I have just returned from the 2012 Wilderness Guides Council Gathering, held March 19-24 in Vallecito Stage Station County Park in Southern California. This gathering has been held since about 1988 in various places, started by a number of guides from the School of Lost Borders, now spread beyond those borders. The gatherings have a long and interesting history. They trace the development of a community of extraordinary people who feel a great passion in the depths of their bones for the work of rites of passage. I felt humbled and grateful to have found them. The way this community works is a hybrid of the ancient, indigenous ways (organic, egalitarian, emergent), and of the modern American ways (structured, individual-based, action-oriented). I learned so much by simply being there, observing how people treated each other, how they showed up, how they dealt with conflict and how they held one another.
Being with this group for a week in the desert, I came to understood at a deeper level the power of seeing and being seen.
Questers are taken out on the land by these guides, to fast alone for three or four days in sacred space, with a yearning in their hearts. It is a primordial human response to the hunger for deeper vision, something not unfamiliar to us.
As a quester, you empty yourself. After a few days of sinking in, of being with your new community of fellow questers and guides and honing your reasons for being there, you are ceremonially sent out onto the land. For three days and nights, with ‘nothing to do,’ you naturally attune to the rhythms and energies of your place, of the site on the land that has called you, that you have chosen.
Even though it often doesn’t seem like it at the time, a different way of seeing emerges, a visionary eye can open and you touch the Mystery that is behind all form . . . a flow or energy that is hidden from view in the busy world of work and contemporary culture. And what people experience, over and over, that you SEE WHAT IS REAL, what is TRUE. You see it with the whole of your being; mind, soul and body. It changes you forever, because a meaning you now can orient your life around comes clearer, a meaning that is much, much deeper than anything you can think up in your own brain or that the culture can give you.
Upon return, each person’s story is mirrored or reflected back to them by the guides. You are now in turn truly SEEN for who you really are, behind roles and masks and culturally sanctioned labels. It can be a shocking and moving experience, to be seen in this way.
My first experiences of first being deeply seen, heard and listened to were as a student at Naropa. I remember very distinctly the feeling I got in my body when I realized that the whole circle of people gathered there had their full, loving attention on ME . . . . without judgement or expectation, just open hearts and ears. Of course, I broke down and cried tears and tears!
At the Gathering, one long-time guide asked, “what is living the initiated life?” (Those who have fasted on the land in this way are considered ‘initiated.’) One answer is “having Seen and having been Seen.” A vision fast, as a rite of passage, is a gateway to being introduced to one’s own soul and to seeing the soul of the world. I believe those who have Seen and have been Seen will be the ones who can guide our culture to greater health and sustainability, in a good way.