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Spiritual Journeys

Vision Quest
An informal guide to this ancient method of seeking



The purpose of this page is NOT to instruct you on how to conduct your own personal Vision Quest. Only you can do that, in your own way.

This is merely a discussion of Vision Quests. I am sharing what I know about them from where I stand in life -- from my own experience and point of view.

A Quest can potentially be a dangerous activity if you don't plan for it and follow some precautions, or if you're not ready.

In other words, should you choose to undertake a Vision Quest, YOU -- and ONLY you -- are responsible for what you do and what happens as a result!


Some preliminary notes...

I am not pretending to be an expert on every different tradition and how each does Vision Quests. This is not an anthropological document, nor is it an overview of various cultures or religions. This is simply me sharing insights and understandings from my own experience.

There is quite a "Vision Quest" business going these days. If you are contemplating this route, please bear in mind that you can't "buy" spiritual progress or enlightenment. The person who is guiding you on the quest, for a fee, in all likelihood doesn't know you, and therefore can't reliably structure the quest to suit your personal path. If you go this route, it is best to do all your own preparation beforehand, so that you are not manipulated into something that is not "you." Although, by definition, if you follow this route the Quest can never be completely yours.
Oh, and watch out for those who don't "charge" for the Quest but require a "donation." This is just a play on words. Unless they willingly take you without any money being exchanged, then it can't be a "donation."

A Vision Quest is by nature a solitary pursuit (with the optional oversight of a single person who you know and trust). A "group" Vision Quest is an oxymoron. It may be an intense experience for all involved, but it is not, and cannot be, a Vision Quest -- it is something else.

In the end, only YOU can do a Vision Quest for yourself. No one other than you can do it for you!


Thin layer of ice in late winter


What is a Vision Quest?

On the surface, a Vision Quest is when someone goes out into the Natural World or some other place alone and sits by themselves for 3 or 4 days, usually fasting while they are there. The idea is to go out with nothing but what they are wearing, or with an absolute minimum of things. It is a time of seeking; a "quest" for something, usually with a spiritual dimension.

On a deeper level, a Vision Quest is essentially a spiritual seeking of answers to questions, looking for a direction or path in life. It is a time when an individual retreats from the world to a place where they can be completely alone. Sometimes a Quest is done with specific ceremonies, sometimes not. Often the retreat time is accompanied with fasting, and sometimes not even water is consumed. A person spends the time in prayer, listening, seeking and inner searching -- in other words, "Questing".

So, a Vision Quest could be seen as anything from a 1/2 hour sit in the woods to a 40-day Vision Quest in the wilderness, naked, without food, water, or shelter! Or, more usually, something in between these two extremes.

There is also another point of view which states that life itself is a Vision Quest. This is a valid point of view (which I won't go into here), but if you adopt this view, take care that you are not simply using it as an excuse to not do a real Vision Quest!

The type of Vision Quest addressed here is that Quest which is taken alone in the Natural world, for a period of 3-4 days.

A Vision Quest is best known from the North American Native traditions, and many people who Quest follow one of these ways, or a mixture of them. However, the concept of a Vision Quest is not at all unique to that tradition. Probably every culture and religion in the world has some form of Questing and seeking in solitude and silence. Certainly the established western religions do. There's no need to only look to Native People for this tradition.

Remember that a Quest can take many forms, and what form you select is up to you.

"If you have a choice to do a Vision Quest or a week long [wilderness] survival, do the survival. You will learn so much more"
--Tom Brown Jr.


Properly done, the Vision Quest starts well before the designated time for it to start - at least several days or even several weeks prior to the actual Quest. If you orient your mind and heart towards the Quest well before the actual Quest period begins, you will be better prepared to receive what the Quest has to offer you. You will also be able to figure out the best format for the Quest to suit your own needs and your own path.

For many people, a large part of what they experience during a Vision Quest has to do with the following three things:

  1. Being alone. This is hard for most people in our society, since most do not spend much time alone in quiet contemplation and meditation, or just plain sitting and observing.

  2. Being out in the Natural world. Again, for most people in this society, Nature is a foreign world that is very unfamiliar to them.

  3. Being out at night. Once again, for many people in this society night-time is a time during which evil things happen, and unknown things are lurking about unseen.

Therefore, you can minimize the impact of these three things by "practicing" beforehand. Go out and spend some time by yourself in nature, just simply walking, sitting, and especially observing. And go out walking after dark to get used to the night (urban dwellers: find a safe place to do this!). Remember, the darkness itself cannot hurt you. It's mainly your fear that is working on you (except of course where/when there is a very real danger!). Adopt a "Sit Spot", where you can go regularly and are undisturbed, both by day and by night (see "Sit Spots", on the Wildwood Survival website, Awareness section). Go out for longer and longer periods. In one sense, a Vision Quest is simply a long sit at a "Sit Spot"! So if you are used to going and spending time at your sit spot, a Vision Quest will be somewhat familiar to you (although it is of course a more intense experience).

If you get these three things partly or wholly out of the way beforehand, you will get a lot more out of your Vision Quest, and it will take you a lot farther. Of course, you could argue that that is precisely why you are going on the Quest, to overcome those fears. But they can be overcome in other ways. A Vision Quest is a time for deeper things.

Selecting a spot (physical factors):

From the practical side, it should be a place that is well off the beaten path, where you are unlikely to be disturbed by anyone. As well, it usually best to be in a spot that offers few or no distractions. For example, a spot high on a hill with a view of a highway or town will not be as suitable as a spot deep in the woods somewhere. Don't select a spot that will flood if it rains. Pay attention to other potential physical hazards such as dead branches that may fall on you in a storm, rocks that may fall from a cliff, and don't sit in a place where you'll be a lightning rod should a thunderstorm come along. You're not on a Quest to deal with the hazards and distractions of the physical world, so don't deliberately or inadvertently expose yourself to these hazards. It will be a time to focus on the inner life, not so much on the outer life.

As well, you probably don't want to Quest in an area known for human-animal interaction problems, such as bears that harass people, or places hunters frequent if it's hunting season.

Select a spot from which you will remember the way home, if you don't have a protector or helper.

Selecting a spot (personal and spiritual factors):

From the personal and spiritual side, it is important to select a place to which you are strongly drawn, for the purpose of the Quest, that is (for example, not a place to which you are strongly drawn because it has great scenery!). Ask yourself, "Is this the place for my Vision Quest?" If you get a feeling of release, a relaxing in your gut, or other intuitive/body signals that it's right, then you have likely found the place for your Quest. On the other hand, if you ask the question and you get a very tense and uncomfortable feeling, then that place is probably not where you should do your Quest.

It is not necessarily best to Quest in a "strong" place. It should be a place that you are drawn to for the purpose of the Quest. There's a difference. You're not going to be out there to experience "strong" feelings in a "strong" place with lots of energy. You're Questing for the purpose of seeking a Vision, getting answers, guidance, and so on. It's all about YOU, not the place.

Once you've selected your Quest spot, there are a couple of spiritual preparations to make beforehand. First of all, since a Vision Quest is a solitary endeavor, don't tell everyone what you're doing, and especially not where you are doing it. This is not something you chat about like the weather or the last shirt you bought on sale. This is serious, private stuff.
Secondly, "prepare" the location in advance spiritually. This is hard to explain. What you need to do is envision making this place "yours" for the time of your Quest. During the period before the Quest, "see" it in your mind as the place for you, a place where you will gain insights and receive what you are seeking. Look forward with anticipation to being there. Envision negative outside influences as being kept away. And so on.

Of course, if you're thinking about what I've written here, something immediately becomes obvious. You can't do this part if you "buy" a Quest from someone and they have selected a place for you!

Food and water:

Generally speaking, a Vision Quest is usually structured to be 3 or 4 days long.

Most people fast during the Quest. Some even abstain from drinking water. At the very least, greatly reduced amounts of food and water are consumed. But the guideline should always be to not physically harm yourself. That's not what it's all about. Take enough water to keep yourself alive without causing any sort of lasting harm.

If you have any sort of medical condition that requires medication, don't stop taking it. If you smoke, a Vision Quest may not be time time to try to quit - you may decide to take your cigarettes with you. But smoking can become a distraction - but perhaps not as much of a distraction as the withdrawal symptoms that can arise from quitting during the Quest! If you can't physically do without food or water, take an appropriate reduced amount with you. Again, a Vision Quest is not a time to physically harm yourself. That's not the point. On the other hand, it is a time of austerity.

Other physical considerations:

A Vision Quest is not a physical survival endurance test, nor a time to harm yourself. You also probably don't want to have your Quest cut short by frostbite or sunstroke! It is a time of asceticism, but don't injure or kill yourself. It's a spiritual exercise. You need to take care of your physical self, but not to the extent of being really comfy!  The idea is to meet your spiritual self, the spirits, the Creator, God, whatever-you-call-it, in as simple a way as possible, unencumbered, with as little between you and the spiritual realm as possible.

Take appropriate clothing into the Quest with you, unless you intend to do a more austere Quest, in which you meet Nature on its own terms with an absolute minimum of protection. This is a valid approach, but you should be up to it, and prepare for it, on all levels: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Therefore, you may wish to take a light sleeping bag to wrap yourself in at night-time. If it's autumn, maybe bring something waterproof in case it rains (being wet when it's cooler out may cause hypothermia). And so on. It's up to you - exercise common sense. Generally speaking, the more austere the Quest, the more intense it will be. The more comfy you are, the less intense it will be. But overall, you don't want to put yourself in any danger.

If you need to take in food or medication, ensure that it is in sealed containers. You don't need the distraction of animals being attracted to that stuff.

When you select your spot also consider what you will do with your human wastes. If you fast and drink a reduced amount of water, there won't be any, of course. But there may still be some in the first day or two. Plan ahead.

Protector or helper:

Some people prefer to Quest with a helper or protector overseeing their Quest. Some even go so far as to pay someone to do this, or they pay to "go on" or "do" or "take" a Vision Quest somewhere. Others prefer to do the entire Quest alone, from start through finish. There are arguments for and against each alternative. What you do is your choice.

A helper/protector can fill many roles. They can be a spiritual helper, who guides you through the entire process, from preparations, to watching over you during your Quest, to afterwards helping you understand what you received during the Quest. Or you may wish to have a helper who fills only a more physical role, watching over you during the Quest to ensure you're physically okay, and that no one disturbs you. And perhaps helping to get you back to the regular world afterwards. For example, it is possible that you may not be in any shape to drive immediately after the Quest.
This is the argument for having a helper/protector - that there are outside influences from which you will need protection, both physical and spiritual.

On the other hand, a "helper" may in fact turn out to be a detriment to your quest, if the "help" that they offer in fact turns out to be a hindrance or a distraction. On the spiritual level, a helper can interfere if they introduce energies to your Quest, even if simply just by their presence. Or if they "protect" you by shielding you from influences that in fact need to be part of your Quest.
This is the argument for doing the whole thing completely alone from start to finish - what happens to you will be of your own doing, and will be meant for you alone.

If you decide to have a helper of any type, be sure that it is someone that you trust completely. Your well-being may be completely in their hands. This is especially true if they are helping you in a spiritual role. Paying a stranger to be your helper is something to be very careful of.

Also, it is important to select someone who will not "bring you down" when you come out. For example, if you are a quiet, introspective person, you should probably not select someone who is loud and boisterous. You will likely be wanting time for reflection after the Quest, and they could easily intrude into that. Another example, if you select someone who is into psychology, and this is not at all your view, then don't utilize that person. And be careful of getting "slotted" into a particular way of going into, doing, and coming out of the quest. Remember this is YOURS, and should be done in a way that is yours.

Please note that in any traditional setting, there is no fee charged. In fact, in most traditional circles (of any flavour) it is regarded as very wrong to charge for any spiritual teachings or activities. Rather, one offers what one is able to, in recognition that those who are helping and guiding you have to live (ie, they have to eat and have somewhere to live) just as you do. And while they are doing this for you, they aren't working for that time period. And a package of tobacco - if you feel you must make a gift of that in the Native tradition - isn't enough!!


The Actual Quest

In many traditions, the Quest begins at sunrise. You are, of course, free to choose what time of day to start, and what time of day on the last day to finish. Again, all aspects of the Quest should be done in a way that feels right to you. But sunrise is symbolic in that it is a beginning.
On the other hand, it might be symbolic to you to start the Quest at sunset, to symbolize the ending of the "old you". And to end it at sunrise, to symbolize the emergence of the "new you".

When you reach your Quest area, draw a circle, or otherwise delineate an area that will become your Quest area. Once you step into that area, do not leave it for the duration of the Quest. The purpose of this is to provide some discipline to your Quest, so that you will be less easily distracted or thrown off your Quest. A Vision Quest is all about facing yourself, and learning about yourself and your path in life. The circle boundary helps to ensure that you stay focused. Otherwise you might be tempted to go for a walk to have a look around!

There's not a lot to say about "what to do" during the Quest. Generally speaking, the idea is face yourself with as little distraction as possible. And to listen to what the spiritual realms have to offer you. Essentially it's a time of listening. In most traditions, the Quester tries to stay awake at all times. This may or may not be possible or practical for you. Some say that what you need to receive will come to you whether you are conscious or not. Others will say that you need to be conscious to understand and retain what is given to you, and that it shows discipline. But... read on...

An important point: You are not there to "prove" anything. You don't need to "prove" you are "worthy" to the spiritual realm, or to God. Any spiritual being worth paying attention to already knows what's in your heart, and where you are at spiritually. Nor do you have to prove anything to any person. This is all about YOU. If it's the right time for you, and you make yourself ready, and conduct yourself in an appropriate manner, then whatever you need will come to you.
What's an "appropriate manner"? A Quest is a serious thing. Approach it with reverence and anticipation (but not expectations!), with true humility, and with passion (not the passion of lovers, but the passion of intense feeling).

On the physical level, if you find yourself in trouble physically, then don't hesitate to bail out if you need to. Leave. It's not the right time to be doing a Quest if you are endangering yourself by doing it. You haven't "failed" if you leave early. A Quest is all about finding your way in life; it's not about debilitating yourself! Nor is it about "proving" anything, to anyone.

During the Quest many insights will come to you that may help you in your life, in your relationships, in healing yourself, and so on. You may receive insights and guidance on what to do with your life, where to go, and why. The meaning of some things may become clear. It's very important to be watchful for these things. Please remember that they can come to you in many different ways. Again, the key word here is to listen. The word "listen" encompasses much more than mere physical listening with your ears. It's a state of watchfulness for signs and insights that are meant for you, that can help you, that point things out to you, that guide you. Listen to what is being offered to you. That's why you are doing the Quest, after all! And some things which come to you won't make sense until a later date.

A question which you should be asking right about now is, "What if the things I receive are merely delusions brought about by lack of food and water?" Good question - how can you tell the difference? Try to reach a sense of what feels right and correct to you. Look at what comes to you from a state of balanced objectivity, as much as possible. This doesn't mean to use your logical mind to analyze what you receive, however. Filter it through your sense of what feels right, using your intuition and common sense.

Some people recommend "journaling" during your Quest. If you don't know what that means, it simply refers to writing down what comes to you, what happens to you, etc. - a diary of the Quest, if you will. For some this may be appropriate. For others it can become a big distraction. Spiritual things are understood on a level much deeper than the logical thinking mind. The activity of putting what comes to you into words engages that logical mind and can easily drag you out of a deeper state. If you are thinking of writing in a journal during your Quest, consider this carefully. Your Quest may turn into merely a time of writing random thoughts that come through your mind!
For some a compromise might be to keep the journal closed, opening it only when some major insight comes to you.
Some say that you will remember and understand what you need to remember and understand, without having to write it down.
And within the context of North American Native traditions, writing is generally frowned upon, even forbidden, during spiritual activities.


After the Quest

Plan ahead so that you aren't plunged back into society and your day-to-day life immediately afterwards. You will need (and want) some time alone to reflect on your experience, on what you received during the Quest. How long depends on you. I would suggest a couple of days at a minimum. Similar to the period prior to the Quest, don't go around telling everyone about your Quest. It's no one's business except your own. If you find yourself telling everyone, "I went on a Vision Quest", then take a good look at yourself, as your ego is likely being overactive. A Quest is an intensely private affair and is no one's business but your own.

If insights have come to you about changes you need to make in your life, try your hardest to make the changes. To ignore them, and to not make any effort to implement the changes, is disrespectful of the whole process. If you subsequently Quest again, you likely won't receive very much more than what you received on the previous Vision Quest until you start to live what has already been given to you. That's generally how spiritual things work. You will receive a certain amount of guidance, help, insight, etc., and then no more for awhile, until you understand what you have received and integrate it into your life. As well, if you find yourself in a spiritually "dry" phase in life, it may be that you need to go back and re-examine what you've been given so far, and work on these "old" things first, before you can progress further.

Nowadays many people recommend utilizing "journaling" (there's that word again) as a means to expand on and understand what you received during your Quest. Some even encourage you to sing about it, dance it out, and so on. But really, it's important to do what feels right to YOU (this is all about YOU, remember?). You don't feel like dancing or writing? - It doesn't feel like "you"? - Then don't do it!!
Traditionally, a person's Vision Quest was a very private affair, and nothing was even written down. As an alternative, you can take the point of view that anything that you need to remember, you will remember. Do what works for YOU.

Live it

The real expression of what has come to you in your Quest is to start living it. Seek to understand what has come to you, what has been given to you, and make changes in your life. Seek to integrate it into your life. Again, as I said above, spiritual things are understood on a level much deeper than the logical thinking mind. I repeat: The activity of putting what comes to you into words engages that logical mind and can easily drag you out of a deeper state. Be careful of this. If you are led to write about what you received, it is usually best to do so after the Quest. On the other hand, often if you do not write things down you will forget them. Seek to arrive at a balance in this, in a way that works well for you.
This is the first step to making your entire life a Vision Quest.

Remember, this is all about you and your place in the world. If you just "do" a Quest somewhere, so that you can say you've done one, then you're probably just going to be hungry and thirsty for a few days. In other words, you'll just waste your time. If you approach your Quest conscientiously, take it seriously, and incorporate what you receive into your life, then you may find yourself transformed by the experience. The choice is yours.

Quest well.

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