The Vision Fast (Continued)

by Munro Sickafoose

A Rite of Passage has three classic phases: separation, threshold, and incorporation. In the first phase, people withdraw from the group and begin moving from the place or status they have known to something new. In the last phase, they re–enter society, having completed the rite. The threshold phase is the in–between period, during which people have left one state of being but haven’t yet entered the next. For a faster using this practice in a conscious manner, each of these three phases can be very powerful. Each is a form of death and rebirth — and thus prepares us, through ritual practice, for our encounter with our final death.

In the first (separation) phase, the faster prepares to leave one state of being. This takes place before the actual fast begins. The faster withdraws from the normal routines of life, perhaps gathering together with others preparing to fast. More important is the mental preparation — bringing oneself to a state of readiness for approaching the threshold. This might involve a series of rituals intended to focus the mind and body, such as taking sweat baths and creating tobacco ties or spending hours in mediation and prayer. Or it might involve a period of focused introspection, reflecting on one’s life and writing it down. It might mean a journey back to the place of one’s birth. Or giving away all of one’s possessions. It might simply mean a good house cleaning. There are as many ways of preparation as there are people, but the basic goal is the same: to prepare to leave one state of being, and to seek some clarity about one’s vision for the next.

Once a faster enters the wilderness and steps into the threshold (i.e.: fully enters the Vision Fast ritual), he (or she) is a ghost — not yet dead to the past, not yet living the new. The wilderness guides cannot follow him here, but in this numinous place the structure of the ritual itself will guide him. By stepping into the threshold he has stepped onto the Decision Road. This is the road to a new life. (A little voice whispers: It’s not too late! Turn back!) Will he take this road and choose to die to his old life? And if he takes it, what things must die within him, and what are worth bringing along? No matter how much preparation he’s made, no matter how much he’s pondered these questions before, they must be asked again here in this world, in this place between — where they have new power.

On the second day and night, the faster sits in the Death Lodge (a symbolic, not literal, space). If he truly had just a short time to live, what would he need to do to bring closure to the important relationships in his life? Would there be difficult conversations he’d need to have in order to make things right with certain people? Would he need to offer or ask for forgiveness? Would he want to express special gratitude or love? His old life is going to die. This is the deathbed for it. It is time to call all of his friends and enemies, his relatives, his ghosts into this lodge. He must prepare to "die" in a good way, with the past resolved so that it does not drag him back.

On the third day and night in the wilderness, the faster gathers himself in a Purpose Circle. He has chosen to stay on the road to his new life. He has made peace with the last one. What will the purpose of the new one be? What passion will guide him? What star will he follow? What is the vision he holds? His vision may not have been entirely clear to him when he stepped across the threshold, and it may not be entirely clear upon his return (unfolding, instead over time) — but here, on Death’s doorstep, his purpose will be true and his vision will burn bright.

On the fourth and last night, the faster sits Vigil. He sits or stands or paces all night, with no sleep, waiting for the dawn of a new day. Alone in the darkness, with Death at his side, he is choosing Life. He will conquer the "little death" of sleep for one night, confirming his intention to live a new life. At night’s end, he will be a different person. The old self will have died, and the new self will be born.

As the faster returns from the wilderness, there is time to tell the story of his journey — for others to acknowledge the confirmation of his vision and the trials and testing he has endured. He is welcomed now into the new life he has chosen. This is the beginning of incorporation, and "living the vision" — a daily life task that is harder than the fast. The faster may feel raw, tender, and soft as a baby, but he carries a new strength within.

Rebirth and Life

We each have a personal relationship with life. It is a relationship that begins when we take our first breath outside the womb, and that fully consummates with our final breath. To live is to die. Without death, there can be no life.

When we take our final breath, how will we journey into that threshold? We’ll never really know until we take that step — but it is possible to prepare for it. In order to do so, we must not deny our relationship with death, but respectfully acknowledge it. We speak with it, we walk with it, we do not try to hide from this pale lover. And when we embrace death, we embrace life, our other lover, and the possibility of rebirth.

There is a vast literature of death and rebirth, of myth and story, theory, theology, and scientific research. We can read and wonder, we can ponder the wisdom and erudition of the ages — but there is no substitute for experience. This is our life and death and rebirth, and our story to tell. Like somebody’s Momma used to say: "Practice makes perfect."

When we practice dying, and the rebirth that dying makes possible, the wheel of life and death is brought back into balance in our lives. We wobble a bit less, and spin just a little bit truer as we roll along towards the final threshold — and the Mystery that lies beyond.