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Vision Quests Remove Spirit-Work Distractions



by Regan McMahon, Special to The Chronicle
Saturday, April 11, 2009



An entrepreneur whose business had failed and marriage was failing wondered how his life had gotten to this point. A woman in the middle of a divorce questioned how she could live on her own. Graduating seniors wrestled with identity issues. All of which led them to seek guidance through a spiritual journey into the wilderness called a vision quest, which includes spending three or four days and nights in a remote spot alone, without food.

"Men have been doing this since men began," said Mark Yoslow, a psychotherapist who has co-led all-male visionquest groups for seven years with Gary Plep, founder of the Northern California Men's Center in Los Gatos. "It cuts across all cultures — Hindu, American Indian, Aborigine."

"It's an ancient way of finding the spiritual connection with God and with self," said Plep, a therapist who has also led all-male, mixed and couples vision quests. "It's the most important work I do."

But a vision quest is not therapy, Yoslow stressed. "It's a very deep encounter with (the) self to gain a vision of what you want to do or be for your community in the future."

Inspired by American Indian rite-of-passage ceremonies, vision quests are held by a number of organizations and individuals in the Bay Area. The modern vision quest movement was born here in 1977, when the late Steven Foster and his wife, Meredith Little, founded the nonprofit Rites of Passage in Novato. It continues to operate in Santa Rosa under the direction of Mike Bodkin, a marriage and family therapist. In 1983, Foster and his wife moved to Big Pine (Inyo County) to found the School of Lost Borders, which trains guides and leads vision quests.

Although the number of days and specifics of deprivation varies, each quest includes three phases: severance, when you cut ties with ordinary life, enter a remote wilderness area and prepare to go into the wild alone; threshold, when you leave your guides at base camp and spend three to four days alone fasting; and incorporation, when you return to base camp, share the story of your solo time, and the guides reflect back or "mirror" your experience to affirm it and help you retain it in your daily life.

State's a hot spot



California has more vision quest groups than any other state (Colorado is second), according to Scout Tomyris, a Santa Rosa software technical writer, Rites of Passage vision quest guide and administrator for the Wilderness Guides Council of North America. Outfits in Marin, Sonoma and San Mateo counties offer four- to 10-day vision quests for adults for $650 to $1,200. And some have local day quests in Marin or Sonoma for $75 to $150. Some offer wilderness vision quests for teenagers from $350 to $975.

Marin Academy, an independent high school in San Rafael, has taken students on vision quests for 29 years. There is a six-day pre-graduation quest for seniors in the high desert of the eastern Sierra and a seven-day trip for juniors and seniors in Death Valley in early spring.

"Part of it is about connecting kids to nature," said Marin Academy science teacher Mark Stefanski, who went on his first vision quest 17 years ago and has led quests for atrisk youths in West Marin. "Nature becomes their teacher. They get away from the electric noise and it helps them reconnect with themselves."

Most outfits allow water during the solo time (a gallon a day), require a sleeping bag and encourage use of sunscreen and a journal. Marin Academy students can bring food and a tent if they choose.

The traditional path



Phillip Scott, founder-director of Ancestral Voice — Center for Indigenous Lifeways in Novato, who leads traditional vision quests twice a year in the foothills of Mount Lassen, adheres to strict Lakota protocols of no food, water or sleep for four days and nights. No sunscreen, journal or shelter, not even a sleeping bag. "In the old days you took a buffalo robe," said Scott, who is of Western Band Cherokee ancestry and a ceremonial leader in the Lakota tradition. "Now you can take one blanket." He considers the programs that draw from various traditions solo wilderness experiences, but not vision quests. He finds problematic the group process of returning to the circle and sharing the story of one's time on the hill. According to Lakota protocol, "The individual is not to disclose those dreams and visions for 13 moons."

People often do a quest in times of transition — changing careers, getting a divorce, facing a landmark birthday — or crisis. David Templeton, a clinical operations and information technology manager in Sunnyvale, went on a quest with Plep after trying for a number of years to "fix" what he calls "the chaos in my life: a failed business, financial difficulties, challenges in my marriage, dealing with very young children. I declared 2006 as my year for moving from fix-it mode to growth."

His intention was "to be a better man, husband, father, son, brother and friend. After the years of chaos, I really questioned who I was and how I'd let things get so out of control."

The biggest thing he got out of his quest, he said, was realizing he was already all of the things he was hoping to be, but had lost his way for a number of years. "I also recognized the issues that got me to where I had been — that had long since resolved."

He said that the quest is one of the most difficult things he's ever done. "I had never fasted for longer than 12 hours before and hadn't been in such isolation like that for so long. Boredom I think is part of the process, but as you eliminate the distractions, including food, you move through the boredom and get to work. There is a clarity of mind brought on by the elimination of distractions and food that is difficult to describe."

A bond was built



Psychotherapists Susan Kistin and Sara Harris met on a vision quest in 2000 that each went on as she was turning 50. They were so enthused afterward that they formed their own organization, EarthWays, in Sebastopol, which leads seven or eight vision quests a year on Mount Lassen as well as monthly day quests in rural Sonoma County. Whether short or long form, each includes the three phases of severance, threshold and incorporation.

"The quest is always a journey of dying to what is old in our lives and being reborn into what we are becoming," Kistin said. "We learn about ourselves, our strength and character, and then we bring this back to our community. The ceremony has never failed, even in a day quest."

Dave Talamo, a marriage and family therapist whose Wilderness Reflections in Woodacre (Marin County) has offered vision quests for 13 years, described the moving experience of a woman who went on a day quest feeling unworthy.

Drawn to a mossy rock at the base of a tree, she had a profound feeling of being held and mothered and acceptable as a person in a way she hadn't felt before. She shared this back at the circle, which was important, he said, because "the risk is to have it remain just a memory. Each person needs to make meaning of their experience and figure out, 'What action can I take to live this forward?' "

Quotes from questers



"On my first vision quest, in the high desert in California, I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking and I almost stepped on a rattlesnake. The gift of the rattlesnake was warning me by buzzing. It taught me a lesson in being aware of my place in the natural world and staying attentive to my surroundings."
– Mark Stefanski, Marin Academy science teacher and vision quest guide

"I went on a vision quest in Death Valley with my previous husband when we were separated and divorcing. It was our way of saying goodbye. I didn't know how I was going to make it on my own. What I got out of it was that I was going to be OK. During my solo time, I had a dialogue with the moon and asked for a sign that I'm safe here. The next day I got my period, even though I wasn't due. For me, that was a sign that the moon was really with me. Later, we were supposed to pick a spiritual name. My name is Maria, so I picked Maria Luna. That's what most of my friends call me now."
– Maria Luna, office manager, Novato

"I was sitting alone in the pitch black night and I dozed off and then felt a shape run by the back of my head at top speed. The next day I saw the paw prints — it was a coyote. Out there you learn what it actually means to be part of nature without all the intellectual stuff. Standing in your spot, everything below the waist is black — you don't see your legs. In the darkness, you discover what your worst fears are. And once you get past your fears, you begin to think about what you are going to be in your community. What are you going to bring back for your family, the people who are close to you?"
– Mark Yoslow, psychotherapist and vision quest leader, Los Gatos

"I went on a vision quest with Wilderness Reflections for 10 days over New Year's 2007-2008 in Death Valley. During my solo time, I felt more connected to my essence and the unseen energies of the universe than I ever had, and I gained a deeper sense of purpose. I felt very grounded, still and clear going into the new year. It really did set up the year for me. It was one of the best years of my life."
– Adrian Klaphaak, career and life coach, Berkeley

"I did a nine-day vision quest last September on Mount Lassen and a day quest last month, both with EarthWays. It's very powerful, but at the same time, it's also so simple. You're just sitting. If the wind starts to blow, that's the excitement for the day. The trees are so grounded, they sway. And when the wind stops, they'll still be there, because they're grounded. That was a real metaphor: You're sitting in the struggle, but it's going to pass."
– Forest (nee Danielle Firestone), teacher of the developmentally disabled, Santa Rosa

" I'm a Vietnam veteran, and I was a pretty good athlete in high school. Before I did the vision quest with Gary Plep, when I would meet someone new, I would make sure they knew those things. Now I don't need to do that anymore. I can just be who I am. I don't have to live in the past of my accolades, which was dragging me down, because I'm not that person anymore. Now I'm pretty comfortable in my own skin."
– Kenny Clyde, wealth manager, Auburn (Placer County)

Organizations you can contact:

Rites of Passage, Santa Rosa. (707) 537-1927. Wilderness vision quests in the Inyo Mountains; offers youth programs. www.ritesofpassagevisionquest.org.

Wilderness Reflections, Woodacre. (415) 488-1917. Wilderness vision quests in Death Valley, Sequoia National Park, the White Mountains, among others; day quests in West Marin County; also offers youth programs. www.wildernessreflections.com.

EarthWays, Sebastopol. (707) 824-8230. Vision quests in the California wilderness; monthly day quests in Sonoma County. EarthWays@comcast.net.

Northern California Men's Center, Los Gatos. (408) 399- 5545. Wilderness vision quests in Northern California for men only, mixed groups and couples. www.mensgroups.com.

Ancestral Voice — Center for Indigenous Lifeways, Novato. (415) 897-7991. Traditional Lakota vision quests in the Mount Lassen area near Chico. www.ancestralvoice.org.

School of Lost Borders, Big Pine. (760) 938-3333. Wilderness vision quests in Death Valley, Eureka Valley, Big Pine and other places; offers youth programs. www.schooloflostborders.org.

Regan McMahon is an Oakland writer. E-mail datebookletters@sfchronicle.com.
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