High Desert Monsoons and the Meaning of Life
by Casey Malone
A vision quest is an ancient rite of passage wherein a person spends several days alone in the wilderness seeking guidance and purpose. The custom is found in all types of cultures from around the globe. During the most painful year of my life, I engaged in a vision quest near Walnut Canyon in Arizona.
I have never been genuinely satisfied with the explanations of the universe that are commonly offered by the world. I don’t remember choosing to be a troubled, furrowed-brow kind of person, so I guess I was just born this way, but I can report that I spent the first four decades of my life earnestly trying to discover a meaning of life that didn’t contain any loopholes. I had good reason.
Among the very first memories that I am able to summon are those of day-long bouts of trembling, existential panic. At four years old, I could be found quaking in my bed with the realization of infinite meaninglessness, while the other children played Kick The Can in the summer sunshine just outside my window. That these attacks began so early meant they were foundational to my outlook. I lived in a world where one could—without warning—be struck paralyzed with the tortuous realization of dread nothingness. As you might imagine, such an outlook did not lend itself to a typical, carefree childhood.
There are several seemingly appropriate ways to compensate for a life filled with such anxiety, among them gluttony, religion, intellectualism, addiction, depression, achievement, and simple denial. I tried them all.
And I did not dabble. My attempts were desperate, and thus thorough. When drugs and alcohol initially succeeded in conjuring contentment, I pursued that course whole-heartedly, until the day came when they no longer worked, and I was again faced with the terrors I had known since childhood. Later, when church worked at soothing my soul, I participated with sincere commitment: becoming an ordained elder, leading Bible studies, tithing ten percent of my salary, serving on the church board, until the day came when my involvement with church no longer spared me from the dread either.
A drowning person will clutch at any straw, and a lifetime of quivering, fetal-position angst was motivation in itself to continue trying anything I could, as earnestly as I could, even in the face of one failure after another.
In 2002, I moved to Flagstaff, which is right on the edge of the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, and was introduced to a particular practice of Native American spirituality. I was acutely cautious of engaging in hurtful cultural appropriation, so after I spoke with some elders and was reassured by my native friends, I jumped in.
After several years of practice and service, I asked an Elder if he would guide me on a vision quest, just like he had guided others in the past. I was hoping for an experience that would help me understand what the universe wanted of me; how I could finally find simple contentment. He agreed to guide me, and I began three months of preparation.
I started fasting for 24 hours, then 48 hours each week as a way of inducing a state of reverence and contemplation. This was also just for sheer practice, since I would be eating no food during the week of my quest. I began making prayer ties while I fasted: small tobacco bundles made from squares of colored cloth, tied 6 inches apart on a long string. As I tied each bundle, I said a prayer for a particular person I knew. By the end there were 405 prayer ties in total, each one corresponding to a different person.
When the day of my departure finally came, we had a short, early-morning sweat lodge with my five closest lodge mates to ritually send me off into the spirit world. I was taken by 4-wheel drive several miles into the high desert, to a spot underneath a juniper tree. I unrolled the string of prayer ties into a large, protective circle around me, and sat holding the ceremonial feather I had been given by the Elder. Every time a blade of grass blew, or an ant crawled, or a hummingbird whizzed by, I jerked my head around to look, wondering if my vision was appearing. For two hours I was jumpy, thinking every little breeze was supposed to be a vision. Eventually I calmed down, and I suspended the feather from a branch above me.
That afternoon, I saw the clouds take the shape of a mythical phoenix over the mountaintops, and that night, I dreamed I was flying around in the spirit world, visiting old friends and places from my life. I wondered if my visions would just be clouds and dreams: loopholes easily explained away.
The following day I noticed two dragonflies making runs directly at me, bouncing away when they reached the line where the prayer ties were, as if there were some sort of invisible wall in place. Was that significant? A part of my vision? Or was it just normal behavior explained by winds and temperatures? At night, I dreamed I was in the spirit world again, being attacked by a wolf. Unable to scream, I banged a stick against a tree and it ran off. Then a skunk ran towards me, and I clapped my hands to scare it away.
Halfway through the quest, the Elder visited my site for a few minutes, as planned, to make sure I was safe without food and water. I told him about my nightmares and about how I had scared the attackers away with sticks and noises. He told me that those methods were the methods of fear, which sometimes worked, but were ultimately useless. Instead, I was to fill myself with love, confident that everything is just as it should be, and that I am taken care of. This would inoculate me against any evil.
"I hope you can do it," he said as he left, "because I can tell you're going to come under a much more powerful attack."
That afternoon, ominous monsoon clouds moved in and the sky stormed violently for three hours, then the thunder and lightning stopped, but the rain continued for another four hours. I hunkered down under my little juniper, teeth chattering, thinking about the Elder’s prediction.
Nighttime was black because the clouds concealed the stars. I was jittery and hardly slept, wondering when the attack was going to come. Would it be a wolf? A skunk? A dragonfly? A demon? I was a grown man, scared to death of the dark. Finally I awoke after dozing off for a few minutes, and still there had been no attack. I’d had enough.
"This is bullshit," I thought to myself.
"Mister Hocus-Pocus New-Age Elder Man and his Magical Fairy Spirits said there was going to be an attack tonight and there's no attack. This whole vision quest is a farce. It's just my latest attempt to see if something will finally work for me, and surprise, surprise it doesn't. What a waste of time. I'm out here starving for four days, freezing, scaring myself silly, and it's all nonsense. This is a sham. I'm going to quit the sweat lodge and definitely stop listening to that egomaniacal Elder. In fact, I'm going to quit trying to find meaning or spirituality at all. This is so stupid. I'm just gonna go back home and eat ice cream and watch movies every day until I die. If I could walk home right this minute, I would. Screw this."
I sat there stewing and trying to figure out a way to tell my lodge mates that I was quitting, when it struck me that I hadn’t eaten for days, and that I was completely alone and tired and cold, which could be affecting my thinking. I thought that maybe I should try to fill myself with love and caring as the Elder had mentioned. I reluctantly tried it, but it wasn't half as appealing as just lumping everything and eating ice cream.
I went back and forth like that for several hours during that long, black night, weighing a life of continued seeking with very little hope of finding an answer, against a life of pizza and video games, which were not the answer either, but were at least certain to bring me enjoyment. It was an internal battle between the part of me that wanted to just give up on life, and the part of me that wanted to keep trying.
Eventually, the small part of me that could believe in the integrity of the universe; the part of me that feels cared for in a deep place, was victorious. I resolved to continue living an examined life, a life of seeking, no matter how wearisome it might become.
As I took a tired breath, the wind came and blew all the clouds away, and a million stars shone down on me in a splendor that can only be seen miles away from everything in the cold desert night after a cleansing monsoon. I began to laugh aloud, and then cry, and then both. I realized that there had been an attack indeed, and that it had come from inside myself. I had fought courageously, and had emerged triumphant. The very stars themselves had come out to congratulate and honor me.
A day later, my Elder came to retrieve me, and I re-entered the sweat lodge with my closest lodge mates. I told them the story of my vision quest, and afterwards we all went up to the house and feasted on a big meal of homemade chicken noodle soup, biscuits, and watermelon. I gave them each a gift from among my personal possessions, and we sang songs and told stories and jokes. Exhausted, I returned to town, collapsed into bed, and fell into a deep sleep without any dreams.