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Exploring Second Nature
Youth, Wilderness, and Rites of Initiation

by Flynn Johnson

EarthLight Magazine #44, Fall 2002


After years of working with young people both as a psychological counselor at a college and as a vision quest guide, I have had the privilege and sorrow of bearing witness to a pain in many young people so great it can barely be articulated. At one level, the transition from childhood to adulthood is a difficult one for many. At another level, standing on the threshold of the adult world, their vision undistorted by the compromises we make as adults for the sake of social standing and economic necessity, our youth feel the suffering in our world more acutely.

Sadly, our society for the most part does not acknowledge or respond to their pain. In the absence of a response, many of our youth are lost and alienated, and abandoned to find their own ways through the dark forest. More often than not these rites of passage are self-destructive, involving drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, violence, crime, and suicide.

Traditional, nature-based cultures offer us an instructive perspective on this impasse. In these cultures, elaborate rites of passage were created to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of their young people on the threshold of adulthood. These rites of passage enabled each community member to enter this new stage of life with full consciousness and support, unlike our culture where the passage goes virtually unrecognized and unsupported.

In these cultures, the change of existential status from a child to an adult was regarded as the most important passage an individual would undergo in his or her lifetime. It was seen as a second birth, a giving birth to the individual's true self, and the renewal of the tribe was thought to be dependent upon the successful completion of this passage. It was also seen that to leave behind the safety and security of the maternal matrix the young person had to be firmly grounded in a new matrix.

The new matrix was Mother Earth, not in a physical sense, because already within the context of a nature-based society the young person felt 'at home' in the world, but rather in a spiritual sense. Hence, a primary purpose of initiation ceremonies was to introduce the young person to the sacred myths and mysteries of the tribe, and to provide him or her, through challenges, with an opportunity to experience directly the power and mystery of a sacred Earth, or the 'Other.'

Drawing upon these traditions, particularly the Native American and other wisdom traditions, the Vision Quest follows a three-phase structure-separation, threshold, and incorporation. This structure is archetypal in its origins, mirroring the inner psychological landscape of young people but also the dynamic of change itself. The separation phase ritualizes a young person's passionate and often anguishing search for an identity independent of his or her family and strong enough to find a place within the larger community.

The young person leaves family and friends behind and begins the four days of preparation, which precede the actual vision quest. During this phase the young person is being prepared physically, emotionally, and spiritually for the challenge of spending three days and nights alone fasting in nature. Myths and stories of passages are told to help participants re-imagine their lives mythologically. Another important feature of this phase is that participants tell their own stories and are helped in clarifying their intention in taking on such a challenge.

The day before their solos they go out to find a vision quest site and then report how it went.

* * *

Linda, nicknamed the "Bionic Woman" because of her vitality and strength, seems desperate in her eagerness to win our acceptance. Linda tells us that her mother abandoned her when she was a child. She says she has been dealing with depression her whole life. She says she's looking for somewhere in the world where she can feel "at home." When she went out to find a vision quest site, her search was an ordeal. After leaving a chosen site four times for one reason or another, she finally found herself in some mud flats and decided to make it her home. The wisdom she drew from her ordeal was, "I need to make a home wherever I am." She states that her intention in undertaking a vision quest is to learn to be giving.

* * *

Kevin is quiet, a thinker. There's a stiffness to him, something weighing on him. He mentions trouble with his parents, which caused him to leave home and live on his own for a while. He found a site near Linda's. He chose a place where two beavers were playing in the lake, drawn by their playfulness. I reflect back to him that the playfulness of the beavers may represent a part of himself that is seeking to come out. He says that he used to be loud and rowdy, but it was all show. Now he wants to be honest and truthful. Like many young people, Kevin moves back and forth between extremes, trying on different attitudes, as he seeks out the truth of his own soul. His intention is to be open.

* * *

Bill has an interest in world religions, especially Buddhism. He's amiable, but a bit aloof. His parents are divorced and he lives with his dad. He has connected with Kevin. Bill chose a site on a spit of land sticking out into the western fork of the lake. A dream guided him to this place. He intends to remain in his "purpose circle," a circle of stones representing the power of one's true self, the whole time he is out on his solo. He seeks awareness.

* * *

Paul is funny, gentle, and easy-going. His parents are divorced. He found his site on an island. He chose an opening in the forest, a soft, sun-filled glade, which captures his spirit. He seeks clarity and focus in his life, and wants to put the past behind him. He especially wants to discover how to separate from his overprotective mother, without anger or rebellion.

* * *

Maria is fiery, a compact ball of energy, enthusiasm, and goodwill. This is her first time camping and she's eager to learn new things. She's happy and loves her parents dearly. She says she has had a blessed life. Maria also encountered difficulty finding a site. She was looking for the ideal spot, which she was sure she'd find because "Things always work out perfectly for me." But other questers were in sight at her first choice and the second spot she chose had already been claimed by someone else. Almost to the point of hopelessness, she surrendered to her situation and came upon a large rock with a birch tree overhanging it. She decided it was time for her to lay down on her "Promethean rock" and learn about suffering. To this purpose she intended to stay on her rock the whole time. Maria is a brave warrior: she faces her fear head on.

* * *

Emma, at seventeen, is the youngest. She's always smoking and talking. She has multiple piercings. She looks like she would be more at home in a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, yet she's doing fine. Emma's parents are divorced. Emma went to the same island as Paul. She found a dead tree at the edge of the woods and the shore of the lake. The tree formed a natural seat, in which she lay down and fell asleep. She says she felt held by the Goddess. Emma's intention is to discover who she is, to discover her feminine soul, which has been put to sleep by a culture that does not honor the feminine.

* * *

Carol is quiet but engaged. She is dealing with a painful past of abuse. She plans on getting married in the near future. She was brought to her site by an intuition and a dream. She found a beautiful spot near a sandy beach on a small cove. She told herself it would be her site if she found a heart-shaped rock, representing her medicine name, "Big Heart." She found one. Her intention is to let go of her painful past.

With the completion of this phase, the participants are ready to enter the threshold phase-the solo. A threshold is a betwixt and between place, a border place of not knowing, of dying to the old but uncertain about what is being born. As such, this threshold phase ritualistically enacts where adolescents find themselves in their lives. The solo gives them an opportunity to look deeply into themselves, to reflect on who they are, and what their destiny may be. This is something they are doing anyway. The difference, however, is that this ritual provides an experience which heightens the possibility of insight, of awareness, of vision, of a heart opening.

As they sit alone, the rhythms and sounds of nature can foster an opening to the interconnectedness of all life, to the sacredness of all life. Finding moments of stillness, they can touch, maybe for the first time, the simple beauty of being fully present to themselves and the world around them. This experience of being fully alive in the moment is in itself vision. With this vision they return to their core being, which is inseparable from the heart of the world.

The morning the questers return to base camp is always a special moment for me. One by one they trickle into camp, their faces shining with an inner peace. They are who they are. I greet each one with a prayer of gratitude for his or her safe return. They have undergone an ordeal, both inner and outer. A child could not spend three days and nights alone in the wilderness.

At dusk in the growing darkness we gather around the fire. A full moon balances temporarily on the edge of an eastern hill. Moonlight dances on the lake and illumines our faces. The scene seems primal: a band of men and women gathered around a fire on the shore of a lake beneath a full moon; living close to nature, close to our own nature, and close to each other. In a moment the stories of their vision quests will begin.

Linda struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide. But she built a medicine wheel and prayed to the four directions. This strengthened her. Then while out walking she ran across a wild blueberry bush overflowing with fruit. She felt a strong desire to give to the other questers, so she gathered the berries and as she did she thought of each person questing with her. This selfless act lifted her depression. Later she stripped naked, covered herself with mud, and then dove into the lake, washing off the mud and with it her dark thoughts. She emerged from her baptismal reborn.

Like many young people, Linda has a longing to be of service to something larger than herself. The difficulty often lies in finding that something in a world that glorifies the ego and its appetites. Linda's gift lies in her heart's capacity to give. When she gives spontaneously from love and not to win approval, her depression is assuaged by the grace of communion. I affirm her warrior's heart and strength and will.

Kevin drew a bird on a large stone and christened it "Flynn's Firebird," based on a Russian folktale I had told. I tell him it isn't my Firebird but his, the firebird of passion that lies locked up in his soul, waiting to take flight in the words that shape his poems. I honor his inwardness, his silence, and his struggle to be open and honest. I tell him his silence reminds me of my youth, during which I took refuge in silence because of the immensity of my inner anguish and self-searching. Kevin spent a lot of time meditating on the beavers near his site. He longs for the freedom and spontaneity of his true self.

As intended, Bill did not leave his purpose circle. He sat resolute, focused, aware, like the Buddha. He sat under his tarp tepee gazing out across the waters of his soul. Bill has a shining spirit and a keen mind. His sparkling blue eyes carry images of windswept, snow-streaked mountain places high in Tibet. He is an ancient soul who has come to the modern world in order to restore the memory of peace and stillness to our noisy, rushed lives. He recites one of his poems, leaving us spellbound. The poem describes himself as a reluctant messenger, who prefers silence to words, solitude to company, nature to civilization. I marvel at the breadth and depth of understanding of this eighteen-year-old.

Paul struggled with the thought of returning. He thought it was stupid to be out on his island alone without food. He reasoned that the ascetic path was not the way of spirit. If all he could think about was food, how was he going to be open to spirit? His mind was restless. At one point he found a stick and beat it repeatedly against his cup. After a while he began to sing to the rhythm. Sound and song carried him to the interior of his wild heart. On his own he had discovered an ancient technique for inducing an altered state of consciousness-drumming and chanting. Through this experience he gained greater clarity into who he was and this clarity helped him to separate from his mother with love.

Maria spent most of her time on her rock. She watched as the loons dove deep and then surfaced far away. Like the loons, she dove deep into herself, into her fear of the night, into her fear of the unknown. Maria possesses a courageous spirit, that draws her deeper into life and deeper into the mystery of herself. As she faced her loneliness on the solo, she learned to distinguish between her natural tendency to get lonely and her capacity to be alone. She realized that ultimately she was not alone: all of nature was with her. Listening to Maria was like witnessing a flower as it unfolds into the fullness of its splendor.

Once again Emma curled up into the hollow of the dead tree and slept. She slept almost the whole time she was on her solo. She said she didn't want to look inside herself because she was afraid she would find nothing there. My heart went out to her. I wanted to take her into my arms and tell her everything would be OK. But, even as she slept, Emma was being held by the Great Mother. Perhaps it was too soon for her to leave the womb of protection and innocence. Emma was like the tattoo of a lizard at the base of her spine: her energies lay curled up in repose deep within her, both awaiting and in fear of the transformation into womanhood beckoning to her.

Carol wrestled with demons of betrayal and a flickering self-worth. She stripped her clothes off and swam in the lake, wishing to wash herself clean of her tainted past. She swam furiously, the fury inside her erupting. She emerged from the waters and set her mind upon the future, especially her upcoming marriage. Yet her dreams told her that her demons would not go to rest so easily. She was being called into a heroic struggle with a wound that haunts her. But she carries her heart-shaped rock as a reminder of the purity of her own heart and her capacity to love and be loved. She is "Big Heart" and nothing can take that away from her.

After hearing the stories we hold a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, an ancient ritual of death and rebirth, in order to symbolically mark the transformation each quester has undergone. In the heat of the sweat we pray, sing, laugh, tell stories, and howl like a pack of wolves. Linda sums up the feelings of us all when she says, "I can't stop smiling, I'm so happy."


Flynn Johnson, M.A., founder of The School of Natural Wonder, has been leading vision quests and other experiential, nature-based programs for the past eight years. He lives in southern Vermont with his wife and son. For information please call (802) 896-6271, or visit www.schoolofnaturalwonder.org.


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