What is a Wilderness Quest?
by David Raffelock
What is a Wilderness Quest, and why may it be what I need?
Before I write this post, I’m sitting with the following question, feeling both the grief and hope that accompanies it. I invite you to do the same, even for a few moments, before reading on. Ask yourself, “What would my life, my relationships, my culture, or our world look like if we could sit with ourselves alone in the wilderness? What if the different phases of our lives were marked with intention, meaning, deep listening, curiosity, integrity, and community support?”
There may be no definitive answer. Only musings, hopes, fantasies. Let us first look at ceremonies and rites of passage in much of dominant North American culture. Though there are many examples, the significant ones that come to mind from my cultural context and location as a white man are high school and college graduations, the acquiring of one’s driver’s license, the voyage into the world of legal drinking, weddings, and funerals. Some of these ceremonies and passages come with a sense of community and ritual. However, in my experience, these transitions have lacked a deeper sense of intention, community, and purpose. Mainstream ceremonies are often reflective of external accomplishments, status, or compliance with a cultural norm. We lack awareness and reverence for the sacred internal transitions we move through in our lives.
What about the transition to adulthood, marked not by our success but by our sense of self? What about moving to a new place? Ending a relationship? Entering parenthood? Initiating our role as an elder? Discovering a piece of who we are for the first time? What about the deeper shifts in our way of being we want to make? The list goes on. At the core of these transitions is a knowing and a yearning that we must step into a healthier, more integrated and honorable version of ourselves. How do we do this? Oftentimes we look to the wisdom of others, whether it be self-help books, spiritual or religious leaders, mentors or friends. These can all serve as ways to deepen our wisdom.
However, as a wilderness therapy guide and a nature-connected coach, I have learned from countless sessions with clients that each individual already holds the wisdom that they seek. Finding the guidance we need within ourselves has better results than reading or hearing it from someone else. Guiding clients to this place is a nuanced process. My greatest allies are always nature and ceremony. As a quest guide, it always moves me to see the deep wisdom and momentum that people take with them after this experience.. There’s something about the quest, be it nature, connection to higher power, surrender, fasting, being alone, personalized ceremony, or the impact of being witnessed while committing to a sacred intention, that invites people into profound transformation.
When someone asks me what a wilderness quest is, the short answer is typically, “3-4 days alone in the wilderness, no food, under a tarp.” The responses are generally either “That’s wild, I could never do that,” or “That sounds intense, but I’m intrigued – tell me more.” The latter response warrants more depth of explanation. Assuming you resonate more with the latter, I’ll give you my longer answer:
The quest is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. The fasting declares my commitment, deepens my ability to surrender and listen, and I see it as suffering for the good of others – so that I may be able to hold the suffering of others more fully. The aloneness takes away my common distractions, allows me to face my inner demons, and unearth my deeper wisdom. The exposure (sleeping under a tarp) reminds me of my place in the world, brings me closer to the earth, and reminds me of how little I actually need. The quest is the single most transformative experience I have ever had. It completely set a new trajectory in my life and showed me things I can never “unsee” in the best way possible – it brought me to a place in my life and my vision where there is no turning back.
All of that being said, I’d like to take a moment here to both acknowledge how I feel our Western mainstream, individualistic culture leaves us systematically deprived of sacred ceremonies, and the wisdom that has been preserved through indigenous cultures throughout the world – particularly those that have used wilderness fasting rites-of-passage ceremonies. While fasting, praying, personalized ceremony, being alone, and so on, are accessible and a right to any human being, Lakota and many other indigenous peoples and cultures have carried these sacred ceremonies and traditions through the years. Connection to nature, higher power, and soul are lost in my culture, and while I do my best to not mimic any cultural pieces of these sacred ceremonies, the essence and benefits I have found in my life are only because those cultures kept these traditions alive.
This way of going out on the land is the best way that I know to mark transitions. Even if the transitions in our lives appear solely exterior or circumstantial, there is always an internal transition accompanied by it. The quest offers a community to be seen in and held by. It offers a space away from distractions and our daily routine, held and invited in by the slow, loving baseline of nature. It invites us to face our challenges and tap into our deepest wisdom and life force. And it offers a community to come back to, to hear and hold the story of our journey, and to prepare us to return back to our world as a changed person. What a beautiful way to mark transitions in our lives!
The quest is a perfect opportunity to gain momentum in your life, to honor external or internal transitions or start new ones, to ask the biggest questions you can think of, to pray, to seek clarity, and to connect to who you truly are.
Are you feeling the call to quest?