Tom McGee, L.C.S.W.
I would like to begin this paper by addressing three questions: 1) What is a vision quest and what does it have to do with our conference theme of sustainability? 2) What does a vision quest have to do with intersubjectivity? 3) Why did I decide to do a vision quest at this time in my life?
1) What is a vision quest and what does it have to do with sustainability?
Many people equate the term “vision quest” with the Native American ceremony known by that name. Anthropologists created this term to describe the initiation rite of some Native American youth who, with the support of their village, spent four days and nights fasting in the wilderness alone. When they returned, they told their story to their people. Their vision for the shape of their coming life was then acknowledged by the community.
The vision quest, as I have learned it, is comprised of three essential components: wilderness, fasting, and solitude. It includes six months of preparation, followed by four days and nights fasting from food alone in the wilderness. I have fasted in the mountains and deserts of California during my vision quests. I have been without food but drank water during the four days and nights of my fast. I have been without immediate human company but supporters were nearby in case of an emergency. The time in the wilderness is followed by a presentation of the experience to a community, which is the beginning of the “incorporation” period. Incorporation involves integrating the experience into one’s everyday world. This is a lifelong task.
The vision quest, sometimes called a vision fast, is conceived as a ritual dying to the life one has been living and rebirth into a new life.
The vision quests in which I have participated were supported by a diverse community of people who share this experience. Though we are influenced by the Native American practices, we do not pretend to replicate a Native American ritual. We acknowledge that people through the ages have fasted alone in the wilderness to clear their minds and gain a grasp of where their life is going.
I believe that the vision quest connects with sustainability in the following way. If we are to develop sustainable modes of living on this planet, we must shift our center of attention so that it is not solely focused on human concerns. In order to live sustainably, we must take into account the living requirements of redwoods, bears, squirrels, rocks, soil, rivers, and salmon. If we do not connect with these other entities in some meaningful way, how can we truly take them into account? Most people who embark on a vision quest of the type I am discussing experience a profound connection to the occupants of the wilderness in which they have become a temporary resident. A communication of sorts often occurs in which sensitivity to these other entities is heightened. Awareness of them, of their liveliness and life forces comes to the fore. This type of awareness, I believe, is essential to help us learn to live a sustainable life on Earth.
2) What does a vision quest have to do with intersubjectivity?
In using the term “intersubjectivity,” I am drawing from two sources. One is Robert Stolorow and his colleagues, who use the term “intersubjective,” “to refer to any psychological field formed by interacting worlds of experience, at whatever developmental level these worlds may be organized.” (Stolorow, et. al., 2002) These writers and others have been moving from a concept of the isolated individual, “toward a system-embedded, context-conscious sense of experiential worlds.”
The other source I draw from is the environmental philosopher David Abram, who, like Stolorow and his colleagues, draws significantly from the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to articulate his sense of intersubjectivity. Abram states, “My life and the world’s life are deeply intertwined . . . “ and, “The world and I reciprocate one another. The landscape as I directly experience it is hardly a determinate object; it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in turn.” Abram cites Husserl’s “associative ‘empathy’” by which “the subject comes to recognize these other bodies as other centers of experience, other subjects.”
It is the experience of intersubjectivity in nature, during which a person on a vision quest experiences one’s own subjectivity in relation to the other centers of experience in the surrounding wilderness, that is at the center of the vision quest. This experience of intersubjectivity is essential to the ability to connect with the surrounding environment in a meaningful way. It fosters reflection on one’s own life in the context of the living, breathing world s/he occupies. It enables an empathy that is vital to the search for more sustainable modes of living.
Since my first vision quest in 1996, I have embarked on a deepening of the already strong connection I felt toward nature. This deepening has a powerful element of intersubjectivity that I experience when I am alone in a forest or on a mountain, in a desert, beside a lake, or seated on a deserted beach by the ocean. In these places, there is a kind of communication between myself and my surroundings. I sense the pine, the chipmunk, the rough ground of the trail I am on. I also sense their experience of me walking through their neighborhood. This phenomenal field in which I walk is “no longer the haunt of a solitary ego, but a collective landscape, constituted by other experiencing subjects as well as by oneself.” (Abram,1996).
Recognition of this intersubjectivity is essential for the vision quester. It does no good to go to the wilderness and fast alone for four days and four nights if you believe that you are the only carrier of consciousness in the place. If you can’t recognize that there are other selves all around you, and that interaction is constantly occurring, you may “get away from it all” for a few days but you are unlikely to leave with the sense of profound connection that is possible.
3) Why did I decide to do a vision quest at this time in my life?
As I approached my sixtieth birthday, I felt the need for a meaningful event to sufficiently honor and embrace the sense of momentous change I felt in the offing. I didn’t want to resist healthy aging in my older years, try to stay youthful at all costs, and inevitably be disappointed that I grew older anyway. I wanted to embrace this time of potential growth and further development. In fact, I could be characterized as a youngster who’s been waiting to grow old all my life. I’ve always wanted to exist as a repository of experience who could use that experience for the benefit of others. One term for such a person is “elder.”
The concept of “the elder” has largely been lost in our youth-oriented, materialistic society, in which material wealth and good looks are valued over wisdom, relatedness, and compassion. The existence of the elder, one who comforts, nurtures, advises, and reflects, has faded from our cultural scene.
The disappearance of elders in our society has occurred along with a loss of community as our culture has moved increasingly away from sustainable modes of living. As communities have deteriorated, older people are often ignored or left alone. Some voluntarily enter residential developments that exclude younger people. For me, a sense of community includes living amongst people of all ages who share the various aspects of their developmental stages with each other, i.e. teens with young adults, parents with grandparents and children, elders with younger people, etc. A crucial aspect is the presence of elders in the community, not just people who have grown old. There are some, such as Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, who have been working to revive the concept of the elder in our culture and to bring it back as a viable mode of being as well as a worthwhile goal as part of aging. I have had my eye on this goal since my late forties.
I concluded that a vision quest would be a fitting event to mark my transition into elderhood. A vision quest was a likely option for me because it had the right mix of gravity, solemnity, ritual, joy, celebration, and stepping into the unknown. It would also put me in one of my favorite settings: a wilderness area in the mountains. I have chosen to present certain highlights of my vision quest in order to demonstrate how the vision quest can offer the opportunity to experience intersubjectivity in the environment.
RELEVANT HIGHLIGHTS OF MY VISION QUEST The Environment
My vision quest occurred in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains in California at about 9,000 feet altitude. From her previous experience of doing a vision quest there, my friend and guide, Farion Pearce, had dubbed the place “Grandmother Meadow.” The area was composed of rugged hillside dotted with a few small groves of pine. The hillside sloped down to a rushing stream below. Along the stream, which was to be my water source, willow and other plants flourished, creating a large swath of green that contrasted with the brown of the hillside, which was sparsely covered in sage and wildflowers. Snow-capped peaks towered over everything, creating a sense of majesty and splendor. The sky above these peaks was a brilliant blue with an occasional puffy cloud or two floating by. The weather was sunny, with the temperature in the seventies (Fahrenheit) during the day and in the forties at night.
The sheer beauty of this place invited a relationship from the beginning. Everywhere I looked I saw scenes of nature that filled me with satisfaction and peace. Despite the severity of the mountain landscape, there was a friendliness I sensed in this place and a gentleness that put me at ease and gave me a sense of timelessness and comfort. I am aware that some people might not feel so comfortable in a place like this but I felt gratitude at once for being able to experience such beauty, accompanied by calm and ease. I attributed these positive feelings to the place itself as well as my reaction to it. The space between us was filled with good will.
During my four days in this environment, I had many encounters in which I experienced myself in relation to the various others who dwelled there. I would like to describe a few examples.
When I first arrived at my spot in the Sierras, I set down my things and took out a rattle. I shook the rattle in order to move myself into the sacred, to reach for a sense of the spiritual aspect of this journey. As I was doing so, I caught sight of something moving out of the corner of my eye. I looked up the hillside and saw three deer ambling along a trail, regarding me with what appeared to be curiosity and suspicion. They walked slowly and carefully on the trail above me, stopping occasionally to stare down at me. I stared back. I experienced a heightened awareness and a sense of an extraordinary encounter. These deer seemed to take ownership of this place and conveyed a sense that I might be considered an intruder and certainly not a permanent member of this community. They walked with studied caution and perhaps curiosity. They did not hurry away or emit a sense of fear. Noticing their small antlers, I realized they were young bucks.
After they had passed, the thought came to me: young bucks, that’s what they sometimes call young men. I’ve mentored a lot of men and it occurred to me: who needs the presence of an elder more than young bucks? It seemed the deer passing through reflected and validated my purpose of transitioning into elderhood. My subjective experience of the deer was that their appearance was a sign of support.
Their appearance also brought me to the realization that I had been so wrapped up in my personal purpose that I had neglected to acknowledge my surroundings upon my arrival, a fairly typical mistake for humans in our culture. So I then took the opportunity to introduce my self to the space around me, to the trees, the stumps, the local denizens, and the spirits of the place.
During my four days in this place, I spent a lot of time pondering in a spot among the pines. The pines offered comfortable shade and perches for various birds who passed through the grove. I eventually became fond of lying underneath these beautiful, tall trees and gazing up into their branches. I felt warmly hosted by them as I did much of my thinking and musing.
There was a bird who apparently lived in this little pine grove. I don’t know bird species well but when I described the bird to a friend later, she told me I was describing a Clark’s nutcracker. This bird was black, white, and gray, about the size of a crow. It emitted a screeching sound at times and at other times more of a caw, like a crow. It was quite vocal and seemed to be talking to me or about me as it rested on the pine boughs above me. Over the four days, I developed an affinity for it and came to see it as my friend. It may have been protesting my presence there for all I know but it seemed to be responding to the fact that I was there and I responded to its vocalizations with increasing familiarity and warmth.
These are a few examples of my experience of relatedness to animals and other aspects of the environment I was in. These encounters included a sense of communication occurring between me and these “others” who were permanent residents of this place. The communication was not in the ordinary human sense of words exchanged to transmit specific ideas. It was more like the communication between two musicians during a duet or between a tree and the sun’s rays. Such communication does not have a clear, specific meaning like our human language does when we speak to each other. Nevertheless, a type of information is sent and may be received by a receptive listener.
When such communication occurs, relationship develops and so does a field of energy between the entities involved in the communication. This field of energy is an intersubjective field which can exist as long as the parties involved participate. My experience in the mountains is that I am sometimes aware that such communication is occurring. There are other times when I may be focused away from it, yet there can still be energy and communication transmitted by the others around me. When I am focused away from it, there are subtle parts of me, perhaps unconscious parts, that are still receiving and participating in the communication. Therefore, I might be sitting in the shade of a pine tree writing in my journal and focused on my thoughts. Meanwhile, I am still affected by the shade afforded by the tree, the smell of the mountain air, and the buzzing of the fly just above my head. We are still having some form of communication and some form of intersubjective experience.
As I go through my day, probably hundreds of experiences are affecting me in this way. Therefore, it might be helpful to present a sense of the rhythm of my days during this experience.
Rhythm of the Day
I would usually awake sometime between dawn and sunrise. I got out of my sleeping bag and came out of my tent to greet the pine trees in the grove where I was staying. Soon I would be swinging my bull- roarer and calling out my ancestors’ names, inviting them to join me in this day. Sometime after sunrise, I would go down to the stream near my camp and pump water from the stream through a filter to get my water for the day. The filter was a precaution against possible giardia or other undesirable organisms that might be in the water.
Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, I went to a designated spot on the edge of my fasting area and moved a stone off another stone. My friend and guide, Farion, who was camping with her husband nearby in case I were to need assistance, came in between those times to put it back. She knew that I was all right as long as I had moved the stone. This was my primary structure during the day. In addition, I ate a protein bar six times a day to regulate my blood sugar because I have type two diabetes. In my previous fasts, before this diagnosis, I did not eat anything. However, we determined that it was important to keep my blood sugar regulated so we modified the fasting conditions in this way. Eating the protein bars was my other form of structure.
Aside from moving the stone and eating the protein bars, my time was free. I often took a slow walk through my area in the morning and the afternoon, observing my environment and myself in it. I tried to be as open as possible to being in the moment and being aware of what was occurring around me. I might pause at one place for some time, just noticing things.
I also lay under the pine trees in my camping spot. This is where I did my pondering, examining the stages of my life, and allowing my mind to be drawn toward the sights and sounds around me. Sometimes I dozed a little. Sometimes my mind emptied and I was just “being” in that spot. It was sort of like meditation, except I allowed my attention to be drawn by the surroundings, which could activate thoughts and experiences. Most of the evenings I made a fire after the sun set and went to bed early.
Most of what I gleaned about myself and my life from this vision quest did not come as a sudden flash of insight or revelation. It was more like a slow realization, over time, during and after the experience. One could say that these realizations came out of the interaction between myself and the environment but were not necessarily an immediate and direct response from a specific event.
During my preparation time I was aware of certain experiences that seemed to pertain to my purpose. In reading about moving into elderhood, one of the principles that was impressed upon me was the importance of ancestors. As one writer put it, an elder needs to stay rooted in the past, rooted in the ancestors, and devoted to those yet to come. In this manner, the elder recognizes the transitory nature of our lives and the fact that we are each part of an immense stream of humanity that stretches from the beginning of human life on earth into the future. In facing our deaths, we become accustomed to the idea that one day we will be ancestors to those coming up behind us. The closer we come to the end of our lives, the greater the importance of being connected to the ancestors. I was aware of this on an intellectual level. I had been acquainted with these concepts for years before preparing for this vision quest. Yet in the preparation, it became more real to me and carried more of a sense of urgency.
My first experience in relation to ancestors came at the very beginning of my preparation period. I was invited to a meeting by a group of women who engage with the spirits of the world’s deceased grandmothers. Four other men and I were there to be acknowledged by these women as men who might join in the recognition of the power of the feminine in the world and the re-balancing of masculine and feminine energy in our culture. The women sang sweetly to us as they wrapped each of us in a gifted “cloak of comfort,” a sort of shawl, to acknowledge what they saw in us. I was very moved by these women and this experience. I sensed that this would have something to do with my vision quest so I decided I would take this “cloak of comfort” with me when I went to the mountain.
When I was there, I donned this cloak at special times. I wore it when I called in the ancestors to join me. I wore it as I lay under the pines and pondered the stages of my life. I came to find it comforting. It reminded me of the support of the women who had given it to me and I imagined that support arising from the grandmother ancestors with whom they engaged. Though it was a thin shawl, it provided a surprising amount of warmth and I found its softness nurturing.
Another experience during my time of preparation occurred a couple months before my time on the mountain. I was hiking in the mountains near my home when a fox appeared on the trail coming my way. The fox had a dead gopher in its mouth. We both stopped and stared at each other from a distance of about twenty feet. As we stood looking at each other, I experienced a heightened sense of awareness and a feeling that this was no ordinary encounter. I had hiked in this area for years and it was the first time I’d encountered a fox. It seemed like there was a brief sense of relationship between the fox and me. It seemed that the fox, also, was having some kind of unusual experience. I marveled at the fact that it even stopped and stared at me rather than immediately running from me. Then the spell seemed to break and the fox ran up the embankment next to the trail. It sat behind a bush, regarding me further. Then it ran up the hill and disappeared.
I consulted a source I use to find meaning in animal encounters, Animal Speak by Ted Andrews. It indicated that the fox can represent, “Feminine magic of camouflage, shapeshifting and invisibility.” It suggested that someone with a fox totem can help what is growing or changing in the world. The fact that the magic was labeled “feminine” fit with my experience with the grandmother group of heightening awareness of the feminine forces in the world. It seemed to me that the idea of helping what is growing or changing in the world could relate to the role of elder to which I was aspiring. I was also captivated with the idea of invisibility. I noticed on a later hike that, as I sat just off the trail to partake in a snack, two mountain bikers passed by me without seeing me. It struck me that I was invisible to them and that this invisibility is what many of the animals who hide just off the trail experience when hikers like me passed by.
On the first day of my fast, a middle-aged man walked below my encampment, apparently unaware that I was there. Was I invisible to him? Perhaps he saw me and decided to be polite and not disturb me by waving or staring. At any rate, I noted that this might be another experience of invisibility.
That night, I built a considerable fire in the center of my spot and sat wearing the cloak of comfort. I opened myself to feel what other presences might be inhabiting the spot. I sensed that the spirits of ancestors might be enjoying this fire with me. I looked up from the fire and noticed that, directly across from me, on the other side of the fire, was a young pine with a bare spot in its bark where there was a large knot. Someone had carved a face in that knot. The face had sad eyes and a frown. This was disconcerting to me. The face seemed full of woe and grief. I thought of all the suffering in the world, including that of the plant and animal worlds. I had a vague sense at that time that this face was somehow connected to ancestors but I wasn’t sure how.
On the morning of the third day, I was walking back from the spot near the entrance to the area where I moved the stone. I had left a quote for Farion that I had found in my scrap paper. I mused on the magic of having accidentally brought a quote that I wanted to share with her on this day.
Then it occurred to me how interesting it was that a little picture I had found in my scrap paper ended up on this mountain with me. The picture was of my only grandparent that I had never met, my father’s father, who died before I was born. I had placed the picture on the center of the altar I had constructed the day before on the trunk of a fallen tree. I realized that I was finally developing a relationship with this man who had not been part of my life except through his absence. This thought brought an upsurge of emotion which spilled out in tears and then sobbing as I returned to my camp. I arrived at my spot weeping and sobbing at how much I had missed in not knowing this grandfather of mine. I knelt before my altar where his picture laid in the center. I was overwhelmed with grief at the loss of a relationship with my grandfather.
I wept for my grandfather and for myself. I wept for the disconnection I felt with all my ancestors, recalling that the thin connection I had with my other three grandparents was broken when my family moved from Minnesota to California when I was fourteen. I wept for the disconnection with our ancestors among all of us. I wept for my daughters and my mother, who had little time together before my mother died.
I turned to the woeful face carved in the small pine tree across from my fire ring. It now appeared to me as the face of an aggrieved ancestor who was feeling this sense of disconnection from the other side. I named it “The Ancestor Tree.” I donned my cloak of comfort and swung my bull-roarer, sobbing, “my grandfather . . . my grandfather,” as I looked at the Ancestor Tree. I recalled that, in my preparation, I learned that an elder needs to stay rooted in the ancestors. I vowed, as an elder, to help younger people connect with their ancestors. I gave thanks for my cloak of comfort, which came from the grandmother ancestors. I realized that a major gift of this whole experience was a new desire and determination to connect with my ancestors.
As I was doing a breath meditation before sunset that evening, connecting thoroughly with my surroundings, I thought I heard a man and woman talking in the canyon below. I doubted there was actually anyone there. At any rate, I couldn’t see anyone. At this time, I realized that ancestors, to most of us, most of the time, are invisible. This is at least one significant aspect of the theme of invisibility that accompanied me on this journey. I realized that to practice invisibility is to put myself in the shoes of an ancestor, to see what it’s like to not be seen by living beings. I saw that this would help me to ready myself for the next developmental phase after elderhood, when I step out of the wheel of life and become an ancestor myself.
As I write about this now, I realize that the fox who initially drew my attention to this theme of invisibility made me aware of it in a striking way. My encounter with that fox provoked in me an interest in understanding and empathizing with animals who regularly seek invisibility for their safety in the wild. This heightened sensitivity to the theme of invisibility eventually brought me to a commitment to the human beings who preceded me in life on this planet, those ancestors who are now invisible to me.
My experience of hearing human voices in the canyon below me from a source I could not visually detect brings me to another theme and string of experiences that occurred on this vision quest. I have been asked, upon returning from a vision quest, whether or not I had a vision. It is my experience that “visions” come in various forms and sometimes the person who is on this type of journey doesn’t recognize the vision until after the four days have been completed and they have returned to their everyday life. On this particular vision quest, I would say I experienced the most extraordinary phenomena through the auditory channel.
On my first day, as I crossed a small brook that served as a tributary to the rushing stream below, I heard my phone ring. I thought I had turned my phone off and didn’t think phone service reached this area but my phone was in my day pack so I checked it. It was off. Yet I had distinctly heard it ring. I knew from prior experience in meditation that in silence, the mind can “hear” sounds that have no identifiable source so I attributed this experience to the action of my mind in the absence of much sound. Later during the walk, I thought I heard human voices singing. I again thought my mind was creating this experience of sound.
On the second day, I lay on a mat and listened to my bird companion squawking from a branch above me. After watching him a while, I lay back down. I heard music in the distance, then a female and male voice apparently talking to each other as on a television show. I recalled the sounds I had heard the day before and my rational explanation for them. Without rejecting that explanation, I considered another explanation. What if these sounds I was hearing were attempts of ancestors to contact me? I had no previous experience of ancestors directly contacting me and had very little reference for such a thought. Yet since I was here to be open to whatever arose, I allowed that thought to sit in my mind.
Later that day, I was reading some poems I had copied into my journal and I heard music. It sounded like an oboe or clarinet coming from the direction of the rushing stream below. Then it began to sound like a female voice. I knew I could choose to ignore it and go back to my reading but I decided to listen to it, really listen. The female voice sounded like she was singing words or talking musically in a strange language. I wondered: could she be an ancestor of this place? Could this be the grandmother of Grandmother Meadow? Perhaps this was already grandmother meadow when the source of this voice was alive. I later heard it again, then two female voices.
On the third day, after sunset, I heard party music coming from the ridge to the south of my spot. It sounded like there was a D.J., a deep male voice, on a public address system.
For me, hearing these sounds became part of the mystical experience of the vision quest. Sometime during the second day, I chose to stop my rational mind from trying to explain them away. I decided to immerse myself in them. I accepted them as part of my journey, without feeling the need to come to a definite opinion about them.
The Last Day
The fourth and last day of my vision quest was my sixtieth birthday. I awoke at dawn and peeked out of my tent at a pink horizon. The mountain ridge in the distant east still wore the black of night. Streaks of purple were interspersed with the dark pink glowing above the ridge. Having glimpsed this beauty, I could not simply lay down again and go back to sleep. I was so taken by this display that I sat up and watched it develop into a bright pink.
This beautiful vision of the dawn sky brought me back to the morning of my tenth birthday. On that day, I awoke at dawn to a thunderstorm outside the cabin where my family vacationed at a lake in Minnesota. I got out of bed after the rain stopped and walked into the stand of trees that overlooked the lake. As I looked across the lake, I was awestruck by the band of colors on the horizon. The sunrise was bringing pinks and golds into the breaking clouds over the lake. This was a sweet recollection of what I now identify as the first spiritual experience I can remember, which happened exactly fifty years previously.
Still enjoying this recollection, I now climbed out of my sleeping bag and emerged from my tent, savoring the pink on the horizon. I reached for a card my wife had given me to open on my birthday. The card had a picture of a boy, about ten years old, sitting on a log and fishing the stream below him while his dog looked on. I was astounded that this card, bought and given to me before I left for the mountain, portrayed a boy the same age as me in the recollection I had just experienced. I felt a deep connection with my wife and waves of love coming from her. This overwhelming experience of being loved brought tears and weeping. That I could be so loved was a miracle to me. The miracle seemed to have emerged from this place and my place in it as well as from my connection with my wife. As I looked out at the beauty before me, the thought occurred to me: nothing matters more than love.
I swung my bull-roarer to start my day and called in the ancestors. I thought deeply of each ancestor as I called their name. Waves of love and peace washed over me. From the ridge to the south, I heard what sounded like orchestra music that perfectly matched the peaceful feeling of love that swelled within me. I felt so blessed and fortunate to be here in this place on my sixtieth birthday having this experience. I felt immense love from all the people who were supporting me in this effort, all the family, friends, and colleagues and I felt tremendous gratitude for this love and support. The music I was hearing served as background and foreground for all of this.
Aware that this was my last day here, I visited a small waterfall which I had frequented during my stay. As I gazed at three little streams that poured into a small pooI, I experienced joy in response to its simple beauty. I was aware that the joy I felt was related to the connection I now felt with this little waterfall. The space between us was full of substance and meaning based on our previous encounters, during which I sat savoring its mesmerizing movements and melodious sounds. A sadness swept over me about leaving this place in the mountains. It was not only the waterfall I felt connected to, it was this entire area in which I had slept, walked, sat, pondered, cried, and marveled.
On the fourth and last night it is customary to stay awake all night. In the words of one writer, the faster is then “crying for a vision,” or “praying for a vision” for his or her life. I had not done this on my previous vision quests. I had always fallen asleep. So I was hoping that I might be able to stay up all night this time.
That evening, after performing a ceremony honoring my ancestors and elders, I wasn’t sure what to do next so I sat and listened. I heard very sweet folk music, the vocals being sung by perhaps two or three females and one or two males. They sang with beautiful harmony and lots of passion but I couldn’t understand any words. It was very sweet to hear this music. After praising all my ancestors and elders who had affirmed and confirmed me, this lovely music seemed very affirming.
I found the list of commitments I had written for becoming an elder. As I read each one, I solemnly put a stick in the fire. Then I walked the perimeter of the circle chanting.
After a while, I tired and lay down by the fire, tending it, and listening to the folk music again. Finally, I made out some words: “If you wanna get it going, get a stone cold rhythm.” It was a chorus the male and female voices sang over and over, in harmony. I had no idea what it meant. That didn’t seem to matter. Eventually, I sang along with them, alternating with the male and the female parts. Then I sat quietly tending my fire.
A bright moon worked its way across the sky. Out of the quiet, I heard a female vocalist sing a serious, forceful song in a minor key. A male vocalist followed the female vocalist, opera style. The singing was more understated than opera yet intense. A duet with the male and female voice followed. It seemed to me that at that very moment, while hearing this beautiful music and tending my fire, I made the transition from adult to elder.
I thought it would be wonderful if the next transition I make, from elder to ancestor, could be accompanied by such sweet music and such serenity. I savored it as I nursed the fire, trying to conserve my fuel so that it would last through the night. Eventually, I stood and walked the perimeter of my circle, chanting and singing until the first light of dawn showed. I had successfully stayed up all night.
I realize that there are many possible interpretations and explanations for my hearing these sounds during this experience. I have chosen not to interpret them or explain them to myself. I wish to hold the experience as valid in its own right, without having to have any formal position about it. My preference is to stay with the awe and wonder that it inspired in me.
I believe that this experience has facilitated a major shift in my development. I felt a sense of completion when it was over. When I returned to my community, I told the story of my experience to a group of interested supporters. They conveyed their support further by engaging me in a ceremony to acknowledge the rite of passage I had experienced. The ceremony also acknowledged my intention to purposefully enter into the stage of elderhood.
Since that time, I have been open to whatever experiences of elderhood might arise. I did not have a preconceived idea of how this would happen. Several young adults have approached me for guidance outside the realm of my therapy practice. A couple of them knew of my vision quest and my transition. Others did not. I have also, at times, envisioned my role as a psychotherapist as including the position of elder, especially when helping people in what I consider a developmental crisis or change.
Intersubjectivity Between Human and Environment
I would like to return to the comment by David Abram that I quoted as I began this paper. I am referring to Abram citing Husserl’s “associative empathy” by which “the subject comes to recognize these other bodies as other centers of experience, other subjects.” On my vision quest I recognized the pines, the waterfall, the Clark’s nutcracker, the Ancestor Tree, the deer, the mountain itself as other subjects who were frequently influencing my experience. They influenced my understanding of myself and what was happening. They influenced my thoughts profoundly in a way that contributed to my moving through this major transition in my life. I doubt that I could have been so affected by them if I had considered them mere objects, decorations which I observed and noted, then ignored. By recognizing their “subject nature,” I opened myself to the possibility of being transformed by my interaction with them.
There are many writers who are describing and commenting on the connections between human beings and what David Abram calls the “more than human world.” I have listed a small sample of them in my bibliography. Rather than discourse at length about them, I prefer to convey, as concisely as possible, the essence of their writings in a few poems.
The first is a poem by Nancy Wood, who lived on the Pueblo Indian reservation for much of her life:
My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me.
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.
This poem conveys to me the sense of interaction with elements of the natural world: a rock, a stream, the trees. The interaction leads to relationship. Relationship leads to a sense of connectedness and, ultimately, unity with, these elements. Finally, even when she leaves the mountain, the “help” is the kind she can, “take away with me.” It is not separate. It has become a part of her.
In a very real sense, my vision quest has helped me to “take away with me” the experience I had on the mountain, to the extent that I can revisit it at any time and also share it with you.
This next poem, attributed to Meister Eckhart, is a very succinct description of the history of western civilization in relationship to nature:
When I was the stream, when I was the
forest, when I was still the field,
when I was every hoof, foot,
fin and wing, when I was the sky itself,
No one ever asked me, did I have a purpose, no one
wondered if there was anything I might need,
for there was nothing
I could not
It was when I left all we once were that
the agony began, the fear, the questions came,
and I wept and wept. Tears
I’d never known
So I returned to the river, I returned to
the mountains, and I asked for their hand in marriage.
I begged, I begged to wed every object
and every creature.
And when they accepted,
God was ever-present in my arms.
And God did not say, “Where have you been?”
For then I knew my soul—and every soul—has always held God.
This poem has three distinct parts. The first part, ending with “for there was nothing I could not love,” depicts an idealized golden age, before there was a distinction between human beings and nature. Indeed, humans and nature were merged: “When I was the stream,” etc. It is a stylized way of saying there was a time when humans did not hold up their intellect as supreme and did not perceive themselves as separate from the rest of the world.
The second part, beginning with, “It was when I left all we once were,” describes the Cartesian split, when humans defined themselves as the sole holders of consciousness and, based on the premise that they alone could think, dominated the rest of creation. This belief, which mostly prevails today, has spawned the society that we now live in with all its benefits and tragedies. It has allowed us, in thinking of ourselves as subjects and everything else (even other humans!) as objects, to isolate ourselves and exploit others. As the poem depicts, such thinking has brought tremendous fear, agony, and grief.
The third part indicates an emerging consciousness, partially represented by this conference. It presents the possibility of a “return,” not necessarily to an idealized state, but to relationship, to communion, to a recognition of the intersubjective reality in which we actually live and breathe. It posits the possibility that we might “wed,” or re-connect with the entities around us which we as a culture have regarded as mere objects until now. These entities, long awaiting our return, might gladly accept us as beings with whom they can live in “co-subjectivity” again. Perhaps the “God” that is always there is also that living connection that has never really gone away except in the minds of us humans.
The last poem I would like to share is by David Waggoner, entitled, “Lost.” It addresses the experience of losing one’s way while walking in a forest. This poem, I believe, needs no interpretation or explanation. To me, it is simply an exquisite rendering of the living subjectivity of the natural world. I leave you with it.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
- Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage Books, 1996.
- Abram, David, Becoming Animal. Pantheon Books, 2010.
- Andrews, Ted, Animal Speak. Llewellyn Publications, 1993.
- Brown, Tom Jr., Awakening Spirits: A Native American Path to Inner Peace, Healing, and Spiritual Growth. Berkley Books, 1994.
- Coleman, Mark, Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery. New World Library, 2006.
- Foster, Steven and Little, Meredith, The Book of the Vision Quest. Simon and Schuster, 1992
- Kellert, Stephen R. and Wilson, Edward O., The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, 1993.
- Lipton, Bruce, The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, and Miracles. Mountain of Love/Elite Books, 2005.
- Meister Eckhart, “When I was the stream . . .”Published in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction. September, 2008, p. 24
- Narby, Jeremy, Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005.
- Plotkin, Bill, Nature and the Human Soul. New World Library, 2008.
- Sewall, Laura, Sight and Sensibility: the Ecopsychology of Perception. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.
- Shachter-Shalomi, Zalman and Miller, Ronald S., From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. Warner Books, 1995.
- Stolorow, Robert D., Atwood, George E., and Orange, Donna M. Worlds of Experience. Basic Books, 2002.
- McCarthy, Cormac, The Crossing. Vintage Books, 1994.
- Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind. Ballantine Books, 1991.
- Waggoner, David, “Lost,” in Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. University of Illinois Press, 1999.
- Wood, Nancy, “My Help is in the Mountain,” in Earth Prayers. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
If you would like to contact Tom McGee, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org