from my friend Cal…
Into the Woods
Three weeks ago, my son Sean, 26, completed a vision quest, a sacred rite of passage practiced by indigenous peoples across the Americas for millennia. When the Buddha fasted beneath the Bodhi Tree and was enlightened, that was a vision quest.
Guided by leathery Lakota medicine man named Oso, Sean spent four days and nights alone in the Connecticut woods, self-confined to a circle roughly 20 feet across, its perimeter marked by a string of prayer flags, no other human being within earshot.
He had no tent, laptop, i-Phone, earbuds, watch, book, writing or drawing materials— none of the diversions that keep our minds ceaselessly atwitter.
Also, no food. (Some tribes call it a “dream fast”.)
And, for four hot midsummer days and nights, no water.
It was a level of suffering he’d never known, Sean says. His suffering was multiplied by a raging case of poison ivy that took hold the evening he entered his little circle. “Scratching was never an option,” he assured us after. “That would have been my surefire ticket to hell.”
He hadn’t appreciated how hard it would be, and it kept getting harder with each passing hour. He soon understood that the personality structure he had crafted over a lifetime was worthless in this situation. Blisters from the poison ivy were festering up and down his body. By the third day, time was dissolving. That night, lying on the ground, he watched the moon hang between two leaves within the canopy of branches above. Minutes passed, then hours, but the moon held its place between the same two leaves.
“I didn’t really experience hunger much. It was all about the urgency of my thirst. I observed symptoms of hunger, like getting winded from a mini walk for firewood. I was running on fumes, but wasn’t viscerally feeling it, because the need for water was consuming my consciousness.”
Thirst and mosquitoes were keeping him awake on the second night, when it began to rain. He turned his face to the sky, mouth agape, weeping to take some in, but it was a tease; the few drops that made it through the tree tops barely moistened his lips; there was not nearly enough for a swallow.
He felt like a plant that was wilting. “The whole time out there, one great chunk of my brain was totally focused on water. The intensity of my thirst …the severe dryness of my lips, mouth, throat… was relentless and shocking.” At night, he could hear frogs plopping into nearby unseen water. Incessantly, he fantasized about his first drink of water. hydrate hydrate hydrate I need water my body needs water water water water water By the third day, his pee smelled to him like death.
At the end of the fourth night, they led him out of woods and back to the sweat lodge where his quest had begun; of the half-dozen people who had undertaken it, he was the only one who made it all the way through. “Despite my wrecked body and traumatized ego,” he reported, “my spirit is soaring.”
When finally handed his first drink of water, he burst into tears.
After the ceremony was over, Sean texted me the selfie below. “Me,” he wrote, “in raw truth, performing for no one, almost unrecognizable. Any and all affectation has been stripped from my face.”
As Sean was preparing to return to Brooklyn, Oso told him next time he could do six days.