by Munro Sickafoose
Photographs by Stu Jenks
Death and Rebirth
We each have a personal relationship with death. It is a relationship that begins when we take our first breath, and that fully consummates with our final exhalation. Death comes to each of us in its own way and time. Some of us go quickly in car wrecks or by heart attacks. Others leave slowly, fed by the morphine drip, barely conscious. Some die surrounded by family and friends, others die alone or in the company of strangers. Some go in peace, while others rage and fight against "the dying of the light."
Until recent times, we in the western world had direct and regular experiences with death. When death came for husbands and wives, parents and children, it often found them at home, not sequestered away in hospices and hospitals. We also knew the death that fed us through the flesh of the chickens and hogs and cattle that graced our tables. Even if we did not personally wield the axe, animal carcasses hung in butcher shops and we saw their bones and blood, knew their parts, their muscle, their hearts. Life feeds on death, and from death springs new life, which dies in its turn. The bed that Grandpa died in becomes the bed where new children are conceived and born. The flesh we eat becomes our flesh. This is the great wheel of death and rebirth, and we observed it, we lived it, we knew it.
Shortly after World War II, our relationship with death began to change. The dying were sent to nursing homes and hospices, the act of dying removed from daily life. Animals, too, were now hidden away, and their flesh, safe and sanitized, came neatly packaged in plastic. We pushed death away from the daily passage of our lives until it became an event acknowledged only when we are forced to do so — when someone we love dies, or when we ourselves are dying. By emphasizing life and avoiding death, however, we are out of balance with the cycles of nature and with the natural cycles within ourselves. Death can’t be pushed away, no matter how hard we try. Not only will it claim each of us in the end, but we also experience the cycle of death and rebirth throughout the course of our lives: accidents, illnesses, the end of relationships and other calamities or life changes can feel like a form of death, followed by a period of rebirth into a new way or phase of life.When these transitions are ritualized, they become initiations, or Rites of Passage, as we move from one role or one state of being into another.
In most cultures the world over, there are ceremonies or customs that mark the primary Rites of Passage: coming of age, religious initiations, marriage ceremonies, and funerals. In each of these life transitions, something dies and something new is born. The child "dies" and becomes an adult. The single man "dies" and becomes a husband and a father. This is not to say that the adult forgets the child within him, or the husband forgets the single man he once was; these aspects of our past must be remembered and their memory held appropriately. But if we have not "died" to our old roles in life and been reborn to a new way of living, the danger is that we may end up as an adult that is still a child, or as a father fixated on individual concerns and pleasures to the detriment of his family. The more consciously we approach such Rites of Passage, the more likely we are to make them successfully.And by acknowledging the death–and–rebirth aspects of the transitions that happen throughout our lives, we prepare ourselves for our "final" death, aligning ourselves with nature’s cycles. By means of such practice, we can approach death calmly, consciously, without rage or anger or regret, and be ready to step into whatever lies beyond.
Cultures change; some fast, some slowly. Cultures that are stable for a long time tend to develop societal and religious practices that help incorporate individual life changes into the life of the community. When cultures change too rapidly, some of these practices are lost or diminished — such as the loss of "coming of age" ceremonies among many American ethnic groups today. Since these practices can be incredibly valuable to both the individual and the culture, when they are lost, both suffer.
In the last thirty years, however, there has been a revival and evolution of an ancient Rite of Passage ceremony known as the Vision Fast, which has long been practiced by indiginous peoples ranging from Native Americans to Siberian nomads. (The ceremony is also sometimes refered to as a Vision Quest, but many today prefer to reserve that term for the practices specific to Native American peoples, using the term Vision Fast to refer to trans–cultural versions of the ritual.) In its basic form, the Vision Fast ceremony can be used to mark almost any of life’s major events and transitions. The form is simple: Four days fasting, alone, in nature.
The practice of going alone into the wilderness to fast and pray and meditate is so old we cannot trace its origins. The literature of both East and West is filled with hermits and holy people who lived alone in deep forests or hidden caves. Others fasted in monastic cells. Christ himself spent forty days in solitude in the wilderness. Buddha sat alone under the Bo tree until he was enlightened. Young Native American men (and some women too) were sent out alone to fast and pray and seek a vision. An ocean away, other young men knelt in prayer and fasted as they prepared to take the oaths of knighthood.
Today, there are an increasing number of people from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds who have used the Vision Fast ceremony to mark and aid the transitions in their lives. There are also people who are specifically trained in helping others through this process; they are called wilderness guides, or Vison Fast guides, or wilderness midwives. Their role is to facilitate the ceremony, to guide the faster to the "threshold," and to keep them safe while they fast. For the last ten years my wife and I have worked in this capacity, helping people of all ages and backgrounds to experience this Rite of Passage. The Vision Fast ritual described below is the form of the ritual we generally use. This is, of course, not the only form such ceremonies take — the practice has had many variations from culture to culture,century to century, and landscape to landscape. This particular form draws on many of the elements common to Vision Fast practices around the world, adapting them in a way that allows people of different backgrounds and spiritual beliefs to experience the transformative power of the ceremony, and its manifold blessings.
The purpose of the Vision Fast is simple: To confirm one’s vision.
Unlike the Native American Vision Quest, in which the faster typically seeks a vision from Creator, the spirits, or the ancestors, Vision Fasters are not seeking visions or direction from outside themselves. Their purpose is to confirm some new state of being, some new station in life. They are confirming their own vision of themselves, for themselves. This confirmation is witnessed and recognized by others through the process of the ceremony. The act of fasting "makes it so."
People fast to confirm many things. A young man may fast to confirm that he is no longer a boy, but a man. A woman may fast to confirm that she is divorced, that her marriage is over, and that she is now a single individual again. Other people may fast before marriage to confirm their new roles as husband or wife. Some fast to confirm their new status as an elder, a teacher, or a CEO. Some fast to confirm their intent to die, perhaps to follow a loved one into the next world.