Thursday, 8 April 2021

Crying for a Vision…

Phil: I was looking to the West, but I had no idea if the sun had gone down...

The day had been grey and cold and overcast and, as the sky darkened into night, it got colder, and the rain and wind set in. I was sitting on a rock in the foothills of Cnicht in Snowdonia, overlooking the estuary that passes Porthmadog and pours into Cardigan Bay. I was wrapped in a builder’s tarpaulin that had been my only shelter for four days and nights. I hadn’t eaten in all that time, just water. Water, water everywhere and I really couldn’t face another drop to drink. I was wearing every item of clothing I had with me and still the cold ate into my tired and achy bones. My rucksack beside me contained my entire world. Everything that had kept me alive for the past four long days was inside them and, as I sat on the cold, hard rock, it never occurred to me that maybe I should get my sleeping bag and mat out and try and keep myself warm through the long night ahead… As the darkness crept in and the rain hammered down, I wrapped the tarp tighter around my shoulders and prayed for the night to be over… 

 

This wasn’t what I’d had in mind for the final night of my Vision Fast when I signed up to do it. I’d envisioned a warm, calm, starlit night of blissful serenity and peace, as I stayed awake in the heightened state of having fasted for four days, crying for a vision… The instructions were clear and my dream of a ‘peak experience’ was equally clear. I would stay awake all night. I would be visited by clarity and wisdom and ‘know’ what my future direction should be. I would turn to the East in the middle of the night and await the rising of the sun, knowing that it would bring enlightenment with it. I would then walk back into the base camp as the day broke, to break my fast and re-join my questing companions before returning to the house where we had prepared, to tell our stories and return to our lives utterly changed... In short, I’d envisioned it all being simple, clear, perfection. A night of beauty. A culmination. A celebration. A vision… 

 

What I got was the longest, hardest, most uncomfortable night of my life. A night which I spent most of huddled under that tarpaulin crying for it to be over. Shivering with near hypothermia. Vomiting up the stomach acid that had built up in my gut over the days of fasting. Desperately holding my hand in front of my face, swearing to myself that the second I could see it without a torch, I was making a dash for base camp… It was, without hyperbole, a long, agonising nightmare… And… it was exactly what I needed it to be. It was the vision I needed. It taught me so much about myself – about who I was, who I no longer needed to be, and who I needed to become. It was real. It was grounded. It was earthed. And it was the most important night of my life to date. Now, six years later, I find myself – with some astonishment – sitting alongside my life partner, Fern, as we offer Vision Fast ceremonies for those who feel called to step into them. It is a privilege and an honour to hold space for people and guide them through this most profound, challenging and enriching of rituals. It is work I feel I’ve been walking towards all my life. And that night on that mountain side was a crucial first step in my journey…

 Fern: I first came across the powerful ceremony called Vision Quest in a book called ‘Presence’, a transcript of a series of dialogues between four prominent leaders based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

They were talking about the Vision Quest in terms of how leaders might have an embodied experience of their true and eternal connection to the living world and, by so doing, be in a position to make better decisions about leadership in service of life instead of coming from an exploitative, extractive mind-set. At the time I was Fellow for Wales on the Clore Leadership Programme. I decided I would adopt a methodology of ‘synchronicity’ – trusting and following where the universe guided me. This journey took me to hidden depths and wayward places – and to my first Vision Quest, undertaken with the guidance of David Wendl Berry. It began what was to become a year-long immersive investigation into the nature of leadership – and to a total break from everything my life had been up to that point. In stepping into my first Vision Quest, I stepped away from my first life and moved towards what was to become my second... 


I went on my first Vision Quest for many reasons. I knew I was at a turning point and was wanting guidance in whatever form it would show up. The Vision Quest - which having now trained in guiding the process I like to call a Vision Fast or Solo Quest in Nature - is a powerful initiatory ceremony. It initiated me into the second part of my life. Over the next seven years, my life was to change radically from what it had been before. The secret longings and dreams I had hardly dared to share with anyone now became what I wanted to manifest and to finally live. I was inviting myself, challenging myself, daring myself to grow up. I don’t say this in any flippant manner. The Vision Fast can be undertaken at any time of life. Traditionally it would have been a ceremony to witness and support the maturation of the child and to welcome the young adult, inviting them to take their place in their community in order to be of service to their people. At the heart of this powerful ceremony is an invitation to step into who we truly are, who we were born to be in order to bring our unique and specific gifts into a world that is longing for us to do just that.

I vividly remember taking the train to Barmouth in North Wales from my home in Swansea. In my rucksack I had everything I needed to keep me safe, dry and warm for four days and nights of fasting in the sun and rain on a Welsh hillside. I went with excitement but also fear. I had so many fears – of the dark, of the cold, of getting lost, and of a four-day empty belly. All of these fears were real. The Vision Fast is the enactment of a ritual death. We let go of who and what is no longer needed for our journey forward into life. So yes, the ceremony is one of severance but it is also one of stepping towards a new relationship to life and self. The Vision Fast is a time of death-birth, as with all powerful initiations and rites of passage. 


My time on that Welsh hillside fasting was rich. The lessons given to me in those four days and nights took a good seven years to incorporate into my life. And, ten years on, I am still that wide-eyed, unsteady new born that tottered off that hillside. They say, that to undergo a rite of passage is to be twice born. The first birth is the one which brings us to Earth, the second is a more conscious birthing which enables us to finally meet ourselves and our unfolding and emergent nature. I am so happy I got the chance to do this before I die. 

 

Since that first time ‘crying for a vision’ exactly ten years ago - after vowing never, ever, under any circumstance to do it again - I am now making preparations for my fourth Vision Fast in May. Each is different. Each is beautiful and powerful in its own way. Each time I am given just what I need. I take out my fears, my questions, my insecurities, my yearnings, and I lay them down on the earth. I sit with them. Hold them. Cry with them. Let them go. I have now had the enormous gift of having been a mid-wife for other initiates. I have sat in circle, apprenticed to and assisted my original teacher, and been taught by some of the most gifted and sensitive hearts I’ve ever met at the School of Lost Borders in California where this particular form of wilderness work was honed. 

 

This year, in June at the Summer Solstice and in September we will take a new cohort of initiates out for four days and nights onto a hillside in mid Wales… Maybe you will be there with us… Maybe this ceremony calls to you… Maybe now is the time for you to be twice-born… If it is, then we have a space in the circle waiting for you… 

Get in touch for a conversation and follow the links for more information on the two Rites of Passage in Nature ceremonies we offer: 

Summer Solstice Vision Fast . June 2021

Space for Change. July 2021

Autumn Vision Fast. September 2021 

Phil Ralph & Fern Smith

emergence-uk.org

Monday, 1 March 2021

Is the chrysalis cracking? - Musing on the future in the time of Covid

As we mark a year of the world living with Covid-19 and all of it’s effects on how we live, and as Fern and I personally approach the launch of our latest projects, we look at what has happened to us, what the future holds and living into the new…

O Brave New World...

Phil: As the anniversary of the first lockdown rapidly approaches, and as the current ‘wave’ of the pandemic rolls on and ever on, Fern and I often sit down together of an evening and wonder about the future. 

It’s obviously too early to say what will come next or what we will learn from all of this. And the differing opinions on whether or not we will go back to ‘normal’, or what ‘normal’ even means anymore, are likewise infinite and only add to the exhaustion…

With all of that said, we feel a strong pull to chew over what this year of loss, change, insight, and fear has brought us, and how we can begin to step into the uncertain future when the road ahead seems so very, very unclear… We begin with an image… but first some context...

All this past year since our last blog post ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, (where we found ourselves stopping, letting go of ‘doing’ and simply listening for what comes next), we have mused on how we feel these personal and global events rest on a spectrum of a rite of passage. After all, we are rites of passage guides (among the many other things we do) and if Covid-19 hasn’t been a rite of passage for humanity, then it’s hard to know what would be.

Lockdown in the UK in March 2020 felt like ‘severance’ or ‘separation’, the first phase of a rite of passage where, in the tradition in which we work - as taught by The School of Lost Borders - the initiate leaves behind the life they know and steps into the unknown. Everything we thought we knew about ourselves and the world was forcibly removed from us and we were left wondering what the future would hold and, most importantly, who we would be in that far off time…

As the weeks spread into months, we found ourselves accepting that we were in 'threshold' time, the dark, slow, painful, middle space of a rite of passage, where initiates face their darkest fears and spend four long days and nights alone in the wilderness with minimal shelter, crying for a vision. Threshold – literally named after ‘the threshing hold’ where wheat is separated from the chaff – is where we face ourselves in the clearest way possible, no illusions, just who we are in the face of adversity.

One thing is commonplace to all who pass through threshold initiation: we know we cannot return to the way life was before. That life is gone. As Leon Wieseltier says in his beautiful book ‘Kaddish’ – “The old life was a good life. But it is no longer available to you. It has been carried away irreversibly.” So, we must go forwards into the uncertain future.

With all of this in mind, and as we process the enormous changes that we have personally gone through, we find ourselves like the initiates packing up our makeshift camps, readying to depart from our ‘solo’ time and trudge back to the blessing circle and our community. We are exhausted, afraid, filled with trepidation and also exhilarated about stepping into the new unknown of ‘what comes next’…

Blessing circle - Emergence Vision Fast 2020


Now, as the world turns, ‘roadmaps’ out of lockdown are produced, and we come to realise that Covid (and all its various mutations) is most likely here to stay, we are contemplating emerging into what we refer to as ‘incorporation’. In this third and final phase, we tell, for the first time, the story of our own experiences and take on the hard-won lessons from our threshold time - and begin to try to live by what we have learned…

And so, the image we are sitting with is that of a chrysalis, the nascent butterfly within beginning to chafe against the strictures of its safe space and feeling the need to emerge. In order to reach this point, the original caterpillar has literally broken itself down to its DNA and reformed itself as an entirely different creature altogether. Now, in the most dangerous moment of all, it must face emerging into the new reality – soft, vulnerable, inexperienced… This is where we are now, collectively. How do we go forwards when things are so uncertain? Do we have the bravery to imagine what the future might look like? And are we strong enough to step into it? That’s what we’re here to work on…

Fern: It’s been a long time since we shared ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’! I thought we would have written a follow-up blog long before now. Phil and I had talked a little about perhaps writing ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ 2, but it always felt a bit presumptuous – like we already had a sense of where we were going and how long it might take to get there. Sometimes when the conditions are very specific, the cloud doesn’t shift, it just sits there.

I’d initially thought it would have shifted by the Summer of 2020, the Autumn, the Winter, surely by the New Year of 2021? A fresh start, a new beginning. But no, still the Cloud of Unknowing stuck around. The festival of Imbolc usually heralds the first signs of Spring in early February. But then arctic East Winds, sub-zero temperatures and floods hit many areas of the UK. Like a second Winter. Spring has been a long time coming.

Walking through the winter fields


We’ve spoken about writing an Emergence blog for some time now. We had spoken about this blog heralding the launch of a new season of work and offerings for 2021. But something told us to hold back. There was some preparatory work which needed doing first.

Through the dark Winter months, I’ve been waiting, hibernating, clearing, preparing and making ready for this time. Knowing that one day it would feel right to emerge.

During lock-down we found ourselves unexpectedly becoming custodians of a very large garden. We have taken on a loan to buy the beautiful place we’d been renting since the Summer of 2018. The work of ‘Pulling out the weeds, hands in the earth, planting seeds’ that I spoke about in the last blog has become increasingly significant as we daily tend and grow the garden and care for the surrounding woods.

The garden at The Barn

We trusted that there would be a time to plant seeds, but it wasn’t during those dark days. There was a forest of bamboo to clear, to dig out the strong, dense mass of roots. There has been a mass of leaves and last year’s brown matter to clear and compost. There have been brambles to clear, revealing a wash of snowdrops down by the river. Clearing away, cutting back the deadwood so that one day in the future something new will grow and it will have the space it needs to grow into what it will become.

Preparation is a slow process not to be hurried. Patience needs cultivating. And trust. These past few months, I have increasingly been saying to myself (and others) ‘keep your nerve’.

Last week, the frogs were busy in the garden pond. There were maybe 40 of them. An increase in temperature and wet conditions made the conditions just right. Perfect for a riotous mating season which went on for five days and has just now abruptly stopped.

And today, I feel it. Today I saw my first bee foraging in a bunch of deep purple crocuses. Then, my first primrose and a couple of early lambs.

On a more profane note... We even had our septic tank emptied for the first time yesterday. That’s 750 gallons of old and inherited shit which has literally been sucked up and is now gone from the premises enormous thanks to Abba Drains. There couldn’t be a better metaphor for being primed and ready for what comes next.

The shitman cometh... and 700 gallons of shit goeth...

The caterpillar is emerging. The chrysalis is cracking. We are in the early phase of ‘incorporation’ ready to take on our new identity, role, venture.

And now to plant the first seed…

Phil and I are launching a new venture – a space, this house with its beautiful adjoining converted barn. This will be a place for making, for ceremony, for nature connection, for rest, writing, and residencies, for soul and spirit connection for individuals and small groups…

In this space carved out by the Pandemic – of stopping, of letting go of expectation and outcome, something has emerged – a new space. A Centre for Emergence – a dream many years in the incubation. 

The Barn - a new Centre for Emergence
We have been painting, decorating, cleaning, plastering, furnishing. A new space is coming into being out of this most improbable of years. This was the thing we secretly hoped for but hadn’t dared dream. We are emerging from the chrysalis. Newly shaped, skins still thin and vulnerable. Stepping into a new phase – we have been individually and collectively initiated into a new way of being. We are not who we were, we cannot do what we did though we might try and return to the old normal. We are not quite yet who we will become. But given time…

We are committed to being here in this not-quite, almost-there space. We hope to welcome ‘artists in residence’. We are planning to offer creative, nurturing and transformative experiences. Over the coming year, we are planning to offer a Summer and Autumn Vision Fast, A Space for Change and Bardsey Time as well as supporting solo or group, self-guided residencies and retreats.

The world and all of us will never be the same again. We are learning what it is to be fully human in this time of flux, change, fluidity. I think we all have thinner skins, we are all finding our form, our way, our shape… Perhaps this is the learning of this lifetime. How do we become fully human in these times in which we are living? How do we allow the disintegration of who we were, in order to become who we will be? Let the chrysalis crack and see what emerges…

Fern & Phil 

For more information about The Barn – The Emergence Centre for Making, Being & Doing click here

For more information on our two Vision Fasts for 2021 click here

For more information on Space for Change 2021 click here 

For more information on Bardsey Time 2021 click here