I am neither a priest nor a theologian, neither a devotee of nor a spokesperson for any particular spiritual tradition or path. I am an ordinary woman with an extraordinary hunger: to live with an awareness of the Sacred Mystery, the Beloved-God-at the center of my life and to learn from this presence who I am and why I am here....
I am willing to do whatever it takes to know and live the meaning in my life. I am convinced that I have to and am able to learn to do it differently.
And I am wrong.
Not knowing I am wrong, in the summer of 2002 I decide to go into the wilderness alone to do a forty-day vision quest, a ceremonial time of fasting, praying, and deep listening found in different forms in many spiritual traditions. Over the past eighteen years I have done eight personal vision quests, some for one to four nights and one for twenty-two days and nights. I am feeling strong, prepared, and cautiously optimistic.
I am lying facedown in the dirt and pine needles, waiting for the sharp pains in my belly to soften and ebb away. For the third time in as many hours I have vomited onto the ground the small sips of water I keep swallowing in an effort to stay hydrated. It has been twenty-four hours since I have been able to keep anything, including water, down. Trying to eat small bites of an apple hours before was like trying to swallow razor blades. I can feel the rapid fluttering of my heartbeat behind the steady throbbing in my head. When I roll over the whole world, a dizzying swirl of rocks and ground and leaves and sky, rolls with me and keeps on rolling even when I have stopped. It takes several minutes for my view of the gray sky above the tops of the trees that surround me to stabilize. The nausea and aching muscles have made sleeping difficult. I have been awake for almost forty-eight hours.
I have been alone in the wilderness for six days. Because I plan to stay for forty days I am not fasting continuously. Half of the time I am eating one light meal per day of a quarter cup of rice, one vegetable protein patty, and one apple. The other half of the time, for three-day periods, I am water-fasting.
Feeling ill took me by surprise on day four after only eight hours of water fasting. The severity and suddenness of my symptoms remain a mystery. I have fasted many times for much longer periods with much less preparation and experienced no physical repercussions. Several years earlier I water-fasted during a twenty-two-day quest with no ill effects. Having had chronic fatigue syndrome many years ago, I generally keep a close watch on my overall health and can anticipate and usually avoid any major immune system crashes by resting and using herbs and supplements. I'd arrived for this quest rested and healthy. The weather and the animals have been gentle. There is no apparent reason for being so sick.
And I hear a voice, the voice of one of the old women I have seen many times in my dreams and have come to call the Grandmothers. The voice says quietly, simply, "Go home."
I hold my breath, listening for more. Anger flashes through me. Is this a test to see if I'm sincere in my intention to be here for forty days? Are they trying to measure the depth of the desire I have poured into my prayers? Seeing me struggle with physical discomfort, are they testing my resolve, trying to tempt me into giving up? The tears I would not allow as an expression of discouragement come now as outrage, hot on my face. My words are choked out from behind clenched teeth: "Don't fuck with me!"
The voice comes again, slower, sadder, and impossibly softer, a breeze rippling through the maple leaves above me. "Oriah, go home."
And I break. I roll over and press my face into the earth, sobbing. How can I go home without an answer? I want to know how to do it differently, how to let the love I know is within me guide me when I am tired and impatient and judgmental with those around me. I think of them now, the people I love: my two beautiful sons, Nathan and Brendan, now young men of nineteen and twenty-two, both beginning their studies at university; Jeff, the man I am about to marry, who despite not really understanding what I am doing out here helped me pack in my supplies and waits for my return; my parents, restraining themselves from expressing their concern for their crazy daughter who, just before her forty-eighth birthday, has gone out into the wilderness for six weeks alone; the friends and students who have supported me, the many people who are praying for me. Is telling me to go home the Grandmothers' way of telling me I simply can't do it, I can't live differently, I can't live fully present with a deep sense of connection to myself and the Sacred Mystery guiding me all the time?
I raise my head off the ground.
"I'm not going home. I want . to know how . to do it differently. And I am willing to do whatever it takes!" This last declaration is fierce, desperate. For a few moments there is nothing but the silence of the forest.
"You can't get there from here, Oriah."
"What you are looking for cannot be bought by ordeal."
I sit up slowly, bewildered. I'm not trying to buy anything, am I? There is an element of ordeal in doing a vision quest: the fasting, the solitude, the physical rigors of living outdoors in the wilderness for an extended time in all kinds of weather, the bugs. But these are part of the process I know and trust, part of what has worked in the past to break down my resistance to seeing what I need to see, hearing what I need to hear. I live in a culture that glorifies the easy answer, packages and sells the promise of a quick fix. I am willing to sacrifice comfort for what matters, for what is real.
"What you are looking for cannot be earned or paid for with suffering or hard work. It is a gift. Grace. It can only be received."
"I don't know how to do easy," I whisper. "And I don't trust people who do." This is a revelation I realize is true as soon as I say it. I trust others who, like me, trust hard work, assume it is required, dive into it willingly and do it well. "Give me something else to do. Anything. But don't ask me to do easier. I don't know how. I don't think I can. There must be something else." I am begging now, desperate to know that the answer to all my questions is not the one thing I truly feel I cannot do. I lie back down defeated, letting the tears slip silently out of the corners of my eyes and run down into my ears.
Finally the voice of the Grandmother comes again, softly, sadly. "You keep fighting with reality, Oriah. It's a losing battle. Give it up."
It is late in the day. Because the sky is overcast I cannot tell how close the sun is to setting. Not wanting to get caught in the dark on my way out of the bush, I resolve to wait until morning, reasoning that a good night's sleep may make staying possible or leaving safer.
Lying in my small tent later that night, I breathe through the nausea and dizziness, focusing on relaxing into the ache that runs through my arms and legs. I give up hoping for sleep and try to let the darkness be my rest. I continue to be unable to eat or drink anything without vomiting. At first light I sit up and do my morning prayers, asking for help in getting out of the wilderness. Getting into my canoe, I paddle across the lake. Already the air is warm and thick with humidity, the lake a sheet of gray glass under cloudy skies. The dense bush around me is silent, still. I am not pondering the meaning of following the Grandmother's directive to go home. I am focused on getting out. Strangely, I feel more stable in the canoe than I do on land. The hike along a trail to the nearby outfitters normally takes about twenty minutes, but each time I take a dozen steps I have to go down on my hands and knees and wait for my rapidly beating heart to return to normal and for the dizziness and nausea to recede.
I want to lie down on the path and wait for someone to find me and carry me out. We have set up a system of signal flags for safety, and I know that sooner or later today someone will come down the path from the outfitters so they can see the flag I have put up on the far side of the lake. Only two things keep me going: the knowledge that it could be twelve more hours before someone comes to check the flag, and the bugs. Every time I go down to the ground I am swarmed. A cloud of mosquitoes and deerflies descends and mercilessly bites at my head, neck, hands, and face, leaving large bloody welts. I grew up in northern Ontario, two hundred miles north of this wilderness site. I have camped and canoed for years, and yet I have never experienced bugs like this. They are relentless. I cannot breathe without inhaling insect bodies. The only way to keep from going completely mad from the buzzing and biting is to keep moving. As I stagger to my feet, it occurs to me that my prayer for help in getting out of the bush has been answered. The deerflies and mosquitoes ensure I will keep moving.
"I didn't mean by torturing me," I mutter. "I meant maybe having someone in an ATV (an all-terrain vehicle, which I normally detest for its noise and polluting exhaust) come along and give me a ride." I focus on taking the next step.
Two and a half hours later I stagger through a door into a scene that makes me wonder if I am dreaming or losing my mind. The long tables in the dining room of this remote northern outfitter are filled with Tibetan Buddhist monks eating breakfast. Startled, they look up from their porridge bowls as I stumble in. I must be quite a sight as I clump across the floor in my hiking books to lean panting against the door frame. A large hunting knife hangs at my belt; my clothes are stuck to my body with sweat and covered in dirt. I have removed my hat to reveal hair plastered to my head with a week's worth of greasy and ineffective insect repellent. Out of the crowd of round faces and burgundy robes, Martha, one of the owners of the outfitters, emerges and moves toward me, her face filled with concern.
As unlikely as it seems, the Tibetan monks have traveled from India and are there to do ceremonial sand painting, meditation, and prayer. With the sound of their music and chanting in the background, I am taken care of tenderly, given food and water that miraculously stays down, and put to bed in a nearby cabin. Jeff is called and drives up, paddles in, packs my supplies, and with help from folks at the outfitters hauls them out of the bush.
And perhaps for the first time in my life I heed the call, the one I have heard all my life, and I go home.
[Oriah Mountain Dreamer spent two weeks recuperating and was able to finish her retreat at home.]
Coming home from the wilderness after the first seven days of my quest, I decide to maintain my intent to be in ceremony for forty days. I remain in the familiar setting of my home, surrounded by the concerns and distractions of everyday life but committed to finding a different way of being with them, wanting to try easier. The last thirty-three days of this time of retreat are not as physically challenging as the first seven, but they offer me a progressively clearer answer to my question about how to live connected both to all of what I know myself to be and to that which is larger than myself.