Soul-O-Union Vision Quest, guided by Keith Howchi Kilburn, Annie Nicol Kilburn, & Associates     

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Wilderness Rites of Passage

Howchi Kilburn

One modern poet wrote that nothing is sacred anymore. Many others have stated or observed a lack of the sacred in our lives in modern times. Others would contend that a sense of the sacred, a connectedness with that which is sacred, a knowledge of a sacred self within us is a fundamental human need without which we are not whole beings. We are instead shadows of our potential selves wandering aimlessly upon the earth seeking gratification through our senses, seeking material wealth through which to seek this gratification, and despoiling the earth through lack of awareness that anything is sacred.

Many people including the original inhabitants of this land would say that everything is sacred, and that one of our fundamental tasks in life is to understand and maintain right relationship with everything else that exists. This right relationship with everything is the essence of what is called spirituality. Science identifies commonalities in all that exists: atoms, molecules, light, energy, etc. Some people call this common ingredient spirit or the spirit that moves in all things. This Spirit or the Sacred may best be apprehended outside the noise and speed of industrial/technological society. Thoreau, John Muir, and Black Elk (among others) have found in nature or the wilderness a source not just of peace, but also vision, guidance, and right relationship expressed in the salutation, “All my relations, four leggeds, winged-ones, those that creep and crawl, those of fin and scale, plants, rock people and humans.”

If indeed the emptiness of human life is an absence of the sacred, and young people feel and experience this emptiness whether they understand it or can express it in language intelligently to adults, this feeling of spiritual emptiness may be precisely what causes many people to turn to drugs to try to synthesize some spirit or just some basic feel-good for themselves. We have more, yet we are less satisfied. We live in material wealth and spiritual poverty, so much so that many young people have no concept of what it is to be spiritually alive. The Sacred is something to be derided or scoffed at. Many commentators point at the decline of the family and family values as our core problem. I would paint with a broader brush and say that the failure of family relationships is reflective of the failure to maintain right relationship in general. Our cultural disregard for the earth and all that exists upon it and within it, our constriction of concern for only that which is nearest to us (in worse cases only oneself) reflects in a decline in the quality of our life and our relationships, our families, and our communities.

Throughout history all over the world young people have been initiated into adulthood and have sought in silence and seclusion a vision of their true identities, a sign to follow in the confusing pathways of life. Adults as well have retreated from the turbulence of every day life to renew themselves and deepen and strengthen their relationships with Higher Power, and to obtain guidance for living life. This time of social isolation, abstinence from food, and exposure to nature provided an opportunity for initiates to answer the question, “Who am I?” without direct influence or coercion from any other human being. The answers came from the initiates’ independent and individual relationship with Nature, Spirit, and Creator, however these essences were conceived of in their particular cultural tradition. Practices of this type occur in Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Taoism as well as in virtually all indigenous ways of life throughout the world.

The initiate who returns from the threshold of the spiritual and natural world is welcomed and honored by the community for the sacrifices s/he has made, for being willing to face the energies of the cosmos single-handedly and without the props and definitions provided by everyday life. The youth is welcomed and confirmed in adulthood by the council of elders. S/he is an adult. S/he has fasted for it and sacrificed every day comfort for it. No one can deny this newly acquired adulthood nor take it away. Identity, self-assurance and strength have also been acquired.

In the absence of some meaningful process of initiation sanctioned by the community in which a youth has an opportunity to gain a clear sense of his/her own independent identity and path in life, many youths will attempt to initiate themselves without the benefit of adult/elder assistance or guidance. Some of these formal initiations (i.e. gangs) are simply acts of violence and endurance of pain. Other less formal attempts involve flirting with death in a variety of ways ranging from motorcycles to dangerous drugs. The wearing of black, death rock, the common occurrences of adolescent depression are all signs of a normal developmental searching for a deeper, fuller, more complete sense of self, attempts to gain whatever must be obtained in order to traverse the passage from youth to adult. Many young people get stuck in the dark tunnel with no helping hand or guiding light to show them the way to emergence at the other end. They have withdrawn into a cocoon of prescient childhood with no way to grow enough to break out of the protective coating they’ve spun for themselves. They hold much promise and potential, but little ability to manifest it in any way. They may indulge themselves endlessly in child’s play that seems to symbolize the rites/rights of adulthood: sex, drugs, violence (particularly gunplay) which keep them stuck as children playing with adult toys in bodies which now have a dangerous amount of physical power.

Why did ancient societies, in fact virtually all non-industrialized societies place such a profound emphasis on the formal initiation of young people into adulthood and the full community’s participation in that initiation process? Clearly these societies needed full-fledged responsible adults with a strong sense of their own unique identities. The survival of these societies depended upon each young person taking his/her place in the circle of adults and being recognized and encouraged to develop his/her talents and skills. Some young people in our society stumble upon this sense of self through the institutions and customs of our society. Many, however, are guided by and only discover what they are fed by mass media. They never even conceive of something deeper to be sought, though the yearning may manifest in the form of addiction to substances or thrill-seeking behavior. We now have children who have been raised by parents who never became adults and themselves were raised by parents who never got out of entrapment in childhood. There is a crying need for a path to be available for the many for whom our society’s limited customs and institutions of school, church, and military do not provide an adequate means to self-discovery or self-actualization.

This is a role of something like the Vision Fast as a Wilderness Rite of Passage, to address the legitimate developmental needs of that substantial percentage of our youth who are otherwise lost or floundering in a sea of possibility with no internal rudder. A time set aside for self-realization with the assistance of Higher Power. Without the successful development of identity, the youth fails at all subsequent developmental tasks: intimacy, generativity/productivity, and integrity. The Vision Fast is a proven method for helping people to develop a clear sense of identity and direction along with strength of purpose and strength of character.


Buffalo - Original Painting by Keith Howchi Kilburn

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©Howchi Kilburn