“Today you must start your vision quest,” Broken Pipe, my teacher, said quietly into my ear. “Today” I repeat in a quivery voice, panic and excitement flowed within my body simultaneously. Even though I am trembling, I can sense the energy flow from my fingers into my aura. The red, yellow and orange colors in my aura become more intense. This day represents a lifetime of preparation. My first task is to cleanse myself – I decide to go to the sweat lodge, for the cleansing. Once the fire is started the stones are moved to the edge of the fire ring for heating. As the rocks heat, I cut wood to replace what the sweat lodge fire used. I collect a bucket of water, and get a basket of sage leaves from storage. Leaving my clothes outside, I move the water and sage into the lodge. After I sprinkle the sage on the rocks and ladle the water onto the heated rocks, the lodge fills with steam. As I sit and breathe in the sage laden steam, I sense the sage cleaning me internally while the smoke cleanses my skin, psychically I visualize black particles being pushed out of my body and falling to the ground. I review what must be done for my vision quest. Broken Pipe’s words return to me “Send out your mind for the place which pulls at you the way a magnet pulls at a nail, or if you prefer, use your inner senses to lead you.” Mentally, I envision a bird who flies in front of my car and shows me where to go. “That’s the way”, my mind says. Broken Pipe continues “Now climb to the highest location around; from there you will be able to see farther, become more aware and notice the unusual more easily. Pray; request assistance; quiet yourself; meditate.” I continue to ladle water on the heated rocks and wait until I don’t feel any new sensations. That is my signal that I am prepared to begin my quest. I quench the fire, then leave the lodge, and run into the river to cool off and put on fresh clothes. It is time to depart.
As I drive seemingly randomly, the birds do seem to lead my car - not a single bird, but just before each turn there is a bird flying across to the new road. Seeing the birds startles me – not that I don’t believe, because I do, but my experiences seldomoccur this consistently. As the drive progresses, I replay the day when we discussed the types of Vision Quests and the reason for seeking each. It feels as if there is a VCR inside my brain that can start, stop, and fast-forward through the conversations.
Broken Pipe starts the dialogue. “Have you given any thought to your Vision Quest?” “Oh yes, all the time, it’s a part of my dreams and prayers and thoughts, no matter what else is occurring.” “Well…” My stomach drops, and every muscle in my body twitches. What does he mean? What should I reply? Suppose I say the wrong thing? My hesitation causes him to laugh, in his hoarse dry voice. Taking pity on me, he gently asks, “What is a vision quest?” Relief floods me, my body relaxes until I almost become limp. The answer is obvious. “A vision quest is the final stage to becoming a fully accepted member of the clan. It is the first time each of us is required to go off on our own, and for some of us it may be the first time we specifically attempt to communicate with the forces of nature.” “Can anyone have a vision quest?” Broken Pipe asks. “Of course, even an outsider or a woman may have a vision, but it is harder for them, since they do not have teachers, like ours, to learn from. Only the boys are trained, in our clan.” By this time, I am feeling smug – my mind is saying “See, I do so know your answers, you don’t scare me.” As if he could read my mind, Broken Pipe, asks, “What type of vision are you seeking?” “Type? Are there types?” Once again my voice is quivering and my stomach is an assortment of knots that feel too heavy for my skin to support. Fast-forwarding my inner VCR, I remember that most of the members of my clan set out to gain a helper for their profession, others want to receive their clan name or learn of their future direction. There is third type of vision for people like me. We are few in numbers and want something specific. My request is for assistance in becoming a healer – I want to learn to understand when and where there is disharmony within a person, as well as attracting helpers who will teach me and allow me to assist them in healing anything wounded. Another bird flies low, almost into my car and my turn leaves me in a parking lot – my destination.
My back is against the trunk of a peach tree. There is a stream behind me; while I can’t see it, the sound of the water soothes me. The sun has not risen, but the sky, is becoming lighter. It is time for my morning prayers. My offering is a mix of tobacco, (to carry the smoke), corn pollen (the source of sacred food), sage (to purify) and sweet grass (for harmony).
I move into the open air – bowing and offering the smoke to each of the four directions - North, East, South and West, silently invoking the spirits of that direction, (the wind, season, animals, plants, birds) for assistance. Lastly I offer my prayers to the Great Spirit (God) and to Grandfather Sky and Mother Earth, again I ask for their support while on my quest. After giving thanks for the beautiful day, I walk to the stream to splash water on my face and hands – it is so cold my skin feels as if it will crack. I lie on the bank and drink deeply of the water’s wetness and purity. My stomach feels fuller than if I had eaten a full meal, and there is a satisfaction associated with being part of my surroundings. “Thank You” I murmur.
Remembering Broken Pipe’s advice, I close my eyes and meditate, picturing an eraser wiping my mind’s slate clear. Instead it feels as if my mind swells up with small strips of light which push, bump and rattle against one another; OK, that can be handled - create a balloon and let this noise fill it. Instead of slowing, my mind becomes busier. Why? It has never been hard to meditate! A voice suggests, “It might be better if, instead of trying so hard, you accept whatever comes.” Discomfort is what comes; more and more discomfort! My skin feels every gust of the wind; the grass under my legs itches; the bird songs are shrill and hurt my ears; the brightness of the sun causes my eyes to water, and the pollen, from the fruit trees, makes me sneeze. I even feel insects crawling up my leg.
This should not happen! Vision quests are supposed to bring understanding along with a serene dreamlike state. This quest is nothing like that. I ask, aloud, for a sign if it is time to quit, nothing happens. I remain seated, and let my eyes drift shut. Gradually, the realization comes that I am seeing something, but what is it? Nothing is recognizable, there are only a few colors and they are mostly muted greens and yellows. My memory must be playing tricks on me; the world seems huge and looks irregular. What I see bears no resemblance to my mental map of the world. Where am I looking? What am I seeing? I move my head, my body moves with it. How can that happen? Looking ahead, there is something green, so I move toward it. Abruptly, there is a sensation of falling and I am surrounded by green. There are no edges or shapes, just shades of green. Every step makes the ground rock. I keep on moving until there is a white hill in front of me. As soon as I step onto that hill, my skin starts to crawl.
There is an ant on my arm. I realize that this strange vision comes from that ant; that awareness causes the unusual images to end abruptly. An ant cannot be a Spirit Helper! Spirit helpers are supposed to be birds or animals (Eagles, Sparrows, Bears, or Wolves), not lowly ants. What happened, I wondered? How had I simultaneously been seeing through the eyes of the ant and through my physical eyes? None of my teachers had every mentioned something like that. I move the ant from my arm to my finger, and stare at it intently.
“What were you trying to tell me?” I ask. Not getting any recognizable answer I put the ant gently on the ground and stood up. My quest has been a failure, I had made contact with an ant, not a real spirit helper, and he doesn’t even speak to me. How will my teachers and friends respond to my experience? Despite my disappointment, I remember to collect something for my medicine bag, (after all, we learn from failure as well as success). With clenched teeth, I pick up the rest of my things, grudgingly give thanks and depart. My vision quest is a failure; my desire to become a healer has not been acknowledged.
Broken Pipe is waiting when I reach the parking lot. “How did you know where to find me?” I ask. He laughs, but does not answer. Instead he asks about my vision. Reluctantly, I describe my failures. By the time my recital ends, he is laughing so hard he cannot speak. Finally he quiets and asks, “Where do you get your ideas of what a vision quest should be? Who suggests that an ant (or anything else) can not be a Spirit Helper? Which of us considers an ant lowly? The failure is NOT in your vision; it is in your expectation of what a vision should be like. Did you ever consider that your vision request is for the unusual and difficult, rather than the ordinary? With such a specific request, why would you expect the same type of helper as everyone else?” Broken Pipe is annoyed at my lack of understanding and faith in the helpers, but as we drive home I am elated at having attracted an unusual spirit helper who had shown me a real vision. Even if the meaning is unclear, communication is available and, perhaps, ants do know how to heal.