by Lauren Chambliss
About a third the way through her
vision quest -- fasting and alone in Utah's Mystery Canyon -- Jane Baniewicz,
Internal Revenue Service lawyer and suburban soccer mom finally got "out
of her head."
She experienced what author
Carlos Castaneda called "non-ordinary reality;" to-do lists and worries drifted
away and nature's sensual smorgasbord opened up before her. She heard messages
in birds' songs, played with lizards, smelled the pungency of a coming
rainstorm. She consumed nothing but water for four days but wasn't hungry. Her
dreams were rich and poignant. One night, she held a "death lodge"
ceremony, where she envisioned herself on her deathbed, and, one by one,
members of her family came to say good bye, in some cases bringing closure to
long-simmering conflict. For a Michigan-born, Catholic schoolgirl, Mystery
Canyon was mind-blowing.
"The hardest part was
letting go of all the things I thought I understood," says Baniewicz, 52.
"It marked a major turning point in my life. I thought I would find
answers to personal issues and what I found out was so much bigger than I had
thought. It was a tremendous opening."
Baniewicz's vision quest was
guided by Durango, Colorado-based Animas Valley Institute, which operates one
of the largest vision quest programs in America. Recent questers include a
Scottish ecology student, a NASA physicist, and the mayor of Telluride,
"The demographics are
widening out tremendously," says AVI founder Bill Plotkin, Ph.D., 51, a psychologist and wilderness guide.
"We are seeing people from
all walks of life and all ages. As a culture, we have become alienated from
nature, both from Mother Nature and our own deepest inner nature, and we are
starting to remember there is an essential relationship between the two."
Last April, Paul Mitchell, a
retired army officer who now lives in Annapolis, MD had just sold his
consulting business and was at "loose ends," uncertain what to do
next. He joined an AVI quest group of 12 men and women in Utah with some
reluctance, not being the type to sit in "circle" with others and
share deep feelings, drum until a state of trance, or talk to plants. He did
all that, and more.
"I found myself doing things
I never would have done before, noticing little flowers and complementing them
on their beauty, looking up in awe at this magnificent dead juniper tree that
hung over my camp," says Mitchell, 57. "My pace slowed down to a
natural pace rather than the dizzying one of everyday life."
In the slower space, Mitchell
explored his true desires for the future and reflected on how to get there.
Slowing down and removing
everyday distractions was also key for Jamie Reaser, 33, an environmental
scientist for the US government who recently completed an AVI Soulcraft
Seminar, a five-day program that isn't as physically demanding as a vision
quest but uses similar nature-based activities to unearth what Plotkin calls
one's "soul gift," the quality that makes each individual unique.
Unlike other nature-based
programs, AVI's approach involves more than learning about nature and our
relationship to nature. It amounts to a contemporary Western path to
soul-discovery, leading to initiation into what Plotkin calls one's
"second or soulful adulthood."
"The Soulcraft approach is
systemic," says Reaser. "You don't focus on a particular problem and
how to solve it but on connecting to the greater system that we are all a part
of. It gave me the opportunity for creativity, spiritual growth, and
connectedness to the Earth and things beyond myself."
Plotkin says the spiritual
awakening that often comes from the encounter with nature in novel ways
happens, well, quite naturally. "For 99% of humanity's time on earth, we
lived in close relationship with nature," he says. "The ability to be
in conversation with the natural world is part of our human inheritance and
hardwired into our genes."
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