I am looking forward to continuing the story of my first vision fast, as I think sharing my experience might be helpful for people who are struggling with difficulties they have experienced on their own first fasts. Sometimes it is good to hear others’ stories.
First, though, I’d like to share some thoughts on the purpose of suffering that is caused by the physical discomforts of the vision fast. I have been thinking about this subject in response to a reader who wrote to me and asked about the purpose of “abusing the body through sensory deprivation or excessive fasting and weight loss.”
I trained through the School of Lost Borders, where people always are encouraged to bring some food with them on the vision fast if necessary for their physical well-being. For example, on one fast I took along some crackers to eat because I was taking ibuprofen for a strained shoulder, and the pain-killer could be too hard on my stomach when taken without food. The first priority is always the person’s safety. For people who are going out on a fast, I advise you to listen to your inner guidance, to make sure you say and get what you need. I encourage you to raise your questions with the guides who lead your program. I know they will want to hear about your concerns and questions.
The significance of enduring suffering during a rite of passage might be difficult to understand from our Western view where physical comfort is paramount. Before I get to why it might actually be beneficial to suffer, I’d like to mention a few factors to consider before undertaking a vision fast. First, it is always up to the individual to determine what is right for her. I think that if a person has experienced physical abuse or other types of physical trauma, then enduring physical suffering in a rite of passage could be re-traumatizing, and would probably not be appropriate. So there is this aspect to consider. Also, a person’s physical condition is a factor to consider, and guides should always confer with a participant to ensure the physical difficulties won’t be too much for a person. In my programs there is a health questionnaire to fill out, which is designed to determine if there are any physical factors that might make fasting or hiking harmful for a person. We also spend a lot of time teaching participants how to stay safe on their fast, including staying found, drinking enough water, and protecting oneself from the elements. We also use a buddy system to check in on a person each day, without having actual contact, so that we know each person is safe.
Second, the next thing to consider is a person’s psychological well-being. A person has to have a well-established ego structure in order to endure the difficulties of a fast and benefit from them. The point of the trials of the fast is to help dissolve the ego structure, at least for a while, so that different views of reality can be glimpsed. If a person’s ego structure is not secure enough, this would be too challenging and dangerous.
If the faster does have the physical and psychological strength to endure a fast, then there can be benefits to the physical suffering that can occur with fasting. I have found that the first thing I needed to face on my first fast was all of my fears. I didn’t like being uncomfortable, and worried about my physical safety in many ways; that the fasting would harm me, that I would get sick, that the wind would carry my tarp away, that there would be a terrible rainstorm and I would get soaked and get hypothermia, that lightning would strike and kill me, that I would go crazy, and that I would be too weak to walk back to basecamp with all my gear. After a while I saw how much I was afraid of so many things. This was a revelation and one of the gifts of my first fast. Before now I had always hidden the awareness of my fears from myself. I was too afraid to admit I was afraid! During this first fast (and in later ones) I had some encounters with rabbits, and this was a spirit animal that came to me to reflect my fears. I keep a little rabbit finger puppet near my desk to remind me of this teaching.
Dis-identification with the physical body can be another purpose of the physical deprivation of a vision fast. Although it can seem life-or-death, fasting for three days never did kill anyone, so far as I know. Learning that we are more than our physical bodies, through getting past the physical discomfort, is a blessing. We are more than our physical bodies. If we are fortunate enough to realize this during a vision fast, it is a learning that will enrich us for the rest of our lives.
There is also an altered state that can occur through fasting, which allows the ego structure to soften so that we are more available to be impacted by the natural world around us. I think this is the main purpose of the vision fast. It is to help us get out of our daily mind and habits, so that we can see other aspects of reality that are real, but that don’t reveal themselves as easily while we are preoccupied with our daily lives. This could be in the form of contact with animals, rocks, trees, wind, sky, or any other aspect of nature, in such a way that we become aware of our interconnection and the support that is always there for us in nature. It could be in the form of an inner experience of our true nature, such as deep peace or complete love. It could be as simple as seeing a life situation from a new perspective, or letting go of an old self-limiting belief. In the magical place that can be created by your intention of doing the vision fast, exactly what you need right now in your life is what occurs.
This has certainly been true for me and for the people I have been honoured to guide.
Another aspect of fasting, which sometimes occurs, is shakiness. This is normal, and it is definitely more difficult to function when on a vision fast. The hike back to base camp with all of one’s gear can be very difficult. And this difficulty varies from fast to fast. There is no predicting how a particular fast will impact us, or what our experience will be. However, sometimes with the physical symptoms of weakness and shakiness can come an inner experience of lightness and clarity. I have found that hunger usually passes quite quickly. But it can definitely be scary to experience the physical weakness and shakiness.
The vision fast is a rite of passage. In ancient times, in some forms of the wilderness solo, there was a real chance of death. When the faster returned to her or his people, they had proven themselves and entered into adulthood, often with a vision that would guide them for the course of their lives. In modern times, the fasters I have witnessed have connected with their inner strength and confidence through enduring the difficulties of the vision fast, including the loneliness, boredom, hunger, fear, physical weakness, and other forms of suffering they experienced. For some, this passage was the most difficult thing they had done in their lives. The benefit of passing through to the other side, and coming back to their people with the marks of this ceremony on their soul, was a tangible outcome.
A final aspect of the physical suffering, which I have especially experienced during the sweat lodges I have been in, is the aspect of being humbled. This was a profound experience for me. When the heat was so hot I couldn’t take it and had to lie on the ground in the dirt, I was humbled in such a way that my heart was opened to the suffering I have caused others, and I was transformed. The desire to be a better person that arose in me was a lasting force that helped me transform my relationships with the people who are most important to me. This doesn’t mean I agree with having so much steam in the sweat lodge that it is scalding my body! But it wasn’t as bad as it felt, and the impacts and benefits for me were enormous. It also felt very right to me to be in that sacred darkness, with the smell of the herbs on the rocks, and the glowing grandfather stones. However, sweat lodges are not part of the vision fast ceremony the way that the School of Lost Borders does it, and are not part of the vision fasts I conduct.
To sum up, I would say that the purpose of physical suffering in relation to the vision fast and other practices such as the sweat lodge is to help us get over our big selves! To wear away the crusty exterior shell, so that we can be touched and blessed by the grace of the true nature of reality—a blessing as fresh and pure as a gentle rain. We do these things because we want to have a taste of transcendence. The physical suffering is the admission price.