A few hours ago,
returned from a 12-day vision quest,
with 96 hours of fasting,
and 72 hours of wilderness solo.
Now it is late,
back here in the middle world.
Unwilling to initiate the usual nightly rituals
to get ready for bed,
for fear that a bug-less night's sleep
on the thick mattress
would make me forget
what I have tried so hard to recall
in the open wild, under the stars,
guessing which animals
own the shadowy footsteps nearby.
But perhaps, trust
is a renewable resource
and that Soul,
a rechargeable reservoir of wonder.
-- on the eve upon return from the vision quest
After the 12-day vision quest, on the "Reincorporation Suggestions" sheet, it prominently warns: "Don't give your gifts away with words. Give them away with your heart and actions."
So, walking the dangerous line of using writing as a heart-felt action, I call upon this oldest of technologies to help the young man who returned to digest and offer the gifts he has received from the wild. It is a game of vigilance so that the narratives do not take on an egoist life of its own.
"If nothing else happen on my vision quest, simply not eating for 4 days would be good enough."
That was my ultimatum to the glutton inside of me -- a last battle. That was also the fool-proof bottom line of my signing up for the Animas Quest, a "contemporary Western embodiment of the ancient, pan-cultural vision fast."
More broadly speaking, I have intended for the vision quest to punctuate and deepen the Journey to the East, an extended vision quest in and of itself. I recognize myself to be in the stage between "Late Adolescence" and "Early Adulthood", according to the "eco-soul-centric development wheel" below. I ask for help from Nature and Mystery to guide my soul initiation, in order to retrieve the gifts I carry for my people.
In addition, I have felt an imbalance between my upward "spiritual" practice and the downward "soul" work. Bill Plotkin provides a three-worlds model to understand the human experience:
- Upper world: the Spirit, sacred light, non-dual oneness, transcendence, God
- Middle world: so-called day-to-day reality
- Under world: the Soul, sacred darkness, shadow, mystery, Nature
It has become increasing apparent that my Western "soul" leg is much weaker than my Eastern "spiritual" leg, leaving me at times limping around in a circle.
Specifically, the three intentions I set for the Quest was:
1. To gain freedom from gluttony
2. To develop nature awareness
3. To further empty out the self
I arrived in the small town of Monticello, Utah, four nights before our group of 11 questers and 2 guides were supposed to meet up. I had been anxious about finding a place to rest and prepare for the upcoming descent into soul, up at 9,000 feet in the aptly named Abajo (Under) Mountains.
As it turned out, the first family I approached generously gifted me the full use of their downstairs apartment for four days. The father said, "I was thinking about where you could camp out in the yard, and remembered how my grandma would always have an open door to anyone who needs a place to stay." The grandmother -- from the founding family of this town -- had passed away two decades ago, but her children could still occasionally smell her perfume visiting this 100-year-old house.
I asked a neighbor if she could take me to attend the Mormon church on Sunday. The kind elderly lady was overjoyed, and remarked that nobody had ever ask her this question in her whole life. The next day, I participated in the full three hours of service and study at the LDS ward house. I was very impressed that nobody in the church was playing with their phones throughout the whole three hours of talks on faith and virtues. These days, people rarely sit through three hours of anything, not to mention three hours of scripture studies.
The well-designed and masterfully-guided 12-day quest followed the archetypal journey of severance, descent, return, reincorporation.
There was a 96-hour fast, including 72 hours of solo in wilderness. The solo happened to start on the 100th day of my pilgrimage. I was guided to my solo spot by butterflies (who appeared at every crossroad) at about 10,000 feet, with a 360-degree view, reaching Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Just as the Chinese statesman responded to Nixon's question on the significance of the French Revolution ("Too early to say"), much of "what has happened" remains in mystery for me -- where they belong. Here, I wish to distill some generally relevant learnings around the three intentions I went in with.
Emptying out the self
On Day 1 of the wilderness solo (which was Day 2 of the water-only fast), I enacted a ceremony to mark the end of the stage of life that has been in service of Ego. As I told the life story of "the prince" (the first two characters of my name in Chinese) to the mountain, the snow-covered peak affirmed thus:
For the first two cycles (24 years) of my life, my Ego has grown and assumed himself to be the master of the House -- this temple of body, mind, spirit, soul. Whereas, in fact, all along, the Ego is just a guest in the house. If he behaves well as a house guest, he might be promoted to be a butler, keeping the house in order for the master and his friends.
From now on, life is no longer in service of Ego. Ego -- the butler of the house -- is in service of life, of all Life. Personal growth would no longer be measured by the badges that the Ego collects along the way, but by the degree in which Ego could get out of the way, by the reduction in false thoughts, speeches, and deeds.
As the Dao De Jing says, "In pursuit of knowledge, every day, something is added. In pursuit of the Dao, every day, something is reduced."
Going forth, Ego would still acquire various identities, in order to carry out his duties as a butler. He still needs to make plans, exert effort, and go about in the world. But, he is no longer serving his own aggrandizement, but the true master of the house.
Developing nature awareness
From the perspective of creature comfort, there was never a comfortable moment during the Quest. No shower for 12 days. (But I did take purifying baths in the snow-melt stream almost every day, according to the advice from Gandhi in a dream on the first nights of the Quest.) The body was covered with two dozen bug bites at any given time, rotating through different combinations of bite types and sensations -- some familiar, others eerily foreign.
It is only fair this way: as I avail myself to imbibe Nature's beauty and mystery, Nature also helps herself to feast on me. Quite different from watching National Geographic documentaries on YouTube :)
During my 3-day solo, there were constantly about a dozen flies swirling around me -- three different types, one of which biting. I must have spent hours watching the flies nibbling on my skin, and poop on there, too. I would occasionally catch one alive, tell it to never return, and release it. This diplomacy would work for a few soothing seconds, until the memo is lost on the new dinner guests. The flies hummed a clear message day and night: in the eyes (and mouth) of Nature, you are no different than a pile of cow dung, or that dismembered rat 10 feet away from your tent -- perhaps not even as palatable, according to the taste of some.
These words from the Dao (Ch.5) came to mind:
"Heaven and Earth do not bestow mercy; they treat all creations as straw dogs. Saints do not bestow mercy; they treat all people as straw dogs."
Well, a straw dog I am! Straw dogs we are!
In some sense, "Civilization" could perhaps be understood as the one-way membrane through which I could consume Nature, but Nature could not consume me. "Industry" and "commerce" emerge to protect me from the teeth of the wild: clothing, shelter, bug spray, insecticide, virtual reality… The less at peace I am with mortality and discomforts, the more consumerism and industrial destruction I call forth through my fragility and desires.
Another incidence helped me see the beauty and my inexperience in communing with the wild. I was playing flute one night around 10pm. As I started to improv in response to the faint bird calls I hear, I suddenly heard some wolf-like howling. I had thought it was someone from our group, but soon realized it was two or more coyotes, distinctly responding to the flute. I was thrilled and dumbfounded. The coyotes would sing for a few seconds, and wait. I would mimic their sounds with the flute. Then they would say something else, and I would mimic. The "conversation" went on for a good three minutes. Then they were silent. No more response to my flute's courtship.
I was electrified, but also deeply disappointed that I was so eager to maintain the "dialogue" that I did not listen to what the coyotes were saying. I was like a baby, so excited that he could "communicate" with adults, that he only mimics the sounds of human speech, without understanding the meaning. No wonder the coyotes lost interests in the "conversation", after realizing what a poor listener it was on the other side of the line.
This experience -- grace -- showed me the possibility of talking across species boundaries, but also made me aware of my cluelessness in actually holding such a sacred conversation. Evidently, listening is the most important, whether it be with humans or with coyotes.
Gaining freedom from gluttony
Gluttony. The greed for flavors on the tongue and fullness in the belly. The inability to know when to stop, or to actually stop even when we know it. This most socially-acceptable cardinal sin has humbled me for the past two years, ripping away any illusion of spiritual evolvedness.
Gluttony -- or addiction to ever more flavor and fullness -- not only damages physical health, demoralize the spirit, it also limits my ability to be present and serve. When my belly is stuff with food, there is less room for the heart of compassion to expand. When I am suffering from "food coma", I could not meditate nor hold space for others.
Confucius says, "Food and sex, there exist man's great cravings." I recognize that the craving for food is the last stronghold in the Round 1 of my wrestling with cravings. (Round 1 treats the surface symptoms -- on the level of "actions and speech", whereas Round 2 goes into the subtler realms of "thoughts and intentions".)
On the last day of my solo, and after three full days of fasting (to weaken the glutton's grip on my stomach), I conducted a ceremony to let out the inner glutton, symbolized as Tao Tie, the 5,000-year-old motif in Chinese mythology, a frog-like, insatiable beast with big mouth, big belly, and no anus.
I opened my mouth, waited until Tao Tie jumped out of my belly to sit across from me. We then had a long and candid conversation.
I admitted that I had been an addict -- addicted to the sensory stimulations of eating. I was shown that there is something more flavorful and filling than food -- that is the freedom from craving.
I learned that we are not our craving. That craving is like a parasite, living through our body and mind, feeding his insatiable appetite while siphoning off our vital energies.
I was given the mantra, "Feed the need, not the greed". I was directed to ask the question before each meal, "Who is eating?" Is the body's need eating sustenance, or is the mind's greed feasting on sensations? The body's need can be satisfied easily, but the mind's greed only gets stronger when catered to.
I learned that Tao Tie, the embodiment of gluttony, is in deep pain himself. He can't help himself, and could only possess other beings to feed his greed. By listening to Tao Tie's story, I felt strong compassion for him, and promised him that, when I develop the strength and wisdom to help him be free from his pain, I will come back to him.
After securing my promise, Tao Tie hopped away. Right in that moment, a doe came out of nowhere, and dashed off, as if Tao Tie rode her down into the valley, disappearing in the woods…
Tao Tie is not gone. He would possess another being to satisfy his cravings. Only when Tao Tie is freed from his own misery, then would he stop harming others. The work is not done when one rid only himself of sufferings.
After returning from the solo, during our group's Theater of the Soul, I acted out what I learned from Tao Tie, as I played the frog-beast and sang the Song of Tao Tie, to a melody that came as spontaneously as these lyrics.
Zilong, Zilong, you have escaped,
Here on top of Mountain of Below (Abajo Mt.).
Zilong, Zilong, you have escaped,
Don’t yet rejoice, cause you might regress.
Zilong, Zilong, you have escaped,
My slave for years, now he disappears.
I will follow you wherever you go.
Ready to repossess when you fall back.
Zilong, Zilong, you are mine no more.
Feeding the need, but not the greed.
Poor me, poor me, suffering alone.
Burning alive in hell fire of desire.
Zilong, Zilong, have pity for me.
Do not forget your teacher from the dark.
Zilong, Zilong, you must promise me.
You will come back to save me from my pain.
Craving, craving, root of suffering.
Endless wanting, never satisfying.
Eating, eating, inside I'm bleeding.
Help me find a way of stopping.
Zilong, Zilong, you have promised me.
You will come back to free me from craving.
Waiting, waiting, sun set and arising.
Do not make me wait in vain.
Do not make me wait in vain!
The half-life of "retreats" -- however powerful in the moment -- is relatively short, if one does not live the newly revealed truth in the ensuing moments.
After coming down the mountains, within one hour, us lingering questers had started to talk about frequent flyer miles while sitting in a café :) They say, "civilization is three days deep". It seems that wilderness' effect might not last for three hours in the torrent of consumer culture.
I returned to the same family who had hosted me for four days prior to the Quest. Their 9-year-old daughter and her 11-year-old friend came to play with me. The two young girls invented songs and dances, improvised lyrics, assign me roles in their band, and stroke an out-of-tune guitar with full enthusiasm.
Their fearless and creative spirits mirrored what I and my fellow questers had struggled hard to reach and retrieve over the past twelve days. The girls reminded me of the all-too-common stories of how "us adults" had invariably lost this precious wild fire at some point during childhood and adolescence. We then spend painful years to live in the resulting awkwardness and brokenness, seeking to re-inhabit the wilderness that was once our birth right.
I was tired and exhausted. The "music" was glorified noise. But for once, I was determined to create "music" with these young wild ones for as long as they wish.
That night, I had a dream. I am a hospice worker, working with a prisoner for the last 10 days of his life before his execution. The prisoner gradually come to have faith that everything will be OK -- that everything is OK. One day, after a meditation session together, the prisoner goes outside to check on the water level. He comes back and says to me, "I have faith that everything is OK. Still, we need to do our part." Upon hearing this, unstoppable tears stream down my face.
Thank you, teachers of the wild.
Thank you, teachers from the dark.
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.