The events in the Middle East have been so strong for me, as they are for you, I am sure, that I paused writing for a week or so. I have never had so many daily conversations with friends going through very challenging times as well because they live in the Middle East, have family and friends who live there, or are deeply impacted and concerned.
I wrote my thoughts about the unbearable suffering going on in “I have only one nation and one religion, nature.”
I got two important pieces of advice from friends about writing recently.
“Write daily, even when it’s hard, and you do not feel like it, as if it is your job. Chronology is not so important; focus on that, and once you have written many stories, a structure for a book will come up.”
Writing is a muscle and a habit. The more I write, the more inspiration comes, but the opposite is true; if I pause writing, the flow gets narrower.
Here is another piece of advice I got from. It’s coming from an interview Charlotte did with Nicholas Powers.
“When I sit down, I start with whatever I'm the most scared to say. Whatever I'm the most ashamed to say, whatever I'm the most afraid to say - that's the lead sentence.
This is excellent advice. It’s always on my mind. It’s not easy, though.
After my beginnings with the Amazon plants, I will write a series of stories about the “Red Road,” the Vision Quest, and the Sundance in the next few days. I have never shared them before in writing and only told a few friends.
Vision quest is up to four days by yourself with nothing but your clothes in nature, no food, no water, and generally no “real” sleep. I have been through the initiation a few times and the Sundance and am now helping organize one in Bacalar, Mexico, next February. You can join our dedicated WhatsApp group if you want to join. We are going to close the list of participants soon.
On May 2, 2020, I headed to South Dakota for my first vision quest with the Lakotas, one of the native American peoples who are at the origin and still practice the rituals of the Vision Quest and the Sundance.
My goal was simple: I had built some experience working with the plants of the Amazon forest, and I was curious to start another spiritual path that involved no substances whatsoever. I knew a friend of mine I met in plant ceremonies who is a Sundancer; he completed the four-year initiations and told me I should do it and knew of a Lakota spiritual guide who could offer it to me. He had not done his work with him, but he came highly recommended. I will call him “Thunder Hawk” here to preserve confidentiality, but it is not his real name. I cannot disclose it.
I had heard of the vision quest before and am always curious. The vision quest is straightforward in setup, just a little space where I would spend time alone for up to four days and four nights with no food or water.
Vision Quest sounded like a supercharged meditation, so I wanted to do it.
The name “vision quest” is also intriguing as I have had so many visions with the plants I was curious to see if I could access the same spaces just by myself.
No water? This sounded pretty scary. I had done a few fasts with no food already, up to 7 days, but always with water. Google is full of warnings that “dry fasting,” as it is called, can be very dangerous, damage some organs, or cause… death if it takes too long. Water is our most basic vital need.
It was the first test of the vision quest; deciding to enter a few days fast with no water was a big decision, but I took it.
Thunder Hawk offered a first call. I would be doing it alone, with him guiding with his son. He did not give me many details on the phone; the conversation was brief. He gave me little guidance to prepare, plan for an entire week, and come on a specific day, May 2, 2020. After this call, I contacted him again to ask what I should do upon reaching the airport and did not hear back. It started being a bit strange already as all I had was “show up that day, to this airport,” no other instructions or “program.”
I rented a car in case and decided to go anyway without any idea where I would go from the airport or without much guidance on preparing. The process had started as it was already quite mysterious.
It is a Western thing to ask many questions and expect to receive complete instructions and schedules. I learned to trust and not ask questions in the Amazon, so I was not worried. I was concerned about being outside day and night without food, water, and cold. South Dakota can be cold, from what I heard. I only slept a little at night before heading there.
I landed the day we agreed at Rapid City Regional Airport, South Dakota. Thunder Hawk was there with his son, waiting for me at the airport. His presence was impressive. Thunder Hawk felt very powerful. We headed together to an Airbnb I rented for a week.
Thunder Hawk installed a colossal buffalo head skull in the middle of the living room and immediately explained that I would work a lot from now on. The first thing I had to do was “my prayers.”
The prayers consist of small tobacco ties of seven colors. Four colors represent the four directions: the North, the East, the South, and the West. Three more colors represent the sky, Mother Earth, and “the center.”
There are many ways of doing vision quests and colors mean different things and directions. Mexicans from the Maya tradition have different interpretations and directions for the colors; it seems there are as many ways as there are tribes and spiritual leaders. The worst place to look for an answer is likely the Internet, but if you Google or GPT for “Vision Quest color meanings,” you will find all different practices from post to post. Instead of trying to understand them, I decided to follow the guidance of my teacher at the time.
Thunder Hawk explained the colors to me this way.
“Black is the West and is what inspires you, what you want to finish. It represents the Jaguar, the death. It is also that which you want to understand.
Red is the North, where you are and what you want to transform. It is the feminine, passion, and love. It is transformation. It is where you want to go and what you want to purify.
Yellow is the East; it is what you want to know: past knowledge, the air, and mind. It is your childhood and what you want to heal from it. It is also the future, babies, everything that is new.
Green is the South, your will or your past lack of will. It is the truth. It is the earth, the rain, the heart.
Blue is the Sky, the celestial, the stars.
Purple is the Creation, the Earth, and the snakes.
Grey is the center.”
I spent about three days making hundreds of prayers to my family, my friends, all human beings, animals, nature, and the planet. I was still very much driven from my mind, so I prepared my prayers scholarly.
I took my journal and wrote 401 prayers on it. I started with my son’s names and then prayers for them. I wrote down hundreds of names of family, friends, teachers, people who helped me, or some who did good in the world. I ended with some prayers for me. I also wrote many prayers for the world in general. It was the beginning of the coronavirus spreading, so I wrote, “Coronavirus ends.” That prayer ended up happening, but many others did not or did not yet. I wrote some prayers that are pretty difficult to become true, such as “full respect for all indigenous peoples around the world” or “borders of nations disappear.”
It is exciting to look at this prayer list years after I wrote it to see what happened or not. I am also noticing the names I wrote, people I prayed for that I did not talk with for so long, and some I sadly lost touch with. So is life.
If I remember well, Thunder Hawk asked for one hundred prayers of each red, yellow, green, and blue, then one prayer of each blue, purple, and grey, which makes four hundred and three. I did the last two without writing them on my journal.
I cut four hundred and three pieces of textile, then spent many hours praying and doing a knot with tobacco inside a piece of the colored textile. The prayers tie together with a single line, and I carefully spread them around the room to avoid making a mess, then rolled them all around my poncho. That was a funny, creative move, as I later discovered the best way to arrange my prayer ties was around a simple cardboard piece.
This process is already fascinating. It was the first time I prayed, as I never had any religious or spiritual practice before.
Thunder Hawk then explained what I was going to go through. First, we would do an “Inipi” ceremony in the evening, then go up the hill of “Bear Butte.”
Bear Butte is a “laccolith” resulting from magma's forcible entry into cooler rock. The magma pushed up from the earth’s interior under the crust but never reached the surface. It is sacred to many Indian indigenous peoples, such as the Lakota, the Cheyenne, or the Sioux. Human artifacts have been found on or near Bear Butte that date back 10,000 years.
We went to see Bear Butte to prepare. From afar, it looks like a laid-down pregnant woman with her belly, bust, and face. We hiked it up the day before I was due to enter the vision quest, and Thunder Hawk pointed at the place he had chosen for me to stay with no sleep, food, or water.
Traditional Indian ceremonies have been held at Bear Butte for a long time. You can see buffalo at Bear Butte's base and prayer flags all over the trees.
I was ready for the vision quest and would do it no matter what. The weather was freezing at night even though we were in May and a big storm was announced. I was going to be very cold at night. I told Thunder Hawk about my concerns, and he said: “Do not worry about it; we will give you a Buffalo skin to cover yourself.” I was reassured. I also learned to work with the Amazon forest tobacco snuff, the “rapé,” so I asked Thunder Hawk if it would be okay to use it sometimes during the quest to give me some force. He said yes, you can use any medicine you like there. He asked me if I had some rapé with me, and I happily gave him and his son some and the little “kuripé” dispensers I had for them as gifts. The fact I could use it during my initiation came as a relief as it does give some force when used with good intentions.
I also received a “Chanupa,” the sacred pipe. The head represents the woman, and the wood stick represents the man. The Chanupa I received did not quite look like the pipe on this drawing, though, it was tiny, but I received it with love.
Thunder Hakw told me I had to hold it in my hands and arms up at all times during the Vision Quest, and it should never touch the ground. I immediately thought: “As if no food, water, and sleep wasn’t enough, now I have to hold this pipe up the whole time?” This sounded quite weird, but I decided to surrender to what I had to do and nodded to signify my compliance with the new rule.
I was scared, but I was going to do it. I will tell you how it went in my following stories in a few days.
When I launched the paid subscription to this newsletter, my main goal was to write to a small group of friends more interested in exploring the “great mystery” in a small circle where I could share the most difficult stories.
I will keep the following few posts about the Red Road for this circle; please take a subscription if you want to read this post and comment; thank you for your support and for joining.
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