In a sense, any spiritual path is largely a matter of misdirection, something meant to conceal an appalling and marvelous fact…
~ Henry Shukman
There is the traditional idea of a 4 day fast in the outdoors being a Vision Quest – something that young men and women would do to find their direction, their animal, their medicine, their place in the world. But it’s something that can be done many times in a lifetime, separating oneself from the demands of everyday life and reconnecting with the Earth, with Spirit, with whatever Questions have arisen in ones life.
I went into the one last weekend with a desire to break down my ego, my identity, my idea of myself as I have constructed it thus far, and see what lay deep in my heart of hearts – to forget for a while who I think I am as a film industry person, kind of smart, cynical, jaded, or as a sole-support parent, strong, determined, or all the confused stories with men – a mid-life kind of Question.
But of course it was not all particularly pleasant – the ego resists.
The first stumbling block was on Saturday, when, having only been fasting for some 18 hours or so, we were required to stand in a semi-circle in the afternoon sun to receive Teachings before we went into the sweat lodge. As we stood there, listening, the sun beating down on our heads (I’d forgotten a hat), I saw the black begin to encroach on my peripheral vision and I fainted.
The ground was soft, the grass cool – somehow I didn’t fully lose consciousness as I usually do when this happens – and I lay there for a moment enjoying the moist cool grass until I was rested enough to get back up again.
Remarkably, no one noticed. We all crawled into the sweat and went through rounds of hot rocks and steam and drumming and song and were cleansed.
Later that evening, one of the helpers came by and asked how I was feeling. When I mentioned having fainted, there was a little flurry of activity and finally it was decided I should sleep on the couch in the house just in case, and do a modified version of the fast, eating a little when necessary.
I was pissed.
This was not the way it was supposed to go. This was not what I wanted, sleeping on the couch like a wuss. I wasn’t even especially hungry.
In the morning I went out around 5 to my tent and began the day, looking at the sky and listening to the birds and beginning the rounds of smudging and prayer and meditation, attempting to silence the chattering monkey mind.
Already I could see the hint of a lesson, already I could see that the thwarting of my willfulness, the denial of my ego’s determination to maintain an image of strength and self-sufficiency was something I would have to absorb as part of the process.
And the modifications didn’t really interrupt much – still the long hours of the days were spent on the land in silence, contemplating the water, the song of the birds, the shifts in the weather. I prayed and prayed for strong dreams, or for a visit from an animal, for some kind of moment, some special epiphany or revelation that would make coherent cohesive sense to the quest.
Sunday night I had a dream. But it was not the dream I was hoping for – there were no eagles or tigers or goddesses of light with magical purple stones and songs I would wake up singing… No. Just some jumbled stuff about hanging onto some crappy thin old futon mattresses, about not letting go of junk that it would really be best to let go of.
Out in the tent again, lighting my smudge, my thumb was getting calloused and burnt from the lighter, the sage and tobacco had almost run out. I was cleaning up my little area of paraphernalia when I noticed a small ball on the floor of the tent. Mud maybe? No, it had a smooth shape to it. I looked again – it was a curled up slug.
Ewww. A slug in my tent.
I looked at him for a moment and thought, well, slugs are kind of like snails but without the shell, and snails can be pretty, so…
So I found a little twig and let him crawl onto it and put him outside my tent door.
Once out in the wet dewy grass, the slug unfurled himself and began to crawl up a blade, slithering and swaying with a slow sensuous movement, with what looked like such delight in the wet, in the green, in his element. His antennae waved and contracted in the soft sunlight, his body swayed happily in the morning breeze. It was suddenly a moment of such great beauty, of such a tremendous simple joy in life itself, that I burst into tears.
That’s it, I thought. This is my creature-teacher. This is who has come to show me what I need to see about the universe, about life, about myself.
This is the lesson in humility, but also in the direct immediate sensuous pleasure in life itself.
Now, back at home again, I remind myself: I am a slug.