Monday, April 25, 2011

The Journey from the Vision Quest (Pt. 1)

            Fresh from the most satisfying sleep of all three nights, I woke slowly, studying a bizarre collection of dream sequences.  Both President Bush and Obama showed up in separate scenes, the former as a master carpenter, of all things.  Another scene included the cast and crew from the most recent TV show I was working on, mixed with mentors of mine from the entrepreneurial world, all set in a Roman scene of playful debauchery.
            Waking from this surreal collection of visions was mildly perplexing, until the gravity of the moment really began to sink in.  This was the final morning.  I’d made it through.  And, as I gazed at the Western mountains filling with light, I savored the moment.  There was no need to rush.  Reverence was the order of the day.
            I let myself look around in all directions for a while before emerging from my sleeping bag.  I shook my body a little, got the blood flowing and set to packing.  I was not five seconds into it when I became surprised at how mindfully I was putting things back in their compartments.  Each of the other days, I had scampered out of that spot with anxious delight, knowing I would be coming back.  Today, there was only going forward.
            Once everything was neatly stowed and prepared for the walk, I said my final prayers.  Standing in the deepening silence, at the center of my bowl-shaped home, my prayers were one word- “thank you;” over and over and over.  Strung between clangs of the bells and bows of my head to every direction, all I could say was “thank you.”  It was a rich and poignant moment steeping in the power of gratitude, and it inspired me to simply wait for the right moment to leave.  In the waiting, the listening deepened into and an appreciation of the vast silence.  It stretched into every direction I had bowed to; it echoed inside me, filling me with such gratitude for being alive; and, it filled my heart to overflowing, such that it started racing wildly.
            I could suddenly hear my heart beating so loud I thought someone was suddenly running down on me from behind.  I reflexively turned and met the near emptiness of the sloping hill of reddish-brown rocks there.  I turned back around and breathed a few more times, settling my heart and re-awakening my connection with the silence.  I rang the bell once more and then, when the last traces of that were inaudible, right on cue, the silence was broken.  High overhead, the familiar honks and cackles I’d heard the previous days were making their way North.  I looked up and beheld the two Ravens again.  I watched them with delight; floating mostly, staying close, drifting apart and calling each other back to closeness.
            Deeply moved by their magical return, I bowed, thanking them, thanking the spot and thanking myself for the willingness to wait.  That little act had made the most subtle and powerful difference.  I smiled and then hoisted the pack onto my back.  Stumbling over the rugged terrain, I walked along ringing the bells, giving nothing but thanks.

            When I returned to camp 45 minutes later, I could feel how intensely heightened my senses were and how weak my body felt.  Approaching my car, invisible, billowy tendrils of diesel fuel and cigarette smoke almost knocked me over.  They were mere wisps swirling amidst the parking lot, but they were pungent and potent near-knock-outs, the likes of which I hadn’t smelled in days.  Leaning against my car for support, I set down my backpack and followed the gaze of several campers off to my left.  They were marveling at a rare sight in the sky, in the form of two modern birds; one was the ominous, shadow-black span of a Stealth fighter, and the other was the fighter’s ‘food-source,’ a large white plane that had just finished re-fueling the big black jet.  In light of the journey with my mother and all the threads connected with the ‘womb;’ in light of my experience with finding new nourishment in the fast; and, in light of the two ravens I had seen three times over the last few days, this modern pair of birds was a surreal and most perfect welcome back to ‘the other reality.’
            And, as I said, I was weak.  I moved gingerly to sit in the sanctity of the driver’s seat, taking notes on anything I could remember from the previous three days.  I was able to set up a page for each day, yet I could hardly hold the pen.  I scribbled a few lines then paused to grab a sip of water.  Having not had any food or water in 84 hours, I was
clearly out of practice.  My hands shook and half of what I intended to take in dribbled down the front of my sweatshirt.  I paused.  I breathed.  I closed my eyes and waited.
            Some minutes later, I took another sip, successfully, and resumed my writing.  I alternated writing with sips of water and then, quickly discovering how ravenous I was, dove into a bag of raw cashews and the organic turkey jerky I had bought at Whole Foods prior to the trip.  What a full, rich tapestry of tastes and physical sensations!  To be salivating, chewing and swallowing occurred to me the most radical and dynamic of experiences, all of which were so satisfying.  I began playfully savoring it to such a degree that I started humming out loud. I chewed and hummed with such gratitude I nearly fell over with laughter into the passenger seat.  Everything in that moment was so yummy. 

            And the rest of the day became even yummier.  As I drove out of camp, I said good-bye and gave thanks for all I’d experienced there.  I followed the road ¼ mile North to dine over at The Furnace Creek CafĂ© and it was heaven!  At 200 feet below sea level!  I filled myself to the brim on eggs, hash browns and sausage, enjoying most the fact that I was the last one in the place.  To have the space for my nervous system to acclimate and adjust while eating was better than anything on the menu.  Of course, I wasn’t really alone.  I did have my iPhone, so I was, shamelessly, devouring my breakfast AND Facebook.
            Fortunately, for the remainder of the day, I was out of range so there were no calls, e-mails or statuses to post.  I hadn’t given any exact thought to what I would do after I ate so, sitting in a wicker chair outside the restaurant, I closed my eyes and let go.  I imagined I could do anything and go anywhere and it took several minutes to hear the clear answer as to what would feel good.  I heard the words “just drive,” and that was all I needed.
            I headed south through the middle of the Valley, cruising along at 40 mph, just taking in the sun-filled expanse of rock, space and light.  I meandered for a while then followed an incredible, recently created loop-road called “Artist Drive,” where the mountains revealed stunning, pastel tones that seemed absolutely otherworldly.  Coming back to the main road through the Valley, I pulled over and then I checked the map for where I might sleep that night. Then I checked the time.  Then, I floored it.
            It was mid-afternoon and on the map I saw a natural hot springs in a small town just beyond the Southern edge of the park, one my wife and I had reveled in once. I raced south to get there before sunset and the pools were divine for body and soul; a delicious, tall-reed-protecting, white-sulfur-mud surrounding, all-to-myself kind of paradise.  The sunset right after was an intergalactic sheath of swirling magentas, pinks and slate gray-blues.  The night drive through the desert after that was much as it had been careening south through Death Valley- an envelope that just kept opening, my car seemingly hungry for more speed, more roads, more space and more freedom.
            And then, when I hit the town of Baker, everything slowed to a crawl.  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Vision Quest in Death Valley- Day 3

           The third full day of the vision quest was magical in every way, shape and form.  By the time I returned from the campground, the wind had died down, offering the most minor of breezes, the sun felt warmer than the day before, and I was full of anticipation. My thoughts gravitated back and forth between surrendering to whatever was supposed to happen, and whatever visions I might see that day, and the occasional, ego-based chirp of “Hey, I’ve worked really hard here.  I better see something!”
            Fortunately, I was far from disappointed.  I gave the morning to alternate between long stretches of meditation and prayer, and unlike the gravitations of my mind, they were deeply calming, confident and unwavering in their trust.  After a brief nap, I awoke on my right side and glanced up into the sky.  My heart was immediately lit with joy.  There were clouds in the sky!  Wispy, swirling, tenderly dynamic clouds!  The sky had been absolutely free of them for three days and I’d been so focused on my prayers that I’d forgotten they even existed.  I quickly reached into my bag to grab my glasses and then what appeared ‘tender’ to the unsharpened eye, quickly took on whole new dimensions of power and intensity.
            Similar to that first evening, watching the stars come out to shine, I was that boy in the matinee theater again, excited to devour all I could see.  In the west, there was a strong, mythological delicacy to the shapes above me.  Together, numerous individual visions formed a gorgeous, parallelogram-shaped tapestry. Stylistically, Mother Nature was combining echoes of the 16th Century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, Pablo Picasso and the more contemporary phenomenology of painter Alex Grey.  There was a bull-headed man blowing smoke, a large lynx, a roadrunner, a spiraling dragon, a man diving from a high dive, and a man swimming amidst the strong, swirling currents of white all around him.  Studying each image, closing my eyes to breathe them in, and then impressing their temporary presence in my mind tantalized me completely. 
            If the Western sky was filled with the more dynamic motions and projections of life in all its mythical exuberance, the Eastern sky was filled with its polar opposite- Death.  In the east there was only one clearly defined form and it felt more gruesome than anything I’d ever seen in person.  The form was a large, pre-historic cat, lying on its side, and it was so huge in the sky, it must have been dozens of miles wide and long, only enhancing its grip on me.  The stylistic tone was a hybrid of the 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya and the contemporary British painter Francis Bacon, evoking a gaudy scene of madness.  The cat’s mouth was open and its tongue was hanging out and limp, evoking a horrific, silent scream.  Its right eye was literally bugging out of its head and its belly was ripped wide open, exposing ribs, entrails and parts of what looked to be it’s half-eaten offspring.  Lying on my back, my head arching backward, I gazed upon the scene in shell-shocked fascination; I could practically hear the vicious tale of attack by some larger life form, evoking the deepest sense of sadness and loss in me. 
            Over the course of the next half-hour, I lay trading glances at these opposing portraits of east and west, absolutely riveted by the differing intensities and deeply curious as to how they were all going to change.  As the high altitude winds shifted subtly, I watched the cat grow more and more enormous, the features of horror becoming only that much more pronounced.  It was as if I was watching a once-thriving beast decay right before my eyes.  The ribs flared out, cracking into the open blue sky; the hips splayed open and the hind legs broke apart, gradually became severed from the rest of the body; and it’s enormous head, still so filled with shock and pain, twisted at the neck upward and splintered away on its own.
            If the Eastern vision of clouds was a pre-historic horror show, the Western vision evoked a graceful dance of lyricism and freedom; not only for the forms themselves, but also for how the forms moved and evolved.  Hovering directly above the center of the Valley floor, these clouds initially changed very little. Gradually, the winds over that part of the Valley must have turned, such that each image slowly expanded in size with some, like the dragon, the lynx and the roadrunner absorbing the forms of the other shapes.  Then, the entire vision began to move steadily southward, staying directly above the open Valley floor below.  Within forty-five minutes, it had reached the Southern end of the Valley and rested still above a low-lying ridge of mountains.  In its movement, the multitude of forms had gracefully dissolved, leaving two large splotches of fuzzy wisps to flank two enormous birds in profiled, directed flight.  I watched transfixed by how so many shapes and individual stories had magically been distilled into just those two birds.  And they seemed to be no ordinary birds; they were iconic, not unlike the image of an airline brand- in perfect tandem and harmony with one another. 
            Occasionally, as the western vision was gravitating south, I would pull myself away to check on the cat’s dissolution, and it was barely recognizable.  Not unlike the way a fallen trunk on the forest floor will decompose into myriad thumbnail-size bits of cellular granules, the cat had splayed itself in shards across the quiet battlefield of the sky.  Then, within fifteen minutes, as if God had swept a dry eraser through the air, the entire sky returned to its previously perfect, cloudless state.  I was stunned, yet satiated.  The magic show was over. 

            I lay back to rest and it took me awhile to move again. The potency of the visions was so striking and visceral, that for the next few hours, all I could do was breathe and pray in thankful amazement for the brilliance of all I’d seen. And in that prayer and amazement, something novel occurred.  For three days, I had been giving thanks for people and forces outside of me, and in the wake of absorbing these visions, that shifted.  It shifted when I gave thanks to me.  I gave thanks for the dramas and obstacles I’d created in the first two days and the weeks leading up to that moment.  I gave thanks for my devotion all along the way.  And, I gave thanks for my willingness- to pray, to fast and to be open to receive those visions in the first place.
            Over those hours, my breath became an even stronger anchor and a stronger beacon of warmth and insight.  Any time the breath wanted to shorten and my thoughts solidify into a victim-story (especially around my projections that all those visions were created by my psyche, the large cat being my mother, and it was I who created her suffering), I envisioned full deep breaths again coming from my fingers and toes.  Immediately, I was out of my head, back into my whole body and taking flight back to the present moment.  The more present I was able to be, the more I was able to choose which image I wanted to focus on.  And as fascinated as I was by the tale of pain the cat exposed me to, I intentionally willed myself to focus on the vision of the birds: there was more life in it, more possibility and far more joy.
            At that point, I was sitting cross-legged on my blanket, staring almost blankly at the brownish-grey rocks before me.  The passing of a car down on the road briefly interrupted the stillness of the moment and when it was out of earshot, a familiar pair of calls swung my head around.  I’d heard them the day before, one a low honking and the other a nasal-toned cackle.  I looked up and watched as two ravens passed over from south to north.  They flew closely together, occasionally dipping and swooping one after the other.  As I had the day before, when I saw them fly in the other direction, I imagined them to be a mother and child, for the distinction of their calls, for the fact that one was a little less black in tone, and for the fact that one was just noticeably bigger than the other.  But then I remembered that this was early February and they had to be a male and female.  With spring coming soon, they had to be enjoying some moments of play, preparing to mate.
            The vision of all these winged creatures was benevolent fuel for my spirit and crude sludge for my ego.  By day’s end, as I moved deeper into my sun gazing meditation, my arms found their way into fuller, more expansive expression.  Beginning crossed over my heart, I inhaled and extended the limbs as far to either side of me as I could reach.  On each exhale, I brought my arms back over my heart and continued in this way.  I gradually lowered my hips and established an enchanting rhythm, the wingspan of my full body relishing the act of unfolding my heart to the world.  My spirit was soaring, my heart began to open more fully to feeling so good and alive, and my ego grew jealous.
            Inflated and fantastical visions began to be manufactured and I lost the fullness of my presence.  I lost myself to fabricated visions of going back to LA and emerging on the scene as the hottest and most magnetic teacher.  This fantasy consumed my meditation, distracting me from what was most genuine, true and rich in my connection with the Sun, the Earth and my body upon it.  It distracted me so thoroughly that, unbeknownst to me it planted, as it had so many times before, the seeds of great, unmet expectations amidst a salty sea of smothering self-sabotage.
            Blissfully ignorant of these seeds’ presence, I prepared for sleep.  Having learned so much from the previous two nights struggles, I performed two simple actions that would help make this last night’s sleep a divine, uninterrupted respite of deeply nourishing proportions.  First, I finally cleared the earth beneath my bedding, pulling free all the rocks that were jutting up in an eight-foot square area, and sanding it all smooth with my hands.  And secondly, before climbing into my sleeping bag, I wrapped my toes in the bright magenta, cashmere scarf I’d brought. 
            I fell asleep savoring the moment- my whole body was warm, the sky was filling up with friendly, bright stars, and I was dreaming of steak and eggs for breakfast.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Vision Quest in Death Valley- Day 2

            I shot up from the earth, completely startled and confused.  I panicked, looking around for my father and sister and the wrecked-up cars. All along I was thinking, “Where am I? How did I get into this sleeping bag?  What the fuck am I doing here?”

            Then I felt the brisk, sharp wind cut across my face.
            I felt my sore ass itching to be freed of the bag.           
            And then I felt the wooden cross, lodged tightly in my right hand.   With all the nighttime drama I’d created, I’d forgotten how committed I'd ben to holding it the entire night.           
            I set down the cross and quickly stowed the sleeping bag with full-bodied, shivering excitement. I grabbed the bells, cross and dream catcher and dove into a standing prayer.  Looking upon the sun-lit mountains across the valley, I ran off at the mouth for several minutes.  All I could do was give thanks; thanks for the fact of surviving the night and thanks for the daylight and the coming warmth; thanks for my family and all my friends; thanks for the stars and their companionship, and thanks for God’s presence, especially when I thought I’d lost it.  I was reverent, but I was also cold and antsy, so within minutes I was done praying and ambling toward the road and the campground two miles North.
            Walking was a little awkward at first, not only for the full, cold and harsh winds I had to keep leaning into.  It was awkward adjusting; to gaining and keeping a rhythm of breath and motion.  I had to really focus on pacing myself, keeping my thoughts centered and trusting that in those first few minutes I wasn’t going to pass out.  Occasionally, as it had throughout the day before, my stomach would ripple long gurgles through my belly.  Each time, a full breath instantaneously followed and the belly was quickly, divinely satiated.  Those full, expansive breaths kept circulating my mental attention to and through the rest of my body, offering me the succinct experience of having just eaten and ‘feeling full.’
            Within an hour I was back at the campground.  Within moments after traversing the super-smooth, paved entryway, I was sitting in my car, brushing my teeth and waving to Roger, the campground host.  And within moments after that, the scene turned Mayberry RFD-surreal as he drove his golf cart to the entry station I’d just passed, 200 yards to the South, and raised the American flag.   In my mind, the flag was actually checkered, for I’d successfully crossed the finish line.  I’d made it back and complied with the rule of "not leaving your vehicle unattended for more than 24 hours.”  I’d taken care of business and it was time to get back to my spot.
            I felt invigorated and empowered on the walk back, spontaneously deciding to go off-road for some of the journey.  The strength in following that impulse and having the wind at my back sailed me to my spot with ease.  Then, for the next 24 hours, I did everything I’d done the day before, with minor variations.  I prayed, napped, got bored, and got excited and, I peed twice.  Now, that experience was one of the more surprisingly enjoyable ones, not simply for the obvious relief implied.  I enjoyed knowing that despite not eating or drinking anything, the more mysterious, inner and unseen parts of my body were still functioning.  I also enjoyed the sense it made that each time I peed, there was less urine and the color of it became a deeper, warmer yellow.
            The temperature through the day and night was a little warmer as well, though I still struggled greatly with the sleeping bag and nearly frozen toes.  Fortunately, I struggled with the stars a little less and remembered to breathe more often.  This sent me to sleep much more quickly when I did wake up, which seemed similarly as often as the first night.  During the day, my prayers became deeper, richer and gradually involved more of my body than the day before.  There was definitely the feeling in me that I had to up the ante; I had to let go of thinking it had to look the way it did the first day.  If the first day was just about ‘getting through it,’ to some degree, I realized I had to build momentum and raise the bar of my intent.  I intuitively felt the need to engage more of my whole self so I began moving, bobbing, shaking and spiraling my hips while in prayer.  Then, on one particular occasion, my prayers got a little wild.

            It began as simply and improvisational as they all had- holding on to the cross and dream catcher, quieting my mind for several minutes, then ringing the bells, and giving thanks to a myriad of deities, guides and Cardinal Directions.  After ten minutes or so, the words cut out, giving way to toning and droning chants that had me entranced.  This entrancement was inspired and it gave way to bigger movements in my body.  These gave way to setting down the prayer tools and beginning to growl and roar.  As it had in many movement and ecstatic dance classes over the last five years, the primal force at the core of my being was seeking its expression. 
            Before I knew it, I’d stripped off my clothes and was on my hands and knees atop the blanket.  Facing east, my head a few feet from the torso-sized boulder, the sun was hot and prickly on my back.  I was breathing deeper and more actively into my belly, stirring the cauldron of emotion there.  I was tapping into the awareness of my inner emotional worlds.  I was creating an active engagement with the currents and waves of elemental energies moving in the body, the same elemental waves and currents present in every living thing in the Universe. 
             Through all this conscious attention, the beast came through the Universe of me loud and clear.  Unfortunately he didn’t stay long.  Before I became self-conscious of his presence, though, and before I knew what the hell was happening fully, I was transported somewhere new.  There were moments of scrumptious growling and an undulation of my body that was divinely surprising.  There were moments where I could feel the invisible presence of a ‘tail,’ and I kept looking over both shoulders to savor the mystery of its ghostly presence and feel it’s navigating power.  And, there were loud, sharp guttural snarls accompanied by full-bodied thrusts as if I was fucking the earth and the whipping winds with my entire being.  That said, and as difficult as it may be to convince otherwise, it was not “sexual,” in the gross, human sense.  It was more the universal, primal physical expression, briefly void of any human identity.  It was deeply satisfying, yet, it ended quickly; I was ‘hitting my edge.’
            In this case, it was proverbially “double-edged;” on one side, there was a fear of the unknown- after two days with no food and water and then the beast coming alive, I was concerned I might get hurt if I really gave over to it.  The second part involved maintaining a sincere and authentic thread of balanced connection with that beastly intelligence.  The ego of my athlete and performer personas wanted to take over and ‘act out’ the experience of growling and spiraling; to maintain a sense of control, as if it knew what to do and how to make it cool and powerful, based on the past.  Then there was the beast within who was not interested in the mind, or proving or performing or re-treading safe and established patterns from the past.  The beast was only interested in unleashing what was stuck and liberating its primal power to experience the fullest satisfaction in being alive.  I felt enlivened to have this sudden and most nourishing expression come through, but I was also sad I didn’t let go with wilder abandon.  Regardless, exhausted by the expenditure of all this mental and physical energy, I lay down, draped the towel over my body and fell asleep.

            Upon waking, I slowly got dressed and continued my prayers, shifting the attention and focus.  I let go of everything that had happened to that point and I began to ask for specific signs and visions in the outside world.  I finally directed myself to the heart of what the vision quest was about; to see the animal that would become my spirit totem, my guide from that day forward.  As with every other time I grew inspired, my brain found a way to pull up the reins.  By the second day’s end, I was remembering what John the Medicine Man had said on the phone a few weeks before; “The energies are dormant now.”
            By ‘the energies,’ I knew he was referring to the animals and the arrival of spring.  For, in traditional vision quests, the initiate connects with the spirit of some kind of animal; and this becomes their totem spirit, their guide along the spiritual path forward.  For all my praying and apparent willingness, I’d seen very little; two spiders, two unidentified birds far off and a flock of darting, swooping birds close up.  While they may have been out there somewhere, I wasn’t seeing the lizards or coyotes I normally might.  But, actually that isn’t entirely true. 
            On the walk out of camp that very first morning, I was shocked to see a coyote curled up just on the edge of the campground, buffering itself from the intense wind and cold.  I felt such great empathy for this vulnerable creature and how hungry it looked.  And I also felt a great sadness.  It seemed to be waiting for the humans to drop a bit of food somewhere and it seemed willing to bear the harshest of circumstances to wait for the tiniest morsel.  At the time, I was only present to my sadness and compassion for this creature.  Now, looking back, I can see the coyote reflecting my own willingness to suffer for morsels of visions in this ‘dormant’ time.