I don’t know how many flies I watched die. At least 30. Lying in my tent, heavy with exhaustion as August rain spat down, I stared up at the mesh ceiling and watched one fly after the next get stalked, stung, and devoured by yellow jackets. Over the course of three days in the Colorado backcountry, as I intentionally deprived myself of food for the purpose of finding my purpose, my tent’s ceiling became a mausoleum of wings. They glimmered in rare moments of sunshine, painting my “death” ritual with an appropriate hue.
I was there to enact a wilderness vigil (also known as a vision fast); a pancultural rite of passage popularized in recent decades that offers potential initiates a way of “dying” to outgrown stories and connecting to their own unique meaning and purpose for being alive. It sounded glamorous on the website; honing my intention, enacting ceremonies, uncovering my deepest self. However, beginning with the welcome email, which warned of the intensity, challenge, and potential impacts that participating might (and likely would) have, glamor was soon replaced with reality. I had done my best to prepare in the months leading up to the fast, but as I lay visionless on day three in the dripping rain with my feet stuffed into plastic bags, I wondered what the fuck I was doing.
For over four decades, The Animas Valley Institute (the school facilitating the vigil) has guided people through “the nature based map of the psyche,” a model developed by the school’s founder, Bill Plotkin. The map proposes that human maturation is ecologically intended to take a more wild, reciprocal, and life-enhancing course than it currently does. According to this model, most people in industrialized cultures become psychologically stunted and never psycho-emotionally progress beyond the developmental stage of adolescence. This is partially because, through the long march of colonialism, western culture abandoned the ritual and ecological rites of passage the human psyche requires for ongoing maturation.
I discovered Animas Valley in my mid-20’s after Bill’s seminal work, Soulcraft, kept nudging me from the corner of my girlfriend’s bookshelf. Within a few pages, after reading phrases like “discovering your mythopoetic identity,” and “crossing into the mysteries of nature and psyche,” I was hooked. After years of attempting to use spirituality to escape myself, I realized I was looking for belonging and something like meaning. Rather than the emphasis of emptiness and No Self common to the teachings I followed, Soulcraft pointed to the possibility of a radical, embodied, meaningful life, one where my deep self was an essential, authentic, and humble piece of Earth’s wholeness. From the moment I encountered this concept of soul purpose, I was obsessed with figuring out how to find mine.
And so as I lay among the rotting pine corpses populating my fasting spot with nothing resembling a vision, I was on the edge of desperation. I didn’t realize until I was out there just how depressed I’d been and now, with the truth of my numbed life squeezing in on me from the silent forest, I couldn’t imagine going home without some glimmer of my meaning.
The guides told us that throughout our fast we should enact rituals and listen for “what wants to happen next.” I had a sense of what this meant but I wasn’t prepared for the resistance my psyche would mount to releasing control. I kept getting stuck in self-criticism and doubt.
On their suggestion, I told ten years of my life story to the trees each day, offered relationships and habits and identities as sacrifices to the altar, got naked and ran around screaming in an attempt to let myself be “wild.” I wept for the life I was leaving behind and cackled at the hilarity of how hard I try. There were moments of breakthrough where I found the flow, where life seemed to be moving me from the inside out, where rituals just emerged and I knew what to do. But they always dried up, leaving me back in the struggle, in the small self I’d been trying to meditate away. On that third day, I wanted to give up. But there was one ritual left to enact. The Death Ritual.
The guides told us we’d know when it was time to die. They didn’t tell us what this meant, simply that at some point on the fast, we’d be called to die and we’d just do it. With all the other rituals completed, I felt an inner tug that implied this was the moment. Pushing myself up on an elbow, I looked around my tent for the ritual supplies I brought for the occasion.
Gathering up marble stones from an island in Scotland, a figurine of a fox my mentor gave me, and a decorative garment from my time in Bali, I walked to my ritual area beneath some aspen trees. Placing the items in a circle, I lay down, pulling my hat over my eyes and covering as much skin as possible to thwart the mosquitos. I deepened my breath. Whatever “dying” meant, I sensed I couldn’t do it myself. All I could do was show up and see “what wanted to happen.”
Gulping big breaths into my stomach, my legs quivered.
“Surrender,” I whispered with each exhale.
My psyche settled as my muscles relaxed. Gravity chimed in, pulling me into the dirt. From deep in my pelvis, an orgasmic energy gurgled; an overwhelming, tingly, almost ecstatic excitement that wanted to release up my spine, reminding me of early psychedelic experiences.
Something was happening.
Something was happening.
This was it, I realized, the great surrender, the dying I’d been searching for throughout my adulthood. And as the excitement grew so did the terror as my sense of psychological control started to release.
“Oh fuck. I’m dying.”
The words shot down from my head and landed as dread in my chest. I clutched at the dirt and my body tightened, fighting against the release. Suddenly, a crash erupted from the edge of camp.
My breathing froze as more crashes followed, accompanied by grunts. Sitting up, I saw something big moving behind willow trees about twenty feet away. I stood up and grabbed a log, adrenaline pounding, any sense of ritual excitement replaced by survival fear. The shape moved, snorted again, and then stood up on hind legs to reveal exactly what I was most worried about: A brown bear.
Instinctively, I yelled what I always yell whenever I’m too close to a bear.
I clapped the log on the ground as Bear sniffed the air, taking me in.
Bear studied me from their hind legs for an eternal few seconds more before dropping to all fours, swinging their head back toward the bushes, and disappearing.
Stunned, I dropped the log, falling into forest stillness. From the space opened in my psyche, I heard a voice.
My ears rang. I stared up at the trees, baffled. Presence emanated from the aspens, almost like they were seeing me. My feet were rooted. The voice kept speaking.
I could feel something mysterious in the moment, but it was so subtle, the voice was so soft, the bear so natural, that after a couple minutes my habitual mind kicked back in and shrugged it off.
“That was odd,” I thought. “I should go back to dying.”
I returned to my circle and lay down, pulled my hat back over my eyes and forcefully deepened my breathing, attempting to resurrect the process. After thirty minutes of nothing, I gave up. I spent the rest of my fast, really just an afternoon, slumped against a tree, waiting for something to happen or give me a clue to my meaning. Finally, as I watched the sun drop behind a distant mountain from a gap between two pines, I let my confused and unresolved self fall into sleep.
It’s been almost two years since the fast and there’s so much I could say. Based on how much I’ve learned and am still learning, I’ll be harvesting lessons from those three days for many years. Probably the rest of my life. One of the tasks of soul work is learning how to be with the unknown and today, I’m still baffled by the mystery and profundity of the encounter. Like dreams, the vision fast is a form of conversation with what Carl Jung called the unconscious and what some of our ancestors considered the soul of the earth. In this conversation, image and symbol are the vernacular and the work of initiation asks us to grow more fluent in that mythic tongue.
I can tell you that a death did begin that day, but it’s an ongoing decomposition rather than the piercing final release I expected. I can also tell you that the words “Wandering Bear” have become more meaningful to me than my given name.
Through getting closer to the inner images and outer symbols (like the bear) this work introduced me to, I’ve discovered a resonance that’s larger than my egoic sense of myself that’s deeper, more central, and more real than the chattering voice in my head I usually call “me.” Being in that resonance feels like that moment after a really honest conversation with someone I love; it’s simple, grounded, clear, and unwavering. By calling on the image of Bear, by walking like Bear and seeing through Bear’s eyes, I invite that energy to take up more occupancy.
Dying to who I thought I was is challenging, but the struggle of learning to embody my meaning is worth it. By giving myself to lostness, I’m finding my way. In the two years since the fast, I’ve had countless clarifications of Bear through dreams, animal encounters, creative practices, and synchronicities that continue illuminating what happened on that mountain in Colorado. In tracking with Plotkin’s nature-based map of the psyche, some of my adolescent behaviors have fallen away. I don’t wonder about meaning anymore, and for the first time in my adult life, I’m not trying to make myself disappear.
As I continue to walk this path, I’m realizing that the imagination is not, as we’re taught to believe, simply “make believe.” Rather, it is an essential dimension of reality that we require to be whole human beings and where our most essential sense of self resides. The world speaks through the images, intuitions, and feelings in our bodies and by learning to listen and allowing ourselves to be shaped by those essences, we are invited into a remembrance of our true belonging to this still-wild world.