Night fell with no moon. By full darkness, I couldn’t see 10 inches in front of me. I’d spent plenty of nights in the woods, but the depth of this darkness was unexpected. Its soupy blackness swallowed me and my surroundings whole.
I sat less than three miles from California Highway 9, north of Santa Cruz, at the beginning of a 96-hour vision quest. Within half a mile of me were eight other people on quests of their own—each sitting, as I was, inside a 10-foot circle. Each of us was to spend the entire time alone in our circle, eating no food and drinking only water. Also forbidden were yoga, meditation, running in place, or anything else that might distract us. Our protector, Malcolm Ringwalt, co-owner of Earth-Heart, the company that facilitates these quests, was also camped nearby, but his nearness meant nothing in the inky blackness.
Approaching 40, I had thought a soul-clearing exercise like a vision quest would do me good. Common to most Native American tribes, such quests allow you to seek the Great Spirit and listen for clarity and insight about your life’s direction. Ringwalt, a psychologist who did his first vision quest in 1981, considers them something of a sledgehammer approach to spiritual development. Sure, talk therapy can be helpful, but things have a way of coming into focus much faster when you’re alone in the woods with nothing but your own mind.
In preparation for our quest, Ringwalt had asked us to formulate questions. Nothing was too trivial, but he encouraged us to be practical, not metaphysical. “Should I sell my car?” works better than “Where does my soul dwell?” In the weeks leading up to the quest, I spent a few minutes every day writing my questions. Should I teach high school again? Why do I fall for damsels in distress? Why can’t I forget that disagreement with my brother? Practical, to be sure, but the answers, taken together, might also reveal deeper truths.
Ringwalt had told us that 80 percent of our questions would be answered within three hours. For me, though, those first hours in the darkness yielded no concrete answers; instead, the questions no longer seemed interesting. Numbed by boredom, I dozed off, only to awaken to the sound of something huge crashing through the forest. My heart pounded wildly as the creature stopped about 15 yards away and paced. I grabbed a large rock and threw it. The beast stopped …then started pacing again. It must be dangerous, I thought. Anything harmless would’ve run away. I broke off a branch, stood at the edge of my circle, growled like a rabid dog, and swung the branch around. Eventually, the creature ambled off, but another came up behind me. My growling and jumping had apparently awakened the entire forest. Was I camped on the edge of an animal freeway? Would these beasts return tomorrow night with friends? Any romantic notions I’d had about the quest quickly crumbled.
Exhausted after my panicked branch swinging, I fell asleep again. The next time I awoke I heard the unmistakable slither of a snake crawling toward me. Lying on my stomach, I stretched out my neck and faced in its direction. Inexplicably, I was more curious than afraid, even though I couldn’t see a thing. The snake stopped maybe inches from my face—and then wriggled away without entering my circle. For the first time that night I felt protected—and knew I’d stick it out.
After that first terror-filled night, my daily struggle was with boredom. So, stripped of my everyday habits, I created new ones—preparing for bed, taking off my socks or shirt, taking a sip of water—and invested each with great attention because they were something to do during my 96 hours. On day two, I collected sticks for the upcoming nights—a good thing, as it turned out, because I ended up throwing them at all sorts of creatures. But I stayed in the circle, which, visions be damned, had become my only goal.
By the time I walked out of my circle at first light after the fourth night, I had forgotten all about goals. I’d also discovered that Ringwalt was right. The sense I’d had in the first few hours of my quest that all my burning questions really didn’t matter that much had stayed with me. Instead of specific answers, I was left with a feeling that all would be well. Oddly enough, the visceral fear I’d experienced left me feeling calmer about the anxiety-making issues I’d brought with me on the quest.
I learned something else about fear as well. Ringwalt told me later that the beast that had visited me that first night was probably a large—and harmless—buck. That bone-chilling fear had been entirely manufactured by my mind. Once I figured out how I had created it, I also realized I could shut it off. With that discovery, something shifted within me, and it was truly a shift for the better.