This January I completed my third Vision Quest in the Sacred Mountain Ocelotitlan, close to Carmen de Viboral, in the East of the Antioquia region in Colombia. The ceremony was led by Abuela Gloria Gonzales Nanantzin Atekokolli, a Colombian medicine woman and carrier of the Mexica tradition. Following questions from many people, I decided to write this article to share a bit of information as well as my own experience. I hope you find it useful.
What is the Vision Quest?
When our being begins to question Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? In order to find our destiny and our mission, we have a ceremony called the Vision Quest.
We do this so that we find the answers to all our questions. The week-long ceremony involves dry fasting in the mountain by oneself for four days and four nights. Through the fasting and the physical exhaustion caused, in a solitary place, with the cold of the night, with the heat of the day, with the challenging weather, one reaches a special state of consciousness…
When we find, even partially, an answer to our doubts, we clarify our existence, cleanse ourselves of everything that causes us confusion, and we overcome ourselves.
Why Do We Do This?
Apart from looking to experience all the benefits listed in the previous section, attending Vision Quest ceremonies is part of the traditional process of initiation for one to lead a sweat lodge ceremony, be it Temazcal (as in the Mexica tradition) or Inipi (as in the Lakota tradition). That process varies slightly among different lineages but always includes passing through 4 Vision Quests over 4 years, honouring the 4 directions, the 4 elements, and everything they symbolise.
Going up to the Sacred Mountain gives us the clarity, direction, and resolve to live in a good way. It is also an initiation rite into adult life, into higher levels of responsibility to oneself, one’s community, and Spirit. I often times get asked if I get actual visions triggered by the dehydration or exhaustion caused by the fast. The answer is No, you don’t experience visions in a similar way to ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, or any other psychedelic sacred medicine. What you do get to do, however, is deal with yourself.
When we push our physical and spiritual limits, when we feel hungry and thirsty, with our body hurting from sleeping on the ground, we really get to deal with our mind, our doubts, and our fears. And in this process, we get to strengthen ourselves.
One of the reasons we do this ceremony is to encounter the limits of our psyche, to experience the turbulence of our emotions and the ability of our minds to create all kinds of scary stories; and yet maintain our prayer and our belief that we can persevere and get out on the other end renewed and energised.
We go up to the Sacred Mountain to experience this challenge for these 4 days and 4 nights so that we may live better in the remaining 361 days of the year, and when life’s situations cause us to feel sadness, doubt, anger, desperation, pain, etc., we can remain calm, keep our trust, and not let fear get the best of us.
Being on the Mountain
This year’s Vision Quest started on January 2nd. Having travelled to Europe to visit my family for Christmas, I had to travel back on December 31st to make it back to Colombia in time for the ceremony. It was a dynamic couple of days with the journey and it wasn’t until the first night in the mountain that I got to slow down and feel into the experience I had just had with my family.
After a good night’s rest in the camp, we woke up at 4am to start the ceremonial fire and give our tobacco and copal (sacred smoke tree resin) offerings to Abuela Gloria. We had a moment after to prepare our clothes, tobacco prayers, and a plastic sheet (2mx2m) to use as shelter before we start with the sweat lodge purification ceremony prior to going up the mountain.
We did half of a Temazcal sweat lodge ceremony (2 doors, 26 stones), and then all the Visionaries and Supports left the camp so that we were ‘planted’ to our place of ceremony in the mountain. I was the very last to be dropped off and Abuela Gloria raised a prayer with tobacco asking a tree to keep me company and protect me over the next 4 days during my ceremony.
During the first night on the mountain, I felt a lot of sadness. I missed my family and the warm fuzzy feeling from being around my blood relatives, all the aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews; the feeling of belonging to a family. All night I thought about my family and my 62-year-old father in particular. How much longer does he have left? How much time do I have to share with him? Will he be alive to meet my unborn children one day? What am I doing here in Colombia, so far away from my family? Is it worth it? I spent a few hours contemplating my return to Europe and trying to figure out how I could build a life there that aligns with the person I have become over the last years of walking the medicine path. My mind was racing and my tears were falling; I made sure to drink as many of them as I could. And then… I asked my heart, do I really want to abandon Colombia and go back home? The answer was a clear NO. I know I have a mission here in Colombia and all that I am learning from my mentors will enable me to bring a lot of healing and hope to my family and many others in my Motherland and elsewhere. I accepted I just had to feel what I was feeling and let it go.
The second day was a challenge as the sun was strong and I did not have any shade. I had to cover myself with my poncho and wool sweater to minimise the effect of the heat, but this worked to little avail. I felt hot, I was sweating and my mouth was dry. There is a rule that if it rains, you can drink the water from the rain; the previous two years I had drunk the rainwater on the second day and it helped a lot. This year, however, I decided that regardless of whether it rained I wasn’t going to drink. The longest I had previously gone without water was 2 days. I had to tell myself – out loud – ‘no water’ and get back to prayer. I made this decision, not to drink even a drop, as I am planning to start the 4 years of the Sun Dance Prayer in 2024, upon finishing my 4th vision quest. I will tell you more about the Sun Dance in an article to follow.
The third night was very tough. Even if the third day was easier than the second, by the time the night came the thirst was getting to me. I found myself reaching out instinctively to a few drops of water on the plastic and putting them in my mouth, only to spit them out right away and remind myself ‘no water’. I was fortunate to fall asleep and pass what seemed like 5-6 hours without having to endure this inner battle. It wasn’t completely bright when I woke up but it was the early moment of dawn on the fourth day.
The fourth day was easier thirst-wise than the third night. I had been putting little sticks in the ground to count the days and was very happy to be able to put in the fourth stick, signaling that I am on the final stretch. The day went somewhat quickly and then the night came… It was the longest night of my life. It was a full moon, and at that point, the thirst was so great that I could not sleep at all. I felt desperate and weak, giving my best effort not to think about the bottle of sparkling water in my tent in the camp. I was praying to the Great Spirit to let me sleep so that time passed more quickly, but I only managed to doze off a couple of times for a few minutes and would wake up again to a bright cloudy night. Several times I thought that the dawn was close but it wasn’t – it was the moon illuminating the night sky. It was as if hope was playing tricks on me. I felt so desperate that I wanted to cry for water but I could not due to exhaustion.
My body was hurting from sleeping on the ground for four days, in particular my back and my waist bones. I had to employ all of my inner resources to comfort myself, giving myself hugs and talking to myself that this is a good thing, how I can handle it, and how this moment is an integral part of the path I have chosen to be on out of my own free will. It is the payment I have to make to Spirit to continue receiving all the blessings and teachings that I have been so fortunate to have in my life as a junior medicine man in training.
After what seemed like an eternity, the dawn of the fifth morning finally came… I heard the sounds of the drums and the songs of the people in the camp getting ready to come to get us from the mountain. I felt happy and impatient, I was so close and yet not there yet. I had to be patient for a little more. I packed my things and sat on the bundle of my sleeping bag, poncho, and plastic cover I had used for my shelter, and waited. I could hear the songs getting closer and closer and finally, it was my turn.
I saw the Sahumadora (the woman carrying the sacred smoke chalice) and right behind her Abuela Gloria. They gave me a quarter of a cup of water and half a spoon of honey. It was the best and most delicious water I have ever had in my life. Abuela Gloria used an eagle feather fan to cleanse me with the sacred smoke and gave me a long, heartfelt hug. I felt overcome with emotion and I cried out of happiness and a sense of pride and achievement. I had done it. I managed to sit with my racing mind, my desperation, and physical pain and not give in… I felt very humbled and grateful for everyone who had made this possible, who had been in the camp over these days and had prayed for us in the mountain. We started to walk down to the camp, seeing all the other Visionaries and Supports smiling and greeting each other as if reuniting with close family members coming back home from a long journey.
When we got to the camp, we shared some fruit and went to the Temazcal to close the ceremony. As we had opened the Vision Quest ceremony with two doors and 26 stones, we had another 2 doors and 26 stones remaining before we could close the ceremonial fire. It was a beautiful ceremony that also felt tough but hey, after drinking some water and having a bit of mango and papaya I could endure a bit more heat with my spiritual family. Once the Temazcal was over, we got out and placed our tobacco prayers in the fire, officially closing the ceremony. Teotlac 2023, my third Vision Quest was complete. At that moment I felt beyond grateful and excited about the year ahead and to see how the prayers I made in the mountain would take shape. I also felt happy to have a whole year before I do this again :).
While this is very personal and I will not go into details about my prayers, I can say that the things I asked for were things I have tried to do, achieve, or overcome in my life many a time before. And having prayed for them in the Vision Quest, there is another quality to the commitment I feel now. It is not a commitment only to myself anymore; now I have made this commitment to the Great Spirit. And because of that, I feel a whole different level of accountability and decisiveness.
How can I not honour the commitments I have to the Great Spirit when he has been so generous with me? When he has given me great teachers, many elders, guides, and friends who have given me important lessons in life and have helped me grow and cultivate the beautiful garden of a life I have. When every time something seemingly didn’t work out, there was always something better waiting for me. When all that I have prayed for in ceremonies has materialised and manifested sooner or later in my life. When he gave me the strength to endure the doubt, desperation, and racing thoughts I experienced on the mountain. When my blood family got away unscathed from a freak car accident as I was fasting in the mountain. It would be disrespectful and ungrateful of me to dishonour all of these blessings by not doing my best to live in a good way.
A thought comes to mind, shared by one of the medicine women present at the Vision Quest – blessings are received but they are also sustained. So thank you Great Spirit for all the blessings you have sent and continue sending my way, I am grateful for every moment I am able to walk on this earth, and may you give me the strength to sustain all that you give me in humility and beauty.
Aho Mitakuye Oyasin
*To connect with Abuela Gloria and find out more about the Vision Quest – you can visit her website.