Meditation as a technique has many forms. Many traditions and cultures around the world cultivate meditative practices by way of contemplation, movement, breath, silence, fasting, drumming and ingestion of visionary medicine, to name a few. Of these many practices, two of them stand out as practices for cultivating discipline of mind and study of the nature of reality through the experience of meditation, prayer, isolation, fasting and inner reflection.
As a personal study and development in the spiritual path, I began and completed a 4 year commitment to vision quest in the Native American Red Road path through the Lakota tradition. At the same time, I also took up the commitment to develop in the practice of vipassana meditation in the Buddhist tradition at one of the many Dhamma Centers that exist. In my own experience, I have observed many similarities between these two paths, and the benefits that arise from these practices are manifold. It is my wish that all sentient beings benefit from these practices. Please reach out if you have any questions regarding this article or the various forms of meditation I teach.
What is Vision Quest?
Vision quest is a sacred ceremony within the Lakota tribe from the Native Americans that live in the United States. The ceremony is a prayer to transit the medicine wheel during four years. During each of the vision quests, the quester sits in isolation in nature for four days while fasting food and water with the purpose of prayer, sacrifice, introspection, meditation and cultivation of in-sight. Indeed, an inner vision and connection with the elements in nature. During the time we enter in prayer the questers become Wakan, which translates to “sacred.” We take vows of silence and abstinence and we no longer belong to this world, but rather, embark on a four day journey of deeper connection with Great Spirit, the self and nature. This prayer is carried out in complete isolation in a natural setting, be it in the woods or a secluded place in the mountain, during which the questers commit to four days of fasting food and water as we enter a deep state of contemplation and prayer. The commitment of four years will carry the quester through an experience of deeper awareness and connection with the medicines of the four directions and the four elements through contemplation and prayer within nature itself.
Each direction and each year brings on a new challenge, and renews the commitment to walking a path of harmony with nature and universal truths that resonate with our higher Self. Each prayer is gratitude, for we already have it all, it’s just a matter of remembering and connecting deeply to the truths that resonate through the course of those four years to give us guidance towards a good and happy life.
The first year is a prayer in the direction of the East for the gifts that this direction and its guardians bring us. The East brings us renewal, birth and the beginning, it is dreams and vision, it is where the golden sun rises to greet the new day. The second year, the commitment is to the direction of the South. It is the direction of compassion, understanding and relationships, where the sacred medicine of love resides. The third year is a challenging year, as it is in the direction of the West, where the sun dies every day. It is the direction of the shadow and the lessons of releasing what no longer serves, it is introspection and self-reflection. The final year is a prayer to the direction of the North, where wisdom, purity and clarity reside. After four years, the transit through the medicine wheel is complete and the turn of the directions grants an inner compass guided by self-reflection, prayer, devotion, commitment and humility. It is the inner vision that speaks and provides guidance for the purpose of life, the essence of nature, interconnection of the human family and most importantly, interconnection within: coherence of the self.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is a meditation technique based on the teachings of the Buddha, it is the technique of meditation by which the Buddha became enlightened. Through the tradition of vipassana, the teachings of the meditation technique remain in the pure form as the Buddha taught, forming the foundation for his teachings on the Eightfold Noble Path, and his method for attaining enlightenment.
I encourage whoever would like to learn proper meditation to attend one of the 10 day seminar courses taught around the world in various Dhamma centers, you can find more info at http://www.dhamma.org
The nature of the course dissects the teachings of the Buddha to its most basic and clear foundations on Sila, Samadhi and Panya (morality, concentration and wisdom). The first few days are spent observing the breath very closely, learning to focus the mind to a very narrow area where sensation may be perceived by the mind.
During these initial stages, the teachings also set the foundation for the code of morality (sila) that support proper practice and which all students must diligently follow. This moral code is composed of 5 precepts which are: non-violence, non-stealing, noble speech, no sexual misconduct and no consumption of intoxicants.
After a few days spent sharpening the awareness and concentration (samadhi) of the mind by focusing on the breath, one is able to perceive sensations which have always been there, though overlooked by the untrained and scattered mind we all carry. After a few days of developing concentration in this technique of anapana, the meditator receives the practice of vipassana which translates to “seeing things clearly as they are.” With a sharper awareness, the practitioner continues to train the mind to become more and more sensitive to the sensations in the entire body and over the course of the next few days to become more and more focused on sensations by will, rather than giving in to the unconscious tendencies of the mind.
One begins to see that the tendencies of the mind are in essence of two basic directions: craving and aversion. It is as if a boat tied to the shore reveals the movement of the ocean by the direction the rope pulls. The importance of the practice of equanimity cannot be emphasized enough, as it is truly this practice that unveils the patterns of the mind. Equanimity gifts us the ability to remain balanced in our mind and to walk the middle path of neither craving, nor aversion, just observation in full understanding of the changing nature of reality. The intense process of meditation for 10 hours every day during the course of 10 days opens up the meditator to fully devote to the practice and develop further in the study of reality as it manifests itself, moment to moment.
In this simple yet arduous work, one undertakes the duty to observe the movement of the mind. The contents of the mind are in fact irrelevant, but it is the movement of the mind itself which reveals the nature of reality, which is bound by movement and direction of our attention. By finely tuning the attention to the sensations of the body, as they are tied to the movements of the mind, one can observe the nature of reality as an ever-changing phenomena. The teachings of the Buddha become self-evident as the cravings and aversions that arise are bound to change, always. Therefore, we can observe the ever-changing nature of reality by witnessing that change first-hand through our own experience. The simplest law of nature, anicca (impermanence), can uplift us in the understanding that whatever experience we are having whether pleasant or unpleasant, is bound to change; therefore attachment to any one experience is futile.
What gifts do vision quest and vipassana meditation offer?
The choice of sitting both meditations within weeks of each other over the course of at least four years has allowed me to notice some of the gifts that isolation, fasting, silence, prayer and stillness have to offer.
The ability to come to a place of stillness of the body is already a task in itself. Accustomed to constant movement, travel, work, exercise and various other reasons for constantly being in movement, the act of bringing the body to stillness is already a challenge, yet herein lies the magic. As the body becomes accustomed to the rigors of fasting or sitting in meditation and not moving for hours, the more one can sit with the sensations present without distraction. To develop this discipline is important in order to understand the habitual and unconscious pulls of the body-mind and to train oneself out of it. In order to observe movement one must be in stillness. In order to direct the attention of the mind, one must know what are its intrinsic tendencies, and train oneself to direct attention correctly. Whether in observing change as it manifests, or in heightening the frequency of the self by engaging in active prayer, the meditation becomes stronger and develops the wisdom (panya) that can only be attained by direct experience.
The space of isolation is also important, and in fact necessary if one is to develop any introspection worth examining, free of the distractions and external inputs which we are constantly and inevitably interacting with. This generates a space so the mind can be at ease and not overly exalted, while remaining in a somewhat more harmonious state. This allows for an easier observation of its movements.
These two practices create ideal states to really focus the attention and observe the nature of reality through mind and body. Abstinence teaches us to value, silence teaches us about the importance of the word and to properly use it, prayer teaches us devotion, stillness teaches about movement.
One of the initially seeming differences of the practices is the question of faith or Spirit. During the vision quest one is immersed in prayer, fully surrendering to Great Spirit in whichever way it manifests in the nature around us. In vipassana one is not allowed to pray but only to focus on the meditation technique being taught. Initially it may seem like vipassana negates spirit, but as the course progresses, one understands the importance of faith as inspiration to continue in the exploration of the nature of reality. During a vision quest, the quester is immersed in nature, observing nature exactly as it is. In the forest, or in isolation on a mountain, the quester truly observes the natural phenomena as a first hand experience.
The devotion of prayer keeps one connected to the very nature of reality, observing the miracle of life in every living thing, witnessing the blessing of life as it unfolds in its ever-changing nature all around us. One transits the medicine wheel and gets to experience faith as an ally and a tool to continue developing and walking a path of spiritual development. This inspiration is also necessary to continue developing in Dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha for a harmonious life toward liberation). It is faith and devotion that maintains the vipassana practice daily, that maintains an open inquiry toward the nature of experience in this material reality.
Both practices generate a deep connection to the essence of Self, as it is through this introspection and devoted self-study that one approximates to the experience of inter-connection with all that exists in creation. In the practice of vision quest, one gets to witness and experience oneness with nature whether in pleasant or unpleasant ways during the sacrifice of fasting in the woods, dealing with hunger, thirst, animals, fear, joy, awe, wonder, freedom, peace or any other of the infinite experiences one can have in this expanded state of consciousness available.
During vipassana, the meditator can reach states of perception of absolute flow of energy through the body, during which one can perceive the absolute interconnectedness that extends beyond our physical bodies.This flow of energy that is perceived seems to be embedded in all of reality, thus unveiling the weaving thread for what we can experience in our living realities.
In both practices one comes into a state of grace, openness, conscious participation in creation and yet in both practices, equanimity and understanding of change is of primordial importance as the wisdom gifted from the experience teaches us about peace and joy through impermanence. In this sense, both practices bring the person from an ordinary experience of reality, to an expanded state of awareness which can hopefully bring the person closer to observing the nature of reality unimpeded by distractions.