The role of nature in supporting personal transitions
In the course of a lifetime, people have to cope with different transitions between life stages and social conditions, for example: from childhood to adulthood, being single to being in a partnership, between traveling from one place and arriving at a new place, from outsider to being part of a community. From personal experience, I know that some of these transitions can be difficult to differentiate between due to modern life. Standards and boundaries between home, partnership, job and community are blurring. It is sometimes even difficult to define which personal transition phase I’m in at the moment, quite apart from the fact that as humans, we are also in a major phase of both collective and social change. I suppose both play together in our personal challenges.
The French ethnologist Arnold Van Gennep describes the consciously practiced transition into a new phase of life as a rite of passage. For many native peoples, these rites of passage are an integral part of social life. The thresholds between stages of life are understood as a major personal challenge to the individual in these cultures. Those who are in transition are naturally more open and vulnerable and sometimes feel more disoriented than in a stable phase of life. Therefore, these challenges are not just an individual issue that one needs to deal with privately, but a social issue in which the community is called to help facilitate and support. To answer this call, many indigenous cultures have ritual practices that support the process of personal transition and one of the most common of these threshold rituals is the Vision Quest.
The Vision Quest, as it is increasingly practiced today in modern Western cultures, considers Van Gennep’s three-phase pattern for transition rituals: the detachment phase, the threshold ritual, and the integration phase. (1) The threshold is often a four days and four nights ritual in nature. The phase of separation and integration is an individual process lasting several weeks or months, prepared and accompanied in different ways.
The practice of Vision Quest can help in preparing yourself consciously for entering a new phase of life. The intense distraction-free experience in the wilderness has a positive effect on mental, emotional, physical and spiritual intelligence and promotes the ideal conditions to help us face the biggest questions of life.
Most of us lead a relatively hectic lifestyle in a man-made environment full of social and professional demands. In the long run, this can be tiring on our mental capacity. The Attention Restoration Theory (2) provides scientific findings to support that a natural environment can help regenerate our mental faculties and increase our capacity for decision-making. Not only conscious thinking improves, but also access to the subconscious.
Being in contact with nature also improves our general emotional and physical well-being. For example, there is recent research showing that the bacterium Vaccae, which is widely found in the soil, leads to increased secretion of serotonin. The neurotransmitter, also known as happiness hormone, helps prevent depression, deep relaxation and a reduction in anxiety-related behaviors. (3)
Direct contact with nature can also help us to expand our imagination and access to the spiritual level. The Vision Quest technique allows for a deep mind-expanding experience, working within the form of shamanic ritual but without the ingestion of psychoactive substances. Entheogens, ie hallucinogenic agents, naturally occur in plants all over the world. They can promote a positive state of mind and create a sense of unity and connection with the world and beings around us. In direct contact with nature, entheogens also act through inhalation or body contact to our serotonin system. It enough just to sit in nature, clear our minds and truly experience our surroundings. (4)
What’s described so far, explains the effect of nature in the context of a Vision Quest. The following aspects of the ritual also play an important role in supporting the individual on quest — often called “the initiate” — into his or her new phase of life:
The Vision Quest wields its transformative power by requiring the initiate to face challenges such as food abandonment, social isolation and wild nature. The story and energy of the place and the land where the Quest takes place play a role. The focus on one’s own intention, on what wants to be left behind and what should come has its own meaning. The ritual integration of the elements earth, fire, water, air and ether are important. To go alone, but also to be part of a circle of other initiates, is a significant aspect. The protection and intention of the guide of the ritual, as well as his or her accompaniment to the threshold, is something that impacts the experience.
All these are important aspects if we want to explain the phenomenon of a Vision Quest. At the level of systemic process guidance, explaining and questioning the whole is probably relevant. But ultimately it is the knowledge of not knowing and connecting with one’s very own truth, is what it actually is about in the end.
The goal of the Vision Quest is not to get linear answers about one’s future. It is much more about creating inner capacity and free from external societal influences, getting to know oneself better. The transitional ritual provides a framework for experiencing our own inner essence as freely as possible without any distraction. To know your core will serve as your basic orientation in life.
Once a year, Manuela Bosch guides Vision Quests in the context of Betula & Mamabuche in the Radegasttal nature reserve in Klein Hundorf, North-West Mecklenburg, Germany. The next Vision Quest will take place from 13th-20th of August 2020. Further dates and information can be found on the internet at www.betulaundmamabuche.org.
(1) Übergangsriten, Arnold van Gennep, 1999