or gods, the peoples of the Great Plains held the concept of a unifying principle. The commonly used term ‘Great Spirit’ is a simplification of the concept that the Omaha people name Wakonda, which is akin to the idea of a permeating life force and regulating element of the universe. There is an implication that this force is possessed of awareness and intent.
This helps us to understand the significance of the natural world in the Vision Fast, which is an active participant in and co-creator of the experience of the initiate.
Many ancient peoples had nature-based belief systems or philosophies. There was an understanding that life was a Great Mystery, and that there were special ways of perceiving the world outside of everyday reality that could be a source of valuable knowledge and wisdom. In addition, everything in the world was seen as being connected, hence the phrase "Ho to all my relations", a salutation to all beings and elements of the natural world.
For the peoples of the Great Plains, the dual purpose of undertaking a vision quest was in order for the quester to gain personal empowerment and to return with something of value to their people. We retain this dual purpose in our contemporary Vision Fasts because it instils a greater sense of purpose and self-worth in participants.
There are of course many different approaches to the Vision Quest, but all require preparation to bring the initiate to a state of readiness to enter and perceive the liminal ‘dreaming’ landscape of the Vision Quest. Preparation entails clarifying one’s Purpose or Intent, and gaining the knowledge of how to go about seeking in the mysterious unknown. We teach the Four Shields, which acts as a kind of map to help participants navigate the symbolic landscape of the Fast. It also gives us a shared language or shorthand and aids in the development of Intent.
The disruption of daily routines and other distractions help to shift participants into the right frame of mind to undergo a Vision Fast. The School of Lost Borders refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to explain how the required state is achieved. For the solo Fast, participants deprive themselves of basic needs: food, shelter, community; which in turn sets up an internal tension by creating an illusion of danger, an uncertainty that we do not commonly experience that “heightens the receptivity of the individual to altered states of awareness through a suspension of socially sustained modalities of interaction.” (Irwin, 1994, p. 85)
The purpose of fasting is to experience the physical and psychological effects it produces. Firstly, there is an emptying out, where the body is freed from the effects of the usual digestive processes. Secondly, the preparation and eating of food is part of the daily routine for most of us. Disrupting that habit (sometimes a joy or a chore) frees us from the taken for granted, and from mindless consumption. Without the necessity or even possibility of food we may seek sustenance in other ways.
“Without food in its belly, the human psyche ‘eats’ memories, sensations, emotions, feelings, thoughts, illuminations and prayers; it ‘eats’ the landscape… Fasting erases the boundary between the self and nature. The person who returns from a wilderness fast may have a hungry body, but the soul, the mind, and the spirit has been fed” (Foster & Little, 1996).
“The encounter with the sacred is charged with power, mystery, and transformation… the visionary experience involves the crossing of a critical threshold from the explicit world of the everyday to the implicit reality of the visionary world.” (Irwin 1994)
Intent is held lightly throughout the duration of the fast and there can be no predetermined outcomes to the quest. The seeker must attempt to enter a state of mind conducive to expanding their awareness, and this can take some time, which is partly why a full Vision Fast usually lasts for three or four days and nights.
The liminal landscape of the Vision Fast is identical to the waking world at one level, but involves an expanded degree of perception by the seeker. Accounts of Native peoples say that when an initiate went into the wilderness alone, they would enter a state known as Nózhinzhon (Irwin, 1994), the literal translation of which is “to stand sleeping”. It can be likened to “dreaming awake”, a state of awareness brought about by the practice of quieting the mind and shutting off the internal dialogue. In everyday awareness, our internal dialogue continually constructs and bolsters the realities we inhabit. Maintaining the world takes much of our energy and attention, so the practice of quieting the internal dialogue enables us to save that energy. This stored energy can then be deployed to shift awareness, enabling a different reality to come to our attention.
What we expect, anticipate, and believe, determines what we are able to perceive. If we can suspend our usual knowing about the world in a spirit of radical openness, then we are no longer confined by our rational assumptions about the world. We don’t take the same beliefs about the world into our dreaming state during sleep; perhaps because we see the waking state as real and the dreaming state as imaginary, although there is probably less difference between the two states than we might think.
By suspending disbelief and allowing the possibilities available to us in our dreaming states to enter into our waking awareness, our perception can expand. We can cross the threshold into the mythos and allow a more magical, symbolic, and mysterious world to become available to us. The possibilities for human experience and consciousness may be far more expansive than we have been led to believe.
Upon their return, the elders would help the visionaries make sense of their visions through further inquiry; “The meaning of the encounter” says Irwin, “is sought through continuing reflection and dialogue with experienced elders” . Obsidian’s contemporary Vision Fast utilises the School of Lost Borders’ mirroring technique in the storytelling sessions following the solo Fast to offer participants different perspectives.
The knowing that comes from these liminal encounters could have a profoundly positive effect on the individual’s sense of self-worth and connectedness with the world, and enabled them to return to their communities with ‘gifts of power’ and a renewed sense of meaning, purpose and identity. The same is true today as participants of contemporary Vision Fasts recount similar experiences.
The historic information about Vision Quest experiences of the peoples of the Great Plains comes from the invaluable book by Dr Lee Irwin, The Dreamseekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains (1994). Irwin discusses his historical ethnographic study, comprising the experiential Visionary accounts of America’s First Nations people spanning 150 years.
Castaneda, C., The Eagle's Gift, 1981
Castaneda, C., The Fire From Within, 1985
Foster, S. & Little, M., Wilderness Vision Questing and the Four Shields of Human Nature, 1996