Seeking the Vision

A vision quest is a rite of passage, similar to an initiation, in some Native American cultures. It is a turning point in life taken before puberty to find oneself and the intended spiritual and life direction.

It can also be performed by adults. It can be a part of shamanism. The quest or journey can be part of the learning and initiation process of the apprentice under the guidance of an older shaman.

For me, a walk in an uninhabited, not particularly scenic area (no distractions) is a kind of small vision quest. I don’t mean to minimize the actual ritual that would carry over several days and includes fasting and sleep deprivation. That ritual is just not practical for most of us, and I’m not sure it can be undertaken properly without guidance from elders who are far more knowledgeable.

I have read of people who do a kind of quest closed in a small room (such as an igloo) where the intent is similar to sensory deprivation as a kind of sensory cleansing and purification.

Typically, a vision quest might be undertaken to cure emotional, physical, or spiritual illnesses. You’ll see in reading about them that participants want to “discover my mission here” or “commune with nature, spirit, spirit guides or deceased ancestors” or in a broader sense “move beyond outmoded paradigms.”

Those are lofty goals.


I first came upon the idea of a vision quest in my college days when a friend loaned me Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. I had just read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a history course and wanted to know more about those people.

Black Elk’s book has become a religious/spiritual classic since its publication in 1932, and the bestselling title written by a Native American. It is the life and visions of the Lakota healer Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950). It is also the history of his Sioux people during the tragic last decades of the Old West. Black Elk met the poet, writer, and critic John G. Neihardt in 1930 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and finally chose him as the way to share his story.

The book is not a “how-to” book, but it does include information about rituals such as the vision quest. Vision quests are undertaken for the first time in the early teenage years.  That makes sense even in our modern times. Coming of age and a spiritual journey has deep roots in many ancient cultures.

In one version, the seeker finds a place that they feel is sacred, sits in a 10-foot circle, and brings nothing in from society with the exception of water. That is a difficult assignment for modern people, whether it lasts a day or several days.

As with learning meditation, the desire to unfocus, to give up, to leave the quest area will come.  In meditation, you are always reminded to “follow your breath” and seekers must also try to stop the mind from wandering on random thoughts and to avoid panic.

Some preparatory suggestions for undertaking a vision quest of any length would be: that you should be able to fast;  can be outdoors walking or camping for an extended period; know enough first-aid to keep yourself safe (a cell phone is NOT part of Black Elk’s list, but one that is turned off but there for emergencies is a good part of a modern survival kit); minimal or no supplies (a blanket might suffice depending on weather); some prior experience with meditation; comfort with solitude.

Finding a place for your quest might be easy – walking in woods near your home; or more difficult – getting away from your area to find solitude. I think going into a new and unfamiliar place – a place where you might feel “lost” – is part of choosing a location.

Though I prefer walking meditation, usually you would find your place within that larger place and create a sacred stone circle on the ground in which you will sit.

I would bring a journal to record my experiences, but that’s not standard procedure.

Will greater truths just come to you through dreams, meditations, or hallucinations? That is the hope. Patience is a quality that many of us have lost. Just sitting quietly for an hour, doing “nothing” may be impossible for some.

You might have visions on your first vision quest, but, depending on your prior experiences and knowledge, that shouldn’t be expected.

Messages and messengers (totems) come through many things. They might be transmitted through an animal or bird, or by a physical representation of the vision or message. Seekers might find a feather, fur, or a rock that seems to be special that they will place in their medicine bag. That real object can stay with the individual to remind, protect or guide you after the quest.

Black Elk and others caution that you may not understand any messages you do receive, or it may take time for you to process the messages.  Sometimes, there is a vision – but not always.  Like dream interpretation, the vision may need to be shared with a Holy Man, elder, or teacher to help learn its meaning.  Sometimes the meaning is not shown for several years afterward.

Black Elk speaks:

Once, I went to pray at the top of the sacred mountain of my ancestors. As I climbed to the top I heard voices singing as the wind blew the leaves. At the top I saw, made from many stones, a large circle with a cross inside. I knew from my teachings that this represented the circle of life and the four directions. I sat down by the edge of this circle to pray.
I thought “This is only a symbol of the universe.”
“True,” a very soft voice said. “Look and you will see the Center of the Universe. Look at every created thing.”
As I looked around I saw that every created thing had a thread of smoke or light going from it.
The voice whispered, “This cord that every created thing has is what connects it to the Creator. Without this cord, it would not exist.”
As I watched I saw that all these threads, coming from everything, went to the center of the circle where the four directions were one place, one center of a cross. I saw that all these threads were tied together or joined here at this spot.
The voice spoke again, “This is the Center of the Universe. The place where all things join together and all things become one. The place where everything begins and ends. The place inside everything created.”
That’s when I understood that all of creation, the seen and the unseen, was all related.
The voice spoke one last time, “Yes, now you know the Center of the Universe.”

Black Elk prays:

I pray to the four directions… hear me.
I pray to the West which gives us rest and reflection.
I thank you for these gifts for without them we could not live.
I pray to the North which gives us patience and purity.
I thank you for these gifts for without them we could not live.
I pray to the East which gives us energy and emotions.
I thank you for these gifts for without them we could not live.
I pray to the South which gives us discipline and direction.
I thank you for these gifts for without them we could not live.
Grandmother, share with me your wisdom, and I thank you for this gift.
Grandfather, share with me your strength, and I thank you for this gift.

A good prayer for all of us seekers. Any day can be the start of a new year.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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