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

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