Authored for Psyched in San Francisco by San Francisco based psychotherapist, Jodie Stein. Jodie specializes in helping women in transition to be fierce about loving themselves. She sees women in transitions like breakups, separation and divorce, becoming married, or differentiating from family and learning to follow their own rules. Jodie facilitates support groups for women in the separation and divorce process. She also enjoys working with premarital couples and couples who are navigating doubts on the road to marriage.
At the turn of the New Year of 2012 I walked into the desert to make sense of my life. I have always felt at home in the desert; it calls me with its basin of sky, its harsh beauty, its way of mummifying the castles of dreamers. There is a challenge here for me to take up space in a way that confirms: I matter. It seemed a fitting place for my Vision Quest, a spiritual journey in the wilderness spent fasting for three days and four nights in a remote spot, without shelter, alone.
Since my divorce and return from living in East Africa a few years before, I had been steadily dismantling the life I had built in service of becoming a psychotherapist. Years of living in survival mode juggling grad school and jobs, spending down my savings as I worked six day weeks, and returning to intern status had taken their toll. I was exhausted and sinking into self doubt. In my relationship, too, I faced a turning point; whether to take the next step or to let go.
I sought answers to these questions; what direction should my life take? What's my purpose? What's getting in my way?
As a therapist myself and as someone who has benefited from therapy, I had tried finding these answers through my weekly sessions but failed. I decided that I needed the type of experience that can only be found out of the office.
The vision quest is a rite of passage ceremony which includes three phases: severance, when you cut ties with your ordinary life; threshold, when you leave your community and spend solo time fasting and seeking your vision; and incorporation, when you return to your community and receive the wisdom of your elders through reflection so that you can bring your vision into the world.
The Vision Quest is a deep encounter with the self, or soul, to gain a vision of what we can offer to our community. It's a journey of dying to the old stories in our lives so that we can be reborn into what we are becoming.
Returning to the wild, stripped of the modern comforts that help me forget that, I, too, am an animal, is to affirm the uniqueness of my wild, human, soul and its connection to oneness, to God-nature. Only here, it seemed, could my questions find a teacher wise enough for the task.
We arrived together as a community of twelve seekers and three guides. During the time of severance we made intentions, asked for guidance, discussed safety, and then went out to choose our place on the land where we would live alone for the threshold time. I chose a low, rocky ledge with a cave and hill viewpoint. I settled in.
For four nights and three days I stayed there and fasted, drinking only water. My left- brained questions about purpose and direction took the essence of my old story of myself - do I have the right to take up space in this world with my voice? Do I have the right to be big?
My fears came with me too; feeling hungry, bored, finding a scorpion in my shoe.
Alone in the desert for three days, sleeping under the stars without a tent, there is not much to distract me from my teachers -- a lizard, a red tailed hawk, cloud-dragons. I try to let the answers emerge from the dream; how can I die to this old story of myself so I can hear the new one?
I sit and watch things exist, I sing, I build an altar, I huddle under two sleeping bags learning how the moon moves across the night sky. I get ideas about how to bring my purpose into my work. I have a dream about a man who can meet my soul.
A rock-fish tells me my name: Sky Weaver. I wrestle with my inner voices: do I dare believe that this small self can completely go away? What if I raise the stakes too high and I fail?
On the eve of the final day, I wedge myself into the small cave in the rocks. I experience how it would be to stay this small for the rest of my life, and I feel trapped, isolated, and sad. Then I release myself. I circle my altar, rattling and chanting my song: Help me conquer this story, that I always will be small, Help me be Sky Weaver, One who weaves it all.
On the morning of the fourth day I walk back to base camp to join my fellow questers. In the days of integration with the group, I come to know that Sky Weaver is a creator and that I am needed, that staying small no longer serves me or the world. I find my new story.
Of course, it's one thing to have a transformational experience in the desert in an altered state of consciousness and quite another to integrate it in your urban life. When I came back to my life change wasn't an explosion, it was a slow drip.
But something happened there in the desert that started to emerge. My work as a therapist became energized to bring my purpose into the world. My relationship ended and shortly afterwards the man in my dream became my partner, soon to be my husband. I got bigger in a way that continues to work within me, a golden thread running throughout my life, and in fact, working just now as I share my journey with you.
You too can take your questions to the earth. It's simple -- you don't need a Vision Quest.
Lay down your body on the soft grass; let it caress your skin, this wily, dense cushion, wet and sharp. Let your toes burrow into the dirt like worms. Maybe a sigh happens, a giggle, a sob, the shard of a memory of childhood not touched in years, maybe nothing happens. Let it comfort you.
Go up high where you can see the vastness. A ledge on a mountain trail that gives you the ocean, the shoreline, the slopping hillside covered with towering pines, the very sun itself. Feel how big you are and how small. Feel how beneath all that matters to you there is a current of okay-ness. Feel how you can survive the hurt; how much it matters and how little. Maybe you can rest now in the scooped bowl of this rocky perch, into this bird's eye view, into life itself.
Watch a turtle for a while. Study him like your iPhone. When he dives under the water, keep checking for him like he's a text from someone important. Bring your problems to him, the soft underbelly of your questions - what's wrong with me? Why am I alone? Am I broken?
See how he teaches you: he swims, he basks in the sun, he retreats into his shell to protect himself, he comes out when he feels safe. Just like you. He is exists and he is enough.
Go where your soul calls you. You may need a different teacher. I invite you to take your story out of the office.
Sometimes I still feel small, and, like the turtle, I need to go into my shell. But in these times I remember this wisdom from one of our guides: that Sky Weaver does not have to be big all the time, she just needs to be in connection with her soul that knows, I belong. Living from this place of soul connection can happen anywhere -- in the office, in the city, or in the wilderness. It is simply a matter of remembering that you can always pick up your golden thread and start weaving again.