Shamans have always known that deepening our connection to Spirit, the creative force that we are all a part of, is the ultimate medicine for the soul, the mind, and the body. A solitary retreat called a vision quest can bring a person back from the lunacy of the modern world to an understanding of his or her true nature and the creative consciousness of the universe. During a vision quest, the seeker sits alone quietly outdoors, having left behind daily comforts of shelter, food, and support from others. The goal is to enter into communion with nature and Spirit, which can recharge, replenish, and enlighten you with wisdom beyond the grasp of your analytical mind. The challenge of the vision quest is to surrender your sense of control and make yourself vulnerable and available. This simple practice is not easy, because vulnerability and loss of control are two of the things we fear most in life.
We all have a dozen reasons why we can’t go off into the woods to do a vision quest: not enough money, not enough time, too many obligations. But the clarity and strength you will receive from doing a two-day vision quest in nature will more than make up for the sacrifice of convenience and comfort. So a good time to get started is right this moment: three weeks before the start of your vision quest!
Satisfy Your Personal Safety Concerns. Fasting for two or three days is perfectly safe for people in good health. In fact, new research shows that fasting awakens the body’s self-repair systems and stimulates production of stem cells in the brain and every organ in your body (see the Natural Super-Healing section at the end of this article). That said, if you are diabetic, taking medication, or dealing with illness, talk to your physician about accommodations you may need to make. Do not put yourself in physical danger. Your vision quest could take place on the grounds of a retreat center or a wilderness lodge.
Prime Your Brain with a Cleansing Diet. Eliminate all processed carbohydrates from your diet, including sugars, breads, and any wheat products. Start (tomorrow morning!) with green juice and healthy fats and proteins (save the fresh fruit until later in the morning). Doing this for three weeks will begin repairing your gut from the damage caused by gluten and will prime your brain for an experience of heightened consciousness.
Choose an Awe-Inspiring Place to Camp. When you are in nature, you are better able to realize your oneness with all creation as you feel her rhythms and energy—and recent research suggests that the experience of awe is a natural anti-inflammatory. Ideally, that means you will do your vision quest in a natural area, deep in the virgin forest or woods, or in the desert. If you will need permission or a reservation to camp, start that process. If possible, print a picture of the area and set it atop your supplies as a daily reminder of your upcoming quest.
Set Out Your Supplies. You’ll need a sleeping bag, perhaps a tent, and clothing suitable for the climate. You’ll also need two to three gallons of water to last you two days, an emergency supply of chocolate, nuts, and dried fruit, and a few plastic garbage bags for disposing of solid waste. You should bring a jour-nal and pens and perhaps colored pencils or crayons to record dreams, memories, and strong feelings that arise. Bring your cell phone to leave in your car or nearby in case of emergency.
Your Vision Quest
Inform Someone. At least one person needs to know exactly where you are going to be and for how long. If you are in a park, inform the ranger. Check in with that person before you start your quest and as soon as you finish.
Set Your Space. Be sure your place is beautiful, safe, and sufficiently secluded so you won’t be interrupted. Hide your emergency chocolate and cell phone. Finally, draw a circle about 20 feet in diameter around where you will stay for the next two days. You will step outside your circle only to relieve yourself nearby.
Accept That You Will Get Hungry. Your stomach will start growling. Often, the growling will be louder in your head than in your stomach --especially if you didn’t prime your brain with the cleansing diet. Let your stomach’s growling cue you to observe how untamed and fearful your mind can be. Along with hunger pangs, you will most likely experience mood swings, low energy, and irritability during the first day or so of fasting due to the detoxification process you are starting.
Listen to Your Body. If at any time you feel dizzy or sick, break your fast with the chocolate, nuts, and dried fruit. Knowing food is just a few yards away will make it harder to maintain your fast, but you can use the opportunity to observe the irrational desperation of your primitive limbic brain, which is concerned only with survival. You are surviving! For your more evolved brain to fully awaken, you have to quiet the limbic brain that likes to have three sugar-rich meals a day.
Stay Hydrated. Drink at least four quarts of water a day, closer to six quarts a day if you will be in a hot, arid place. Drink enough so that your urine remains a pale yellow.
Meditate. As much as you can, pay attention to your breath and to your experience in the present moment. If your mind wanders, recognize that boredom is a sign that you are getting close to the state of contemplation you want to be in. The boredom and restlessness will pass.
Pray. Give thanks for the beauty around you and for every breath you take. Give thanks for your safety, for a body that is working just as it should, and for the embrace of nature. Practice praying with your heart and not with your head.
Remain Open to Experience. Leave behind any notions of what you “should” experience. You may feel a shift in consciousness early on the first day, or not until you are ready to end your vision quest. Your experience may be intense and life-changing; it may be gentler, yet still powerful. You may see symbols in your mind’s eye, experience an inner knowing that you can’t explain, or hear the voice of Spirit. The experience of oneness is different for everyone. You may feel bored and think that nothing’s happening, only to have your awareness shift suddenly as a sense of oneness overcomes you.
Give Thanks. When you end your vision quest, thank the earth and Spirit for communing with you and supporting you. Pick up any trash and erase your circle. Leave no trace. Check in with the ranger and/or your special someone. Leave in peace and gratitude for the experience.
Fast in an Awesome Place to Wake up Stem Cells and Reduce Inflammation
Last June, researchers from the University of Southern California reported in the journal Cell Stem Cell that fasting for two to four days “not only protects against immune system damage—a major side effect of chemotherapy—but also induces immune system regeneration, shifting stem cells from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal.”
As Valter Longo, PhD, director of the USC Longevity Institute, explains, “When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged. What we started noticing in both our human work and in our animal work is that the white blood cell count goes down with prolonged fasting. Then when you re-feed, the blood cells come back . . . We could not predict that prolonged fasting would have such a remarkable effect in promoting stem cell-based regeneration . . . ”
According to the USC report, “The study has major implications for healthier aging, in which immune system decline contributes to increased susceptibility to disease as people age . . . The research also has implications for chemotherapy tolerance and for those with a wide range of immune system deficiencies, including autoimmunity disorders.”
In another report, published in the journal Emotion, researchers at UC Berkeley found that awe-inspiring experiences may lead to reduced inflammation in the body. The researchers asked more than 200 young adults, on any given day, to report on their levels of various positive emotions—amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love, and pride—and discovered that those who experienced more of these emotions had the lowest levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, specifically levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6).
While this finding is not particularly surprising—who needs science to confirm that feeling good emotionally is good for your health?—it is unique. Previous research has tended to focus on how negative emotions are related to increased inflammation and poor health outcomes, while this is one of the first studies to support the connection of positive emotions and good health.
Safe Places to Sit
If you are not comfortable venturing into the woods by yourself, here a few places that would be happy to help.
Heart Path Journeys Maui
Providence Spirituality & Conference Center
Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana
The Art of Living Retreat Center
Boone, North Carolina
Sevenoaks Retreat Center
Coppertoppe Inn & Retreat Center
Hebron, New Hampshire
SpiritQuest Sedona Retreats
Alberto Villoldo, PhD, is the author of the best-selling Shaman, Healer, Sage and coauthor with David Perlmutter, MD, of Power Up Your Brain. This article is adapted from One Spirit Medicine, which was recently published by Hay House.