Seeking solitude in the wilderness: Rites of Passage
Over the last year solitude in the wilderness has featured in our media. The increase in interest shows there is a need in our current society. These books and films are based on true memoirs. The book and film ‘Tracks,’ features a girls adventure crossing the Australian desert with just her dog and four camels. Claire Dunn’s book ‘My year without matches’, the story of her year living in the Australian bush without any tools of civilisation, and the new blockbuster film ‘Wild’ where a young woman sets out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in the U.S.
Each of these guides us through a journey with life and death, both real and symbolic, embarking with personal questions and meeting the wilderness within. As it is with a pilgrimage, an initiation, the Hero’s Journey (the archetypal journey described by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell), or a rite of passage, something calls you forward and you must say yes.
For me, the call came from the desert. I was thirsty for time alone in nature, not in my backyard, local bush or my work, but a stretch of time where everything is a greater listening. I urgently needed to sit on sand, without all the things I bury myself with in daily life. I wanted nights of stillness, to know the noises of the night. I wanted endless time with pertinent questions. Questions that had been brewing in me since I last fasted alone in the wilderness, seven years before; an event that took me that long in order to integrate its full magic. I wanted community time. To sit in circles with others who take what nature shows them and answer their own questions as honestly.
To be an endless participant in our own lives is essential. To find ways to switch seats, embrace curiosity, the beginner’s mind, new lenses of reflection, and the guidance of elders.
My call came across the ocean from the Inyo Mountains region of California. It came in the form of a month-long training in rites of passage, to become a vision fast guide. It meant five weeks in high desert and a closing four days of solitude on a vision fast. The school there is called The School of Lost Borders (SOLB). SOLB is a non-profit that has offered vision fasts, rites of passage, and trained guides for over forty years.
The vision fast is an age-old practice across traditional cultures, removing usual comforts and going into the wilderness for 3 or 4 days without shelter, food, or company. During this time everything is a message, nature’s a mirror, and the space is alive to self-generated ceremony and symbolic action.
The founders Steven Foster and Meredith Little, who have a background in suicide prevention, began in the early 70’s under the guidance of a local Paiute Native American elder and continued in the profile of offering pan-cultural rites of passage, keeping it simple. Refreshingly, in the approach of the School of Lost Borders there is no cultural appropriation. Instead, finding your belonging - as nature, connecting to your own roots and ancestry - known or unknown, is emphasised.
Rites of passage have existed all over the world, despite early lack of contact between peoples. These practices evolved out of relationship with nature, in order to mark stages and transitions in life, to grieve, to grow up, or to dive into self-understanding.
A rite of passage has a common structure. The power of a rite of passage can only deepen with conscious intention and attention to the stages.
1. Severance: This happens when someone embarks on a program, steps beyond something that is unhealthy or ready to be transformed, heads out alone in the wilderness, honours death or what is dying, or something they are giving up.
2. Threshold: This is the border, the doorway, the birthing chamber, the passage. Everything that happens once someone has stepped across the threshold is full of power and meaning. SOLB founders Steven Foster and Meredith Little explain the word by it’s root “threshing-hold”, the testing-ground where things move and are uprooted and newly chosen.
3. Incorporation: Whatever has been born or acknowledged must be made real and accepted. This is the integration of insights or growth into the whole person, across all dimensions of life. We don’t seek solitude in the wilderness to disappear to it. We leave in order to return stronger, refreshed and true. There is a space between who the person was and who they now claim to be. Life will provide many tests, and failure is a valid part of incorporation. The potential for growth is enormous when this stage is supported and normalised. Incorporation involves celebration and honouring from community/ family/ guides or elders.
People's first thought when they hear 'rite of passage' is usually towards adolescence. As Arnold Van Gennep said “adolescents today are forced to accomplish their transitions alone and with private symbols”.
John Davis named contemporary rites of passage as the “Four L’s”: getting a drivers Licence, getting Laid, getting Loaded (on drugs or alcohol) or Locked up. Four common ways to prove you are an adult.
Rites of passage relate to all ages and stages of life, to the numerous transition and change we navigate. The leading questions;
"Who am I? What are my dreams? What is my calling?” are more readily internalised by youth as they realise society may not have their answers. And it’s true. We don’t need aptitude tests any longer. We need the test of being so present and empty with ourselves that we cannot help but find our beating heart, our belonging, our hopes, and to clearly see the biting, rearing fears that get in the way.
When we allow the land to lead us, there is no need for resistance. Shadow and pain are welcome in nature; they too belong. There is no right or wrong, just greater understanding and the potential for freedom. Everything has a gift. Cheryl Strayed, protagonist in the movie “Wild” opens with it when she reads, “you forget that your wounds and your gifts come from the same source.”
In this uncovering, a rite of passage guide is just a midwife, asking the essential questions
“What are you going to meet out there?” “What’s that stirring in you?”
Time in nature develops a sense of hyperawareness, “a heightened receptivity to the… songs, cries and gestures – of the larger, more-than-human field.” (David Abram).
We learn to sense and respond with our hearts wide open. Research shows hyperawareness from time in nature extends to other areas of our lives (Louv, Last child in the woods).
“Imagine being seen by trees, boulders and stones, by rivers and animals. Imagine they are watching. It produces a notable experience of being ‘part of” ~ Laura Sewall
Towards the end of the month-long training with the School of Lost Borders, I went out on the land to fast. I found my home for those four days and nights on the edge of a saddle at 10,000 feet. I was surrounded by sandy endless desert, with little vegetation, but a glorious view of the lit up blue Sierra Mountains. Over the prior month I had encountered a range of wildlife, seen trails of rattlesnake, heard of the presence of mountain lion, however during my fast the land was quiet.
As I sat there, I didn’t realise the background anxiety I held around this being someone else’s habitat. I was somewhat hesitant, cautious. On the second night, as I watched dusk settle over the mountains and the sand so still, I was overcome with the flowing and full sense that I had a right to be here; same as the rattlesnake, lion, coyote, or fly. My trepidation left me. Like a rush through my body, I relaxed to my deepest core. The sense of inclusion and wider belonging did not leave me.
In the view of Ecopsychology, nature is home and family, and nature is Self. These two living metaphors offer a powerful container for deeply therapeutic experiences. The solo;
time alone in the wilderness, with a conscious intention and support, is not to be underestimated.
Solo is a known feature of BAT. However I have seen solo take a backseat, due to the need to cover other content, or sometimes due to unspoken doubt about its true purpose and outcome. As practitioners, creating our own solo time in nature can be all that is needed in order to refresh and trust what we offer in this simple framework.
Bringing attention to the rite of passage each participant is experiencing, connects them to the personal and collective journey. In this we find our humanness, and place in the whole.
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