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A Quest for Vision

"Concentric Rings, No. 1" – © Michael Gambino, 2011

So much has taken place in my life since last year at this time. I have placed just a handful of posts here since then in part due to the transition energies flowing through my life. These energies have been (and continue) primarily on an internal, spiritual level. Writing became difficult because the things moving in my heart were of many diverse rhythms and moods, often contradictory. This made it nearly impossible to find a cohesive theme or message to share. What I now understand about this, even as it continues to be a jumble of feelings, is that this is the hand of the Creator at work stirring things, breaking up adhesions and stagnant or outdated elements of my vision and path. It is transition energy, as I have written about before.

About two months ago I felt within my heart the calling from the Creator urging me to prepare for a vision quest. For those who don’t know about what the vision quest is, it’s one of the most powerful and sacred ceremonies to the Native American peoples. There are many words to say about the vision quest, my experiences, and the purpose for such a ceremony, but let me start by offering a general summary of the quest.

There are many variations of the vision quest used by people today. Some incorporate modern psychological and therapeutic elements, and they may last for hours, or for one or two days of solitude and journal writing. The unique quest tradition that I follow was given to Tom Brown, Jr. by his teacher, Stalking Wolf, a southern Lipan Apache scout who was never confined to any of the white man’s reservations. Stalking Wolf, whom we call simply Grandfather, taught Tom intensively for many years in the ways of survival, tracking, and the spiritual ways of the shaman and ancient scouts. Most of the vision quests I have taken were led and facilitated by Malcolm Ringwalt, who learned from Tom how to run and understand the deep and expanding levels of the quest experience. Malcolm has been leading vision quest programs since 1981.This is the lineage to which I am connected.

This particular vision quest tradition is profoundly uncomplicated. The quester seeking vision through this ceremony prepares a ten-foot diameter circle in the woods and confines his or herself to that circle for 4 days and 4 nights, fasting from all things familiar. Only water is consumed, and extra clothing and a sleeping bag or blanket are stowed outside the quest circle. Away from the quest circle is a small hole dug in the ground for use as a latrine. That’s all there is to it. As you can see, it is not a camping trip. It is you and the earth and the Creator together in a commitment to the path of awakening to or clarifying your vision. The quest is a sacred offering to the Creator who has given us our lives. In return, the quester sacrifices his or her blood, sweat, and tears for four days and nights. All comforts and distractions are denied and the quester opens themselves on all levels to the elements and the wisdom of creation and the world of spirit.

Each morning at first light a marker is placed a short distance from the quest circle on the edge of a main trail to signify the start of a new day of questing and to let the group of protectors know that the quester is okay and able to continue the quest. The protector’s task is to care for and ensure that each person questing is safe from intrusion or interference by other people who might wander into the area. They quietly and almost invisibly walk the perimeter of the area where the questers are in ceremony. It is a very important element to questing to have these protectors in place to facilitate the entire program from the preparation phase, through ceremony, and then the eventual return to camp.

These are the logistics of the quest, and as you might imagine, there are a number of physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional challenges to face during this 4-day vision quest ceremony. Each person experiences them uniquely, and each quest a person undertakes is different. However, here is a list of commonly encountered experiences: fatigue, boredom, back pain, bruises, scratches, minor cuts, mosquito bites, chigger bites, tick bites, nausea, sunburn, oppressive heat, rain, cold nights, lack of sleep, assorted body aches, distortion of time, shifts in perception, weakness, hunger, snippets of really annoying pop songs playing in an endless loop, sadness, anger, frustration, depression, elation, peace, fear, apprehension, love, and so on. All of these are intensified in that ten-foot circle. Now you can see why the native people refer to the quest as “the little death”. It is also the death of the “I” or ego. It is a death of the former self. As Joseph Campbell said, "The ultimate aim of the quest must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others."

The quest is a piercing of the heart . . . and what flows from that sacred opening is both light and darkness. The poisons of self-doubt, anger, ignorance, selfishness, fear and so on are no longer hidden away to stagnate inside us and get in the way of living our vision. The greater portion of what flows from the piercing is the light of our divine being, the light of the Creator that shines through us and out into this world. The only real way to truly understand what the vision quest is,  however, is to take a vision quest. So much of it is outside of the realm of the languages of humankind. The quest speaks to us in the deep layers of ourselves, and in a symbolic language and in signs and in our feelings. It communicates to the heart and to our spirit rather than the logical mind. This is a ceremony that has been practiced in one form or another as long as man has been walking the earth. As Tom puts it, “The vision quest is as old as dirt.”

Inside a Ten-Foot Circle

I would like to share some of what occurred for me in my recent vision quest. There are some elements I hold in reserve as they are not for sharing, and are between myself and the Creator, and the power they contain must be allowed to remain inside my heart, unfolding over time. This is part of the tradition. No one else can interpret the true meaning of anything I share here, and in fact, even my own initial interpretations are a product of the logical mind analyzing the events. The true meaning and messages are actually hidden from me in large part at this time. Such is the deep level of my being to which they were presented. The waking or logical mind cannot reach to the depths where the vision lives. In time and through meditation, they are revealed, unfolding as we move along our path in life.

My first day began as I arose at first-light to the sound of drums and the call of the Whippoorwill in the forest. Wrapped in a blanket and in silence, I faced the group of protectors and Malcolm sitting silently across the flickering fire light, looking them in the eye and nodding that I was ready to begin questing. I then made my way from camp to my quest site a mile away that I had prepared the previous day. It was a place I literally cut out of a dense thicket of low-bush blueberry shrubs, Pitch Pines, and Blackjack Oak saplings. It was, most regrettably, a narrow swath of destruction. Necessarily, I had pulled plants out by the roots, trimmed eye-poker branches, and otherwise made the circle safe for me to thrash about in for four days without impaling myself and bleeding unnecessarily. I was exhausted from the day-long rush to prepare all things and carry water and some clothing out to my site. Now, on the first day, I was entering the rigors of the quest already exhausted, bug bitten, and sore. As I stood at the edge of the quest circle, I took a moment to pause reaffirming my commitment. I placed a marker in the designated area out by the main trail and returned to my circle, stepping into my vision quest.

The days passed slowly, each minute seemingly lasted many times longer than usual. Hunger began to make itself known intermittently, and I ignored it. The last thing I ate was a light meal the night before starting my quest. When all was done, and the return to camp journey was made, I had gone about 110 hours without a calorie of food ingested. There was no point in indulging the distraction of hunger during the quest.

The sensory delights of nature surrounding me quickly became a monotonous affront as my logical mind, ever hungering for something to feast upon, had digested the available stimulus in a few hours of the first day. Feelings of nausea flowed through me at times at the sight of the landscape. The logical mind has a tight grip on the steering wheel in our daily life, leaving little room for the quieter and more subtle communication and directives from our spiritual mind. Part of the purpose of the rigors of the quest ceremony are to, metaphorically speaking, pry the logical or physical mind’s fingers off the wheel for a little while. In essence, exhausting it to the point where it finally shuts up and goes to sleep, leaving the spirit mind free to give and receive communications openly. This can sometimes take three full days of pounding. I did my best to surrender to the quest energy as fast and as completely as I could to speed the process along. Resistance only prolonged the suffering and delayed what I had come here for.

Lying flat on my back in the dirt, the heat of each afternoon was like a hammer, and the earth was as hard as an anvil. Opening my eyes took more energy than I could muster at times. I felt my heart pounding from head to toes, and I felt it beat against the earth as I lay there just trying to breathe. I enjoyed that exchange of heartbeats, realizing there were untold trillions of hearts beating simultaneously at that moment on the earth, from the tiniest insects to the great Blue Whales in the ocean.

In the center of my circle grew a Pitch Pine tree of about 10-inches in diameter. This was my backrest tree and my “sundial tree” as I called it, and it marked the general passage of time during the quest. This was both a blessing and a distraction, for I knew that each day I had five to six hours of burning sun and heat to endure before late afternoon cooled things down a bit. There was no shade in my circle when the sun was in the South position in the sky – the time of the most intense sun. Each gentle and momentary puff of cooler air that rolled by on occasion was like someone giving me a sip from a ladle of cool water. I broke into tears during some of these moments such was my need and such was the gift I was given. More than a few times when I thought I would pass out or die, I prayed for a bit of this life sustaining breeze, and it arrived moments later. In those hours of heat each day, I felt the simplicity of my existence. One more breath, one more breeze, and I could make it to the next moment . . . this is how the quest is completed – just one moment at a time. 

One of the tools for moving through difficult periods during the quest, be they emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual, is the “stomp dance”. This is a one-two rhythm pounded out by each foot as I moved clockwise around the circle. It sounds like a heartbeat, and is incredibly effective in getting past moments when the quest was becoming too much to bear. Always, when I felt myself on the brink of defeat, this was the thing to do, counterintuitive as it might seem when I had no energy to blink or even swallow water. I’d get up to my feet holding onto the tree for support and begin dancing, slowly at first, eyes closed and focused solely on my feet stomping with as much passion as I could call up. After a few times stomp-dancing around the circle, I could feel the blocked energy inside begin to flow, and the specter of defeat retreated. I could once again be fully present in the quest, and not locked in that cramped mental prison of suffering. Once I had beaten back that which sought to remove me from my quest, I would be back down on the earth again, lying in the slim shadow of the sundial tree, breathing the dust of the earth pulverized by my hours of stomp-dancing. Spiders sprinted across the circle of pounded earth and across my body to the other side of the circle. Flies licked the salt and sweat from my limbs and tickled me with their touch. Ticks and mosquitoes gorged themselves on my blood. Every creature, breeze, or sharp poking-thing that touched me communicated something to me that went beyond the ordinary and obvious message or prejudice. Even the intense rays of the sun seemed to have something more to say to me other than simply “I can burn you”. I did not mind these things as I perhaps would have in the course of my daily routines.

By the time the afternoon began to cool down enough and the sun and heat released their grip on me, I was revived enough to face new challenges from the demons of distraction. This included bouts of aching boredom; my analyzing the workings of the natural world that I saw around me; planning what meal I would eat after I got home from the quest; being really, really fascinated with the military planes flying to and from the military base nearby; longing for the beautiful beaches of Long Beach Island just three exits down the parkway from me, and so forth. All of these I recognized quickly as distractions from being present to the quest. The distractions drained energy, and had to be deliberately banished. Sometimes it was not so easy. I learned to ignore the incessant pop song snippet that played over and over again in my head (I was never a Michael Jackson fan to begin with, so how I ended up with “Billy Jean”, I do not know). I heard it there in the background for the whole quest (and a while after, too), but it rarely got in my way again as a distraction after the second day. The logical, or physical mind will do anything to stay in control, and such annoyances keep you paying attention to it. The last thing it wants is to be pushed aside.

Twilight grew across the landscape and the symphony orchestra of the daytime insects switched out the cicada’s loud, crescendoing washboard “buzz” with the katydid’s endless “jig-jig-jig” call, and the different species of crickets brought their instruments to the rest of the ensemble. Soon I began to feel like I could no longer stay awake. I did my best to stay awake and not sleep-away too many hours of the quest (as an escape from the experience, or to accelerate it being over). Soon after dark, after the Whippoorwill’s called and the first stars came out, I realized I really needed sleep, as trying to stay awake became its own distraction. Rolled up in my wool blanket, fleece hat pulled down over my ears against the mosquito squadron I anticipated, I let my body and mind drop into a half-sleep state. Completely uncomfortable on the uneven, hard-packed ground, I was mostly in a stupor-sleep. Occasionally I awoke from bizarre dreams, staring at the position of the stars to try to sense how long I was asleep. Many times what felt like hours was only 20-minutes. Nights were very long indeed.

I had two mosquitoes that came to me most nights. Just two – one for each ear. These were not the big menacing-sounding mosquitoes I was used to. You know the ones. At home in your bedroom, you only need one of them to make you lose sleep, and even get you out of bed in the middle of the night to hunt it down to kill it. By contrast, these two sang to me in my quest circle. It was astonishingly pleasing to hear them and they just hovered by my ears for many minutes at a time, no doubt giving me secret information that I have yet to decode. Each night they (or two other individuals) returned for repeat performances. After I fell asleep, they made their way down to my exposed ankles for an after-concert meal. I did not mind, really.

Another mysterious nighttime event took place perhaps on the third evening. I was asleep, my head nearly in the blueberry bushes at the edge of my circle, and I heard the unmistakable sound of bipedal stalking through the thicket. It was slow and deliberate walking, as one would do trying to sneak up on someone. The curious thing is, I judged from the relative sound and knowledge of animals and vegetation of the area, that the creature making the sound would be perhaps two feet tall and have feet the size of a small bar of hotel soap. No wild animal I know of would move that way. It did not rattle the dry and dense vegetation either, an impossibility for anything I could imagine. Even mice make a racket at night racing about the forest floor searching for food. The sound got closer and closer to my head, but I dared not move, straining my awareness to glean more clues as to what this thing was. I was convinced that it was no known bird, mammal, or reptile. This left another possibility: a spirit of some sort. Well, that conclusion simply made my heart rate shoot up and with that the slow crunching walking sound came to a stop. After a time, I heard no advancing or retreating sound, so I slowly rolled over to look into the darkness, but saw nothing and heard nothing more. Whatever it was just disappeared. Neither was there any trace or track evidence of what I heard when I looked the next morning. Perhaps my apprehension made it back off.

On another night, I rolled over to pull the edge of my sleeping bag closer and wondered why my fingers suddenly began to burn. I thought perhaps it was the sharp edge of some Velcro tab on the bag and so reached over with my other hand to feel for it and again and grabbed a handful of stinging fire (which of course woke me fully). I looked over and incredibly, there was this spiny green caterpillar attached to my sleeping bag at my shoulder. I removed it with a sliver of bark and tossed it into the thicket. The next morning it was back. It undulated surprisingly fast on its stumpy caterpillar feet across my quest circle directly towards where I was sitting. I moved it again, placing it on a small oak, and it promptly turned around and headed towards the ground and, it seemed, towards me again. Definitely some sort of message there for me. It found whatever it was looking for I suppose, since I never saw it after that. 

It is easy to dismiss such minor or commonplace events as meaningless or obvious, but when questing, absolutely everything that occurs in or around the quest circle during that 96 hour period has meaning, and is a message from the Creator directly for the quester. Any superficial interpretation is likely to be wrong. Discovering the deeper meaning is the task of the quester once the quest ceremony has ended and living the vision begins with the very first step. One of my favorite quotes is by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of “The Little Prince”. It sums up this task of finding meaning succinctly – “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential, is invisible to the eye.”

Crying for a Vision

Throughout the quest, though primarily on day two and three, I came up against the demons of self-doubt and despair. For many hours they assailed me, and self-pity leaked from the wounds they inflicted. It was not pretty, and was amongst the more difficult periods of the quest for me. To look at my fears and weaknesses without escape or diversion was a painful passage. Finding out that I was not as brave as I thought I was, or that I need to be to face the future swiftly approaching, struck deep into my core. I buried my face in the earth and sobbed deeply, my tears splashing in the dust of this sacred circle nestled so insignificantly within the great expanse of the pine barrens. 

Anger came welling up hot on the heels of that purging bout with self-doubt and pity. Anger at myself for being weak, for allowing myself to be deviously and quietly led from my path into a tangled thicket, cleverly still within sight of my vision so that I might not notice that I had been bushwhacked. I had been tangled up just enough to keep me marginalized, a warrior for the earth ensnared by petty demons and their poisoned words. Self-doubt is perhaps the most devastating foe we face in life, for it is always there waiting, looking for an opportune moment to trip us. It is  so effective that most people never need a higher order of demon to challenge them, to impede their journey, suppress their vision. Self-doubt is also a grand lie, and an utter waste of time and energy. Yet it feels so real, so true at times that we believe it completely, even if only for a short while. We believe it to be true because of the passionate feeling we have in such moments. This energy is what gives self-doubt its power. The challenge is to take back this energy and empower other things like our prayers for the earth and for each other. Impassioned prayers for those we love and for the healing of the earth is a much better use of that energy.

During these trials of the soul, I would again get to my feet, remembering why I had come to quest in the first place, and with a passionate focus began stomping the ground with all my being. I would not give up my vision, I would not forsake the earth or my people. I came here for them, and my love for them was the source of my strength and determination. With it, I banished the demons from my quest circle and once again the beauty of the natural world returned to my mind and heart.

There is a quote that I have heard, but who the true author is remains unclear. No matter, it is the message that is most important here:

A vision without a task is but a dream. . .

A task without a vision is drudgery. . .
A vision with a task is the hope of the world.

The Native Americans refer to the vision quest as “crying for a vision”. This captures the essence of it. To literally cry up to the Creator not for personal release, but with a purpose beyond self. It has been said that while others see your deeds, the Creator sees your motives. You cannot hide from or lie to the Creator. The realization that my life belongs to the Creator who gave it to me is a profound one. The way I’ve come to understand it is that I have been put here, given this life “on loan”, and operate as an agent of the Creator with a specific task, and that is my purpose – to serve the Creator and the Grand Vision. Not to be caught up in the distractions of pleasing myself as a sole pursuit, or gorging myself on life’s physical, sensory pleasures and pastimes. At first this was hard to accept. However, I realized it was the truth, and like all core truths, once you are enlightened by them you can never return to ignorance without endless torment and suffering. This does not at all mean I cannot enjoy life, but it does mean that my vision, the gift from the Creator to me, must remain above all other pursuits, though not necessarily to their exclusion. This is still fairly fresh in my consciousness right now, and though I accept it, I am not sure how to live it exactly. I live between two worlds. Inner vision will have to be my guide in every moment, though I cannot see much beyond perhaps my next step up that mountain. Grandfather always said that a person not living his or her vision is living death. As I look around at society, it is apparent how many people are not living their vision. The greed and lust for power and lust for things of the flesh has lead the world to the edge of the abyss, and we are teetering now. I am reminded here of yet another pertinent quote:“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”

The Deep Silence

So many things have occurred during my quest that I could never write it all down. Really, 96-hours of transcripts would be beyond epic! One more notable experience I would share, however, is my awareness of sounds. Within the many layers of sounds, from insect songs to the wind in the trees, to the traffic on the distant parkway, there is much more information contained within each sound than I previously knew. Like the DNA of a cell that has incredible amounts of genetic information coiled and wrapped and packed into a microscopic space, the sounds of all things I heard while in the quest carried to me layers upon layers of information. Despite the heat of the sun and the physical pain of the quest, I was surrounded and transported by these layers of sounds of both the natural and man-made worlds. Somewhat contradictory, I was moved to was a place of deep silence. It was not a physical silence as in the absence of sound, but rather a place of inner quietude where even the pain of my body was simply a part of reality. I had touched that sacred place of silence, a place where I ceased to exist as a reference point. I had become all things at once, and experienced a shift where I could feel the whole landscape from soil to sky and everything between them as one. Perhaps more precisely stated, there was no separation or isolation between the birds scratching for insects in the dry leaves, the music of tree crickets, rustle of the wind, the beating of my heart, the physical nature of my body and the vegetation stretching out for miles in all directions. All these things and more were experienced as a totality – one living consciousness. Each belonged to and existed as part of the other. Such moments came and went several times throughout the four days of the quest, more frequently in the latter portion of my quest. This deep silence is a potent space and it is a natural place we can touch once we get past all the layers of the flesh and the ego. The vision quest facilitates this journey by unplugging, at least temporarily, the ego and the rational mind, while the denial of comforts and familiarity limits distractions from interfering with the inner work needing to be accomplished during the quest.

The Return

At first light of the fifth day, I looked around at my quest circle, knowing I had accomplished what I had come to do in ceremony. I had fulfilled my promise and so had the Creator and the earth. I thanked the land and the spirits of the plants and animals for their sacrifice so that I could make my sacrifice to the Creator and the earth. Leaving that hallowed ground, I headed back to camp. Greeted by Malcolm and the other protectors, it was a heartfelt reunion that is born of shared experience and a knowing sense of the power of the ceremony and sacrifice that was offered up. A sumptuous breakfast awaited me – a cup of miso soup taken with immense gratitude. The broth helped my digestive system restart gently. Time spent gradually making light conversation with fellow questers helped me reorient to society and rejoin the group, and my voice slowly began to work again. I felt relieved that the rigors of the ceremony were over, and I felt blessed as well.

What happens now is a long process of mining the depths of what I received. It may take a lifetime to fully realize all that was given to me to clarify and help me walk my path of vision in life. The quest never ends – only the ceremony of the vision quest does. So I feel the shift inside me moving in a powerful, yet somewhat elusive way. Now I have returned home and I have begun integrating my experience into my life. My body’s strength is returning, and the insect bites and other wounds are beginning to fade. Beyond the superficial dimension of interpreting the meaning of each moment that occurred for me, things will become clearer in their proper time. As they say, you can’t push the river. My task is to hold such things in my sight as well as in my heart throughout the act of daily living that is filled with both the beauty and ugliness of humanity. The demons of distraction, self-doubt, fear, and complacency are the enemies closest at hand. The world needs people to live their vision now more than ever, even as the darkness of the world seeks to keep this from happening. Living one’s vision is a constant sacrifice of some degree or another. The path of vision is the most difficult path to walk in life, especially because we live within the labyrinth of a society cut off from the life-affirming power of the wilderness. The key, then, is to keep the wilderness inside us at all times. For hundreds of years, people have sought to conquer the wilderness, to bring civilization to it, essentially scouring wild nature from his path. What is desperately needed now is for those of us who carry the wilderness inside us to bring that consciousness back into civilization. The earth needs every person on the planet – each to their own capacity – to work towards healing the earth and turning humanity away from the deadly destination we are swiftly heading towards before it is too late. It may already be too late, but shall we give up trying? It has been said, “On the plains of hesitation lay the blackened bones of countless millions, who at the dawn of victory lay down to rest, and resting, died.” For anyone who loves this earth, there is no time to rest. To all of you I say, let no ignorance, distraction, or darkness keep you from living your vision, whatever that vision is. Thank you for allowing me to share these words with you.


For those of you unfamiliar with Tom Brown, Jr.and his Tracker School, you can visit the website at

Malcolm Ringwalt’s Earth-Heart Institute website:

Reader Comments (5)

One of the most vivid and profound accounts of a vision quest I have ever read. I wept at the thought of another person putting his soul on the line for the benefit of the earth and of humankind. Thank you.

September 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDanny

Thank you all for your comments posted here and sent to my e-mail address. I prefer comments to be posted on the website because they are an important contribution to each article. I like hearing what you have to say!

Just a quick note: I have corrected some of the grammar and other writing errors to this post. One additional thing that happened in the course of doing this quest was that I lost my eyeglasses (and car keys) during the return to civilization. Could not see very well to write this post, and so typing and proofreading got away from me. Still don't have a new pair of computer glasses, but managing anyway. Thank you Melanie for help with proofreading.

September 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterMichael Gambino

An extraordinary account. Thank you for taking the time and effort to parse it into bits for sharing.

September 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelinda


Melinda told me about this account, and I feel grateful to have had the chance to read it. Thank you for offering this bit of yourself and the universe up for others to experience through your hands, eyes and spirit. It takes courage to try to put such experiences into language so that others can take in just a tiny bit of what you experienced. Though my world view is different from yours, I too believe that we have a sacred trust. Four days can open up a whole universe.

October 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIlene

Thank you for taking the time and struggle to write about your vision quest experiences; it gave me a taste of what an adult vision quest could feel like. As a result of reading your account, I have a deeper understanding of where you're coming from in routine daily life; it led me to thinking about some of my particular behaviors and challenges in rightly expressing my true purpose in my communities. Sometimes I am aware of me and the universe aligning just right, and I get a great joy and deep satisfaction from it, whether the interaction is subtle or as grand as my circumstances provide.

November 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

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