What is a Vision Quest?
by Anna Swisher
The term "Vision Quest" itself was coined by anthropologists seeking to describe particular Native American rite-of-passage ceremonies; In modern times it is often used more generally to describe transformative nature-based experiences. Though there is some controversy around using this specific language, I use it here with deep respect for the native traditions, and do not claim to be replicating Native American ceremonies.
Different forms of vision quests originate from many indigenous and Earth-based cultures around the world. A Vision Quest will look very different depending on the tradition, peoples, land, or culture from which it originates. More modern people have learned from indigenous cultures and in some cases adapted these questing practices, in order to bring deeper meaning and important guidance to modern humans in a troubled world. At its essence, a quest is a journey that a person undertakes to seek guidance from the natural world, often at a time in their life when they are making some sort of important transition, or have a significant challenge or decision to undertake. A vision quest is undertaken in solitude; a person chooses to leave behind their community, their worldly possessions, their "normal" routines, and their daily comforts, in order to place themselves in direct relationship with the elements of nature, and find their place within it. A quest may be undertaken in times of crisis, loss or grief; of life-stage transitions (i.e. becoming an adult, having a child, getting married, becoming an elder, etc.), when seeking new direction ("what should I do about this job?"; "Should I move to a new place?"), or sometimes during a time of general confusion, stuckness, or aimlessness. Often, fasting is a significant element of a quest, as it helps to reduce distractions and assists in altering one's state of consciousness, helping the body to be empty and open to receiving messages and wisdom from the natural world. During a quest, the landscape becomes one's home, shelter, teacher, friend, and guide.
A quest may range in timeframes. The longer the quest, the deeper and often more challenging the experience. Longer quests (such as 3-6 days) require much more preparation and are more physically and psychologically demanding. They also tend to create deeper changes within the psyche and body. A mini-quest (or dayquest) can still have profound impacts, especially if one is open, and comes in with a clear intention or prayer, and may at times be more appropriate than a longer quest. Integrating the experiences of a quest is of utmost importance, as this is where the lessons learned can translate into one's life. Whether someone undertakes a dayquest, or spends many days in the wilderness, they should always have a guide or support team to help them prepare, to "keep the fire burning" while they are out, and to welcome them back and help them make sense of their experiences in a way that enables them to find their place in the world and move more fully into their purpose.
As a guide, the type of quest I facilitate comes from various different lineages and teachings, incorporating many essential elements which can be found in indigenous traditions around the world, and including more contemporary understandings of human psychology and eco-psychology.
The general framework of the quest includes three phases: Severance (preparation & leaving behind the familiar,) Threshold (solitude on the land,) and Reincorporation (returning and integrating insights and experiences: physical, psychological, mental, and spiritual).
My role as a guide is:
1) To help prepare you for your time in the wild: physically, psychologically, mentally, and spiritually, so that you may be equipped to open to and receive guidance.
2) To ensure your safety, know the land, and create a sacred space for transformation that you can enter into.
3) To hold that space while you are out; to "keep the fire burning" and the hearth awaiting your return.
4) Welcoming you back with open arms, and bearing witness to your unique story.
5) Helping you to make sense of your experience, and support you in translating that into real-life actions as you return "home."
6) Supporting you in returning to your "normal life" and community.
Preparation for a quest includes many elements; but potentially the most important is assisting you in clarifying the reason you are undertaking this journey. Why are you here? What are you seeking? Equally important for many people in the preparation phase is developing their capacity to be in conversation with the natural world; learning ways of being and communicating that open you to the guidance available in nature.
An important role of the guide is to essentially act as the quester's community, in sending them off and receiving them home. Traditional quests were always supported by the village or community, so that the quester is acknowledged, recognized, and celebrated as having changed, transformed, been initiated, or completed a rite-of-passage. In modern times our community structures and values don't often support or accomplish this; hence the role of the guide in fulfilling this function is crucial. If a group of people wish to undertake a quest together, this can greatly enhance the experience and support this function as well. In this case, the group prepares together, then each undertakes his or her solo journey simultaneously, and then they return and the group integrates together. This experience brings forth the traditional context of a vision quest, one in which the community creates the container for transformation. This group experience can be easily designed and implemented for dayquests, as well as for longer quests.
Each questing experience will be designed and experienced uniquely, depending on the needs of the person (or people) undertaking a quest, the bounds of the land and the seasonal cycles, and other logistical and psychological/spiritual factors. Please do not hesitate to reach out directly to inquire, chat, or discuss anything further!
Here are a few resources that you may find interesting and/or informative. They include articles or discussions about the the origins of Vision Questing/Fasting, the modern contexts, the importance of such work, why it matters and what it looks like, and stories from modern guides and questers.
I suggest starting here, with an interview with the founders of the School of Lost Borders (one of the lineages I am trained in):
Here is a quick look at another perspective on "What is a Vision Quest" from another organization that I studied, apprenticed, and guided with: What is a Vision Quest?
Here is an article connecting indigenous perspectives with modern questing experiences:
Remembering and Reclaiming our Indigenous Soul
Here is a nice article about the "Medicine Walk," which could also be called a mini-quest or dayquest:
And lastly: The Vision Fast: Wilderness as a Therapeutic Source of Self-Discovery